Nigeria: PT State of the Race – Obasanjo Teases Tinubu As Wike Tries Atiku’s Patience

Five weeks to the kick-off of the campaigns for the 2023 elections, the four main presidential candidates already have much in their hands

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo on Saturday denied media reports that he had endorsed the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, for the 2023 presidential election.

The reports followed Mr Tinubu’s out-of-the-blue call on the former president at his residence in Abeokuta, Ogun State on Wednesday. The two leaders did not disclose to journalists what they discussed during the visit that lasted about four hours.

However, on Thursday, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, made a statement confirming claims from supporters of the APC candidate that Mr Obasanjo had registered to support his candidature, having set aside their long history of political animosity; and despite both never been in the same party before.

Mr Gbajabiamila was in Mr Tinubu’s delegation and was one of the three persons from Mr Tinubu’s side admitted into a three-hour closed-door meeting the two leaders held during the visit.

Speaking a day later at a meeting of the APC in Surulere, Lagos, Mr Gbajabiamila said the conversation at that private meeting had buoyed his optimism of victory for Mr Tinubu next year. He said Mr Obasanjo made encouraging statements about Mr Tinubu’s aspiration and even prayed for the candidate.

“When we were going to Obasanjo’s house, we were eight, including Asiwaju Tinubu and me; we didn’t want many people to know about the meeting. So, we were to meet Obasanjo and five others from his side. But when we eventually got there, we met something pleasantly shocking; a mammoth crowd of our supporters were already at the former president’s house waiting for us.

“So, Obasanjo told Asiwaju Tinubu to pick three people from his side and that he would pick three from his side to meet behind closed doors. So, I, Chief Osoba and Chief Akande and Asiwaju went from our side. My people, what I heard there, what Obasanjo said, the victory of Asiwaju is assured.

Obasanjo spoke at length and we were all happy. He embraced our candidate like a brother, gave him a pat on the back, and prayed for him copiously.”

On Saturday evening, Mr Obasanjo finally broke his silence on the event and what he said somewhat mellowed the excitement of Mr Tinubu’s supporters.

But he did not entirely kill their joy too, as he neither categorically confirmed nor denied his purported position on Mr Tinubu’s presidential bid, which is a statement on its own, given that the enigmatic former president never sits on the fence or feels shy to speak his mind on important national issues like a presidential election.

In a statement by Mr Obasanjo’s Special Assistant on Media, Kehinde Akinyemi, the former president said the statements coming from those claiming to be supporters of Mr Tinubu were unhelpful.

He said the discussion during the visit was “more brotherly than political,” indicating that Mr Tinubu had requested Mr Obasanjo’s support but that the former President neither agreed nor disapproved of the ‘request’.

“Those claiming to be insiders at the meeting issuing statements on the discussion and those crediting to me statements I had not made are enemies of the visitor and are not doing the visit any good.”

It should be noted that Mr Akinyemi’s statement merely rebuked Mr Tinubu’s camp for lack of discretion, it did not debunk its claims. Apparently, the two leaders had agreed not to make public whatever they had discussed or agreed on at the private meeting, the reason they might have restricted it to only a few witnesses.

As reported by Mr Gbajabiamila, the Abeokuta meeting was preceded by discussions between the two leaders. That should be expected. Given their long record of mutual recriminations, the former Lagos governor would not dare go to the lair of his biggest political adversary in the South West without being invited. Neither would Mr Obasanjo have opened his door for him, unless to land a few punches to his face.

That a large crowd of APC supporters was allowed to welcome Mr Tinubu into Mr Obasanjo’s premises also speaks volumes. It indicated that the former president wanted to make a political statement with the visit. And host and guest could not have retired behind doors for three hours with only a few trusted friends just to ask how each other is coping with old age.

Atiku out?

Mr Obasanjo had earlier hosted two of Mr Tinubu’s main opponents – Atiku Abubakar of the PDP and Peter Obi of the Labour Party. His relationship with his former vice president has been very interesting. He had suspended their bitter falling out to support Atiku in the 2019 presidential election. But that had followed Mr Obasanjo’s disappointment with President Muhammadu Buhari, which had led him into a desperate gamble to stop the president’s reelection.

Let’s recall that he announced his endorsement of Atiku in 2018 a few days after saying in an interview that even God would not forgive him if he ever helped his former deputy to the top job, knowing what he did about him during their administration, all of which Mr Obasanjo had meticulously documented in his memoir, My Watch. But as the PDP candidate, Atiku was the only realistic alternative to President Buhari in 2019 and Mr Obasanjo probably hoped God would forgive him for supporting one devil to fight a bigger one. Now that Mr Buhari is out of contention, Mr Obasanjo apparently has decided to look beyond his old estranged ally.

Since hosting him and his delegation in Abeokuta, Mr Obasanjo has not uttered a public statement on Atiku’s latest presidential bid.

