Saraki vs. Amaechi: Old Allies, New Foes and 2019 Grudge Battle


Next year’s presidential election may boil down to a ferocious battle between two old allies now in opposing camps as they lead the campaigns of the nation’s leading presidential candidates, writes Olaseni Durojaiye

The appointments of two strong political allies, Senate President Bukola Saraki and Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi as the directors-general of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and President Muhammadu Buhari’s Campaign Organisation, are a classic example of the truism that the only thing permanent in politics is interest.

Given the antecedents of these two political gladiators, the nation appears set to witness one of the most interesting and intriguing campaigns for the office of the president in the weeks ahead.

A little over a decade back, when the two became politically inter-twined, never would they have imagined that they would be pitted against each other in a manner that could be considered irreconcilable. That was about the time that the two political tacticians became close when they served Kwara and Rivers States as governors, and under the same political platform, the PDP.

The two went on to head Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) as Chairman. Those familiar with the extent of their closeness linked the emergence of Amaechi as Saraki’s successor at the NGF to the measure of their political friendship even though the position was zoned to the South at the time. Saraki reportedly did everything to ensure Amaechi emerge, including playing tricks on his colleagues.

Their friendship may have been further cemented by the fact that they both suffered persecution at the time from some loyalists of President Goodluck Jonathan, leading to the two of them dumping the PDP for the APC in 2014.
The two campaign directors-general did not only quit the then ruling party, but they also did so in a manner that decimated the PDP preparatory to its eventual defeat at the polls. They led a sizable number of notable PDP politicians out of the party.

Among them was the current Governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal, who was then Speaker House of Representatives, many senators including Dino Melaye and Ali Ndume among others.

They also left with their political structures in Kwara and Rivers. The two former governors played very significant roles in the victory of President Buhari. While Amaechi was appointed the director-general of the Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organisation, including spending his personal resources, Saraki rallied his contacts both at state and federal level behind candidate Buhari, and went all over the country with the APC standard bearer to campaign and raise a lot of money.

But shortly after the election, their relationship was strained over the slot for the running mate and ever since they have remained enemies. In fact, this ugly turn of event manifested in how Amaechi scaled through the ministerial screening at the Senate and was eventually cleared.

Still seething with anger on account of his jumping ship to the APC and his role in how their party was dethroned at the centre, exacerbated by his strained relationship with Saraki, PDP senators swore to scuttle his bid to become a minister.

Senators from his home state, backed by the state governor, Nyesom Wike, had seized on a petition authored by Integrity Group, in which the Port Harcourt-based group accused Amaechi of embezzlement and described him as unfit to be appointed a minister. After so many intrigues, wily horse-trading and alleged backstabbing, Amaechi was screened and cleared for his current ministerial appointment. The PDP lost, he smiled; but his friendship with Saraki had been largely slowed down, although Saraki availed the APC senators the executive cover, which eventually saw the PDP senators literally kissing the dust.

All those have now become history. The two political strategists now belong in different parties and pursuing different interests. They are set to lock horns as they lead the campaigns of their different candidates. Political watchers are on the lookout to see who outfoxes the other.

Going forward, certain dynamics will determine who does what at the end of the day. One of the factors will be who has a better understanding of issues that will shape the campaign and has a better strategy to execute the campaigns.

This is so because the two had over the course of their political growth demonstrated a good understanding of the nation’s political turf, which plays out at every turn.

Starting with Saraki, he appears to stand pretty well considering that he has little or no distractions. His home state appears rancour-free even after the party primary elections in the state. The state PDP structure is firmly in his grip and party members solidly behind him, so, he is not distracted, at least openly.

The same cannot be said of Amaechi. His control of the party in the state may not be in doubt but he is being challenged by a certain Senator Magnus Abe, who is interested in the APC governorship ticket as against Amaechi’s choice of Tonye Cole. Observers argued that this is a potential distraction.

Beside the disquiet in the home front, it will be interesting to see how Amaechi manages the egos of party stalwarts like the APC National Chairman and National Leader, Adams Oshiomole and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu respectively during the campaigns.

The two leading figures of the party initially kicked against the appointment of the former Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly as DG of President Buhari’s campaign. Media reports had it at the time that it was feared that holding the position would benefit Amaechi with so much clout, which he could deploy for his suspected presidential ambition come 2023.

But those conversant with Amaechi insisted he is up to the task adding that he is battle tested and a survivor, politically. They noted his doggedness and how against all odds, including opposition to his governorship ambition by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and some party elders, including estranged godfather, former governor Peter Odili, he vied for the PDP governorship ticket in 2007.

Even with all the political forces that stood against him, he held his own and won at the primaries. They also recalled how when the ticket was given to his cousin, Sir Celestine Omehia, he soldiered on until he retrieved it through the courts in October of 2007.

Saraki’s job may not be totally free of political headwinds though. It remains to be seen how the formidable campaign organisation of Atiku, which won the ticket and bested the likes of Saraki, will team up with that of the PDP to forge a united force.

Signs of muffled discontent surfaced shortly after the announcement when the Atiku Abubakar Campaign Organisation, through the DG, former Ogun State governor, Gbenga Daniel clarified that the Saraki committee was a creation of the party and not meant to replace that of the candidate.

Some analysts suggested that the Daniel committee may be unwilling to coalesce into that of the party or take directives from the Saraki committee. How these permutations play out will also define who gets the better of who between Saraki and Amaechi.

The campaign is definitely an interesting one for both of them. There is no joking and they definitely must prove the stuff they are made of. While Amaechi has been tested before with Buhari’s first coming and also shown capacity, Saraki has never left anyone in doubt that he is a factor that no one can afford to take for granted, because he not only knows the game, he was born into it.