The emergence of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the flag bearer of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in next year’s general elections, to challenge President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) has elicited varied reactions from Nigerians. RAYMOND MORDI and MUSA ODOSHIMOKHE sought the views of some politicians and other observers on the development.

IF the reactions that have so far trailed the emergence of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in next year’s presidential election is anything to go by, the contest is likely to be an epic battle between him and incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Since Abubakar who is more popularly known as Atiku emerged as the PDP flag bearer, after defeating 11 other contestants in the party’s primary with 1,532 votes, the APC has tried to dampen the enthusiasm that greeted his triumph at the PDP National Convention in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, at the weekend, saying the development will make the President’s re-election easier. In a post she published on her Facebook page, the Special Adviser to the President on New Media, Lauretta Onochie, said: “Congratulations Alh. Atiku Abubakar. You have outspent the rest. You have a new toy. But believe it, it’s only a dream. You ran away from facing President Buhari in a primary, now you’ll meet him at the presidential elections. Ntor!”

But, observers believe that next year’s presidential election is not going to be a stroll in the park for President Buhari, contrary to the impression Onochie is trying sell to the public. This, they say, is because the circumstances surrounding the election differ sharply from that of the election that brought Buhari into power three and half years ago. For one thing, the observers argue that the two major candidates are from the North and as a result the idea of a bloc vote from that part of the country as witnessed during the last election is ruled out. For another, they insist that the coalition that brought the President into power has virtually collapsed and that three and half years after, the ruling party has failed to deliver the change that Nigerians voted for.

One of such respondents, Chief Chekwas Okorie, did a comprehensive analysis of the entrance of Atiku into the race to face incumbent President Buhari. The National Chairman of the United Progressives Party (UPP) said:  “I expect an epic battle; an epic battle in which the whole country will be the battleground. There will be nothing like the North and South divide anymore. The sentiment of the youth does not arise also, because the two of them are in their ‘70s. The issue of ethnicity does not arise too, because the two of them are Fulanis.

“Their acceptability or otherwise will now depend on the extent the candidates and their parties reach out to other blocs. Unfortunately, the Buhari campaign organisation does not appear to be proactive enough. This is unfortunate, because I have my soft spot for President Buhari; I have never hidden it. On the other hand, it appears Atiku is aware of this factor. The Atiku campaign has reached out to the extent that the President-General of Ohaneze has already congratulated the PDP candidate. This is wrong though, because Ohaneze ought not to show such partisan interest.

“That move can be countered, if the other group is proactive enough. They need to understand the Igbo political dynamics.

“Another factor that Atiku has going for him is the fact he has introduced restructuring into the campaign, even though restructuring is not in the PDP manifesto. There is also the fact that Atiku is married to an Igbo lady. So, all of these factors will gain ground, if the other party remains complacent and think it can handle things on its own.

“From all indications, the campaign will be very robust, issue-based and will require strategic alliances and coalition. The so-called small parties may not secure much votes during the election, but they have their relative strengths. The recent election in Osun State, where the APC nearly suffered a narrow defeat, is a pointer to what is expected in 2019. To avoid being disgraced during the supplementary election in seven polling units, the APC had to negotiate away 25 per cent of the incoming government.

“Besides, the recent statement of the President’s wife is also a danger signal for the APC to go back and do some soul-searching and put its house in order, to come up with something more political; rather than the current propaganda and rabble-rousing.”

On whether corruption would be a big issue, given the allegation against the PDP flag bearer, Okorie said the Buhari campaign organisation is likely to sustain its rhetoric on the issue, because “the anti-corruption fight is one major thing that has attracted international attention and good testimony for President Buhari across the globe”.

He said the corruption tag may or may not have the desired impact. His words: “The allegation of corruption being levelled against Atiku is within the helm of propaganda and speculation, because he has not been indicted by any court of law. To the best of my knowledge, he is not being prosecuted by the EFCC. But the fact that he was part of the 16 years of the PDP would also come into play.

“But there are also other factors that would influence the outcome of the election, such as the current liberal attitude and spirit of accommodation one has noticed in the PDP. On the other hand, we have witnessed so many events that hurt the internal cohesion within the APC in recent times. So, how the party intends to heal these wounds within the short time remaining is something the party’s strategists must seriously think about. So, as I said earlier, the APC needs to come out of its cocoon and be proactive and more strategic in its approach. I believe the party needs to build coalitions, among other things, ahead of next year’s general elections, to stand a chance of winning. In other words, the irregularities that have characterized APC primaries in various states across the nation is a danger signal for the party.”

