The night of the long knives
The open confrontation between President Olusegun Obasanjo and Vice President Abubakar Atiku is the climax of a long drawn out game of suspicion and mutual distrust since the 2002 Presidential primaries of the Peoples Democratic Party when a new group that had emerged and surrounded President Obasanjo began to sell the idea that Vice President Atiku was not good enough for a second term. The President himself had carried on with the campaign as if Atiku was no longer part of the ticket for the future. In response, Atiku's own supporters, obviously with the blessing of their boss, organized a massive, but underground media and intra-party attack against the President. This was the source of the recommendation of the Mandela option for President Obasanjo, the substance of which is that Obasanjo should be a single-term President and that he should hand over to his Deputy as Mandela did in the case of President Thabo Mbeki.
This campaign failed as Obasanjo was not interested in any Mandela option so called, and those within the PDP who wanted Atiku out of the way became so bold that they openly pushed the Atiku boys aside. Atiku needed to fight for his own future; if he was ditched as Vice President, his career would have been truncated. So, he fought back. He started making independent statements which often contradicted the President, at the time, he even openly criticized the government, forcing Obasanjo's spokespersons to issue a statement reassuring the public that the Presidency was "one". But in one instance the Vice President openly announced that he, Atiku made Obasanjo President by handing over to him, the PDM machinery which had been put in place by the late Musa Yar'Adua and which he, Atiku had led into the PDP.
The sub-text of this claim was that the President was after all not a politician until he was dragged into it after his return from prison, and to prove his newness in the game, he could not even win one state in 1999, or any majority votes in the South West which ought to be his political base. This political weakness and vulnerability were not just pushed in the President's face, the Atiku strategists made it clear that most of the Governors were on the Vice President's side, and that if it came to a show down, the President would lose the party's nomination, and Atiku would carry the flag for the PDP in 2003. Indeed, in the days leading to the 2002 PDP Convention, the Governors queued up behind Atiku. Obasanjo faced imminent disgrace. Whereas he was unpopular with the public, Atiku at the time was known as a generous man, with a listening ear, he even enjoyed better media coverage. The President literally had to go down on his knees to win the PDP nomination for 2002. There were reports about the President eating the humble pie and begging Governors and the Vice President to allow him lead the party in the then forthcoming elections. Atiku and the Governors hid their knives, Atiku was retained as running mate, and Obasanjo won the party's nomination.
This background is important to enable us appreciate the point that what is being played out between the President and the Vice President, now with a reversal of roles and political strength, draws attention to a basic law of power. It is dangerous in power-politics to give your enemy the advantage. It is even more dangerous to attempt to humiliate a man of power, in any circumstance whatsoever. In the game of power, whoever is with the advantage can be as deadly as the rattlesnake. When persons remark that the President does not have a forgiving spirit, it should be noted that in the game of power, there is no such thing as forgiveness. It is an ancient rule, tied to the ego of those involved in the game. The moment Vice President Atiku gave up the advantage in 2002, he should have known that he was literally a "dead man". Power is the strongest aphrodisiac invented by man; to rob a man of power, to threaten a man of power, for a subordinate to present his boss as a weakling is like a kiss of death. The issue at stake is not simply treachery/forgiveness; until one lives and the other dies symbolically if not literally, the game does not end.
I do not believe for example that there would be any reconciliation between both men. It is too late for that to happen. We must note that President Obasanjo started fighting Vice President Atiku and his supporters from the moment he regained his virility in 2002. He did not have a political base, of course this was the truth, so the first thing he did was to make sure that the PDP took nearly all the available elective positions in the South West in the 2003 elections, and the moment he achieved that, he had destroyed one of the basis for Atiku's political strength in 2002. The President was not in control of the party, so he started making moves to wrestle the PDP from the PDM, today, he has managed to install two Chairmen of the party and most of the principal officers, and in a recent show of muscle, he fired Audu Ogbeh whom he had installed as Chairman, and replaced him with Ahmadu Ali. Obasanjo's men are now so much in charge of the party that they can if they so wish, manipulate the party register, postpone the party convention and even change the party constitution!
Between 1999 and 2003, Atiku had been a prominent figure in the Obasanjo Presidency, so prominent that the Presidency was often referred to as the Obasanjo/Atiku Presidency. Before long, the Presidency dropped the Atiku tag. The President reduced his foreign travels, and whereas he gave many responsibilities to his Deputy during the first term, he has since 2003 reduced his work schedule, and treated him openly as a subordinate. On more than four occasions in the last two years, the President unilaterally fired members of the Vice President's media team: Garba Shehu, Adeolu Akande, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, and Chris Mammah; anyone who also appeared to be close or was reported to have been seen in the company of the Vice President was quietly declared a persona non grata. The effect was that the Presidency became divided between forces loyal to either the President or the Vice President. Whereas in the first term, both men had made efforts to reassure the public that they were on good terms, no such attempt was made any longer.
