Wike vs Atiku: The Return Leg

SIMONKOLAWOLEIVE! BY SIMON KOLAWO

Before the 1999 presidential primaries, crisis engulfed the All Peoples Party (now part of the All Progressives Congress, APC) over the ambition of the late Dr Olusola Saraki. He was bent on running even though the slot had been zoned to the south. The late Chief Arthur Nzeribe, who played a major role in the annulment of June 12, was working with other APP chieftains to stop Saraki. I went to interview Nzeribe at the Lagos Airport Hotel, Ikeja. I asked him: “Chief, people say you always play the spoiler. Why?” He looked at me disapprovingly and retorted: “Do I spoil for nothing?” That day, I learnt Politics 101: you may think politicians are stupid, but they know the game they are playing.

You must have seen the video of Dr Iyorchia Ayu, national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), warmly embracing Alhaji Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, governor of Sokoto state, after the party’s presidential primary in May 2022. Tambuwal had withdrawn from the race at the last minute and directed his supporters to vote for Atiku, who went on to defeat Chief Nyesom Wike, the governor of Rivers state, by a margin many attributed to Tambuwal’s game-changing move. “You are the hero of the convention,” Ayu told a grinning Tambuwal. If you ask me, the gloating by a presumed neutral party leader fertilized the PDP crisis. Now that Wike is “spoiling”, I don’t think it is for nothing.

Wike, confident of winning the presidential ticket, had promised to support whoever won the primary election. But after the party’s northern elders worked tirelessly behind the scene to get Tambuwal to withdraw for Atiku so that power could remain in the north after eight years of President Muhammadu Buhari, the open celebration of Atiku’s victory by Ayu was bound to generate bad blood in Wike’s camp. My sense is that Wike did not react immediately because there was still a chance he could be Atiku’s running mate, despite previously not showing interest in it. But after Atiku settled for Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, the Delta governor, the peace of the graveyard disappeared.

When Atiku visited Wike in Abuja after the primary, I saw it as good politics. But I was wrong. It appears the visit unwittingly ended up widening the chasm between them. Wike said Atiku made certain promises at that meeting that he did not fulfil. He said Atiku was the one who told him Ayu would have to leave as party chairman since the presidential ticket had gone to the north. Wike had already been hurt twice — first by the Tambuwal game that took the ticket to the north and second by Ayu’s gloating over Atiku’s victory. Wike even accused Ayu of collecting N1 billion from a presidential aspirant. This and other allegations have not yet been denied by the PDP or Ayu himself.

But a third development was loading: Atiku’s choice of running mate. Wike said Atiku had told him during the visit that he wanted him as the VP candidate. Wike said he then asked Atiku about the story that Okowa was his preference and Atiku denied, saying Okowa was Gen Ibrahim Babangida’s candidate but he did not consider Okowa “fit” for the job and would not make the same “mistake” he made in 2019 when Peter Obi was “forced” on him by ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. Atiku reportedly told Wike that he had wanted Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former minister of finance and current director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), but Obasanjo had his way.

Deciding not to choose Wike was one thing, but by rubbing it in so smoothly in his ARISE interview that it was Okowa he could work “amicably” with, Atiku only succeeded in pouring petrol into the fire. Wike erupted in anger, accused Atiku of telling lies and threatened to reveal “the truth” in due course. Atiku’s chosen adverb, “amicably”, apparently touched a raw nerve in Wike. Some northern elders, we heard, had declared that Wike would be a dangerous man to have in the presidential villa in any capacity and must not be allowed anywhere near the seat of power. Atiku’s interview obviously rubbed insult on injury as we can now see. That is the matter we are still trying to settle.

In a televised media chat on Friday, Wike accused Atiku of going back on his word that Ayu should no longer be chairman — a claim the presidential candidate has yet to deny. All negotiations have been around the major demand by Wike’s allies: that Ayu must go. Meetings have been held home and abroad and the demand of Wike and his allies remains the same: Ayu must go. Ayu has remained unshaken, or unshakable, describing those calling for his resignation as “children” at the time the PDP was founded in 1998. This defiant statement riled many in the party but Ayu has neither withdrawn it nor apologised. The ordinary meaning of his demeanour is that he is going nowhere.

Atiku, an experienced politician for that matter, has not been sleeping even if he has appeared to be slow. He has carried on with some calm confidence. His children do not call him “Daddy Cool” for nothing — he reputedly always handles pressure with a mien “as cool as a cucumber”. The counter strategy from Atiku’s camp was to get Senator Walid Jibrin to step down as the chairman of the party’s advisory Board of Trustees (BoT). He was replaced by ex-Senate President Adolphus Wabara to dilute the perceived northern domination of the hierarchy. The party’s highest organ, the national executive committee (NEC), also passed a “vote of confidence” on Ayu — another counterpunch.

Also, instituting the presidential campaign council and putting Wike and his allies on board was a strategy to put the ball back in their court. But rather than budge, the pro-Wike group met in Port Harcourt, Rivers state, on Tuesday night and rejected the campaign council, insisting that Ayu must go first. Appointing a campaign council without resolving the outstanding issues, they said, amounts to putting the cart before the horse. In the whole “melee”, however, there is yet no sign that Wike’s allies will do anti-party. That may well be the card they are holding close to their chests, but they have so far indicated publicly that they will not pull out of the PDP. That is an opening for Atiku.

