It is part of the recurring ironies of Nigerian politics that Atiku Abubakar, the politician that has suffered most from false propaganda against him in Nigeria than any other, is now being redefined in public imagination as an ethnic bigot based on a comment he made at an interactive session for presidential candidates organized by the Arewa Joint Committee in Kaduna on Saturday, the 15th of October, 2022. The objective of his opponents is to interpret and reinterpret the comment acontextually to paint a dramatic picture of an Atiku calling on his Northern brothers and sisters to vote for him because he’s a Northerner. What the propagandist are not saying in their retelling of the story is that Atiku was actually responding to a question by Hakeem Baba-Ahmed (a Northern activist and the older brother of Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, the Labour Party Vice-Presidential candidate) which had a specific context and which required Atiku to answer within the context.
Below is a transcription of the exchange verbatim:
Hakeem Baba-Ahmed: Northerners are watching you now and in the next few days, they will be hearing from your team. Please, tell the Northerner why, out of all the presidential candidates, they should trust you and not anyone else with their votes and their trust and why you are the best candidate that can lead the North and Nigeria through change. Please, talk to the Northerner directly.
Atiku Abubakar: Well….(jokingly) Mallam Northerner or Madam Northerner (laughs and claps from the audience), I have been in politics now for three decades. (Atiku turns to some persons in the audience to confirm what he has said). Alhaji Yahaya Kwande or Professor Ango? (From the audience, a voice said 35 and Atiku continues….) 35, and I have traversed the whole of this country. I know the whole of this country. I have built bridges across this country. I think what the average Northerner needs is somebody who is from the North and who also understands other parts of Nigeria and who has been able to build bridges across the rest of the country. This is what the Northerner needs. He doesn’t need a Yoruba or an Igbo candidate. This is what the Northerner needs. So, I believe I stand before you as a Pan-Nigerian of Northern origin. Thank you very much.”
Ordinarily, his response in the context of the question should not get people fluttering in their cages, but this is politics and opponents must seek to draw blood from stone. But for objective-minded persons who understand basic English and rhetoric, Atiku is not saying Northerners should vote for him because he’s a Northerner, even though the context of the question necessarily requires that he puts that out first as his bona fides. I mean, if someone is asking the question the way Baba-Ahmed asked it, your first point must be that Northerners should vote for you because you’re one of them. It’s a no-brainer. That is the honest view, no matter the hypocrisy of those upturning their noses. It doesn’t mean you are an ethnic jingoist; it just means you are part of that constituency and you want their votes. However, Atiku was more nuanced. He is saying Northerners should vote for him because he is a Pan-Nigerian Northerner who understands the rest of the country, unlike the Yoruba and Igbo candidates (Bola Tinubu and Peter Obi respectively) who are ethnic candidates. Yes, he didn’t mention their names, but clearly he was referring to them. In other words, Atiku is saying unlike the Yoruba and Igbo candidates competing with him, he is a Pan-Nigerian Northerner who would win the rest of the nation.
Of course, there is something to be said in defence of Obi here. As for Tinubu, he has said with his own mouth and indicated clearly that he is an ethnic candidate. So, that charge by Atiku, directly or indirectly, sticks. But Obi for me has not said anything to indicate he sees himself as an Igbo candidate, even though a lot of Igbo sentiments are invested in him and his movement. I will not blame him for that because it’s the residue from the National Question since after the Civil War. Obi did not generate or create those sentiments. The only thing I see that he is consciously doing is projecting himself as the “Christian candidate.” He’s been doing that by actions and by words. I will also not judge him on that basis because when the APC is running with a Muslim-Muslim ticket, they open the room for such counter-politics and if Obi is picking up the gauntlet because he sees electoral value in it, I wouldn’t blame him.
But Atiku is neither an ethnic candidate or a candidate of any religious group. He is a Pan-Nigerian candidate through and through and any informed Nigerian knows this because he has a history that we all are familiar with. In fact, one of the biggest albatrosses roped around Atiku’s neck in the conservative North is that he is too pro-South in his thinking, outlook and social interactions. Basically, being cosmopolitan in outlook is not a plus for Atiku up North. Yet, in this interactive session, he was only playing politics with words. He did not mention anybody’s name, but that talk about the Northerner not needing a Yoruba or Igbo candidate is a direct reference to Tinubu and Obi who he sees as his closest competitors. Atiku is painting them as the ethnic candidates. By doing that, he hopes to kill two birds with one stone within his Northern constituency. He’s telling the Northerners that these people are candidates of their own ethnic groups and are not as Pan-Nigerian as him, a Northerner who can win over the rest of the country. No matter how the thing is twisted, that is all Atiku is saying and nothing more.
I think serious people should move on and focus on real issues. For instance, on Monday, the 17th of October 2022, thugs attacked the PDP campaign in Kaduna and I hear Obi supporters and Labour Party activists mockingly saying this is ‘structure talking to structure’, which is another way of saying APC thugs attacking PDP is okay because both parties are claiming Labour Party has no structure. When APC thugs were attacking Labour activists in Lagos recently, decent people from all sides condemned it because they know that this is not what should be tolerated in our politics in the 21st century. That should be the discussion right now. If leaders of the parties have signed a peace accord, they should abide by it. Every patriotic voice should be calling on the security forces to clamp down on anybody sponsoring thugs and thugs doing the bidding of their sponsors. We have a long way to go in this campaign and we must not allow this type of conduct to creep in. Let’s have a campaign based on ideas and let’s hope at the end the best idea triumphs.