PT State of the Race: Tinubu, Atiku search for running mates, worry about Obi, Kwankwaso

The electoral marathon that will produce Nigeria’s next president has entered a new phase with the emergence of party candidates for the February 25, 2023 election.

The All Progressives Congress (APC), which elected a former governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, as its candidate, on Wednesday, was among the last parties to conclude its nomination process. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) earlier on May 29 elected ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar as its flag bearer.

The two candidates are the frontrunners in this race but the involvement of two other candidates, Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP), may add some complications.

But the runners are not on the tracks yet. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has given them until June 17 to name their running mates without which their candidature would be invalid. They also have until July 15 to withdraw from the race and for their parties to name their replacements, ahead of the publication of the final list of candidates by INEC on September 20. Finally, on September 28, the whistle will sound for the start of five gruelling months of public campaigns for the presidential and federal legislative polls.

Omoyele Sowore
Omoyele Sowore

Other candidates

Aside from the four already mentioned, at least 10 other parties have nominated presidential candidates for the election. The candidates are Malik Ado-Ibrahim of the Young Progressive Party (YPP), Omoyele Sowore of Africa Action Congress (AAC), Adewole Adebayo of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Kola Abiola of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) and Hamza Al-Mustapha of the Action Alliance (AA).

The others are Christopher Imumulen of Accord Party (AP), Dumebi Kachikwu of African Democratic Congress (ADC), Yusuf Dan Talle of Allied Peoples Movement (APM), Peter Umeadi of All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) and Okudili Anyajike (National Rescue Movement (ARM).

Big two’s dilemmas in search for running mates

The two frontrunners are into the tricky business of picking their running mates. The PDP candidate, Atiku, who had a head start on his major rival with his nomination on May 29, is still to make his pick.

PREMIUM TIMES reported that Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa and his Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike, are the prospects being mostly mentioned. But there are others like Akwa Ibom Governor Udom Emmanuel, former Imo State Governor Emeka Ihedioha, former Senate President Pius Anyim, and – yes – Peter Obi.

Atiku has since his nomination been talking with the party’s hierarchy, with the National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu, a staunch ally, coordinating the process. The candidate has met governors elected on the platform of the party and members of its Board of Trustees and has constituted a small committee to advise him in his decision. The committee was reported to have met twice in Abuja last week.

A northern Fulani Muslim, Atiku is of a religious and ethnic majority stock in his zone, given that Nigerians have paired the Hausa and Fulani as political twins. On the surface, his origin and religion make his choice of a running mate simple enough – a Christian from any of the southern zones. But numerous factors have ruled out the South West, such as the fact that his main rival and the sitting vice president are from that zone.

The executive governor of Delta state, Ifeanyi Okowa. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Twitter handle of Mr Okowa]
The executive governor of Delta state, Ifeanyi Okowa. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Twitter handle of Mr Okowa]

Governor Okowa

Mr Okowa, the governor of an oil-rich Niger Delta state who backed Mr Abubakar in the primary, appears the obvious pick for the slot. A medical doctor-turned politician with a cool head and from an Igbo-speaking ethnic group in the South-south zone, many in the party consider him the ideal choice. The geographical location of his state and his origin also make him a bridge across the South-south and South-east, the two zones where the PDP is strongest.

Rivers State Governor, Nyesome Wike
Rivers State Governor, Nyesome Wike

Governor Wike

But many others think that the fire-spitting Mr Wike, a major financier of the party who came second in the primary, and his supporters have to be appeased to ensure their full support in the general election. Mr Wike’s strong run in the primary demonstrated that he has strong backers in different parts of the country and the big money to pursue his political causes.

However, many party leaders and power brokers squirm at the thought of a combustible and “unpresidential” figure being placed a heartbeat away from the presidency. Mr Abubakar will have to decide whether he can pick one of Messrs Okowa and Wike without incurring the enmity of the other, given the fact too that the governors are not the best of friends.

Presidential aspirant Peter Obi.
Presidential aspirant Peter Obi.

Peter Obi

Mr Obi, who angrily dumped the PDP a few days before the party’s presidential primary in which he was a candidate, is being considered for a strategic reason. PDP leaders are nervous about their party’s current standing in the South-east, a zone that has been a stronghold, especially in presidential elections. The zone is angry with the two major parties for rejecting its passionate pleas to them to pick their candidates from there.

Mr Obi is now the candidate of the Labour Party and has been drawing strong support among the youth on social media and in his home South-east. A strong mobilisation is also going on in the zone for people to obtain the permanent voter’s card so that they can vote in unprecedented high numbers next February.

If voters in the zone switch their support to Mr Obi’s Labour Party in the general election, the consequence may be more disastrous for the PDP. Some party leaders think having Mr Obi back as Mr Abubakar’s running mate is what is needed to appease the zone and secure its votes for the PDP. It is noteworthy that despite bitterly criticising the party since stepping away from it, Mr Obi has continued to revere Mr Abubakar publicly as his leader.

Tinubu’s difficult choice

Asked about his choice of a running mate after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday, the APC candidate responded to State House correspondents, “I won’t tell you that. That is my right, it’s in my pocket book,” suggesting he had taken a decision.

Also, the spokesperson of his campaign, Bayo Onanuga, had earlier said APC state governors would choose the running mate; and a later report claimed that the choice had been made. The governors were pivotal to his nomination.

However, picking a running mate is even a more complicated dilemma for the APC standard-bearer than for the PDP candidate.

