Presidential candidates Peter Obi and Rabiu Kwankwaso are exploring whether they can run on the same ticket, in deference to clamour by supporters who see the two as the best prospects for ending the dominance of the ruling APC and main opposition PDP, both of which have taken the country nowhere since 1999.
With their exuberant supporters on social media as the matchmakers, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) announced last week that they were talking about joining forces for the 2023 presidential election.
Mr Obi in particular has been a sensation on social media since he declared his presidential ambition and later left the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) last month to pick the ticket of the LP unopposed. A campaign in full steam on social media has deified him as the answer to Nigeria’s poor leadership challenge – a frugal man full of ideas and a prudent administrator with a glittering service record who will take Nigeria to the rosy future of his supporters’ dream.
These supporters say they have the number and the spread to take him to the Aso Rock Presidential Villa next May. But perhaps to be doubly sure, they have recently been asking him to team up with Mr Kwankwaso, a 66-year-old fellow itinerant politician whose odyssey in search of the presidency is longer than Mr Obi’s.
In a statement he issued from Awka, the Anambra State capital, on Saturday, the Chairman of the Peter Obi Support Network, Marcel Ngogbehei, announced gleefully that the discussion between the two candidates was yielding fruitful results.
“We are delighted with the success so far recorded in the ongoing talks between our principal, Mr Peter Obi and Dr Rabiu Kwankwaso on one hand and the Labour Party and the New Nigeria Peoples Party on the other hand.
“The reports we are getting from the committee charged with the responsibility to carry out this discussion are encouraging, and we want to assure Nigerians that the long-awaited rebirth of our great nation is almost here with us.
“Let’s hold our breaths, before the window for substitution of candidates is closed, we are certain that the remaining grey areas would have been sorted out and Nigerians will be greeted with the best political news since independence,” Mr Ngogbehei stated.
Despite their newly gained adoration of the youth, Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso are no revolutionaries. Both are in fact wandering old politicians who have each run their states as governors for two terms and left different records. Each is now also in his third political party in eight years.
Mr Obi was elected on the platform of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), a regional party built around the personality of the former Biafran leader, the late Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. At the end of his tumultuous eight-year tenure in 2014 (during which he was illegally removed for short spells twice), he fell out with his handpicked successor, Willie Obiano, and fled the party to the PDP.
Atiku Abubakar, who he still reveres as his leader, chose him as his running mate for the 2019 presidential election. He was poised to contest this year’s primary against Mr Abubakar and 13 others when he suddenly announced his departure from the party, three days before the event. He got the LP ticket within days of joining the party and has been a new man since.
Mr Kwankwaso on his part has become a phenomenon in Kano politics after serving two non-consecutive terms as governor of the state. His erstwhile ally and now a firm adversary, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje, acknowledged him as a “father of modern Kano” for his role in the massive infrastructural development of the ancient city since the turn of the millennium.
But it was his achievements in the education sector that made the youth of the state flock to his Kwankwasiyya movement. He sent hundreds of them to universities abroad on public scholarship that opened new vistas for many beneficiaries of the scheme.
Marriage made in heaven?
It is easy to see why their supporters think the two need each other. Mr Obi’s campaign seems to have been embraced across regional and ethnic lines on Twitter, but pundits remain sceptical that the virtual support can berth in polling units without a formidable party structure guiding it.
Well, maybe except in his home Southeast region, the PDP has dominated the region, especially in presidential elections. Members of the party have boasted that Mr Obi cannot win anywhere in the region, even in his home state of Anambra.
Saturday’s governorship election in Ekiti State gives a glimpse of the scale of the challenge that Mr Obi faces. The LP candidate, Roland Daramola, got a total of 295 votes from across the 16 local government areas, despite some of his prominent online campaigners being from the South-west state.
A report had claimed that LP had an alliance with the All Progressives Congress (APC) for the election, but its National Publicity Secretary, Abayomi Arabambi, had promptly described the report as fake.
