Beyond the Olusegun Obasanjo-Atiku Abubakar Entente on the 2019 Elections: Dynamics and Implications

Atiku visit to Obasanjo

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The standard bearer of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, paid a special reconciliatory visit to the Abeokuta home of former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, on Thursday, October 11, 2018, in company of some Nigerians with nationally- acknowledged integrity, thus giving Atiku Abubakar’s entourage a very powerful character and importance.

The visit is special in design and reconciliatory in outcome. In design, the relationship between Atiku Abubakar and Olusegun Obasanjo became frosty as from the time Atiku Abubakar, in his capacity as Vice President, began to engage in what Olusegun Obasanjo, in his capacity as the President, disloyalty either to him, the PDP, or to the Nigerian nation. It has been generally argued that Chief Obasanjo wanted to amend the 1999 Constitution to allow for his third term in office while Alhaji Abubakar was reportedly opposed to this and he took advantage of this situation to campaign against Chief Obasanjo.

Even though it was also argued that an understanding already existed that Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was to succeed Obasanjo, the Atiku Abubakar school of thought either did not know that succeeding Obasanjo did not mean it should be at the end of his second term, or Atiku Abubakar knew but preferred to succeed him at the end of his second term. In doing so, he opted to work against Obasanjo’s interest by seeking to succeed him at the end of the second term in 2007. Most unfortunately for Alhaji Abubakar, Chief Obasanjo did not take kindly to the development. This was the basis for the mésentente between the former president and his former vice president who now desperately needs the support of his former boss to unseat the incumbent President, Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari.

Chief Obasanjo once promised never to support Atiku Abubakar for his presidential ambition. He even told the world that God is most likely not to forgive him if he ever accepts to support him. In this regard, how do we explain the visit and the eventual reconciliation that prompted the détente between them? What are the dynamics of Obasanjo’s change of heart? Is the change of heart really complete or full? What impact has the reconciliation on the forthcoming 2019 general elections in Nigeria? Perhaps more interestingly, what is the implication for Nigeria’s foreign policy? What also is the implication for the person of Olusegun Obasanjo, particularly within the context of his Christian framework, national, regional and African leadership?

Dynamics of Obasanjo’s Reconciliatory Attitude

In understanding Chief Obasanjo’s reconciliatory attitude, an analysis of the visit within the framework of Obasanjo’s remarks is necessary. First is the adoption of Atiku Abubakar by the PDP as its presidential candidate. The adoption is significant in implication: the adoption was the fourth attempt to be the bearer of the flag of the party before eventually succeeding. This suggests courage, perseverance and doggedness. This type of personality cannot but be appealing to Chief Obasanjo, who also is on record to be an unrelenting fighter and a hardcore nationalist.

Secondly, Obasanjo is strongly opposed to the mania of administration of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB). He appears to be ready to support any measure that has the potential to assist in the defeat of PMB in the 2019 presidential election. As it is now, it is the incumbent All Peoples Congress (APC) and the PDP that are not only the two leading parties, but also one of whom is most likely to be next ruling party. Since Chief Obasanjo does not want PMB to remain in power, the only alternative option left for him is to tolerate the standard bearer of the PDP. This is precisely the case of one Yoruba proverbial saying that ‘if you do not because of yam take oil, you must because of oil take yam.’ Thus, it is not that the bad blood in the relationship has been completely cleansed of its impurities but, for reasons of necessity, there has to be manageable accommodation of the differences.

Thirdly, the members of the delegation to Obasanjo have an appealing dimension, especially in light of the membership of Bishop Mathew Kukah. Kukah is an embodiment of Godliness in various ramifications. Very scholarly, objective and nationalist he is. Obasanjo admires his type of person. For Atiku to have had him on his entourage cannot but be a critical pole of attraction in whatever reconciliatory talks that might have taken place, more so that Obasanjo himself is another bishop in his own right. He is preaching Godliness and humility within the context of political governance of Nigeria.

Fourthly, Obasanjo appears to be happy about the nomination acceptance speech of Atiku Abubakar following his election. In the speech, Abubakar traced the genesis of his presidential ambition and anointment to the long-time meeting held in Obasanjo’s place. This is why Obasanjo could say in his welcoming remarks at the closed-door meeting that he ‘took note of his (Atiku Abubakar) gracious remarks in his acceptance speech that it all started here (Abeokuta). Yes, when it started, it was meant for Atiku to succeed Obasanjo.’ It is the mere public acknowledgment of this factor that largely enthused Obasanjo and that has had influence on his change of heart.

