Gambo Sallau, a career farmer in Kano, was not expecting to vote for any other presidential aspirant except Rabiu Kwankwaso. But in the weeks leading up to the Peoples Democratic Party 2018 National Convention in Port Harcourt, the delegate became increasingly enamoured with the message of Atiku Abubakar campaign.
“If you are living in Nigeria and experiencing the mournful state of the nation, it is a message that you cannot easily brush aside,” Mr Sallau told PREMIUM TIMES. “Economically, politically and in terms of unifying Nigeria, it is a totally disarming message.”
Before long, Mr Sallau found himself actively campaigning for the former vice-president — and by the time the convention opened on October 6 and delegates from across the country began voting, his ballot and that of a sizable number of Kano delegates became part of the 1, 532 votes that propelled Mr Abubakar to a first-place finish at the presidential primaries.
“Over 50 percent of Kano delegates voted for Atiku,” Mr Sallau said. “This is even as you know we have our long-time leader Senator Kwankwaso also contesting for the ticket.”
It was a race that offered lessons about the role that messaging can play in politics: While many other PDP presidential aspirants were channeling time and resources towards high-profile endorsements — especially from governors and former Nigerian leaders — Mr Abubakar’s campaign was polishing its interpersonal skills to convince delegates one-on-one.
From its high-rise headquarters in Abuja, the campaign reached all the estimated 4,000 delegates, notwithstanding whether they are automatic, statutory or ad-hoc voters. Each delegate reportedly received at least two calls between late July when the first set of appeals went out and early October when aspirants were engaged in a high-wire electioneering to sway delegates in the last-minute.
Osita Chidoka, a former Nigerian aviation minister, also acknowledged the groundwork of Mr Abubakar, writing in an Ocober 1 tweet that he was “impressed” to have received “two calls” from Mr Abubakar’s campaign “discussing his plans” and asking as a delegate for his vote at the convention.
More than anything else, this was a strategy that helped build enthusiasm that paid off at the convention, according to Paul Ibe, a spokesperson for Mr Abubakar.
“We looked at our options and concluded that interacting with delegates one-on-one would be an effective way to convince them about what our campaign entails,” Mr Ibe said. “First you design a messaging that is acceptable to everyone, then you start pushing it to the appropriate audience — the decision makers.”
As Mr Abubakar bagged the PDP nomination to challenge President Muhammadu Buhari at the general elections next February, the long, curvy road to his victory underscores a consistent candidate who knew how to win when it mattered most.
Since his formal defection from the ruling party last November, Mr Abubakar’s name has featured consistently as the most viable politician to fly the flag of the main opposition party going into 2019; while the chances of some aspirants like Sule Lamido and Kabiru Turaki surged and fell.
Mr Abubakar was the only candidate not to experience fluctuations in support, until more powerful politicians like Senate President Bukola Saraki, Governor Aminu Tambuwal and Mr Kwankwaso joined the race between mid-June and early August.
Although his support did not significantly drop when the trio entered the race, with Mr Tambuwal securing the full backing of Governor Nyesom Wike, Mr Abubakar was unable to expand his support, either.
His momentum was stymied by Mr Tambuwal’s alliance with Mr Wike, perhaps the most-powerful PDP governor, and Mr Saraki’s unwavering popularity amongst scores of PDP federal lawmakers, all of whom are statutory delegates.
But once the battle for delegates began, the former vice-president began focusing more on states without PDP governors and with a few or no federal lawmakers to consolidate support.
As delegates in states that have sitting PDP governors and federal lawmakers bounced from one aspirant to another, those in the so-called open states consistently backed Mr Abubakar, findings show.
A substantial majority of ballots in favour of Mr Abubakar at the convention came from states without governors, campaign official said. Of Nigeria’s 36 states, the PDP currently governs Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu, Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers, Ekiti, Gombe, Taraba, Benue, Kwara, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River and Sokoto.