The UPP National Chairman said he agrees with those that have described the 2019 presidential election as a referendum on the performance of the Buhari administration in the last three and half years. He said: “This is because the electorate would be looking at his achievements or otherwise during his tenure so far. So, it becomes a referendum in the sense that people who think he has done well would be voting yes, while those who believe that he has performed woefully would be voting no, by voting for another candidate. The alternative candidate may not necessarily be Atiku, but he remains a major contender.

“To a lesser extent, it could also turn out as a referendum on Atiku, because he was part of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration for eight years and there are certain things that are associated with that government that he cannot easily wash his hands off.”

On restructuring, the founding National Chairman of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) believes it would become one of the major factors that would determine who wins the election. His words: “I know very well that restructuring and the agitation for autonomy by the federating units would be a major factor in the election. Political leaders, religious leaders, as well as cultural and traditional leaders would be interested in the way candidates would respond to these critical issues that affect the unity and economic development of this country.

“Looking at the two major parties, the APC has a semblance of devolution of powers in its manifesto, but unfortunately President Buhari has not shown any interest in that regard. The PDP, on the other hand, has nothing like that in their manifesto, but its presidential candidate has turned it to his campaign mantra. So, Nigerians must be careful in deciding who can be trusted in that regard.”

Okorie said any candidate that can arouse the political consciousness of the Igbo in 2019 can use it as a game changer. He said: “A game changer in the sense that there is no state in Nigeria that does not have the Igbo as the second largest ethnic group, after the indigenous ethnic group. That is an enormous potential. But what happened over the years is that they were somewhat political withdrawn or apathetic. But that is not the situation now. There is so much consciousness now and this reflected in their response to voter registration exercise.

“How each party approaches it will depend on its strategic thinking and initiatives. The Igbos are republican in nature, so they are not the type that would vote wholeheartedly in one direction. A lot of things will influence their voting pattern, but basically they are very concerned about the structure of Nigeria, about citizen rights across the country, and devolution of powers.

“On the issue of security, Igbo people believe that state and community policing would be a better arrangement in securing the nooks and crannies of the country, especially rural communities. So, how political parties present these issues to the electorate would matter a lot. The El-Rufai Committee of the APC did an extensive work on restructuring, but the President may have to change his attitude to the matter, if he wants to be taken seriously on it.”

A member of the PDP, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, is of the view that the party’s chances of winning next year’s general elections are bright, with the emergence of Atiku as its flag bearer.  His words: “I want to say that with the emergence of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar the chances of the PDP winning the election are very bright. We are going to defeat Buhari and the APC. But, I want to say that if Buhari and his group rig the election, that means they will be rigging Nigeria out of existence.

“Atiku has practical experience of the task before him; he is a very articulate businessman who is always determined in whatever he does. Therefore I have no doubt in mind that he will win the 2019 election.”

For the Publicity Secretary, Afenifere, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, the contest between Buhari and Atiku is going to be very interesting. He said: “They are both formidable candidates. Buhari has the power of incumbency, but Atiku is equally well prepared for the election. He is coming on his clear programme of restructuring Nigeria, which many regions of the country are currently agitating for. The two of them are also poles apart; given the fact that Atiku has proven that he is pro-business. He has done successful businesses, which the President cannot not boast of and where we are right now, we need a leader who can revive our business environment and put business life back to work; a leader that will encourage agro-business, as against condoning herdsmen and thereby not making the country conducive for farming activities to go on.

“The President in the last three and half years has proven to be a leader who does not have a broad mind. But Atiku is detribalized and broad-minded. He has friends all over Nigeria and is known all over the country. Clearly, it is going to be an exciting contest.”

Similarly, the founder of the Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), Chief Fredrick Faseun, said going by the current mood in the country, Atiku stands a better chance of winning. He said: “Judging from the wishes and expectations of Nigerians who have been commenting on the emergence of both candidates, Atiku has better chances of clinching the trophy.

But, as far as Chief Ayo Afolabi, a chieftain of the APC, is concerned, Nigerians have made up their minds about what they want. He added: “That is making the country better for the people. We know that all that the PDP understands is how to distribute money to the electorate, but Nigerians have become wiser, if possible they will take their money and will not vote for them.

“We do not see Atiku as a threat. I don’t know where Atiku will get the votes to win, not even his region, the Northeast.”

In the same vein, the Lagos APC Publicity Secretary, Mr. Joe Igbokwe, also believes the emergence of Atiku as the PDP flag bearer is a good development for his political party. His words: “To pick Atiku, the chairman of all corrupt entities in Nigeria as presidential candidate of the PDP at a time when corruption is being fought left and right, front and back is an affront. It is slap on our faces and we will give the PDP a run for their money in the fullness of time.

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