By Samuel Ogundipe
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo said on Friday that former Vice President Atiku Abubakar should not count on him for support in his latest bid to actualise his life-long ambition of being elected the president of Nigeria.
The former president, one of the most influential of his living peers, hinged his blistering position on the unsavoury corruption perception of Mr Atiku while speaking with PREMIUM TIMES shortly after his arrival from Kigali on Friday afternoon.
“How can I be on the same side with Atiku?” Mr Obasanjo asked. “To do what?”
“If I support Atiku for anything, God will not forgive me. If I do not know, yes. But once I know, Atiku can never enjoy my support,” he added.
Mr Obasanjo rejected all notions that his remarks could be deemed too personal, coming as 2019 presidential campaign gathers steam with Mr Abubakar amongst the front-runners.
The pronouncement comes barely two weeks after Mr Abubakar declared his intention to run for president, touting his pro-business credentials and lambasting President Muhammadu Buhari for his handling of the country’s security situation.
Before then, the former vice president, who has unsuccessfully run for the top office multiple times, spent the past few months criss-crossing the country as part of a strategy aimed at broadening his appeal amongst politicians and the electorate.
It also comes a little over a month after the two met at an event in Abuja and shook each other’s hands before photographers, days after reports said Mr Obasanjo was under pressure to back Mr Abubakar.
“I do not have personal grudges with anyone,” Mr Obasanjo said. “If you do not do well for Nigeria, you do not do well for all of us.”
“It is not a question of working with or not working with an individual,” he said. “If you are working for the good of Nigeria, I am working with you. If you are not working for the good of Nigeria it does not matter who you are I am not working with you.”
In making his position clear on Mr Abubakar ahead of the presidential primaries in October, Mr Obasanjo has put to rest several months of speculation about whether he would soften his borderline disposition to his former vice president of eight years.
Settling old scores
The disclosure also exposed a fundamental fracture between Mr Obasanjo, who seems hell-bent at ensuring that the alleged transgressions of the past were not forgotten, and Mr Abubakar, who now appears in high spirit for reconciliation.
The former vice president is locked in a fierce contest for the Peoples Democratic Party’s presidential ticket with several political bigwigs on the platform of the major opposition party.
The ever-broadening field already includes Rabiu Kwankwaso, Sule Lamido, Ahmed Makarfi and Saminu Turaki. While some of these politicians are already capable of challenging Mr Abubakar for the ticket, the recent addition of Senate President Bukola Saraki and Governor Aminu Tambuwal, both of whom are being rumoured as equally running for president, could further complicate Mr Abubakar’s chances.
Mr Obasanjo did not specifically say whom he would back for the PDP ticket. Already, the African Democratic Party, with which he now publicly identifies, has entered into an alliance that would see it and over 30 other political parties present a joint presidential ticket with the PDP..
After the former president said he would not support President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term, widespread conclusion had been that he would back anyone presented as the major challenger, even if this turned out to be Mr Abubakar.
President Muhammadu Buhari
“Most of you do not understand the way I operate,” Mr Obasanjo said. “And I thought your own paper will understand better.”
“I know Atiku very well. And I have mentioned my position with Atiku. My position has not changed,” he said.
On a personal note, he added, “If my children are getting married, he has sent representatives. If his children are getting married, I have sent representatives. That is social. That is not political.
But “on political ground, my position has not changed. If I support Atiku for a political office other than the one I supported him in the past when I did not know him,” maybe, but not “now that I know him, God will not forgive me.”
A spokesperson for Mr Abubakar did not provide a response to Mr Obasanjo’s statement when reached for comments Friday night, indicating that the the campaign was likely going to ignore the former president rather than engage him openly.
Mr Obasanjo did not offer further remarks on his grouse with Mr Abubakar, but he had repeatedly complained of his former right-hand man’s alleged sharp practices.
Mr Obasanjo, 81, tapped Mr Abubakar as his running mate in 1999, and both went on to rule Nigeria until 2007. The pair started on a good note for Nigeria’s democracy, working together to dismantle the statist political economy imposed by successive military administrations for more liberal economic policies.
Mr Obasanjo trusted Mr Abubakar with key government initiatives, placing him in charge of the National Council on Privatisation to midwife the sale of federal assets which were not only dysfunctional at the time but fast becoming white elephants draining national resources.
But years into the administration, Mr Obasanjo started accusing Mr Abubakar of corruption, and at a point, set up a panel to probe his deputy. aAnti-graft detectives allegedly came up with damning dossiers that linked his lieutenant to a slew of financial misdeeds.
