The emergence of Atiku Abubakar has understandably excited the opposition, and indeed the ruling party, whose officials couldn’t resist the urge to quickly react to the news. Festus Keyamo, Spokesman of the President Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organization said the former vice president has loads of credibility problems, and Lauretta Onochie, Buhari’s aide on New Media, described his candidacy as good because it would be a walk-over for Buhari in 2019.
But there’s no doubt that the opposition and members of the ruling party see in the former vice president a formidable opponent to Buhari’s re-election bid in 2019. It is a plus for the PDP, which is the main opposition party, that it has handed its presidential ticket to a man of such vast political clout through a transparent party primary. It shows in a convincing way that the party is truly ready to re-claim the presidency.
Among all the 12 aspirants for the PDP ticket, he is the only one with a reliable personal political structure across the country. Atiku has inherited the late Shehu Yar’Adua’s political structure which saw him emerge as a presidential candidate during the political events under former Military President, Ibrahim Babangida. In 2011 when Northern political leaders voted for a consensus presidential candidate, Atiku defeated Babangida, Aliyu Gusau and others to emerge winner.
In 2014 when he contested the APC primary with the duo of Buhari and Rabiu Kwankwaso, he was expected to win or come second, but surprisingly came third. In an equally transparent process. Perhaps he learnt something from that defeat, and put it to use to clinch the PDP ticket.
Atiku has long sought the presidential ticket of a credible political party to realise his ambition to be number one citizen of the country, but failed. Now that he got one, he would be expected to put in his best to win the presidency, and anyone who underrates him does that at his own peril.
If he overcomes the hurdles in his party and gets everyone to work enthusiastically for his candidacy, the ruling APC, and especially President Buhari will be facing the first real test of his popularity in 2019 when he faces the Turaki Adamawa for the presidential battle.
In 2015, Buhari challenged an incumbent whose acceptance among the electorate had dropped to an abysmal low. Despite perceived shortcomings of Buhari, his cult followership among the masses of the North made him a most suitable opposition candidate to support for the presidency. He won the election largely with votes from the north, which voted enmasse for him.
Three years down the line as a sitting president, Buhari is still popular in his base as results of recent bye-elections in Katsina, Bauchi and Kogi have shown. But there is no denying the fact that the spate of insecurity, lop-sided federal appointments and the poor economic outlook of the country, and the way the administration had responded, have inflicted deep injuries in the president, who may now be limping politically.
Atiku’s attraction as a presidential candidate is more than being a viable candidate or offering the opposition a fighting chance. The Turaki is a war horse whose acceptability across the country offers the electorate a real alternative to Buhari. His candidacy inspires credible hope, just as Buhari’s did in 2015, that those yearning for another change may indeed have it. Atiku’s campaign rhetoric about restructuring, insecurity and unity resonated with many Nigerians, especially those who feel Buhari had been a disappointing change agent.
If the plot to stop Buhari in 2019 was the wishful thinking of disgruntled elite three months ago, it has now become a real possibility.
A poll conducted by Williams and Associates, a US-based opinion research and consulting company showed that the former vice president stands a better chance of winning the 2019 presidential election. The poll, conducted in August, rightly predicted that Atiku would defeat the other presidential aspirants of the PDP, and would go on to defeat Buhari in 2019 by a margin of six per cent.
The company had predicted that President Muhammadu Buhari would unseat ex-President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015.
A few weeks ago, Teneo Intelligence, a New York-based analysis firm, also said Buhari could lose in 2019 if the opposition unites behind a candidate.
But if the candidate of the PDP wants to be in serious contention, he needs to clear all doubts about his integrity. He has had issues with his former principal-Olusegun Obasanjo, who had riled and mocked his previous attempt at the presidency. He is also perceived as corrupt and a wanted criminal in the United States. Although there is no substance yet to some of these allegations, but for someone running for the presidency of a country, they are weighty issues that he needs to address. He must come clean all the allegations and show why he deserves to be elected president. He and his party must get the United States Government to clear the air on the allegation that he cannot visit the US without risking arrest. This is of critical importance because a country like Nigeria cannot afford to parade a presidential candidate of a major party that is wanted in other lands for criminal misdemeanor.
Atiku must go into the presidential race without unnecessary baggage if he truly hopes to be president and not a mole (apologies to Governor Nyesom Wike) for the ruling party.
Buhari has set a bar of integrity for future Nigerian presidents, and anyone wishing to edge him out must set even a higher bar. I assume the delegates of PDP who voted for Atiku as presidential candidate of their party must have asked him some of these questions and got satisfactory answers. Now that he has the ticket to run for presidency, he also must provide satisfactory answers to Nigerians who would elect a president in 2019.
As pastor Tunde Bakare has predicted, 2019 would be a fight of the eagles, an even contest that would either affirm Buhari’s electoral superiority over Atiku, or affirm the later as the true political warrior of modern Nigeria.
Suleiman is a media practitioner based in Abuja