The party’s abysmal performance in Ekiti lends credence to the scepticism about the Obi revolution or at least indicates that his message is not yet trending on the streets even in Southern Nigeria. There are eight months to the election and public campaigns will not get underway until the end of September, so time may be on their side.
But even if Mr Obi manages to gain real-time support in his half of the country, he realises that he needs some steady hands to help him across the rivers Niger and Benue, such as the APC merger did for President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015.
Kwankwaso’s political activities have so far been limited to Kano and its neighbouring states of Jigawa and Katsina. But even in Kano, his electoral record is mixed. He lost reelection in 2003 and could not resume his governorship until 2011 after Governor Ibrahim Shekarau had done two consecutive terms.
And many tend to forget that the turmoil that accompanied the presidential poll of that year helped the PDP to win some northern states, including Kano. Following the declaration of President Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the poll, thugs sympathetic to the candidate of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Mr Buhari, went on the rampage. The outcome of the poll, the violence and the repression by the security agencies that followed, drove CPC enforcers underground and ended the interest of many supporters of the party in the state elections, thus leaving the field to the PDP.
That was the circumstance under which Mr Kwankwaso returned to the Government House in Kano. His record in his second term has been variously described as stellar and he won an election to the Senate in 2015 after defecting to join Mr Buhari in the APC. But he could not help the PDP to win much in the state in 2019, although the integrity of the governorship election that returned Mr Ganduje remains dubious.
However, Mr Kwankwaso’s camp has been swelled by defectors from the APC, one of the most prominent being his old foe, Mr Shekarau. Mr Ganduje’s poor management of the ruling party and the damage done to his own personal integrity by the dollar-in-agbada pocket bribery scandal has added to the grief of the APC in Kano and brightened the chances of Mr Kwankwaso’s NNPP in the state.
Mr Kwankwaso also controversially left some of his allies in control of the PDP to ensure that the main opposition party does not pose much threat to him and his upstart party.
As the only prominent name from the North-west that will be on the ballot paper on February 25, Mr Kwankwaso can hope this to be his breakthrough year as a politician of national significance. He is eager to fully harness his potential in his own part of the country as Mr Buhari did for 12 years before finding helpers in the South.
Who is the boss?
So how will Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso work together if they agree to? The time scale and procedure set by the Electoral Act 2022 have ruled out the possibility of a merger of the two parties.
Section 81(2) of the Act states that: “Political parties intending to merge shall each give to the Commission nine months’ notice of their intention to do so before a general election.”
It is less than nine months to February 25 and the time for nomination of candidates is over, so LP and NNPP cannot merge, at least not for the purpose of next year’s election. But they can enter into an informal alliance, in which the two parties can back each other’s candidates.
Even more relevant to the Obi-Kwankwaso dream is that the two can still run on the same ticket. Parties can substitute their candidates three months before the election, but that will require fresh primaries.
However, presidential candidates can substitute running mates before July 15, according to the INEC timetable. That will not require another primary.
All that is required is for either Mr Kwankwaso or Mr Obi to formally withdraw as the candidate of his party and for the other to apply to INEC to substitute him as his running mate.
However, this takes us to the important question of who would run behind the other on their joint ticket. The supporters of Mr Obi clamouring for him to drag in Mr Kwankwaso as his running mate are perhaps unaware of the personality of the former Kano governor.
According to associates, Mr Kwankwaso never leaves anyone in doubt about who is the boss when he is in a room with people. They spoke of officials and aides having to remove their caps and bow while addressing him. He is seen as the leader of a mass movement who has a halo over his head, a leader on a mission to conclude Aminu Kano’s redemption of the talakawas of the North from the oppression of their rulers.
Mr Kano, who died in 1983, formed the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) in the First Republic and the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) in the Second Republic for that political mission. When in 1978, Obafemi Awolowo urged him to quit his “lame donkey” party and become his running mate in the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) for the 1979 election, he rejected the overtures. Both eventually ran on their own donkey and lost the election.
