With the Nigerian presidential race in 2023 already taking on ethno-religious overtones, speculation has been rife about the deals leading candidates may reach to advance what may wind up becoming a regional agenda.
Millions of Nigerians watching the presidential primary of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on 28 May 2022 were surprised when Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal publicly announced that he was dropping out of the race.
More shocking, however, was that Tambuwal, who was an ally of Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike asked his supporters and delegates to vote for former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar.
“I have come to a patriotic conclusion to step down. I appeal to my supporters to take this in stride and (push) for national unity and patriotism – not only that, those that are delegates here should vote for Alhaji Atiku Abubakar,” he said.
Wike had supported and financed Tambuwal’s presidential ambition four years earlier but the Sokoto governor was defeated by Atiku at the 2018 PDP primaries. Many had therefore assumed that in the event that Tambuwal would step down, it would be for Wike.
Atiku went on to garner 371 votes against Wike’s 237. Atiku’s supporters described Tambuwal as the “hero” of the day even as debates on whether Wike could have won had Tambuwal not done what he did, continued to dominate political discourse.
While Tambuwal later explained that he decided to endorse Atiku in order to strengthen democracy, the back story reveals something more interesting.
Days before the PDP convention, the northern aspirants had made a pact that one of them would emerge as the winner of the primaries against the wishes of the southern aspirants who believed the next president must be from the south. However, the northern aspirants could not reach a consensus ahead of the convention.
With time running out, a powerful northern cabal which also includes retired generals had reached out to Tambuwal and other aspirants from the region to ensure Atiku wins the election. More importantly, the northern leaders were against Wike’s emergence because of statements he had made against the north in the past as well as his radical behaviour.
Apart from Atiku of the PDP the three other frontline candidates are Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Peter Obi of the Labour Party, and former Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). Atiku and Kwankwaso are both from the north while Tinubu and Obi are southerners.
Both Tinubu and Obi are banking their ambition on the belief that after the eight-year term of President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, the presidency should automatically go to the south in consonance with a gentleman agreement that power should rotate between the two regions in the spirit of fairness.
This agreement is buttressed by the Federal Character Rule in the country’s constitution. This rule stipulates the fair and equitable representation of different ethnic and regional groups in the composition of all tiers of government.
But this line of argument has not been without its antagonism. Politicians and political analysts against this position have hinged their arguments on the calculation that since the return of Nigeria to democracy in 1999, the south has ruled Nigeria longer than the north. They also argue that no law precludes anyone from contesting. Atiku, a former Vice President, and Kwankwaso, a former governor of Kano state, are hinging their ambition loosely on this thin line.
Eager to actualize his ambition, Kwankwaso joined the relatively unknown NNPP in March and convinced several notable politicians in Kano State, including his arch nemesis Senator Ibrahim Shekarau, to join him in the party.
Kano State has the second largest voting population in Nigeria and produced the largest number of votes for the APC with President Buhari polling 1.9 million votes and 1.4 million in the 2015 and 2019 elections respectively.
Kwankwaso, who enjoys a cult following in Kano State, sought to leverage on the huge votes in Kano and a few other northern states coupled with a strong partner in the south to win next year’s election. However, talks between him and Peter Obi broke down in June. He has been unable to make inroads into the south.
This handicap has weakened Kwankwaso’s chances thereby fuelling speculations that he would most likely negotiate with another candidate who stands a chance of winning.
Last month, Senator Shekarau dumped Kwankwaso and openly declared his support for Atiku, a development that the PDP has been celebrating. Some of Kwankwaso’s footsoldiers have also dumped his party and returned to the APC.
With his chances of victory waning coupled with a lack of national appeal, speculations that he would work for either Tinubu or Atiku are rising.
So will Kwankwaso partner with Governor Abdullahi Ganduje – his former deputy turned foe – to actualize Tinubu’s ambition? Or will he work with his arch nemesis – Shekarau – to work for Atiku’s victory in the spirit of northern brotherhood?
mutual distrust and personal ambition … will make it very difficult for them to come together”
But Atiku and Kwankwaso have a history that may not make this relationship work out. A professor of political science from Bayero University, Kano, Kamilu Sani Fage said it was widely reported that in 2019, Kwankwaso got election ‘ mobilization money’ from Atiku but did not use it during the presidential election. Atiku would end up polling 391,593 votes against Buhari’s 1.4 million votes in Kano state.
“That was one of the reasons they fell apart. So, I think there is that mutual distrust and personal ambition, which will make it very difficult for them to come together. Also, if Kwankwaso joins Atiku in PDP, it will rekindle the battle for supremacy with Shekarau,” he said.
Fage, a former Vice President of the Nigerian Political Science Association (NPSA), however, added that “as far as Nigerian politics is concerned, there is nothing impossible or surprising because politics is primarily of self-interest not of principles or ideologies.” He, therefore, argues that it is unlikely that Atiku and Kwankwaso will work together.
But an associate of Atiku, Dr. Suleiman Yusuf Dambatta, who is the deputy governor candidate of PDP in Kano, told The Africa Report that though it would be difficult to convince Kwankwaso to abandon his presidential ambition at this time, the PDP family would welcome him if he decides to team up with Atiku.
Kwankwaso’s recent Freudian slip during a TV interview where he said if he does not make the presidency, he would support Tinubu, the ruling party’s candidate, had also brought to light his preference for Tinubu. However, he later claimed he didn’t mean he would be stepping down.
as far as Nigerian politics is concerned, there is nothing impossible … because politics is primarily of self-interest not of principles.”
Elder statesman, Tanko Yakasai, who also supports Tinubu, told The Africa Report that this televised position of Kwankwaso, coupled with the fact that there is no assurance that Atiku is even the preferred candidate of the ‘so-called Northern cabal’, makes a union between Atiku and Kwankwaso almost impossible.
He said even if the union materializes “it is not Kano (alone) that will determine the outcome of the election. My calculation is that whoever gets 25 per cent of votes in 24 states and works hard to get the majority of the total votes will emerge the winner.”
Also, Aminu Abdussalam, the deputy governorship candidate for Kwankwaso’s NNPP in Kano state and one of Kwankwaso’s closest associates, told The Africa Report that all the talks of a merger portray Kwankwaso as someone who cannot make it “and I think that is a terribly wrong and baseless permutation.”
“Kwankwaso will never step down or work with Atiku. We are all out for the challenges. No retreat, no surrender,” he said.
Similarly, Kwankwaso’s campaign spokesperson, Ladipo Johnson in a statement titled ‘Kwankwaso is in the race to win’ dispelled speculations that the candidate is considering backing other candidates.
But the voting pattern in Nigeria has shown that the 12 Muslim-dominated states in the north have always voted in the same direction in all Presidential elections since 1999.
Political associates of both northern heavyweight politicians (Atiku and Kwankwaso) believe that the union, though difficult, may not be off the table going into the election which is still five months away.
“Historically, the north has always been more united than the south. That’s why the motto of the dominant northern party in the 1960s was ‘one north, one people. Never say never when it comes to Nigerian politics,” a PDP Presidential aspirant who wished to remain anonymous, tells The Africa Report.