of MAD: Qui Bono?
culled from PUNCH, April
After months of shadow-boxing and cloak-and-dagger politics, Vice-President
Atiku Abubakar took the bull by the horns last week when he declared his
intention to contest the presidency in next year’s general elections. The day
before he announced his intention to run, he made a dramatic appearance at a
meeting of key opposition politicians and sworn enemies of the government, where
he launched a blistering attack on the third term campaign and asked the
opponents to count on his support to fight it.
Like a man under prophetic unction, he reminded the gathering that everything he
had said for which President Olusegun Obasanjo branded him a “disloyal deputy,”
was now being fulfilled before our eyes. The party has been hijacked; the
opposition is being silenced; the President is bent on clinging onto power at
Atiku offered himself as an alternative to Obasanjo and released a manifesto,
which highlighted the failings of the Obasanjo government in bold print, making
it look like he has been an outsider for three years.
The ruling party, the PDP, started unravelling after the 2003 poll, as shown by
the farce in Anambra, Plateau and the unresolved murders of the party’s own
chieftains. What brought the party to its knees, however, was the monumental
clash of ambitions between the military wing bent on clinging onto power; and
the other wing faced with the stark reality of an uncertain political future.
The party is split right down the middle between the President and his deputy.
Dispute between a country’s sitting chief executive and his deputy – or
potential successor – is nothing new. In Britain, it was a bitter winter for
Tony Blair as his deputy John Prescott led backbenchers to oppose the education
reforms, a plank of his government. Blair escaped defeat in parliament over the
education bill, but was badly damaged in the end. Yet his biggest headache is
not his deputy: rather, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and prime
minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown. Brown, who is Blair’s senior in the Labour
Party and the party’s first choice for premiership before Blair emerged, has
waited nine years for the nation's top job. With Blair already in the first year
of his third term and showing no clear signs of quitting until Labour’s goodwill
has been eroded by a re-invigorated opposition and the remainder squandered on
Iraq, Brown and his supporters believe that 10 Downing Street would be a
poisoned chalice in the end.
The situation in South Africa is worse. The former Deputy President, Jacob Zuma,
who was removed from office last year, has been standing trial on charges of
corruption and rape. While President Thabo Mbeki says that Zuma's tainted past
disqualifies him from public office, the former deputy president insists that he
is being framed up and persecuted to block his chances of succeeding Mbeki.
In Malawi, President Bingu wa Mutharika dismissed his deputy, Cassim Chilumpha,
over allegations of “arrogance, disrespect and violating his oath of office,”
only for the constitutional court to remind the President that he could not do
so without a proper interpretation of his powers by the court.
The situation in Nigeria today would have been closer to the South African
example if Atiku did not enjoy immunity. The party is too fractured to remove
him and the government too scandalised to bring him to trial.
The relationship between most chief executives and their deputies is often one
of cat-and-mouse, with the number one man always watching his back; and the
number two, if he’s ambitious, often pining away in impatient turmoil. Atiku had
pulled the gun before. Shortly before the presidential primaries for the 2003
general elections, he withdrew support for Obasanjo and left the President
marooned. It was said at the time that in his desperate bid to rally support,
Obasanjo visited the governors from house to house, meek as a lamb. He foisted
himself on a South-South governor at an unholy hour and despite the presence of
the governor’s South African consort in the Abuja lodge, made a passionate plea
for support. When he finally got the party’s ticket, it was his turn to take his
pound of flesh.
Atiku has spent the past three years
in bitter regret that he didn’t pull the trigger in 2003, when Obasanjo was at
his most vulnerable. The gun whose trigger he failed to pull three years ago has
now been turned on his own head with astonishing alacrity. One by one, his aides
have been stripped, down to his chief security officer. His political associates
and concubine have been put on trial and his own personal security can hardly be
guaranteed. Fallen and no longer afraid of a fall, Atiku is obviously determined
to go for broke; which is good – because, heads or tails, he’ll lose. We are at
the threshold of a Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD).
Atiku won’t get the PDP’s ticket. The famed PDM machine is now a shadow of its
pre-2003 self, with the party structure completely militarised and the rules for
the primaries rewritten. If he gets the ticket of another party, he will only be
president over Obasanjo’s dead body. The security services – especially the
police – and the election commission are still firmly in the hands of the
government of the day. The cane that the PDP used to whip the opposition while
Atiku was still an insider is reserved for him now.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But the influence of a sitting
president does count for much in determining how a successor emerges. Ask Al
Gore. His presidential ambition foundered on the rock of self-doubt and poor
advice as much as it crashed on his obsessive caution not to be infected with
Clinton’s Lewinsky legacy. Atiku has been cast in the image of a relentless
grasper, a deadly schemer, and a rogue politician who wants power for its own
sake. His handling of the privatisation programme in the first term of this
administration will remain an albatross round his neck.
Yet there’s virtue in all of this. His emergence will undoubtedly strengthen
opposition to Obasanjo’s third term bid. It might, in fact, be the final
deathblow to the disgraceful project. But public applause that the third term
nonsense may yet witness its first real challenge should not be construed as an
endorsement of Atiku; not before he has come to terms with the public about the
source of his stupendous wealth and his role in the privatisation, which was
squarely in his charge for four years.
As events during Atiku’s Saturday visit to Lagos have shown, the days ahead are
days of mud. Real mud. Atiku will have to leave the party for jumping the gun.
It’s untenable for a leader of the party and the country’s number two man, to
sit in pissing right in the face of the government. But for his immunity, not
only will he be out of the party by now; he probably would be standing trial. As
Atiku himself knows, the government has no shortage of expertise in fixing such
The opposition seems to be waxing
strong now, but how long will it hold together? Given his reputation never to
shy away from a fight or accept humiliation, what Obasanjo would do appears more
certain than what he will not do. He will neither continue with his third term
ambition nor hand over to Atiku. Instead, he would either prompt the emergence
of a dark horse as his successor or offer his support to General Ibrahim
Babangida to punish Nigerians for opposing his ambition.
The second option is the more likely
and yet, the more dreadful. The opposition must not be caught off guard.