Meanwhile, Atiku has stood his ground that Ayu can only be removed in line with the PDP constitution and a decision to resign is personal. Ayu, it must be noted, is his longstanding associate who incidentally was the director-general of his presidential run in 2007. I admit that I am not a politician and I may need to learn more Politics 101, but what is the big deal in asking Ayu to go if it will bring peace to the party and allow the factions to unite? More so, Wike’s camp is growing by the day. Those who never attended meetings with him and who never spoke openly against Ayu are now doing so and with venom. I believe this should worry Atiku, except he has a secret super strategy.

What then? Why does Atiku appear to be courting Wike but is, at the same time, not giving any concession? I have a theory. It would appear to me that Atiku’s overarching strategy for 2023 is built on the assumption that being the biggest northerner in the race, he would sweep northern votes and would only need to score a highly achievable 25 percent in just five southern states to fulfil the constitutional requirement of spread. Where Wike comes in, I suppose, is funding. Every bundle of naira will count. After all, Wike reportedly contributed a significant amount to Atiku’s campaign in the 2019 poll despite the failure of Tambuwal, his preferred candidate, to win the party’s ticket.

Wike, however, now seems to be saying: “Love me, love my dog.” If you say I am too dangerous to be vice-president, if you say you did not pick me as your running mate because you cannot work with me, then go the whole hog: reject me, reject my war chest, reject the votes at my command. That, as far as I can see, is the message Wike is passing to Atiku. Wike also said the northern leaders supporting Atiku against him cannot even deliver their states to the PDP. He may have a big point there: the APC controls states like Niger, Zamfara, Jigawa and Yobe, where Atiku’s major backers such as IBB, Dr Babangida Aliyu, Gen Aliyu Gusau, Sule Lamido and Adamu Maina Waziri, come from.

I also think Atiku should not take northern votes for granted. Nigeria’s electoral history is a bit more nuanced. One, the battle up north may not be totally sectional or regional. It may also be partisan. It could turn out to be a battle for supremacy between APC, which controls 14 of the 19 northern states, and PDP, which has only five. Any APC governor who does not deliver the presidential election to his party in his domain risks being swept out — or his anointed successor being crushed — in the subsequent governorship poll. It is called bandwagon effect. In 2015, APC swept northern governorships after PDP lost presidential power. That is one factor Atiku cannot afford to ignore.

Two, as we have seen in the past, the north is not monolithic. Northern voters have always shared their votes, even if a fellow northerner is running. In 1993, Bashorun MKO Abiola and Alhaji Bashir Tofa won eight states each in the north, which had 16 states then. In 2003, despite the homeboy popularity of Candidate Muhammadu Buhari, Obasanjo still won nine of the 19 northern states, with Buhari taking the rest. The assumption that northerners will automatically and overwhelmingly vote for a northerner against a southerner may be an exaggeration. That is the more reason why Atiku has to redo his math and put his house in order. Every vote will count in this uncertain election.

From the media chat, I also smelt something: Wike thinks Atiku is not a man of his word. He further said key positions in Atiku’s “government” have already been shared at a time reconciliation is ongoing. This leaves Wike’s allies in limbo. I think it will, therefore, be too simplistic to say Wike’s “return match” is solely because he is not the running mate. I can see issues of distrust, bruised egos and fear of vendetta if Atiku wins. Atiku really needs to change gear. If he cannot manage the PDP crisis, how would he manage Nigeria — a country of one week, one trouble? Not that the Labour Party and APC would be complaining though: they can benefit from PDP’s festering friction. Politics.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

BACK TO SCHOOL

The federal government on Wednesday secured a legal victory over the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) whose members have been on strike since February. The national industrial court, in declaring the strike illegal, also ruled that irreparable damage was being done to the lives of students. While a legal victory will not solve the problems, it is a welcome relief for those of us whose wards have been stuck at home for seven months. I have never seen perennial and indefinite strikes as the solution to the myriad of problems facing the universities. What we need is an honest conversation on the way forward, devoid of utopian ideological dogmas. Pragmatism.

SELECTIVE OBEDIENCE

Some people’s reaction to the court ruling asking ASUU to suspend its strike did not surprise me, but I hope they are listening to themselves. Attacking the court because its ruling does not favour your position is equal to spitting on the rule of law. Some went to the extent of saying ASUU should not obey the order and should instead continue the industrial action indefinitely. In other words, people should decide what court order to obey and the one to disobey. Some of these people criticise the government whenever it does not obey court orders but are now quite eager to recommend same to the university teachers. It’s good ASUU has filed an appeal — that is the lawful way to go. Civil.

BUHARI IN NEW YORK

I got a WhatsApp broadcast last weekend criticising President Buhari for choosing to go to New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) while other presidents were in the UK for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Hmmm. If he went to the UK, he could be criticised for prioritising funeral above the UN. If he attended both events, he could be criticised for wasting Nigeria’s resources at a time we are groaning under debt. If he decided to stay put in Nigeria, he could be criticised for “indifference” and for relegating Nigeria on the global stage. Truth is: with some people, Buhari can never do anything right. When criticism becomes a hobby, it gets done only for fun. Amusing.

IT’S ALL POLITICS

As my debut book, Fellow Nigerians, It’s All Politics, is set to go on general sale on October 3, I have been having a feeling of déjà vu with the frenetic politicking ahead of the 2023 elections. With old enemies becoming friends and old friends becoming enemies, with presidential candidates promising us heaven on earth, with supporters falling over each other to sell their candidates as our saviour, and with crises rocking the parties, I have been asking myself: haven’t I seen these before? The book, which is a collection of fresh as well as selected articles from 2003 to 2022, should help refresh our memories and put some familiar theatrics in perspective this interesting season. Replay.

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