Mr Abubakar focused on the remaining 22 states where PDP governors cannot easily influence delegates, and the outcome saw him score nearly as many votes as all his eleven other challengers, including Messrs Tambuwal and Saraki (693 and 317 respectively) put together.
Beyond the primaries
Throughout the campaign, PDP loyalists made it clear to delegates they were looking for a candidate who has national spread and could defeat Mr Buhari in 2019. Those were the top qualities, expected of a candidate, that dominated discussions in the lead up to the convention.
Mr Abubakar consistently did well in questions about national appeal, except in areas where some people felt he would not do well in the North-west, which has the largest block votes amongst Nigeria’s six-geopolitical zones. Messrs Tambuwal and Kwankwaso were largely believed to be better grounded in this region than Mr Abubakar, and might be able to cut deep into Mr Buhari’s projected gains there.
“But even in this region, we do not expect President Buhari to do nearly as well as he did in 2015 because he has now been revealed not to be as strong or as compassionate as we thought,” Mr Sallau said. “There is poverty everywhere and we knew this would work against him in the general election no matter who emerged PDP candidate.”
“So we decided to look beyond the primaries and voted for someone who has the biggest chance of winning, someone who has taken his message to all parts of the country,” he added.
Mr Sallau said in Kano, the cradle of the North-west where Mr Buhari has enjoyed tremendous support, voters are now evidently less enthusiastic about his re-election.
“We believed that as delegates, we owe it not only to our party but to Nigerians to present a candidate that can bring economic prosperity to the people,” the politician said. “Atiku has not only said what he would do to ensure an average Nigerian can eat three times daily and build savings, but how he would go about it has been made simple.”
A formidable rallying cry
The second time is the charm for Mr Abubakar in securing the presidential nomination of Nigeria’s main opposition party. But without his 2015 failed attempt under the APC, the former vice-president could have had an even steeper hill to climb to this cycle’s nomination.
Mr Abubakar, 71, first ran for president in 1992 under the Social Democratic Party, but said he stepped down at the primaries for Moshood Abiola, the late business magnate and pro-democracy campaigner who went on to become the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election but denied the mandate by the military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
After serving two terms as vice president to President Olusegun Obasanjo between 1999 when civil rule returned to Nigeria and 2007, Mr Abubakar joined forces with Bola Tinubu and other politicians to vie for office in 2007 under the defunct Action Congress, coming in third place after PDP and the All Nigeria Peoples Party which were the two-largest political entities at the time.
He switched parties consistently in a bid to secure presidential nomination under a major opposition party ever since but failed.
Shortly after Mr Abubakar lost to Mr Buhari at the presidential primaries of the APC in December 2014, he said he heard learnt new things which emboldened his vision for Nigeria, Mr Ibe said.
“He sat down alone and thought through the whole situation, expressed his disappointment in how the whole thing turned out and immediately got back to work, saying he likes this country and does not want the citizens to continue to languish,” he added.
Mr Ibe said Mr Abubakar felt that his message to restructure Nigeria did not properly resonate amongst APC delegates in the lead up to the party’s primaries at the time, which prompted him to start the message long before 2019 season opened.
“He has been pushing this restructuring message for decades, but it was not really getting the traction it should get amongst decision makers, and he decided to do something about it this time around,” Mr Ibe said.
Although he remained in the APC during and after the presidential election that produced Mr Buhari in 2015, Mr Abubakar soon took his message on the need to restructure Nigeria to the masses, drawing some of his earliest attentions at a book launch in May 2016.
“Nigeria is not working, as well as it should,” Mr. Abubakar declared at the time. “And part of the reason is the poor way we have structured our economy and governance especially since 1960.”
Mr Abubakar believed that at the centre of Nigeria’s breakthrough is the restructuring of its political and economic structure in a way that would strengthen national unity rather than undermine it as opponents of the message charge.
“An excessively powerful centre does not equate to national unity. Absolutely not,” Mr. Abubakar argued. “If anything, it has made our unity more fragile, our government more unstable and our country more unsafe. We must renegotiate our union in order to make it strong.”