Another reason Mr Obasanjo may not be considering Atiku is power rotation issue that is haunting the candidate in his party. The PDP has in its constitution a policy to alternate the presidency between the northern and southern halves of Nigeria. Mr Obasanjo himself was the first to attempt to breach that principle when he schemed to remain in office beyond his term limit in 2007. But he made amends by handpicking Umaru Yar’adua from Kaduna State as the PDP candidate when it appeared that then Rivers State Governor Peter Obi had mobilised enough support in the party to pick its ticket.

Now after eight years of President Buhari, also from Katsina in the North, Mr Obasanjo is said to be among leaders angered by the repudiation of a policy formulated at the inception of the PDP to promote national cohesion and unity through the principle of equity in the politics of the nation.

Obi in Obasanjo’s consideration?

If so, Mr Obi should appear as the natural inheritor of Mr Obasanjo’s endorsement. The former governor of Anambra is from the only southern zone yet to produce a president. He had left the PDP just before the primaries, citing intra-party dynamics that offend his own personal convictions. He has since managed to raise a large following on social media while projecting himself as a prudent administrator with a plan to tackle the nation’s many challenges.

Although Mr Obi is not the only southern candidate, he does not carry the same-faith ticket albatross of his APC rival and has in fact benefitted from the anger of sections of the Christian community who have engaged in open campaigns for him from the pulpits.

However, if Mr Obasanjo overlooks Mr Obi, it may have to be for the reason of his own albatross – his lack of party structure. The Labour Party was one of the many that existed in INEC register until Mr Obi came along. It was rarely mentioned in the media, despite its link to the Nigerian Labour Congress. It is hard to recall anyone elected to a public office on its platform.

Even since Mr Obi joined it, you could comb many states across the country and not find many offices of the party. The party also has not attracted many big-name politicians. All the exertions of its presidential candidate have either been personal or by volunteers. Of course, supporters project Mr Obi’s presidential bid as a movement. But even a movement needs experienced people to direct it.

Mr Obasanjo probably has seen this and is being forced to look further afield. Yet, announcing himself on the side of Mr Tinubu remains odd.

As in the cases of Mr Buhari in 2015 and Atiku in 2019, Mr Obasanjo is not strange or averse to rapprochement. And his being on opposite sides with Mr Tinubu was accidental. When the latter began his political journey in the aborted Third Republic of Ibrahim Babangida, he was on the side of the People’s Front led by Mr Obasanjo’s first deputy, Shehu Yar’adua. At that time, the political tendency that Mr Tinubu now belongs to in the South West was the Peoples Solidarity Party. And when the transition to the Fourth Republic began in 1998 after the death of Sani Abacha, the group that eventually formed the AD also had a brief association with the elements that eventually formed the PDP.

The AD went ahead to present a joint ticket with the All People Party against the PDP that fielded Mr Obasanjo despite its candidates in the other elections having been trounced in the other elections in the South West. In 2003, Mr Tinubu was the only AD governor that survived Mr Obasanjo’s revenge and became the cornerstone of the remnants of the party until it found itself in the APC. This shows that their storied political enmity may not have deep or ideological roots as may appear on the surface.

But if Mr Obasanjo goes ahead to back the APC candidate, it would most probably be because his permutations point to him as the candidate best placed to stop Atiku from keeping the presidency in the North in violation of the power rotation understanding.

However, what is the value of Mr Obasanjo’s endorsement to make an experienced fighter like Mr Tinubu covet it? After all, it could not help Atiku across the line the last time around, when the myth that Mr Obasanjo’s horses always win exploded.

Wike as Atiku’s headache

On Friday, a committee constituted by Atiku and his closest rival in the PDP presidential primaries, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, finally sat in Port Harcourt.

The meeting was much anticipated as the Open Sesame to resolving their fight which began after Atiku beat Mr Wike to the presidential ticket in controversial circumstances and then intensified after he overlooked the Rivers governor to pick his Delta State counterpart, Ifeanyi Okowa, as his running mate, also in controversial circumstances.

The two fussing leaders had each appointed seven persons to represent them in the reconciliation task but when the committee could not agree on whether to sit in Abuja or Port Harcourt, Atiku pruned his representatives to three and sent them to the Rivers State capital where Mr Wike’s delegation had been waiting.

However, it turned out to be an anticlimax as the meeting ended in a stalemate. The main issue was the demand by Mr Wike for the resignation of the national chairman of the party, Iyorchia Ayu.

While Mr Wike wants the chairman out because of his alleged bias in the conduct of the presidential primaries at the party’s national convention on the night of May 28, many other governors say it is necessary to redress the imbalance in the national leadership of the party, which was complicated by Atiku’s nomination as a presidential candidate.

Aside from Atiku the standard bearer and Mr Ayu the national chairman, northerner members also head the party’s board of trustees and forum of state governors. It did not help that Atiku became the candidate only after the party was strongarmed into discarding its policy of rotation of the presidency between North and South.

Ironically, Mr Ayu took the chair last year after the southern zones gave it up in anticipation of taking the presidential ticket under the zoning or power rotation policy. Following his endorsement as the consensus candidate of the North, Mr Ayu had pledged to relinquish the chair should an aspirant from his region become the presidential candidate. Mr Wike and his allies are asking him to fulfil that pledge.

