ATIKU'S RESTORATION: REGIONAL REVENGE OR NATIONAL RENEWAL?
The choice of Atiku Abubakar, the former Vice President of Nigeria as the consensus candidate to represent Northern interests in the contest for the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) raises a number of vital issues in the political arena.
As the man whose mandate was unfairly blocked by President Obasanjo in an onslaught of political bitterness after he failed in his bid to manipulate a third term in office for himself, Atiku appeared to have been relegated to the political wilderness for some years. Apart from the fact that he was virtually thrown out of the ruling party his temporary sojourn in the major opposition party the Action Congress (AC) was never regarded as a genuine transformation of his strategic interests since the PDP remained ascendant in his home state as well as in the centres of power of his geo-political region.
As a result it was clear that he only joined the opposition in order to retain some relevance in the polity as he plotted for a return to power through the party that he had helped to create. His emergence as the consensus challenger is therefore a vindication of his strategic cause although it is coming at a time when installing a regional consensus might generate division instead of promoting national harmony.
The restoration of Atiku Abubakar's opportunity to contest the presidency under the ruling party's ticket is therefore a burden and a challenge for him. He must present himself to the entire nation as a genuine patriot even while acknowledging that his selection is based on the principle of regional aggrandisement. This is a dilemma but not an insurmountable one for a politician as resilient as Atiku has shown himself to be so far. He has kept his political team together with remarkable equanimity in spite of the travails that he encountered in his battle with his former boss and this appears to be paying off for him now.
Travelling around the country it has become obvious that Atiku Abubakar is beginning to build a nationwide structure. The nature and spread of his campaign billboards indicate that although his candidacy might represent the sentiments of resurgent Northern political chauvinism he is also considering the imperatives of national acceptability. To this end more than almost any other aspirant among the four key Northern challengers in the PDP Atiku Abubakar has emphasised not the general regional imperative but his personal political antecedents. He has portrayed his ambition as being the continuation of a reality that had been interrupted by irregular action on the part of the former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
This argument cannot really be faulted because there is a widespread belief, not only in the North but throughout the nation, that if the late President Yar'Adua had not been personally selected and imposed on the party by ex-President Obasanjo then Atiku Abubakar might have emerged in 2006 as the popular choice to fill the position zoned to his geo-political constituency at that time.
Based on this argument his emergence as the preferred Northern aspirant this time around could be seen as a resolution of the burning issue of whether genuine national leadership can emerge from that region. It remains to be seen whether the criteria for this choice established by the elite Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF) will be vindicated at the polls by popular public approbation. However even if the results that emanate from polls in the North justifies his re-emergence Atiku Abubakar cannot ignore the need to build a national consensus in order to validate the regional consensus that he now represents if the mandate is to be relevant to modern political realities in Nigeria today.
The choice of Atiku Abubakar must be totally and irrevocably accepted by the three other major challengers, IBB, Saraki, and Gusau if it is to meet with any chance of success. These powerful and definitely effective campaigners will have to submerge their own considerable political egos and desist entirely from any semblance, or withhold any continuation, of dissent in their camp for the Atiku challenge to bear fruit. Since the first target for the challenger is the ticket of the ruling party it might be assumed that the incumbent President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan continues to hold the trump card in that particular race.
This assumption cannot however be regarded as sacrosanct. The ability of Northern party members to rally around a candidate whose emergence is portrayed as a vindication of their relevance as the key force in national affairs cannot be doubted. In the event that the next elections are conducted in a reasonably free and fair manner where votes are truly counted rather than manufactured the North might hold a numerical advantage. Of course the old Northern monolith has been substantially fragmented and there is quite likely to be an irreversible division of the support for the consensus candidate especially in the Middle Belt states of Benue, Plateau, Kogi and Nassarawa this time around. As a result of this if the major Northern PDP state governors encourage their delegates to the PDP congress to decide who they will give their votes to the incumbency advantage could still overpower regional sentiment at the party level. Sentiments of regional restoration and revenge tend to carry more weight in a general election. If Atiku Abubakar does not win the PDP primaries it will be interesting to see if and how his consensus status will be accommodated elsewhere.
At this point in time Atiku's hope for success is based entirely on the confident assumption that his selection has renewed his relevance as a man whose earlier political aspirations were broad-based rather than regionally biased. He must build a campaign that will encourage the national electorate to ignore the provenance of his endorsement this time around. In order to do this, especially, where his ambition is contested by an incumbent President who does not share his regional background he must run a campaign that will conceal the divisive elements of the process that has renewed his relevance. In building the rationale for his return to the contest Atiku Abubakar has been noticeably reticent in criticising the former President who was instrumental in aborting his first attempt to enter the Presidential race.
If he focuses on this matter now that he has been endorsed to carry the torch for a part of the nation he will begin to sound like a sectional champion. This is especially so since the circumstance that has placed the incumbent president on the seat can hardly be separated from the circumstance that denied Atiku the opportunity to hold the mantle in the past.
At the same time he cannot afford to be soft in his condemnation of the actions and circumstances that brought the present imbroglio into being. Atiku will find it difficult to ignore the genuine sentiments of nationalist equity that the aspirations of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan represent even while trying to justify his own ambition as being representative of similar sentiments. Now that he is being thrust to the forefront as the champion of a region he must prove to the PDP members and the nation as a whole that he represents a broader consensus than that of some regional elites who are seeking to be avenged.