Last enemy Atiku must conquer before 2019

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After nearly two decades of hanging in there like grim death, former V.P. Atiku appears ready to grab the thrill of his staying power as circumstances conspire to favour him ahead of 2019

By Elijah Olusegun

As 2019 elections inch closer, the political terrain also looms clearer. The battle will be largely about ideologies, and rabble-rousers may not get a toehold.

And for Nigeria’s government top job, the contenders are emerging from their long period of muscle-flexing. They are not many yet: ex-V.P Atiku Abubakar and his party APC.

There are others, certainly: the leading opposition party PDP, and his pig-headed Gov. Ayo Fayose, the lone south-western governor who has declared in defiance of the party’s decision to zone the presidential ticket to the north. Some gushers in the ruling APC are also fanning President Muhammadu Buhari’s cold emotion so he can take a second stab at Aso Rock.

But going by the level of preparation and decibels of go-man-goes pouring from the side-lines, these other wannabes—Buhari and Fayose—are just trying to take chances.  A lot of things about them are yet to be decided.

For Buhari, his health will mean so much to Nigerians this time. The voters might not be willing to spare their president a fortnight again in sick bay—let alone about 150 days he spent in London taking care of his health in the last two years. The cabal in the villa, too, seems a negative. Worse still that Buhari has particularly clutched to his CoS Abba Kyari . Many believe the CoS has ruined the president’s ideological capital as an anti-corruption fighter—all he has got as a politician.

No one else of any political value in the PDP—apart from his Twitter hand Lere Olayinka and friend Femi Fani-Kayode—is  egging Fayose on since he launched out on a limb in October. Even Ekiti First Lady Feyisara, whose dream has been a reliable compass in Fayose’s political adventure, hasn’t seen a thing. And as ideologies go, the Ekiti governor seems to have none—except his loud and extreme opposition which Buhari’s supporters say borders on sheer venting of spleen.

But that does not mean Buhari and Fayose are entirely laid back as push comes to shove in view of 2019.

To be sure, Buhari, in addition to his puritanism currently being tested by in-house corruption allegation, has got some infantrymen— among governors and ministers—that willing to work for him in 2019. There is The Buharists, a band of yes-men among the governors and ministers.  “Our political ideology is to support whatever President Buhari wants to support. That has not changed,” said their arrowhead and Kaduna Gov. Nasir El-Rufai in September.

This group of supporters is, however, passive. The smartest they can  do now is keep their eyes peeled for any 2019 signal as they read Buhari’s lips. “If he chooses not to run, he will tell us which direction to go,” El-Rufai added.

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As of now, the Buharists have no idea how to push Buharism, an ideology that strikes critics as any one of austerity, tardy decision making, corruption fight, and cronyism. To analysts, it makes a caricature of an ism, which Atiku, who has been trimming his campaign focus, may have to contend with all the same. That’s in case the APC offers the president the 2019 ticket just for the asking.

Though such party decision is still up in the air. While some Buharists like Plateau Gov. Simon Lalong are fronting for an automatic ticket, others in the party consider it a no-no. Imo Gov. Rochas Okorocha on Thursday told State House journalists there would be no automatic ticket for Buhari to seek re-election.

“If President Buhari will lead the ship in 2019, it must be democratically done, and I said, democratically done, transparently (done) to the amazement of the whole world, the way we do our things in APC and people will be happy,” he said.

For the millions of voters who might not care how APC chooses its flagbearer, campaign issues that jibe with them will matter. And that’s something Buhari is still pottering with—and it’s something Atiku appears to have perfected into a lullaby.

The refrain in all of Atiku’s public lectures and talking heads is restructuring. Well, It’s not original to him. Former President Goodluck Jonathan spent billions on a national conference in 2013 to debate it. One of the delegates’ recommendations is regionalism, some nicer moniker for restructuring. But Jonathan, unfortunately, was advised by saboteurs to spoke it, according to Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi who was vice chairman of the conference.

Buhari, too, trumpeted it during his campaign in 2015. It was the bad economy he inherited from the PDP government, according to APC Chair John Odigie Oyegun, that smothered the zeal to implement it. It’s been on the back burner since 2015.

