Another Look at a Political Distance-Runner
By Hon. AZ
Like a Brazilian celebrity, he is widely known among the generality of his countrymen and women only by his first name.
Needless to say, the man needs no introduction to any Nigerian who has followed the country’s topsy-turvy political trajectory for the last three decades or so. From his earliest foray into politics in the early 1980s, Atiku has been both a front-row actor and a behind-the-scenes player. In the latter role, he was recognized for his work on the campaign of Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, a one-time managing director of the Nigeria Ports Authority who was running for the governorship of the then Gongola State – not only canvassing for votes on his behalf but also donating to his campaign. But it was in the former role, beginning with his fateful meeting with the late Maj-Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s former No. 2 during the military government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo between 1976 and 1979, that his political sagacity came into full bloom. Atiku’s election in 1989 as national vice-chairman of Yar’Adua’s Peoples Front of Nigeria (formed in preparation for the transition programme initiated by then military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida) was a major springboard to future electoral success.
In a sense, Atiku’s political journey, with its many ups and downs is merely a continuation of a quest for a meaningful place in life that began long before his eventful foray into politics. Born in 1946 to Garba Abubakar, an itinerant Fulani trader and farmer, and his second wife, Aisha Kande, in Jada village in what is today Adamawa State, Atiku Abubakar, who was named after his paternal grandfather, Atiku Abdulkadir, was an only child (an older sister having died in infancy). Atiku’s father died in 1957, when the boy was only 11. He subsequently spent his early years with his mother and relatives in a community known as Kojoli, 30 kms east of Jada.
Atiku’s introduction to formal Western education would never have happened if his father, a staunch traditionalist, had had his way. But such a stance came with a price, as the government (determined to enforce a mandatory schooling order for children of school age) not only intervened, but also imposed a fine on Garba Abubakar, failure to pay which amounted to a serious sanction. From the age of eight when he finally enrolled in the Jada Primary School in his native locality, Atiku never looked back. Thanks to his sterling performance there, he was admitted to the prestigious Adamawa Provincial Secondary School in Yola in 1960, from where he graduated in 1965 with a WASC/GCE Certificate.
After leaving secondary school, Atiku had a short stint at the Nigeria Police College in Kaduna, then worked briefly as a tax officer in the regional ministry of finance, before leaving in 1966 upon gaining admission into the School of Hygiene in Kano. After graduating with a diploma in 1967, he enrolled for a law diploma at the Ahmadu Bello University, on a scholarship from the regional government.
His work life, post-university, began in 1969 when he was hired by the Nigeria Customs Service.
The genesis of Atiku’s career in business was real estate, which took off in earnest in 1974. Today, at 71, he has built a sizeable portfolio of property which, apart from real estate, includes agriculture, logistics, trading and education (notably the prestigious American University in Nigeria, AUN, in Yola – the first American-style university of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa). Atiku’s business empire also includes a beverage manufacturing plant in Yola, as well as an animal feed factory. He is reputed to be the second-biggest private employer of labour in Nigeria, after Aliko Dangote, chairman of Dangote Group.
Politics beckoned after his retirement from the Nigerian Customs Service, as Atiku won election to the 1989 Constituent Assembly, which was set up the Babangida regime to decide a new constitution for Nigeria. Having seen his party, the people’s front, denied registration by the government, Atiku eventually found a place within the Social Democratic Party (SDP) one of the two parties decreed into existence military fiat. On the party’s platform, he stood for the governorship of then Gongola State. But then, a year later, Gongola was broken up into two states – Adamawa and Taraba, before the elections could hold. When they eventually took place, he won the SDP primaries in November 1991, but was soon disqualified from contesting the elections. Rather than be deterred by such setbacks, however, Atiku set his sights even higher – to the highest office in the land. With the disqualification of his political mentor, Shehu Yar’Adua from the 1992 presidential primaries of the SDP, Atiku stepped up for the job. He gave a good account of himself during the convention, but nevertheless came third – behind the eventual winner, the late Chief Moshood Abiola, and Babagana Kingibe, who eventually became Abiola’s running mate.
In 1998, Atiku launched a second, ultimately successful, bid for the governorship of Adamawa State on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But before he could be sworn in, his political fortunes changed dramatically when he was named by the PDP’s presidential candidate, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, as his vice-presidential candidate. With the PDP’s victory at the polls, Atiku became Nigeria’s second executive vice-president on the 29th of May, 1999.
As Vice-President, Atiku deployed his considerable business acumen, as he presided over bodies such as the National Council on Privatization, which oversaw the sale of hundreds of loss-making and poorly managed public enterprises, among other sensitive responsibilities. Unfortunately, his considerable achievements as the nation’s No. 2 citizen have been overshadowed, at least in the public consciousness, by his stormy relationship with his principal – notably over the latter’s bid to amend the Nigerian constitution to accommodate his desire for a third consecutive term in office. It was a faceoff that eventually caused a rift in the PDP, as the National Assembly eventually voted against the third-term agenda, and Atiku left the party to join the Action Congress (AC).
Then came yet another presidential run, as he was chosen as the standard-bearer of his new party. After an initial disqualification – which was eventually overturned in the courts – Atiku, after a vigorous campaign, finished third, according to official results, in an election that even the declared winner, Umaru Yar’Adua of the PDP, latter admitted was deeply flawed.
In his third presidential run in 2010, Atiku – now back in PDP – received the crucial backing of the influential Committee of Northern Elders, who selected him as the northern consensus candidate. Unfortunately, he was unable to buck the power of incumbent wielded by President Goodluck Jonathan, who won the primaries and went on to win the presidential polls in 2011.
