Atiku Abubakar is the candidate for Nigeria’s main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party, in the 2023 presidential election.
He served as vice-president of Nigeria to President Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007.
Abubakar has had aspirations to be the president since 1992: this is his sixth attempt. He was on the ballot in 2007 and 2019, and lost in party presidential primaries in 1993, 2011 and 2015.
He was the People’s Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election (in 2019) where he garnered about 11 million votes (39%) against the 15 million votes (53%) of the winner, President Muhammadu Buhari. Total votes cast in that election were about 28.6 million, with a voter turnout rate of 34.75%.
Abubakar holds the traditional title of Wazirin Adamawa in his home state of Adamawa, northeast Nigeria. The title symbolises the office of a prime minister and it makes him a respected person in Adamawa. The 75-year-old is an influential businessman and one of the popular politicians who dominated politics after Nigeria’s return to civil rule in 1999.
Although with origins from Sokoto State, northwest Nigeria, Abubakar was born into a Fulani family in 1946 in Jada, Adamawa State. He was in the Nigerian Customs, a para-military agency, before going into business and politics after his retirement in 1989.
Abubakar is clearly a strong contender for Nigeria’s presidency in the 2023 elections. He has the political dexterity and experience to compete with other strong candidates. But there are many obstacles in the way of his life-long ambition of becoming Nigeria’s president.
His political philosophy is both a strength and weakness.
A careful observation shows that Abubaker’s political actions since 1999 feature clientelism, realism and neoliberalism. This is not peculiar to him. It is prevalent in Nigeria, as our research shows.
Clientelism is a brand of politics that involves the exchange of material and non-material items for political support, often at the expense of the majority. Abubakar has used his abundant wealth to garner support.
Months before the presidential primaries, Abubakar boasted that he had never failed to get his party’s ticket and would get it again. Against other strong aspirants, he still won. Newspaper reports suggested that delegates received thousands of dollars for his emergence as his party’s candidate.
Abubakar is a political realist. He does not hide his ambition to become the president. And he uses every means to achieve it. That includes defection to political parties at different periods and allegedly buying votes to secure a party’s ticket. He also plays ethnic politics by going with political zoning when it favours him and dropping it when it doesn’t.
In 2011, Abubakar supported power rotation between the country’s northern and southern regions. At the time, he stood to benefit from it, as a northern candidate. In 2022, now that people believe it’s the turn of southern elites to be in power, he is against the rotation idea.
He has also in the past exploited the political mood of the nation on issues such as political restructuring. Political restructuring – devolving power to the states – seems to gain popularity in the southern region following claims that the power structure favours the northern elites.
Abubakar fully embraces the principles of neoliberalism based on market fundamentalism. He believes the best way to revive Nigeria’s dying economy is for the state to withdraw, leaving it to the private sector to lead.
Neoliberalism is an ideology and policy model that emphasises the value of free market competition. Abubakar demonstrated his belief in a market-oriented economy when he managed Nigeria’s privatisation programme as vice-president from 1999 to 2007.
Abubakar has built an extensive political network across the nation. He once commanded the loyalty of more state governors than his principal, President Obasanjo.
His ability to easily secure the presidential ticket of major political parties shows how strong he is politically.
With 30 years of involvement in presidential elections, he is the most experienced among the presidential candidates.
Money matters in Nigerian politics, and Abubakar has resources to compete with any candidate, including those from the ruling party who have access to public funds.
Being a northerner may also favour his candidature, given that the region produces the most votes among regions in federal elections. In an August 2022 update on voter registration, northwest has 22.67 million voters (23.5%) out of 96.2 million.
There are five other geopolitical zones in Nigeria. His two major opponents are candidates from southern Nigeria. The southern region has about 45% of registered voters based on the new figures from the electoral commission. The northern region accounts for approximately 55%. This shows that the southern votes would be split between the two southern candidates which might work in Abubakar’s favour.
Other considerations may neutralise this factor, though.
Challenges facing his candidature
Some Nigerian voters no longer seem excited about Abubakar’s candidature.
The fact that he only appears during electoral seasons to contest for the presidential election and withdraws to his base in Dubai after losing does not convince the public that he holds the nation’s interests at heart.
He is further viewed as a representative of the old order, embodying gerontocracy and corruption. Some Nigerians view these as the bane of the country’s development. His public service records are dotted with corruption stories. A 2020 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism mentioned Abubakar and his wife in money laundering cases amounting US$2 trillion.
And his seeming support in the north may be challenged by other notable northern candidates such as Rabiu Kwankwanso, a former governor of Kano State. Kwankwaso is becoming a darling of the northern masses.
His northern origins may also be a disadvantage given that Buhari is a northerner too and is on the verge of completing an eight-year tenure. Producing another northern president is seen as violating a power rotation arrangement that prevents ethnic domination.
Lastly, the People’s Democratic Party seems to be embroiled in internal crisis since he selected his running mate, Ifeanyi Okowa. Party divisions could cost it votes.
As Abubakar prepares for the campaigns in September, he will have to prepare strategies to address the challenges.