When United States authorities commenced investigation into the infamous iGate scandal, Mr Obasanjo asked Nigerian anti-corruption agencies to cooperate fully with their counterparts from America.
The F.B.I. accused Nigerian and American officials of running a bribery racket in the award of a broadband project to expand Internet coverage in Nigeria in the mid-2000s.
Specifically, Mr Abubakar was said to have received kickbacks for his role in helping iGate, an American firm, secure the contract. Williams Jefferson, an American politician who was a member of the U.S. Congress at the time, was identified as a political associate of Mr Abubakar with whom the Nigerian leader allegedly connived to inflate the contract and get illicit payouts for seeing it through.
It was further reported that the infamous $100,000 cash which investigators found in Mr Jefferson’s refrigerator was intended as parts of the bribes to be paid out to Mr Abubakar. Mr Abubakar strongly denied ties to the fraud.
Mr Jefferson was convicted on 11 out of 16 counts of criminal charges filed against him in 2009 and sentenced to jail shortly thereafter.
But Mr Abubakar was never arraigned, much less convicted of any crime. During Mr Jefferson’s trial, prosecutors failed to prove him guilty of allegations of bribing foreign officials, which meant that there was no evidence to link Mr Abubakar to the $100,000 bribe.
Still, the claims that Mr Abubakar was involved in the bribery remained widespread. They were also largely linked to the mystery surrounding the former vice president’s ability to travel to the U.S., which was perhaps the biggest of his alleged political baggage until the position of Mr Obasanjo.
Mr Abubakar strongly denied having any questions to answer in the U.S., and repeatedly said he applied for U.S. visa but was not granted. The U.S. Embassy in Abuja often declines comments on visa matters involving Mr Abubakar.
Mr Obasanjo, whose two terms were on the platform of the PDP, has since become estranged from the party. In 2015, he abandoned former President Goodluck Jonathan and threw his support for Mr Buhari, after years of tension over which direction held better promise for the country’s future.
Although Mr Obasanjo said he regretted supporting Mr Buhari, and now said he would work to ease him out of office in 2019. He also wrote a public letter aimed at the president in January, urging him not to run for reelection and or risk being disgraced out of office.
Yet, he felt that Mr Abubakar would not be appropriate as his stand-in candidate next February.
“If Jonathan had performed, we would not have had Buhari,” Mr Obasanjo said.
Mr Abubakar defected from the ruling All Progressives Congress last November. It would be his third time of leaving a political party in a quest to actualise his presidential ambition which began in 1992.
He contested against Moshood Abiola for the Social Democratic Party’s ticket in the 1993 elections, but said he stepped down for the late business mogul after being pressured to do so.
After completing his two terms as vice-president under the PDP, Mr Abubakar moved to then-newly-formed Action Congress after it became clear that Mr Obasanjo will not tip him as his successor.
He won the ticket of the AC, now defunct, but lost to Umar Yar’Adua in the 2007 presidential polls. He later returned to the PDP, in time for his disclosure of interest in the then-ruling party’s presidential ticket for the 2011 elections. He was, however, beaten to this by Mr Jonathan, whose status as acting-president following the death of Mr Yar’Adua in May 2010 placed him in a better position to use the party’s machinery to his advantage.
In 2014, Mr Abubakar again abandoned the PDP and joined the APC, which was a merger of at least four political parties. He vied for the party’s ticket and lost to Mr Buhari at the December 2014 convention in Lagos.
Mr Abubakar made his way back to the PDP in November 2017, after it became clear to him that Mr Buhari would seek re-election and he would be difficult to stop him as an incumbent.
Mr Abubakar’s apparent inconsistencies, the raging controversy around his U.S. visa status and now the unambiguous position of Mr Obasanjo could all make for a devastating political cocktail, said political analyst Gbola Oba.
Mr Oba said the short term consequence of Mr Obasanjo’s comments is two-fold: “One, he is now vulnerable to easy shots from those contesting the primaries with him. And secondly, there would be genuine fears amongst the kingmakers within his party that Mr Obasanjo might work actively against the PDP if Mr Atiku gets the ticket.”
Mr Oba, chief executive at Automedics in Lagos, said Mr Obasanjo’s statement was not entirely surprising.
“Once you have offended him, you can never get rehabilitated to the point that he will like you again,” Mr Oba said, implying that the former president is vindictive. “Atiku is politically dead if Obasanjo is still around.”
Mr Oba expressed strong doubts that Mr Obasanjo’s reasons for not supporting Mr Abubakar was strictly based on alleged corrupt personality traits.