In 1982 Atiku was invested with the prestigious chieftaincy title of Turakin Adamawa by the Lamido of Adamawa, Alhaji Aliyu Mustafa. In 2017, the Lamido further conferred on Atiku the higher title of Wazirin Adamawa, as his previous title of Turaki passed to his son, Aliyu.
Further afield, he was the recipient, in 2011, of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award from the American National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) – an independent nonprofit organization that serves as an alumni association for returned Peace Corps Volunteers, on the commemoration of its while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US Peace Corps. At the presentation ceremony, Atiku was described as a key contributor to the development of higher education (and democracy) in Africa.
Following his role in the ascension to power of the All Progressives Congress (APC) following its victory in 2015 (the first by an opposition party in Nigeria’s history) and his recent return to the PDP, there has been no shortage of speculations as to Atiku’s intentions, especially in the run-up to the 2019 polls. A lot has also been said about his antecedents, what kind of President he would make – should he decide to run again in 2019 – and whether he has what it takes to dispel the cloud of disenchantment that has enveloped Nigerians as a result of the APC’s less-than-sterling stewardship since 2015.
Among the issues that have been thrown up in recent months include Atiku’s vast wealth; his political positions on issues such as restructuring and true federalism; his philanthropy (especially in the area of education and the empowerment of youth); and even his relationship with former President Obasanjo, who has been quoted by various sources as saying that Atiku would NEVER become President of Nigeria during his (i.e. Obasanjo’s) lifetime.
Atiku is seen by many as the man with the Midas’ touch – not just in terms of his business acumen and ability to create wealth, but more importantly in terms of his large-hearted philanthropy and especially his investment in the future of tomorrow’s leaders. In his speeches and written commentary, Atiku has become known as a vocal advocate of the importance of reviving the fortunes of Nigeria’s educational system.
Upon the release of the dismal results of a recent West African Examinations Council (WAEC) result, Atiku said in a statement: ″Our country’s educational institutions are clearly not providing quality learning. Our teachers need to be taught themselves. This decline is really a new development, dating back just to the last 10 years or so. The steady decline of education in Nigeria is a reflection of our country’s relegation of education to the background of national essentialities. That is where the change in our country’s direction must begin. Teachers are important—as important as senators and doctors. Indeed, teachers determine the quality of senators and doctors. And so, the entire country stands to suffer the effects of this neglect in future. Nigeria must once again make education a priority. We must return to the basics.″
Atiku has on many occasions also lamented the demise of the skill and aptitude-oriented educational system Nigeria operated in the First Republic, which provided students the opportunity to choose between going on to university, the polytechnic, farming, or whatever else they wanted to do.
“Suddenly,” he says regretfully, “Nigeria moved away from that system, to a system where you train only job seekers. They don’t know how to do anything else other than to look for jobs. But I believe that that Nigeria (that we lost) is possible.”
He sees a tragic connection between the deepening poverty of the vast majority of Nigerians and the country’s declining educational standards. “The United Nations projected that by January 2018, Nigeria would have more people in poverty than any other country in the world. Can you imagine that! What can we do to combat this challenge? My submission is simple: education, entrepreneurship, and foreign direct investment.”
He has also called repeatedly for a more vigorous school-enrollment drive among children of school age, saying: “Nigeria’s current out of school population is projected at 10 million, while that of India is projected at just 1.8 million, even though they have eight times our population. WHY IS IT SO?”
But the greatest kudos given to Atiku by patriots across the land has been for his progressive stance on true federalism. On one occasion, he has said:
“Political decentralization will … help to deepen and strengthen our democracy as it will encourage more accountability. Citizens are more likely to demand accountability when governments are spending their tax money, rather than rent collected from an impersonal source.”
On another occasion: “True Federalism will encourage States to compete to attract investments and skilled workers (wherever they may be found) rather than merely waiting for monthly revenue allocations from Abuja.”
The former Vice President has also urged Nigerians never to allow the word ‘rule’ to be used in the country’s democratic vocabulary any longer. Rather, he said, the term should be replaced with ‘govern’ because Nigerians must participate in (and indeed take OWNERSHIP of) the democratic process. “We all must be governed because we must participate in that process. … I for one will NOT accept to be ruled, but I will accept to be governed.”
A wise man once said, “People see things as they are, and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things as they can be, and ask, ‘Why NOT?’ ” Nigeria is presently poised at a critical crossroads, and saddled with leaders who clearly do not have a road-map to move beyond the cross-roads, let alone a compass to chart a direction leading to the proverbial promised land. Our country today needs people who have the vision to ask the difficult questions, and have the courage to seek brave answers.
Atiku is asking the difficult questions that people in his socio-economic class (and from his part of the country) do not normally ask, on issues they do not normally concern themselves with. And he is seeking the brave answers, in a quest for the truth that would set us free.
Clearly, the time has come to take a second look at the phenomenon known as Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, GCON – a time to look PAST the insinuations that have been made about him in the past, to interrogate the positions he has taken over the years, and to examine the reasons why he attracts so much admiration and opprobrium from different quarters, and the motivations behind his philanthropy and his passion for an educational revolution in Nigeria and Africa.
So, to the question: Why Atiku? Our reply is this: In view of the present leadership deficit that has been our lot in recent years, Why not a man who has traversed the worlds of education, business and politics with a record of success in each of those worlds? Why not a man who has had to contend with formidable opposition in his quest for a place in the sun (right from his childhood, when his own father tried to prevent him from going to school, down to his repeated presidential runs, which has been undermined at every turn by forces who fear his independent-mindedness, the strength of his convictions, and his ability to influence outcomes)? Why not a man who sees his immense wealth not as a license to oppress his fellowman, but as an obligation to make a lasting difference in the lives of his fellowmen and women? Why not a man who has fallen many times, but has risen every time, stronger and more determined than before?
Why not a leader who puts his money where his mouth is?
In short, why not ATIKU?