Atiku, however, has pressed that home. It was the trump card any smart Dick in politics would play, especially in the wake of IPOB’s secessionist fever that gripped Nigeria, and bugged the Buhari administration itself. His constant harping on it started in 2016, and the message is now becoming somewhat subliminal and synonymous with Atiku—thanks to his well-manned propagandist machine.

According to one of his many social media posts, the unity, prosperity, and stability of Nigeria depends on restructuring. He expected everybody to swallow that. And he has a word to describe those afraid of it: lazy. His kinsmen up north may not be afraid of restructuring; they don’t like it. That is kind of freaky, looking at the goodies he believes restructuring has in store.

“I am not a product of the current structure of Nigeria. I am a product of regional government. I saw the government at work and I have also seen the current arrangement at work, and that was why I came out,” he said in a lecture recently in Abuja.

“Some people even said to the detriment of my political career, to advocate for restructuring or rearrangement or whatever you call it, of the present structure of the country. I still stand by it.”

And, somehow, Atiku has been resonating with his audience in his evangelism across the southeast, southwest, and south-south.

The Forum, an umbrella body of leaders from the three zones, and the north central met last month in Abuja. The high point of the meeting was restructuring.

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A Yoruba Summit in Ibadan early September mouthed regionalism, too. “Yoruba insists that Nigeria must return to a proper federation as obtained in the 1960 and 1963 constitutions,” a communiqué issued at the ending of the meeting stated. “This has been our position since the 1950 Ibadan conference and developments in Nigeria over the last 50 years reinforce our conviction.’’

Governors have also been darting in and out of councils of war on the issue.

All these flurries of activities have almost bowled over Buhari. He has now admitted Nigeria needs it. And the National Assembly will initiate the process. But that’s neither here nor there.

Atiku has already owned the restructuring agenda, made a nice package of it, selling it in his well-choreographed public speeches and free throws. And going into the polls, any politician that can readily fuel the fire of restructuring passion in the voters may carry the day. All other odds –incumbency, war chest, religion, zoning, clout, experience, backstory—remain secondary.

Even then, the former veepee has a number of them going for him: fourteen years of failure at the primary and general elections across three parties, including the Action Congress: a raft of political groups and support organisations under a smoothly run secretariat; financial resources to seal mega deals with power mongers in the six regions.

What else—except incumbency? And there’s a way around that.

The PDP has zoned its presidential ticket to the north. The ruling party won’t be so dumb as to zone its elsewhere. And if it is, many believe, Atiku’s chance remains brighter. The PDP, still shopping for a candidate with a national appeal, will promptly welcome him with a bear hug.

Something could always go wrong. Granted. Some featherweights like Sen. Rabiu Kwankwaso, who wowed even Buhari by coming hot on his heels during the APC 2015 primary in Lagos, may want to give Atiku some jitters. Some key northern power brokers think the former governor could be a better substitute the north has. Maybe he was back then, as governor. He was in command of Kano resources—for which the EFCC has been probing him—to push his primary campaign. All that’s gone. The senator is just lying doggo in the House now, trying to save his hides .

El-Rufai, too. Many, including his most unrelenting critic and APC Sen. Sheu Sani, think he has been pushing himself forward all along, by being the hardest of the Buharists. But he’s a bad sell outside of Kaduna. The hardest the governor can do to hurt Atiku is rap him consistently—as he has always done.

Nigerians have their problem with Atiku, too. Many consider him a corrupt politician, based on the Halliburton scandal the EFCC linked to him. And how he can’t visit the US again. All of that, however, might amount to nothing. The American Department of Justice is not in any way looking for him. A spokesperson for the US DOJ, Peter Carr confirmed it in a Punch interview last year. “I have checked the public court records, and they do not show cases filed against a defendant named Atiku Abubakar,” he said.

Candidate Atiku might need the best public relations experts to sell that to Nigerians, especially the millennials, who are mostly one-track mind, always bugging him on social media.

A Sahara Reporters popularity poll on Twitter in September threw out figures that showed Nigerians didn’t want either Buhari or Atiku in 2019. Of the 20,253 Twitter happy voters in the poll, 45 per cent rejected Buhari and his party man gloating over the slip-up of the government.

But Twitter polls result is no sure-fire way of metering political success. Hillary Clinton was a social media bomb in the last presidential election she lost to her bumbling rival Donald Trump.

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