Why Atiku’s presidential ambition doesn’t tickle

By ‘Fisayo Soyombo

There are very few presidential aspirants who can articulate their plans for Nigeria like Atiku Abubakar. In the lead-up to the 2015 presidential election, Atiku’s media interviews offered plenty food for thought and some interesting propositions, including the country’s potentials to solve its everlasting electricity problem with its coal deposits. By contrast, the interviews of Muhammadu Buhari, the man who would go on to win the election, were notoriously drab and worryingly uninspiring. If anyone talked to the editors of the papers who interviewed Buhari, they could confirm the extent of cleaning up and refining that went into rendering those interviews consumable to the public. Atiku’s, meanwhile, offered little stress. The man was always at ease discussing Nigeria.

If anyone had any doubts about Atiku’s power to articulate his thoughts, last week offered another reminder. Although tempered with some subtle uppercuts on both sides, his see-saw restructuring debate with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on the pages of Premium Times was a refreshing turn from the usual PDP-represents-greed-APC-deceived-us-with-change press statements that have come to define the engagements between the country’s two leading political parties. You may not agree with his arguments on restructuring — I do but with strong reservations — but you won’t fault the conviction with which he pushed his idea of shrinking power at the centre and expanding it at state level.

One look at how Atiku has managed to harmlessly smuggle himself into national conversations in the last year — and this is commendation, not condemnation — and it is easy to award him more than a pass mark for his organisational abilities. In 2013, Garba Shehu, his longtime spokesman who now works for Buhari, told Premium Times how Atiku’s media office operated like a newspaper house, holding daily editorial meetings to spot the opportunities for proactive interventions rather than sit back in wait for crises. Atiku’s understanding of the power of the media, when juxtaposed with Buhari’s aloofness from the media and the public, is a major temptation to consider going ‘Atikulate’ in 2019; who needs a President who only speaks his mind when in Germany talking to Deutsche Welle or when in the UK speaking to BBC?

Atiku is no novice to governance; eight years as Vice President must count for something. Electing him in 2019 would seem a vote for experience — not for experimentation, but for avoidance of tried-and-failed policies and consolidation of already-successful ones. For those whose only obsession with the 2019 election is ejecting Buhari from office, Atiku is potentially the man. The last time he won a presidential ticket, he was third while Buhari was second. Yes, that was 11 long years ago and there was a vote gap of 4million, but Buhari’s popularity has since dimmed, and if any northerner could challenge him it certainly would be Atiku. So, President Atiku Abubakar on May 29, 2019? Don’t try it!

Normally, in politics, the failings of an incumbent often hand some advantage to his probable successor. Not so for Atiku. In early 2017, Buhari spent 104 days on medical vacation in the UK, prompting renewed debates about the wisdom of voting a septuagenarian into office. His supporters continue to argue that unlike Umaru Yar’Adua, he transmitted power to his deputy. No power vacuum, they would say, but there is a reason the constitution provided for two executive helmsmen. Asides the unfairness of leaving just a man to run a country as complex as ours, we saw, for instance, how sacked DSS DG Lawal Daura authorised the raid on the National Assembly without informing the Acting President — because he insisted he would only report to Buhari and not to Osinbajo. In Nigeria, an Acting President is never really the President. Buhari has helped more Nigerians to see why a younger President is needed in 2019. But even at that, Buhari was 72 when he became President in 2015. Should Atiku win in 2019, he would have been 72 by swearing-in date. Therefore, to elect Atiku in 2019 means we haven’t learnt from 2015.

With each passing election cycle, there is a growing conviction about the need to crumble the old order. A country whose population is estimated to be just under 200million cannot continue recycling old leaders dating four decades back. Buhari’s emergence as President in 2015 came 32 years after he was Head of State and 40 years after he was Governor of the Northeastern State. Atiku wants to be President in 2019; that’s 28 years after he first ran for Governor of the defunct Gongola State!

I agree wholeheartedly with Atiku that a chunk of the power at the centre needs to be shed off to states and LGs. I side with him over the Vice President in his arguments that “we have all too often lied to ourselves that the politicians sitting in Abuja can effectively respond to the needs of a population in far remote locations as Kaura Namoda, Iseyin, Arochukwu or Bama”. Unfortunately, Atiku is himself one of the reasons this structure has persisted. If truly he had “been in the forefront of the discourse on restructuring since the 1995 Abacha Constitutional Conference”, as he claimed, why, in eight years as VP, couldn’t he get the nation pulling in this direction? The argument that the VP isn’t as powerful as the President is trite; in his first four years at least, Atiku was so powerful that he would have ended Obasanjo’s Presidency had Obasanjo not begged profusely. If he invoked that same popularity and power to push the restructuring agenda, it would likely have been successful.

But that is where my agreement with Atiku ends. I’m still struggling to understand his belief that the structure is more important than the people in solving our problems as a nation. I, for instance, have always considered the two-term governorship/presidential provision a monumental waste of time and money. First year after electoral victories, governors are busy embezzling in a desperate attempt to reclaim their ‘investments’. Maybe they work the second year, but third year they’re busy embezzling to build a war chest to seek re-election, and fourth year they’re campaigning. The ones who earn a second term spend all of it having a ball. It’s looting galore since they would no longer need the electorate. In those eight years, real, full-scale governance takes place in no more than two years; the other six are a waste. But were we to switch to the six-year single term, it’s win once and loot for six years. Hard to tell, therefore, which one is worse — which is where I agree with Osinbajo: restructuring is useless without the stamping out of grand corruption. Of what use is wrestling financial power from federal to state if the funds end up nestling in private pickets?

And this is where Atiku — and he himself knows — can still not be trusted. Once asked what wrong impression people have about him that he would love to correct if he could, he answered: “It would definitely be the perception that I corruptly enriched myself during my tenure as Vice President.” In that interview, as he has done in many others, Atiku talked about how US congressman Williams Jefferson claimed part of the $100,000 cash found in his refrigerator was intended as bribe for him for his role in helping American firm iGate secure a contract to expand broadband in Nigeria, and how the court found no evidence backing up the claim. However, the report of a probe by a US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Carl Levin, detailed how, between 2000 and 2008, Atiku “used offshore companies to siphon millions of dollars to his fourth wife in the United States, Jennifer Douglas”. Specifically, the report said Douglas, being a US citizen, helped him bring over $40m in suspect funds into the US through wire transfers sent by offshore corporations to US bank accounts. Atiku may not yet have been convicted by a court, but an investigation by the US Senate cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Maximum points deducted!

And so, despite all he has going for him, Atiku comes with more baggage than his self-professed willpower to fix this country can withstand. No matter how hard he and his media team try, it appears his best shot at the presidency was in 2003. For now, the search for a young vibrant candidate who combines competence with moral presence must continue. The Atiku option simply doesn’t tickle.

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