But the chairman in a statement during the week reminded them that he was elected to a four-year- term. He made the statement after the Wike camp said he had submitted a letter of resignation to former Senate President, David Mark, in line with his alleged pledge.

However, a former national caretaker chairman of the party and former governor of Kaduna, Ahmed Makarfi, waded in on the side of Mr Ayu, saying he could only be reasonably expected to step down if the party wins the presidential election next year. He said the party policy is on the rotation of power and we e is no power to rotate until a candidate is elected.

That argument is in line with the position of Atiku that Mr Ayu should be left alone until after the elections, by which time there may be something to rotate.

It was also reported that the national working committee of the party at its meeting in Abuja on Thursday failed to persuade Mr Ayu to seek a private audience with Mr Wike in Port Harcourt since members of the committee believe that the dispute had become personal between the two men.

Yet, it is difficult to see how Mr Ayu’s resignation could solve the party’s crisis. Some have said North and South would have to swap the positions they currently hold in the party, which may require a national convention to carry out.

In that case, the national secretary of the party, Samuel Anyawu, who is from Imo State in the South East, will for instance also give up his seat for a northerner.

Would that mean allocating Mr Ayu’s chair to the Southeast? Let’s remember that the zone is already complaining of marginalisation in the party, having not won the presidential ticket or appeased with the vice presidential slot s happened in 2019. But taking the chair to the Southeast would also leave the Southwest aggrieved, as it is the only zone yet to produce the party’s national chairman.

Mr Makarfi recalled that the Southwest was to produce the chairman last year, with former Osun governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, slated for the position, until the southern governors pushed it to the North to strengthen their demand for the presidential ticket.

To demonstrate how dire the situation is, a former minister who is on Mr Wike’s side in the party crisis, warned during the week that the group may reconsider its stay in the PDP unless Mr Ayu quits.

This dilemma is perhaps the reason some party members have accused Mr Wike of deliberately making impossible demands of the party. According to a report by the Guardian newspaper on Sunday, a party member described Mr Wike as one who thinks he has nothing to lose in the party any longer, so it is Atiku who is under pressure to keep the ship afloat, as he is the one who has an election to fight in less than six months.

Since Friday’s stalemated meeting of the reconciliation committee, the Rivers governor has continued to throw jibes at his party and presidential candidate. He has also launched repression of local party leaders he believes to be loyal to or communicating with Atiku. Many of them have come out to complain of being relieved of government or party positions, or of their businesses being raided and forced to shut down.

Atiku has promoted himself in this campaign as the unifier. His party has presented him with a challenge to demonstrate that quality before having the chance to apply it to his fractured nation.

Kwankwaso, Obi face own challenges

While the candidates of the big two parties are grappling with challenges outside or inside their parties, the two projecting themselves as the Third Force are facing their own.

Things appeared to have slowed down for Mr Kwankwaso after the momentum of his defection to the NNPP and the excitement over his romance with Mr Obi ended. But during the week, a crack in the party in his Kano base brought him back to the headlines.

It emerged that his relationship with his former successor and predecessor as Kano Governor, Ibrahim Shekarau, had quickly soured and supporters of the latter were pushing for them to move out of the party.

Their grouse is that they were left out of the list of candidates of the party for the general elections in the state. According to Mr Shekarau’s spokesperson, Yau Sule, aside from the former governor who was awarded a return ticket to the Senate, other aspirants among his followers were denied tickets in the NNPP.

The situation had forced Mr Shekarau to open discussions with other parties. He had met with Atiku of the PDP and was scheduled to speak with Mr Tinubu on Thursday. The group later on Saturday said it was still considering its options but had not ruled out staying in the NNPP.

It was a surprise last May when Mr Shekarau announced he was leading his group out of the APC over a disagreement with Governor Abdullahi Ganduje to team up in the NNPP with Mr Kwankwaso, who was also defecting from the PDP.

The surprise arose because Mr Kwankwaso’s entrance had been the reason Mr Shekarau fled the APC and then the PDP in 2014 and 2018. The two had become adversaries in Mr Kwankwaso’s first term as governor between 1999 and 2003. Mr Shekarau picked the APP ticket and defeated the governor in the 2003 election. He would later hand it over to him when the PDP regained the state in 2011.

Kano is the main base of Mr Kwankwaso but he knows Mr Shekarau is also a formidable force in the state, whether as an ally or a foe.

For Mr Obi, his own challenge remains how to tame the exuberance of his largely self-drive supporters. The candidate rushed over to meet Femi Kuti at the African Shrine in Lagos last week after the Afrobeat crooner reported threats to his life.

Mr Kuti had apparently incurred the anger of the supporters, who call themselves Obidients, for likening obedience in politics to zombism.

It was not the first time Mr Obi had to fight a fire set by his supporters. And with the election still, six months away, it won’t likely be the last.

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