“It was because of what Atiku put him through in 2003 when governors said they did not want Obasanjo to return as president,” Mr Oba said. “Once Atiku accepted the pleas of his boss at the time, many concluded that his future in politics would be very tough.”
On Thursday, Nobel laurete, Wole Soyinka, said Mr Obasanjo “knelt down” Mr Abubakar in 2003 to clinch the ticket of the PDP.
Wole Soyinka [Photo: dailytimes.com.ng]
Speaking during the presentation of his new book in Lagos, Mr Soyinka was quoted by The Nation as saying he warned Mr Abubakar that he would pay a heavy price.
“Before the PDP primaries in January 2003, Obasanjo got everyone he knew could reach me on the surface on the earth including Yemi Ogunbiyi and my son, to get me to help him intercede when it was clear that (Abubakar) Atiku was in a position to take his job. He knew Atiku had a lot of regard for me and calls me ‘Uncle'” The Nation reported.
“The pressure was intense. Of course, I could not have knelt before Atiku not to embark on a course of action that would lead to his boss’ disgrace. But I can confirm to you that Obasanjo as president knelt down before Atiku so that he would not lose his job.
“But I warned Atiku that for making Obasanjo to kneel down for you, be sure you would have to pay heavily for that. I guess my warning came to pass if you remember Atiku’s dramatic change of fortune once Obasanjo was sworn in for a second term of office.”
Still, Mr Oba said Mr Abubakar may continue his campaign, but should be ready to swim against the tide where Mr Obasanjo is concerned.
“He should not see Obasanjo as a complimentary force in any way, shape or form,” the analyst said.
Mr Oba described Mr Atiku as “one of the very few characters who are well-resourced to play the game on the field of play now,” because to be a president of Nigeria now, “you need a minimum of between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.”
Mr Abubakar is seen as a favourite for his vast wealth. A former Customs officer, former vice president has investments in agriculture, education, logistics and even fast-food businesses.
While he is expected to mouth these credentials throughout the campaign, his major policy thrust is rooted in the urgent needs to restructure the country. He has since taken the message of restructuring to Nigeria’s inner corners, describing the current federal system as unitary and virtually unworkable.
At a time of heavy sentiment and growing distrust against the federal structure, which critics say concentrates power at the centre to the detriment of a larger, diverse population, Mr Abubakar’s campaign said his message was resonating greatly amongst Nigerians. But how far he would be able to go would depend on which support he gets and at what price, analysts said.
Although Mr Obasanjo currently holds no position in the PDP, his contacts within the party are still widely deemed deep enough to influence decisions. The former president has been courted extensively in recent weeks, and the party’s leadership is still said to be keen on getting his support in regaining its lost political fortunes.
Only three weeks ago, PDP Chairman Uche Secondus led other party stalwarts to hold talks with Mr Obasanjo at his residence in Abeokuta.
But next year’s presidential ticket would be won largely by a candidate’s ability to convince the delegates than the domineering influence of a politician, said PDP’s spokesperson Kola Ologbondiyan.
“There will be a convention and there will be statutory candidates elected from all the local government areas in the country,” Mr Ologbondiyan told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Friday night. “It is those who would participate in the election that the delegates would vote for, and there would be no internal or external influence.”
A backhanded compliment
Before wrapping up his exchanges with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Obasanjo weighed in on Mr Abubakar’s campaign. The former vice president appointed Gbenga Daniel as campaign director at the end of May, becoming the first of PDP’s presidential candidate to fully form a campaign structure.
former governor of Ogun State, Gbenga Daniel. [Photo credit: Daily Post Nigeria]
But the former Ogun State governor also has a history with Mr Obasanjo.
“As for Gbenga Daniel, they are birds of the same feather” with Mr Atiku, he said. Mr Daniel had an open confrontation with Mr Obasanjo over the 2011 governorship ticket in Ogun State. As Mr Daniel wound down his two terms, Mr Obasanjo favoured Tunji Olurin, one of his long-term associates, a proposal Mr Daniel rejected, according to those familiar with the feud.
Although Mr Obasanjo had his way, as Mr Olurin got the PDP’s ticket in the election, he strongly believed that the PDP would have defeated Ibikunle Amosun had Mr Daniel not supported Gboyeka Isiaka in Peoples Party of Nigeria, using his power of incumbent to split potential PDP votes in the three-way race.
Both Mr Daniel and his spokesperson declined PREMIUM TIMES’ requests for comments between Friday night and Saturday morning.