And when the Vice President began to behave as if he would love to succeed his boss in 2007, President Obasanjo not only put a stop to his campaigns, he also let the word out that although he does not know who his successor would be, he already knows those who will never succeed him! Those in the know in Abuja immediately stretched the message: Obasanjo has no plans to hand over to Atiku! Added to this was a widespread whispering campaign about the Vice President's integrity. Even the government-owned television station, the NTA which used to feature Atiku regularly, stopped promoting him. During the first term, Atiku had nominated many of his loyalists for political appointment, President Obasanjo has since removed many of them, in government and the party hierarchy, from office. Indeed, about two months ago, when the South African Vice President Jacob Zuma was booted out of office, I had remarked sarcastically that President Obasanjo may be tempted to also give Vice President Atiku, the Zuma treatment. Today, some pro-Obasanjo PDP leaders have advised that Atiku should resign or face impeachment.
What has triggered the present outbreak of open hostilities in the Presidential Villa was an interview granted ThisDay newspaper in which the Vice President asserted that the President has sworn before him not to seek a third term. On a previous occasion, the Vice President had also made comments about the need for integrity and accountability in party nominations, and moralised about his loyalty to President Obasanjo. On the surface of it, there was nothing harmful in Atiku's remarks. He even praised the President. But Atiku with that interview walked into an ambush. It was as if the President had been waiting for him to make any of those self-assertive statements he occasionally made in 2002. And so the President in a Presidential Media Chat took his Deputy to the cleaners. He openly accused him of disloyalty, memory loss, misrepresentation, misinformation.... By fighting his Deputy openly, the President behaved very badly.
I share the view, however, that the ThisDay interview may have been specially organized, and that the Vice President may have used it to dissociate himself from the current plans in certain quarters to impose President Obasanjo on Nigerians for another term. But the President's response has not helped matters either: he says the only oath he has taken is the oath to defend the constitution. Is he saying that if the National Assembly amends the Constitution, as is being suggested, and he is granted an extension or an extra four-year term, he would remain in office and talk about defending the Constitution? What is sad is that the Presidency has become the theatre of a "bolekaja" fight. In fact, we could wake up one morning to hear that Obasanjo and Atiku exchanged blows at a cabinet meeting and had to be separated! The Presidency is the soul of the Presidential system, even the soul of the nation. Can you imagine an American President using abusive language in public and accusing his Deputy openly of disloyalty? President Obasanjo and his Deputy have brought the Nigerian Presidency into disrepute. They have allowed their personal ambitions to become the key issue in that Presidency rather than the interests of the Nigerian people.
This kind of ego-tripping at the highest levels is to be expected, perhaps because Nigerian politics is so underdeveloped. When Nigerian politicians boast that there are no permanent friends in politics, what they mean is that in this country, politicians are not bound together by ideas, but by ego and ambition for power. Our politicians do not stand for anything, but their stomachs. Many of those who are now on President Obasanjo's side used to be Atiku's friends, and already the Obasanjo-Atiku face-off has divided the entire country into two camps politically, and the PDP into closets of intrigue. If Atiku thought that he was fighting for his political life in 2002, he was perhaps mistaken, now is the real battle. He has smoked out the enemy and he is now surrounded with long knives. He will either have to fight his way out of the ambush, or die on his feet. His opponent President Obasanjo is a war General who is used to drawing blood without batting an eyelid, and after eliminating in the last six years so many prominent figures: Okadigbo, Audu Ogbeh, the Alliance for Democracy, Tafa Balogun... Atiku would be for him just another target. But I suspect that there would be wounds and casualties on both sides of the battle.
President Obasanjo faces the danger of fighting on too many fronts, for clearly the present assault on Atiku would soon be extended to his supporters particularly those Governors who have been identified as Atiku's friends. It cannot be an accident that the story of the FBI raid on Atiku's house in the United States became front page story in the Nigerian media, about the same time as President Obasanjo was attacking the Vice President and yet the FBI event had occurred more than two weeks earlier. Rather than protest to the US authorities about the implications for Nigeria's image and demand an investigation or set up one, the Obasanjo camp is triumphant that the FBI is investigating Atiku. It is a pity that all this is yet another big distraction for a poorly focused government, and that the end-losers are the Nigerian people whose resources are being diverted into a long, unproductive battle. When the body bags begin to arrive, we shall start counting...
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