Rabiu Kwankwaso’s Bigger profile
Mr Kwankwaso also has a bigger political profile, compared to Mr Obi. He was the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1992 and 1993 and was a senator between 2015 and 2019. He was also Minister of Defence between 2003 and 2007, before being appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo as his Special Envoy to Somalia and Darfur.
Mr Obi has held no other public office aside from being governor, although he was the vice-presidential candidate of a major party in 2019.
Added to that is the fact that the NNPP candidate is older than Mr Obi in the presidential race. After the PDP gave President Jonathan the right of first refusal for its nomination in 2014, the then Kano governor joined other governors and lawmakers in defecting to the then newly formed APC, where he immediately ran in the presidential primary, returning second ahead of Atiku Abubakar but behind President Muhammadu Buhari. He also ran in the PDP primary in 2018 after returning to the party but lost the ticket that time to Mr Abubakar.
Not a believer in zoning
But the basis on which Mr Obi’s supporters would be expecting Mr Kwankwaso to be the running mate is probably because of the mood for a Southern president after eight years of President Buhari. However, Mr Kwankwaso does not share that mood. In fact, it is believed that the fear that the PDP would zone its presidential ticket to the South contributed to his quitting the party to seek the ticket of a minor party. This is not just about his personal ambition, he does not believe in the principle of power rotation.
He was also said to have made Kano PDP delegates (remember that his followers still constitute the leadership of the party in the state) vote for Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike at the PDP convention in May, in the hope of stopping, in particular, Sokoto Governor Aminu Tambuwal, but also Mr Abubakar from picking the ticket.
A loss for Mr Abubakar would have left the entire North to Mr Kwankwaso as the only prominent Northerner running for president. Now he is the only big name from the North-west in the race and believes he would do better at the poll, at least in that zone, than the PDP candidate.
Although this reporter does not have details of their discussion, this will likely be the bargaining chip of Mr Kwankwaso in the talks with Mr Obi.
On the other hand, Mr Obi, who forsook his chance for renomination as a running mate on a bigger platform (PDP), will be reluctant to play the second fiddle on a tiny platform.
Also, the basis for his large following among the youth is their view that he approximates the ideal Nigerian president and that he alone can make the rebirth of their country happen. In that realm of idealism, Mr Kwankwaso is only relevant to the extent that he can help Mr Obi become president and not vice versa. Therefore, they are unlikely to accept the proposal of Mr Kwankwaso topping the ticket.
The next few weeks will reveal how the romance between the new political celebrities of the Nigerian youth turns out.
The 17 presidential candidates submitted the names of their running mates to INEC last week. However, only Mr Abubakar of the PDP among the top four candidates appears to have taken a final decision on his nomination. He chose Delta State governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, after days of contemplation and drama that featured media reports that a committee of the party had voted to endorse the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, for the slot.
The pick that has generated the most intense interest within and outside his party, is that of Bola Tinubu of the APC. Nigerians have come to expect regional and religious balance in the presidency.
Only two heads of state in Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon and then General Buhari, had deputies either of the same faith or from the same regions as them. And only Moshood Abiola in 1993 won an election with the same faith ticket, but that election was immediately annulled although for unrelated spurious reasons.
However, Mr Tinubu, as a Southern Muslim, is afraid of losing the support of his Muslim backers in the North if he should pick a Christian from that region. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) had been sniping at his heels even before he won the APC ticket, warning against a Muslim-Muslim ticket.
However, making an analytical view point in an article titled, Why Tinubu will choose a Muslim running mate, a Professor of Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania, USA, concluded: “if Tinubu would have any chance of trouncing his old political associate and mutual competitor for power, Atiku Abubakar, in the 2023 presidential election, he has no choice than to choose a Northern Muslim – most probably a serving governor. It is not the choice of equity, fairness and justice. We should wish for such a choice in the Nigeria of the future. For now, it is the choice of realpolitik.”
Mr Tinubu last week quietly submitted the name of Kabir Masari from Katsina State as his running mate. His aides said he did this to buy time for more consultations on a substantive choice. He, like other presidential candidates, has until July 15 to file the name of that final choice with INEC.