Fifthly, there is also the factor of remorsefulness of Atiku Abubakar which Obasanjo considered. As put by Obasanjo, ‘it is not so much what you (Abubakar) did against me (Obasanjo) that was the issue but what you did against the Party, the Government and the country.’ However, ‘from what transpired in the last couple of hours or so, you (Abubakar) have asked for forgiveness and you have indicated that you have learnt some good lessons and you will mend fences and make amends as necessary and as desirable,’ Obasanjo further said

This factor of remorsefulness and the reaction of Obasanjo to it is quite noteworthy for many reasons. Abubakar offended and he recognised his fault, and therefore did not waste time in asking for forgiveness. This is commendable. A good leader must learn to recognise and admit his or her shortcomings. And perhaps more important is Obasanjo’s own attitude. He is the author of ‘this animal called man.’ Even though it is implied here that a man is still an animal, Obasanjo has clearly shown that a man is still better than an ordinary animal. He had very serious disagreement with his former vice and told the world about it. The world believed that reconciliation with Atiku Abubakar can only be a dream. In fact, it should be recalled that Obasanjo tore his PDP identity card in demonstration of his permanent delinking with the political party. Today, the story is different. Obasanjo is not as hardened as being presented to the public. He is simply guided by self-conviction, objectivity of purpose and national instincts.

Obasanjo’s statement in this regard is very encouraging and should be taken as a special source of sweet inspirations. He told Abubakar thus: ‘whenever or wherever you might have offended me, as a Christian who asks for God’s forgiveness of my sins and inadequacies on daily basis, I forgive and I sincerely advise you to learn from the past and do what is right and it will be well with you.’ Obasanjo’s forgiveness is apparently very Christianly and charismatic.

And perhaps most interestingly, Obasanjo advised Abubakar further that if he continues with the attitude that brought him to Abeokuta with the ‘distinguished leaders of goodwill’, with remorse and contrite heart, the rest of the coast within and outside the country can be cleared. And if there is anything I can do and you want me to do in that respect, I will do.’ Obasanjo is therefore much convinced that, ‘with the right attitude for change where necessary, and by putting lessons learned… to work, (he) will get the understanding, cooperation, support and mandate.’ The foregoing clearly shows the extent of openness of Obasanjo towards Atiku Abubakar in his presidential ambition.

What should also be borne in mind by observers is that Obasanjo floated a political association and has special sympathy for other political parties. Yet, his own selfish interests have not been allowed to prevail over national objectivity of purpose. Consequently, it can be rightly posited that Obasanjo is a PDP sympathiser in spite of the tearing of his membership card. And true, the tearing of the card does not mean cancellation on the PDP’s list of registered members. Another element of truth is that Obasanjo is living above parties. He is behaving as a king maker and would-be kings have not stopped seeking his support. Some Nigerians have argued that it was because of the fear of Obasanjo that there is the likelihood of Atiku Abubakar winning the 2019 elections that he needed to quickly reconcile with him. The public declaration of unrepentant hostility towards Atiku Abubakar’s presidential ambition was also given as another rationale for his quick reconciliatory attitude. These observations may be valid but they do not reflect the situational reality of the visit of goodwill to Obasanjo in Abeokuta.

It is important to note that Obasanjo’s reconciliatory attitude is in response to Atiku’s initial plea for reconciliation. If this observation is not tenable, how do we explain the plain truth that it was an Atiku Abubakar-delegation that opted to go and meet Obasanjo? If Obasanjo did not object to reconciliation, it is partly because of the foregoing dynamics. It is also partly because of the expectation that Atiku Abubakar would do or not do certain things and also because Obasanjo strongly believes that change is part of man. In the eyes of Obasanjo, ‘after all, change and conversion (Paul on the Road to Damascus Conversion) are of man. I believe that with a contrite heart, change is possible in everybody’s life and situation.’ Put differently, Obasanjo’s support for Alhaji Abubakar is still made subject to some conditions to which attention will be paid hereunder.

Sixthly, Obasanjo recognises that Atiku Abubakar was truly the best PDP candidate for the presidency. He sees him as having a better national and international outreach than all the other candidates, an outreach which ‘can translate to better management of foreign affairs.’ In fact, Obasanjo believes that he is ‘more accessible and less inflexible and more open to all parts of the country in many ways.’ Besides, he believes that Atiku Abubakar’s Wazobia character will help ‘in confronting the confrontable and shunning nepotism.’

Seventhly and above all, Obasanjo is more than convinced that the next President of Nigeria is going to be Atiku Abubakar. Whether this conviction has reckoned with the possible rigging of the election is not known. However, Obasanjo not only congratulated and described in his welcoming remarks Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as ‘president-to-be,’ but also made his recommendations on the basis that Abubakar is already elected or that he is already in power.