Mr Abubakar has taken his restructuring Nigeria message, which he said he began in 1995, to many parts of Nigeria, and at many international fora including the Chatham House earlier this year.
Only last month, he sparred with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo over claims that his message was vague, belated and self-serving, saying he has consistently clarified his message to Nigerians without leaving any room for ambiguity.
Mr Osinbajo himself said he is a strong proponent of restructuring Nigeria. He said he favours state police which President Buhari has repeatedly argued against.
Mr Abubakar’s campaign “put in a stellar amount of work” to win the nomination, admitted Ilemona Onoja, a spokesperson for Mr Saraki’s campaign.
“We ran a good campaign also and we raised the bar by refusing to be drawn into negativity and staying on our message on how to grow Nigeria,” Mr Onoja said, “But Atiku’s people did a fantastic job.”
Two years of criss-crossing the country in pursuit of a renewed quest to clinch the nomination have upped Mr Abubakar’s national profile. Also, his well-timed exit from the ruling party was early enough to show his seriousness and stave off any political heartache he might suffer if he stayed in the APC to wrestle the ticket with Mr Buhari.
He opened his campaign office at Diamond Junction off the commercial Adetokunbo Ademola Crescent, about six kilometres northwest of Abuja city centre, since April, long before most of his challengers entered the race, establishing several departments and directorates where professional campaign strategists took up jobs.
It was here that his strategic policy document was updated and finalised by a group of young professionals, which he assembled together with Mr Daniel, according to inside campaign sources.
Mr Onoja, however, said it was difficult to tell whether or not Mr Abubakar starting his campaign early helped ensure his victory at the convention.
“That remains within the realm of conjecture,” Mr Onoja said. “It appeared like those in charge of the party felt it was time to give Mr Abubakar a chance over others this year.”
A Broad-based Consolidation
Yet, it was not only the delegates that Mr Abubakar convinced while seeking the PDP’s nomination. Together with Gbenga Daniel, a former governor of Ogun State whom he formally named as his campaign director in May after months of working together, the former vice president enlisted a vast network of senior political, ethnic and religious statesmen to help convey his message of restructuring Nigeria.
The campaign was able to parlay its restructuring message into a political structure he has built over decades.
“It was a message we have been very happy to help him convey to delegates from different parts of the country,” Ayo Adebanjo, a leader of Afenifere, told PREMIUM TIMES. “This country must be restructured and we trust Atiku to do it once he gets into office.”
Mr Adebanjo, 90, said many delegates dropped any concerns they had about Mr Abubakar the moment they learnt that elders like himself were fully behind him.
“We have no doubt at all that he will restructure Nigeria, and the delegates were happy to learn that our position in favour of Atiku is strong,” he added. “It is not about money, it is about the sacrifice people are willing to make to set this country on the path of greatness.”
In September, Mr Abubakar unveiled a campaign committee of nearly 60 persons across the country to help drive his message towards the convention, selecting Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu from the South-east to lead it.
“He is a detribalised Nigerian. His message about restructuring is so smooth that you cannot but be persuaded once you have heard him break it down into the tinniest pieces,” another delegate, Hadiza Umoru, who voted for Mr Abubakar at the convention said.
Ms Umoru, a PDP stalwart in Edo State, said she had been a part of Mr Abubakar’s political structure from the early 2000s, and refused to let money decide her choice at the convention.
“Nobody gave money to me as a person, money was not a deciding factor for me in choosing Atiku Abubakar,” she said. “The messaging and his antecedents as an industrialist and a unifier should be seen as more than money.”
Mr Abubakar has ties to several large and small-scale firms, investing in logistics, education, media and even owning a Nigerian franchise for Chicken Cottage. He has touted his business credentials as some of his biggest selling points, promising to focus on job creation if elected.
The struggle for delegates amongst presidential aspirants of major political parties has often elevated money as a crucial factor in accumulating votes at conventions. Based on PREMIUM TIMES findings in the night before and on the convention day, the PDP convention was hardly any different.
