Resilience: Like Anwar, Like Atiku?


I stayed awake all night refreshing my Straits Times of Singapore Newspaper App as the constitutional crisis in Malaysia entered its fifth day. In the end, Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia at 75 ending a 25-year quest for the top job. His ascension to the office of Prime Minister is a tribute to his resilience after an embarrassing humiliation by a mentor turned nemesis, many setbacks, and imprisonment. As I watched the swearing-in ceremony my mind raced back in time.

In 2006, I had an important meeting with President Obasanjo at about 8 pm at the Presidential Villa. He was waiting for me, the residence at the villa was empty, and Baba was lying on a couch in the main sitting room. It was an unusual meeting as Baba, and I saw practically every other day or spoke on the phone. As a protege of President Obasanjo, I enjoyed unfettered access to him and the villa such that Nasir El-Rufai, who introduced me to Obasanjo, in his book “Accidental Public Servant” described me as Obasanjo’s “trusted co-conspirator”.

Baba recounted part of our conversation that night, in his book “My Watch” about how I approached him to make Nasir El-Rufai his successor. I will recount the context and another part of that conversation today. As soon as I came in, he stood up from the sofa in his shorts and Polo shirt and we walked into his inner sitting room in his usual brusque manner he said: “yes what is it?”

I asked him if he was following the happening in Malaysia where former Prime Minister Mahathir lost a bid to become a delegate to the UNMO Party conference. President Obasanjo said, “not really but a foreign diplomat spoke about it to me recently”. I continued and told him that Mahathir accused his hand-picked successor Abdullah Badawi of bribing party members to vote against him in his home district. I reminded him of how Mahathir disagreed with his former Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, whom many expected to succeed him, and jailed him for corruption and sodomy.  While Anwar was in jail, he picked Mr Abdullah to succeed him and left office after 22 years as Prime Minister confident that he has made the right choice for Malaysia.

A few years later, the relationship between Dr Mahathir and PM Abdullah Badawi degenerated into an open confrontation. Dr Mahathir was openly criticising his hand-picked successor. He accused him of abandoning several of his mega projects and fuelling corruption. The stage was set for a confrontation.

By 2005, President Obasanjo and his Vice, Atiku Abubakar had irreparably fallen out and it was clear that he won’t hand over to him. Before I requested for the meeting, I had learnt from Baba’s body language and a reliable source that he had chosen then Governor Umaru Yar’Adua to succeed him. I thought the choice was a mistake, as they were not ideologically compatible.

As we spoke in our usual father-son conversation, I told him that since Atiku could not be President, he should support one of those who worked closely with him and share the same basic worldview and I mentioned Nasir El-Rufai as one of such possibilities. He pushed back. I was young then and did not have the experience to skilfully manage such a situation. However, I persisted in my argument that Nigeria needed a President that shared the ideological underpinning of the PDP government. I said, without mentioning any name, that any candidate other than one of those who worked closely with Baba will reverse the gains from 2003 to 2007.

Presciently, two years into Yar’Adua’s government Obasanjo like Mahathir was getting restive. The Lagos – Kano railway project had been cancelled, the sale of the refineries was reversed and President Obasanjo’s choice for Party Chairman was torpedoed. The PDP constitution amendment of 2007 that enabled Baba to become the Board of Trustee Chairman was reversed in a 2009 constitutional amendment that made all members of the Board eligible to run for Chairman effectively scuttling the former President’s influence over the Party.

As at the fateful night of our meeting, I did not envisage President Yar’Adua would go that far, despite my reservations about his ideological leaning. The only inkling, I had was when Baba, as he again recounted in “My Watch”, sent me to then President-Elect Yar’Adua to “advise” him to stop talking about increasing power generation to 50,000 megawatts and follow the existing plan of 10,000 MW under the NIPP. Governor Yar’Adua was resolute in his refusal to change his position. I did not fully communicate to President Obasanjo the blunt refusal. On that day I sensed the inevitability of conflict.

Back to Anwar, he like Atiku refused to accept the judgment of his former boss who labelled him corrupt. Upon release from Prison in 2004, he formed an alliance and continued his quest to become Prime Minister. Waziri Atiku also sought to replace his boss, in 2007, by defecting to another party and challenging his disqualification successfully in the courts. Both lost multiple elections but remained dogged in the quest for power over the last decade.

In a twist like Obasanjo and Atiku, Anwar, while in jail for the second time in 2018, made up with his former boss, and forged an alliance that presented the 90 years old Mahathir as the candidate for Prime Minister with Anwar’s wife Wan Aziza as Deputy. Mahathir pledged to grant Anwar a pardon and handover to him after two years. The alliance won. Mahathir kept the first promise of a royal pardon but reneged on the transfer of power to Anwar Ibrahim. Many thought Anwar’s path to the top was permanently sealed.

Like Anwar, Atiku made up with his former boss in the run-up to the 2019 election, but unlike Anwar/Mahathir alliance they did not win. Atiku’s path to the Presidency appeared closed. In 2022, Atiku won the primaries of his party again, but President Obasanjo withdrew support for him.

The fascinating trajectory of PM Mahathir and President Obasanjo is very striking to me. They share character traits that include a messianic love of country, blunt public expression of strong opinion, and a penchant to pick public quarrels. Both men, in my opinion, in upending their deputies weakened their parties. The current crisis of identity in the PDP stems from the disorderly tradition of 2007. The choice of a successor by the two leaders damaged the growth trajectories of both countries. It is a poignant tale of the failure of mentorship and a recurring reminder of the futility of abridging democracy.

Anointing and imposing successors is a failed strategy that delivers no value to the anointer, anointed, and the state or country. One will think that political actors will learn from the lessons of history but many suffer from optimism bias – a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing positive events.

In 2023, like a phoenix, the former Vice President Atiku Abubakar would once again go before the electorates. Hopefully, like Anwar, his doggedness, ability to come back from humiliating failure, and refusal to accept the judgment of a former boss, will pay off.

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