Forecasting Nigeria after the 2023 Presidential Election: Scenario 2, President Atiku Abubakar

By Julius Ogunro

Atiku Abubakar, a former Vice President and businessman, leads the PDP charge for the presidency. Becoming Nigeria’s president appears to be Atiku’s lifelong goal, which he started working on earnestly in 1993 when he was a serious contender for the Social Democratic Party’s presidential ticket. The SDP was one of the only two approved political parties at that time and Atiku missed being its flagbearer by the whisker.

He went on to become a household name as a businessman and politician, serving as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Vice President. In Atiku, it would be difficult to find a man more invested in Nigerian politics, or more committed to being president.

Since 2007, he has virtually contested for the presidency in every election circle, sometimes winning his party’s ticket and at other times failing to do so. He has also crisscrossed political parties in the bid to nick the most coveted prize of his storied political life. Outside his VP role, the closest Atiku got to the presidency was in 2019 when he was the presidential candidate of the PDP, Nigeria’s main opposition party, and challenged incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. He lost that election amidst claims of electoral malfeasance by the ruling party.

Now, he is again the PDP’s presidential candidate and ready to battle the ruling APC and others for a chance to lead the country. Unlike in 2019, President Buhari who has (or had) a near-cult following in the north, the same region as Atiku, will not be on the ballot, leading some analysts to say this is Atiku’s best chance yet.

Should he win, what kind of presidency would President Atiku run, and how would Nigerians respond to it?

President Abubakar Atiku

Atiku is cosmopolitan and over the years has built friendships with people from all of Nigeria’s geopolitical zones. His businesses are famed for inclusiveness and for employing people on merit regardless of ethnic origin. So he is well-liked across the board as a man who is fair and broad-minded. He is also of the PDP, the first real national party in Nigeria. Before PDP’s emergence in the late 90s, the biggest political parties were often regional-oriented that made half-hearted attempts at inroads to other areas outside their strongholds. The PDP changed that. Its founding fathers included many retired generals from all corners of the country, leading to the charge that it was a retired general’s club.

Atiku is therefore likely to form a broad government, one that represents Nigeria’s demographic mix and complexity. That would be a marked difference from APC’s government which has faced the charge of provincialism and regional nepotism. In fact, upon being elected, President Buhari caused outrage by making a distinction between the regions that supported him (in the north) and those where he only got 5 percent (southeast)!

Atiku and the PDP are unlikely to make that error. Especially as the party would be coming out of an eight-year opposition, plus the controversy that trailed Atiku’s emergence as the PDP’s presidential candidate. His candidacy and potential presidency upturned the tacit zoning arrangement in the country, which is that power rotates between the North and the South. With an Atiku presidency, it means that the North would be retaining power after Buhari. To make up for this situation, the PDP would possibly make big concessions to the South in the form of huge symbolic appointments to calm frayed nerves and correct the impression of perpetual northern hegemony.

On the economic front, Atiku is likely to implement neo-liberal policies. Rather boldly for a presidential candidate, he has vowed to sell the NNPC, the nation’s amorphous oil and gas agency, remove petroleum subsidies, carry out public sector reforms, and run an economy that is largely private-sector driven. If he follows through, this would be good news for economists and other market experts who complain that Nigeria’s public sector is too big and unwieldy, consuming too much of state resources. Western financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank would be excited about a government willing to undertake the difficult task of reforming the Nigerian economy.

Such policies would, however, lead to hardship, job losses, and inflation. There would potentially be protests, strikes, and other forms of resistance to the Atiku government, at least in the short term. Particularly, the removal of petroleum subsidies would result in a jump in transportation and energy costs, causing spikes in the general prices of goods and services. This would be especially hard for low-income earners, the vast number of Nigeria’s poor, and those who work in the non-formal sector, without safety nets.

How the government navigates public response to these policies would determine whether they fail or succeed. History tends to suggest that Atiku would have the grit to implement the necessary economic reforms. As a top player in the Obasanjo government, the administration carried out some of the farthest reforms in Nigeria’s history, which helped to stabilize the economy and attracted foreign investment. That era also witnessed the recovery of Nigeria’s middle class and the reduction of poverty. Today, many Nigerians consider the Obasanjo years as the best since the return to democratic rule in 1999.

Atiku can take some of the credit for those accomplishments and if he could repeat similar reforms, the Nigerian economy would boom in the long term. However successful Atiku is in the economy, his government would be poorly perceived and received in the south. This would not be due to the performance or non-performance of the government, but to the fact that such an administration exists!

The southern political elite expect that after the administration of President Buhari, a northern Muslim, power would go down south, possibly, to a Christian. An Atiku Presidency would be an affront to the principle of rotation of power and amount to tearing the book on the political partnership by the regions. This would no doubt cause the south to seriously worry about its fate in the Nigerian political system. And worsen the crises in some parts of the region, especially the southeast and to some extent the southwest.

In the southeast, the IPOB extremists would latch onto the fact that President Atiku is a Fulani Muslim, like his predecessor, to fan the flame of secession, and to give vent to the conspiracy theories about the alleged Fulani plot to dominate Nigeria in perpetuity. Such claims already make it to their broadcasts. A President Atiku would be all the proof they need to go on overdrive.

A similar scenario would play out in the southwest as the Republic of Oduduwa activists who are fringe players at present would try to mainstream their campaign by taking advantage of Tinubu’s defeat to promote their vision of a southwest outside the Nigerian state. Christian religious leaders would also complain to the high heavens of Islamic domination and the plot to stamp out Christianity. It is doubtful if any of those claims would gain mass or critical support in a way that could destabilize the government, especially if the Atiku administration formed an inclusive government.

However, the impact of Atiku’s win would be devastating for the APC. It would first validate the increasing fear that because of the President’s provincialism, he does not support his party’s presidential candidate and working against the APC for power to remain in the north. The party itself would go into serious crises. Over the years, the APC has become a receptor for all kinds of characters who defected to it only because of expected government patronage and support. Today, it does not appear to stand for anything and lacks character, vision, discipline, and ideology. Without government support, the party is likely to be in a free fall, receding fast and losing critical membership and support.

The various tendencies in the APC would battle for its soul, with now-former President Buhari happy in retirement and washing hands off-party politics. Without a national leader and control of the central government, the struggle for power in the party would be fierce and without moderating influence. The odds would favour, the Young Turks to eventually take control of the Party and remake it as an effective opposition, which the APC seems to have a natural flair for. It would also mark the end of the old guard in the APC and the party would possibly never again elect a Presidential candidate or National Chairman with a dodgy fitness and resume. This period would see it reclaim its progressive credentials, which are lost now, becoming more like the ACN of old, but one with national roots and spread.

In summary, Atiku’s presidency would attempt to implement far-reaching reforms to fix the economy, as it would in forming an all-inclusive government, especially with southerners getting top portfolios. It would however face a serious challenge from the south, especially the southeast with secessionist groups pointing to the existence of the administration as proof that Nigeria is structurally imbalanced and unfair. The successes of the government may dull these charges but not erase them, and if President Atiku should seek a second term, things would get worse.
Ogunro is the Director of Research and Strategy at the Future Now Initiate (FNI)