This is why, for example, Obasanjo could tell Abubakar to remember what both of them did together in government which was the running ‘an administration by Nigerians for all Nigerians where merit and performance count more than blood relationship, friendship or kith and kin. Although some time and ground have been lost,’ Obasanjo asked Abubakar to ‘endeavour to start from where we (Obasanjo-Abubakar) stopped and recover some lost ground, if not time.’ This statement is an illustration of a presidential election fait accompli.

It is not only Chief Obasanjo that believes that the chances of electoral victory of PMB are remote, most Nigerians appear to have come to that conclusion as well. PMB has not been able to differentiate between what he believes in and what he wants to do, on the one hand, and what his appointees and government agencies do, on the other hand. PMB’s public admittance that the rule of law comes after the national interest does not help the matter. The PMB administration cares less about court rulings.

For instance, a court convicted Dr. Efem Ubi, a Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs more than seven months ago for physical assault. As provided in Section 030412, ‘an officer convicted of criminal offence (other than a minor traffic or sanitary offence and the like) shall be suspended with effect from the date of conviction, pending determination of his/her case by the Commission’, that is, Federal Civil Service Commission. The truth is that this provision has not been complied with. When explanations were sought at the level of the Director General, Professor Bukar Bukarambe, he said the provision was not complied with because the matter has been referred to the appeal court.

As funny as this argument may me, the fact is that Dr. Efem Ubi remains a convicted Nigerian until the conviction judgment of the lower court is set aside. This example of the NIIA management style is the hallmark of public administration in the various public parastatals under PMB. Even in the same Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the Director of Administration and Finance, Agatha Ude, changed promotion examination results, the Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council covered it up. Most shamefully too, professors who are required to have integrity and public respect have thrown caution to the winds and bastardised professorial assessments and appointments. Professorship has been turned into a commodity for sale in the market of ethnic chauvinism. The Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council was communicating with assessors of professorial candidates, an oddity, apparently for selfish and ethnic motivational reasons, but unfortunately to the detriment of national interests.

This is precisely why there is the urgent need to go beyond Chief Obasanjo’s reconciliation with Atiku Abubakar by putting the reconciliation in its appropriate context. In the many pieces of advice given to the ‘President-to-be’ (need to uphold the truth, integrity, principles, morality, and fighting corruption, crimes and insurgency, etc) Obasanjo not only said ‘the fundamental law of the land, our Constitution, must be scrupulously defended.’ In this regard, Obasanjo made a demand according to which Atiku Abubakar must say unto God that he ‘will always remain irrevocably committed to upholding ALL (emphasis not mine) the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the whole country will remain (his) single indivisible constituency.’

Without any shadow of doubt, this demand of Obasanjo is precisely what will not only neutralise the essence of the reconciliation, but also one which will particularly create an irrevocable basis for national disunity against which Obasanjo is fighting tooth and nail. An analysis of the problem is necessary at this juncture.

The Problem

Obasanjo is requesting for the upholding of all the provisions of the Constitution. This is good but it is, at best, controversial. Many elite groups believe that the Constitution is a manu militari one and not in any way democratically evolved. Thus the Constitution is already therefore a source of national division.

Secondly, the environmental conditionings of political governance in Nigeria have led to the calls for political restructuring. Atiku Abubakar has been campaigning on the basis of declared commitment to political restructuring to which both Obasanjo and PMB are opposed. The implication therefore is that, if Atiku Abubakar were to swear before God, in compliance with Obasanjo’s demand, it simply means that Abubakar’s interpretation of restructuring can accommodate anything but not to the extent of leading to national disunity or disintegration.

Thirdly, Nigerian leaders, particularly the military ones, make national unity difficult to ensure by unnecessarily arguing that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. The argument is most unfortunate and very myopic. It does not reckon with some international realities. It is useful to simply remind Government about the Catalan example in Spain where, for about three hundred years, separatist struggle has been on. Spain cannot boast of peace and has not been able to stop the agitation for self-determination. What led to the struggle for autonomy in Spain is not in any way different from what is happening in Nigeria.

It is important therefore to let Government know that there is nothing like unity by force. National unity can only be and endure by consent and negotiation. Nepotism cannot be helpful to the making of a united Nigeria. Self-determination is a critical issue in international relations and cannot be easily jettisoned, even if the United Nations discourages the dismembering of any of its members. It is therefore better to allow for peaceful restructuring that will make Nigeria more resilient, vibrant, stronger and united rather than pushing Nigeria into another civil war that can lead to permanent disunity which many people also erroneously believe is far-fetched. Experiential knowledge has shown me that honesty and patriotism is consciously discouraged and punished, especially under the PMB administration. And yet, PMB is preaching anti-corruption and seeking re-election in an already divided country. This is most unfortunate.