Delegates received amounts ranging from $1,000 to as high as $2,500 from some aspirants, our findings show.
But Ms Umoru fiercely denied benefiting from the largess.
“Those saying he paid us to vote for him are just trying to paint the party black. It was not even about money,” she emphasised to PREMIUM TIMES. “It was about making Atiku Abubakar become our next president come 2019.”
Scaling the final lap
Although Mr Abubakar ran arguably the most robust campaign during primaries, and claimed a victory devoid of controversies and internal wrangling, his presidential campaign proper would naturally require more skills and hit more roadblocks, according to Anthony Kila, a political analyst.
“He was produced by a transparent and high quality process that united all his challengers around him, which means his party believes he is qualified to run,” Mr Kila said. “But his experience with the general election would be slightly — if not fundamentally — different.”
Mr Kila, a Jean Monnet professor of strategy and development at Cambridge University, said he expects Mr Abubakar to hold onto the restructuring message in the general election. There have been concerns, even in Mr Abubakar’s campaign, that the restructuring message, while it might resonate in the south, could be politically toxic in the north.
Northern Nigeria has been viewed from the south as being largely disinterested in the restructuring Nigeria project, and politicians from the region have declined to brighten the narrative by staying away from the topic.
Mr Buhari has not committed himself to the issue, and his administration quickly abandoned the outcome of the 2014 national conference convened by President Goodluck Jonathan.
Mr Abubakar has remained arguably most popular mainstream politician from the north ideologically incensed by the current Constitution, although some northern thought leaders like Ango Abdullahi are also sold on the idea.
“Mr Abubakar is going to be running on promises, plans and polices,” Mr Kila said. “Whereas, the incumbent would have to run on promises and performance.”
The professor said this could serve as a bulwark against undue pressure that could be mounted on the former vice president.
“Mr Abubakar as the challenger only has to show that he has better policies, and he is capable of that,” he said. “It is President Buhari who would need to explain to Nigerians what he has been able to achieve in office against what he promised.”
Mr Kila said Mr Abubakar should also expect to face accusations he is corrupt from Mr Buhari’s camp, but that would probably say much about the administration than the opposition candidate.
“Although he has denied all alegations of being corrupt and threw out a challenge for anyone who has evidence of corruption against him to produce it in public, President Buhari would still make the allegations, nonetheless,” Mr Kila said. “If that happens, then Nigerians would ask why the former vice president is still walking free without any immunity and the EFCC or other agencies could not arrest and charge him.”
Allegations of corruption against Mr Abubakar have refused to fizzle out since he left office in 2007. He was reportedly indicted in a dossier prepared by the EFCC, but a court later quashed the claims in December 2006 and paved the way for Mr Abubakar to stand as a candidate in the 2007 election.
He dismissed the document as part of a vindictive plot to victimise him because he fell out with Mr Obasanjo at the time. Messrs Abubakar and Obasanjo finally resolved their differences on Thursday with the latter endorsing Mr Abubakar’s presidential bid.
Mr Abubakar has also strongly denied being wanted in the United States on money laundering charges, another claim his opponents have long bandied.
He was said to have given the infamous $100,000 reportedly found in jailed former congressman Williams Jefferson’s refrigerator. But American courts found no evidence that Mr Jefferson received bribes from foreign actors, which means prosecutors could not link Mr Abubakar to the $100,000 exhibit.
The former vice president has not been able to visit the U.S. since 2007, which his critics have used to insinuate his guilt. He, however, insisted that he was not wanted in the U.S., and publicly said he applied for visa but was denied. In any case, he said, the Nigerian constitution does not require that he must have an American visa to be eligible for presidency, and used Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s status to buttress his argument that once he becomes the president, he would be invited by the U.S.
Mr Kila said while corruption claims against Mr Abubakar have not been proven, it is in his latest campaign promise that Nigerians would be able to determine his sincerity and uprightness as a leader.
“He has made a promise that he will step down after one term,” Mr Kila said. “Nigerians should hold him to his words and ensure that he retires at 75.”