Mr Tinubu, as a Yoruba Muslim, is a religious minority in the southern part of the country who has to pick from the northern part where Muslims are the majority. Can a Christian minority northerner help him to poll the votes of the Muslim majority in the north?

The Christian Associations of Nigeria (CAN in a statement by its National Secretary, Joseph Daramola, on Friday, restated its clamour for “a balance of religious representation” on the presidential tickets of the major parties.

“The running mate of the APC presidential flag bearer, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, should be a Christian from the North; Atiku’s running mate should be a Christian from the South, while Obi should choose his among the Muslims from the North.

“Anything contrary to the above means that the leadership of these political parties do not bother about the unity of this entity called Nigeria. Those who are planning a Muslim-Muslim ticket should also find out what was the outcome of the MKO Abiola and (Babagana) Kingibe ticket in 1993. If they try a Muslim-Muslim ticket this time round, the outcome will be worse, because our fault lines are very visible.”

The CAN statement was referencing the 1993 presidential election won by an all-Muslim ticket of Moshood Abiola and Babagana Kingibe but which was immediately annulled by a military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida. Mr Abiola died five years later in detention over his struggle to activate the electoral mandate.

It would be recalled that Mr Abiola had faced the same dilemma Mr Tinubu now faces, being also a Yoruba Muslim. As a southerner nominated by a national political party at a time the south had started complaining of a northern monopoly of political powers, he came under pressure from three sides, none of which he could afford to offend.

The military dictatorship wanted him to pick a pro-military northern Christian, Nigerian Labour Congress leader Paschal Bafyau, as his running mate. On another side, the Musa Yar’adua political family that helped him at the primary asked him to pick a protégé of their leader, a certain Atiku Abubakar. Completing the conundrum were his party’s state governors whose support was even more critical for the general election. They asked him to pick Mr Kingibe, their former party chairman who had helped many of them with their own nominations.

Ironically, the dilemma did not stop Mr Abiola from beating his northern Muslim rival, the recently deceased Bashir Tofa, at the landmark poll.

Following his victory in spite of those odds, observers gleefully hailed June 12, 1993, the day of the presidential poll, as the day Nigerians finally discarded primordial considerations in making electoral choices. But politics since then and the APC candidate’s current headache now suggest that the observation made 29 years ago was premature.

If Mr Tinubu accedes to the demand of CAN and picks a northern Christian, he risks losing support among the northern Muslim majority, coincidentally the bastion of electoral support for the APC. If he does not, the fury of Christians awaits him across the country, especially those of them who were never supporters of the ruling party.

Northern Christians and southern Muslims will face this dilemma as long as religious balance remains a strong factor in Nigerian presidential elections.

Mr Tinubu also has to consider the Hausa/Fulani ethnic groups in his decision. Although the political twins are found in smaller concentrations across the North, they are the majority in the North West, the zone with the most states and voters in Nigeria. Aside from the Abiola/Kingibe pairing of 1993, no ticket without a Hausa-Fulani representation has ever won a presidential election in Nigeria.

In addition to that, if Mr Tinubu picks from outside the North West, he would have to worry about Mr Kwankwaso, who would become the only big name from the zone on the presidential election ballot in February.

The wily Kano politician probably anticipated that scenario before deciding to take the ticket of a minor party. He is to the APC in the North-west what Mr Obi is to the PDP in the South-east – candidates who will not win the election but may decide who does.

Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso
Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso

Kwankwaso and Obi

The two former governors have drawn their small parties into the headlines since they joined the LP and NNPP from the main opposition PDP.

Neither of them dropped a sweat in clinching the parties’ tickets. But that also indicates the size of the task they face towards avoiding being inconsequential also-rans. The two parties do not have a visible presence in many states and are not expected to bother the Big Two except in a few locations where their threats remain merely as spoilers.

Obi’s LP

However, Mr Obi’s campaign will be closely watched by observers. His messages are spreading like a wildfire especially on Twitter, reminiscent of the #EndSARS campaign of 2020 that drew attention to the political potential of young Nigerians. But that leaderless revolution fizzled out after a few weeks with its gains now difficult to remember. Now with a recognized face in Mr Obi, can the Nigerian youth mobilising for him make a statement on February 25?

Aminu Kano’s reincarnation

Mr Kwankwaso’s project seems to have a different objective. His NNPP has been upturning applecarts in some North-west states, especially in his home Kano State. Many prominent politicians, party officials and office holders have crossed from the APC and PDP into the upstart party. Red caps, the symbol of Mr Kwankwaso’s movement, are catching the eyes on the streets and public events in the ancient city where the late Aminu Kano first troubled the northern political establishment of the first and second Republics.

Mr Kano, revered as the champion of the poor – the talakawas – in his days, ran for president in 1979 and was on the hustings for the 1983 elections when he died. But he concentrated his campaigns in Kano and the neighbouring state, rejecting the advances of Obafemi Awolowo who wanted them to run on the same ticket.

The iconoclastic politician eventually returned last in the 1979 presidential poll but his party won in Kano, and partially in Kaduna where the ruling NPN members in the state House of Assembly impeached the PRP governor Balarabe Musa after only 20 months in office. But that did not stop Mr Kano from registering to run alone again in the 1983 poll, a move thwarted by his death.

Mr Kwankwaso has affected the idiosyncrasies of the late beloved Kano politician and appears only interested in projecting himself as his reincarnation. He is not going to win the February 15 poll but may also influence the outcome of the poll.

Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso are not going to have a headache in deciding on their running mates even though each has to cross the rivers Niger and Benue to pick from faiths different from their own.

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