Atiku and the rise of Peter Obi By Reuben Abati
OPINION, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018:
Shortly after former Vice President Atiku Abubakar became the flag-bearer of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on October 6, party members and other stakeholders began to recommend running mates for him and a short list began to feature on the front pages of Nigerian newspapers. Some of the names that were mentioned included former Governor Peter Obi, former CEO/Managing Director, Assets Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) – Mustapha Chike-Obi, former Minister of Agriculture and AfDB President – Akin Adesina, former Minister of Finance and Supervising Minister of the Economy – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former CBN Governor -Charles Soludo, and Deputy Senate President – Ike Ekweremadu.
For about five days, there were theories and permutations, and a comparison of the credentials of the proposed running mates. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar has acted pro-actively by quickly putting an end to the speculations. He met with the party leadership, consulted with other interest groups and promptly announced Peter Obi. If this is a sign of how he intends to run Nigeria if he becomes President, then he is off to a good start. In the past week, he also did something else that was clever. He made peace with his former boss, President Olusegun Obasanjo. He asked for Obasanjo’s blessings and Obasanjo, wearing his hat as a seasoned political pragmatist and ebora strategist, endorsed Atiku.
The speech delivered by Obasanjo on that occasion is an elegant study in the art of being important. President Obasanjo said he has forgiven Atiku for his many sins, which he Obasanjo had complained about previously. He described him as someone who has a knowledge of business, who is less inflexible and a “Wazobia” man. There were subtle digs at the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, when Obasanjo advised Atiku not to recruit only kith and kin and try to run an inclusive government. In the same speech, Obasanjo reminded Atiku of his indebtedness to the Obasanjo legacy and the need to sustain that legacy. He also set an agenda for the man he described as Nigeria’s President-to-be. He even said “Insha Allah”. Obasanjo in that well-composed speech, practically killed many birds with one stone in many incantatory voices: boss, statesman, and letter-writer.
It was Atiku’s second biggest endorsement since he got his party’s ticket – the first being his victory in Port Harcourt. Obasanjo’s endorsement is particularly significant given the history of the relationship between both men. To add that Obasanjo has voice, influence and authority is to state the obvious, and we need to tell those who argue that Obasanjo has just one vote that they are politically dumb! Atiku’s boss has given him a new testimonial that has refurbished him. Obasanjo who once tore his membership card of the PDP, has also more or less re-oxygenated the party’s Presidential aspiration. The panic that this has caused in the Buhari camp is perfectly understandable even if the resort to name-calling and abuse by the President’s foot-soldiers may be counter-productive in the long run. It won’t make Obasanjo and his associates change their mind. Atiku’s gain is Buhari’s loss.
Then came the rise of Peter Obi… Without a doubt, all the persons on the shortlist of running mates for Atiku have relative strengths. They have all proven their mettle in the public arena. But with Peter Obi already chosen, we need not indulge in any detailed comparison except to note that very important to the selection process would have been, not just geo-politics, but also such factors as the temperament of the individual, the chemistry between the principal and the deputy, electoral value, international exposure, acceptability by key stakeholders and public persona.
My take is that former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi is bound to strengthen the chances of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the scheduled 2019 Presidential elections. He will prove to be an asset to the Atiku campaign and also to the Nigerian government if the PDP wins the Presidential election. The announcement of his name has generated so much excitement in Igboland, particularly in his home state of Anambra where people broke out in dancing jigs at beer parlours, and free drinks were declared. Across the South East, his Igbo kinsmen are also similarly excited. Those who know him in politics and business attest to his good character, self-discipline, competence and fair-mindedness. I want to congratulate Alhaji Atiku Abubakar for choosing wisely and I want to disagree with those who argue that the Presidential candidate of the PDP should have chosen his running mate from the South Western part of the country.
The choice of a running mate of Igbo extraction is a politically deft move. The last time Igbos held the number 2 position in a civilian government was way back in the Second Republic (1979 -83). Since the return to civilian rule in 1999, they have either been Senate President or heads of key agencies (under President Obasanjo) or Deputy Senate President and generally junior operatives (under President Buhari) or held critical Ministerial positions or headship of agencies and departments –indeed the entire economic sector (under President Jonathan). But Ndigbo’s main interest is the big job: the Presidency of Nigeria. The choice of Peter Obi and his likely emergence as Vice President of Nigeria brings Igbos much closer to consideration for Presidency either in 2023 or 2027. For a people who believe that they have been short-changed by other Nigerians and that the civil war has not actually ended, the possibility of one of their own returning to the Presidency, 35 years after Ekwueme, is bound to promote a sense of belonging. By choosing an Igbo man, Atiku is also exploiting prevailing sentiments in Igboland. The average Igbo, either in the South East or in diaspora, is certainly not impressed by the Buhari administration.
The circumstances of Operation Crocodile Tears and the crushing of the rebellion of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra Movement (IPOB), pitched Igbos against Buhari. Atiku is seeking to bring them back into the fold. Call it opportunism, but that is politics. A Yoruba running mate would have looked like the Buhari template. Atiku also probably knows that the Yoruba in the South West do not always vote as a bloc and that the South West is far more divided today than ever. The electoral value of the Yoruba man, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who is Buhari’s running mate for now, except he changes him, lies more in his being part of a political group in the South West, and right now, even that group is divided, it has lost part of its grip, and its leader is fighting many political battles of his own. An Igbo running mate can guarantee bloc Igbo voting, in Igboland and from Igbos who are all over Nigeria. The votes may not necessarily be for Peter Obi as a person but for the Igbo nationalistic interest.
I say this because I have heard some people say Peter Obi may not even be able to deliver Anambra. I say to such persons that even the incumbent Governor of Anambra, Willie Obiano of APGA, who has issues with Peter Obi, or David Umahi, Ebonyi Governor (PDP) and Chairman of the South East Governors Forum, would dread being found out to be working against the possibility of an Igbo man emerging again as Vice President of Nigeria. In terms of political strategy, it can be taken for granted that the South South, still angry over how the Buhari government has treated President Goodluck Jonathan and others from that region, will also naturally vote en masse against Buhari. Technically, Atiku may have locked down the South South and the South East and can be sure of substantial votes from the South West where his promise of restructuring resonates well with the socio-cultural and political elite.
But why Peter Obi? Obi, Governor of Anambra State for eight years, survivor of election battles, has proven himself to be an astute politician and leader. As Governor, he blocked the leaky buckets. He reduced wastages and leakages. He led by example. He served the people. He left a healthy balance behind in the treasury. He was known across the South East as Peter the Rock or Okwute, and he more than any other former Governor has spent his time out of office, to prepare himself for a bigger role in Nigeria. He didn’t disappear from the radar. He didn’t take the option of going to the Senate which has become a retirement home for former Governors who go there to sleep and snore during plenary and collect heavy retirement benefits for saying nothing.
Peter Obi returned to school. He chose the lecture circuit where he shared his experience as Governor with Nigerians, mostly young Nigerians. He was always on point: he preached good governance, prudence, accountability and gave personal examples. He granted the media access to him and he granted interviews as frequently as he could. He became an analyst and something slightly close to being a public intellectual. He built a public persona as someone who understands business, politics, the economy and governance. He attended international programmes and built a network of contacts. He was my course mate at the Said Business School, University of Oxford and I can attest that he can hold his own confidently in the company of persons of extreme intelligence and superb skills. Above all, he is humble and approachable. He can fit into a team. He is young. He is also rich, but I hear he does not like to spend money! He is a strong member of the Catholic Faith, and he bears the name Peter. From what we know about him, his Peter will not deny Atiku whenever the cock crows. He has recognition, respect and relevance.
So, there you have it: the Atiku-Obi Presidential team of the Peoples Democratic Party. Good to go. But how will Atiku handle the North, his own political zone? That is the other question for analysis to be addressed shortly.