Atiku resignation widens cracks in ruling APC

Atiku resignation widens cracks in ruling APC
  • PublishedJanuary 1, 2018

The ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) has been described as an alliance of uneasy bedfellows, who united only in order to win the 2015 elections against the then-incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. As the jostling begins in the run-up to new polls in 2019, faction in-fighting within the party has now assumed a new dimension, with the resignation of heavyweight politician Atiku Abubakar. Lagun Akinloye reports from Lagos.

In the turbulent arena of Nigerian politics, alliances are often made and broken. Today’s friend can quickly become tomorrow’s rival. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), led by beleaguered President Muhammadu Buhari, has had to learn it the hard way as former vice-president and current political heavyweight, Atiku Abubakar acrimoniously resigned from the party in late November last year.

Abubakar, a major APC financier who contributed considerable resources to the party’s groundbreaking election victory in 2015, blamed the continued failure of the government to bring about positive change in the lives of ordinary Nigerians as a key reason behind his actions. He also lashed out against  the “draconian clampdown on all forms of democracy within the party” by the Buhari administration.

The APC, already splintered into competing factions, has been encountered difficulties balancing the various rival interests and personalities within the party and Abubakar has become the first prominent political player from within to break ranks.

With little over a year to go before the 2019 elections, the loss of Abubakar has exposed major cracks within the ruling party, setting the stage for other ambitious and disgruntled APC members to follow suit as the jostling and horse-trading for influence in the run-up to the polls intensifies.

A party of political convenience

The APC, formed 18 months before the 2015 general elections, created an alliance of political expediency that brought together four of the country’s largest opposition parties. The strongest were the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), led by the maverick former Governor of Lagos state, Ahmed Bola Tinubu and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) spearheaded by President Muhammadu Buhari.

The APC were further bolstered in the months preceding the elections by a deluge of defections from the then ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Five serving Governors, 49 National Assembly legislators and a host of prominent PDP members, including Abubakar himself and current Senate President, Bukola Saraki decamped to the newly formed mega-opposition party. They were united in their staunch opposition to the then incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan’s ambition to seek re-election under the PDP banner.

Having presented a united front and conducting an engaging and exciting campaign, the APC would pull off the seemingly impossible, with their presidential candidate Buhari defeating the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in the widely lauded polls, where they became the first opposition party to win a national election in Nigeria’s political history. 

But this is where the fairytale ended as the APC’s inexperience and internal political differences began to show.

Factional lines began to emerge as the three dominant groups within the party, representing the former ACN, CPC and rebel PDP members collided on how to share plum government positions and leadership roles within the National Assembly.

“The APC was never a real political party to begin with,” says Ekere Nelson, a Lagos-based lawyer, describing the collective as “strange bedfellows” whose sole objective was bringing an end to the 16-year “misrule” of the PDP.

Refusing to play

Infighting and dissent within the APC could have been better dealt with had it not been for the open disdain President Buhari has shown for the Abuja style of politics.

Buhari, a retired major-general who ruled Nigeria as a military dictator from 1983-5, has continued to struggle with the requirements of leadership in a democratic setting, a tall feat for a man so used to getting his own way. He has insulated himself from the various power blocs within the party with the help of a small group of family members and trusted allies from his days in the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). 

This has not only helped to stoke more discord, but has also allowed for the ceding of control of the APC’s internal party structures to the respective factions. “Buhari is a figurehead who holds minimal sway over his party” said Matthew Page, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Africa Programme.

Yet Buhari, as president, is firmly in control of the executive arm of the government, whilst still commanding the respect of party members despite his hands-off approach to politicking.

Having seemingly recovered from a protracted and undisclosed illness which has seen him take lengthy medical trips abroad since the start of his presidency, he is expected to run for a second term in office.

The collective desire to stay in power should be enough to keep the APC accord intact, with Page further asserting: “Although party unity is fraying in some states, the APC structures that came together to win in 2015 appear to be hanging together in order to reprise an election win in 2019.”

Dissent not tolerated

Maintaining a coalition of competing interests within a political party has always proven difficult and the APC has continually struggled in this respect. Two months after its election victory, the main architect of the PDP faction which decamped to the APC, Bukola Saraki defied his new party to emerge as the Senate president with the help of his former colleagues. Lai Mohammed, the then National Publicity Secretary of the APC would label Saraki’s manoeuvre as ‘the highest level of indiscipline and treachery’. 

The presidency has attempted to use the powers at its disposal to browbeat members who challenged its authority, with Saraki being legally charged for false asset declaration and forgery shortly after his “insubordination”. He was eventually acquitted on both counts.

A similar approach was taken against the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Aisha Al Hassan, who declared her allegiance to her “godfather” Atiku Abubakar, if president Buhari decided not to seek re-election. She conveniently became the subject of corruption investigations.

Abubakar has seen his own business empire targeted in what is being seen as politically motivated manoeuvres. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), a leading government agency, recently cancelled a multi-billion naira contract with Intels, the former Vice-President’s largest company.

The presidency’s intolerance of dissent, its inappropriate use of executive powers and absence of consultation was described in Abubakar’s resignation letter as having fostered “arbitrariness and unconstitutionality that has led to fractionalisation” within the APC.

If the warnings are not heeded, animosity within the party will grow and this could play directly into the hands of the opposition PDP. Abubakar’s “political sin” is his long-held ambition of becoming Nigeria’s president and this put him at loggerheads with Buhari loyalists within the APC, eventually leading to his departure.

Dayo Adeyeye, the National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, welcomed the news of Abubakar’s resignation, declaring “the doors are open for him to come home”. Tade Ipedeola, an Oyo State-based political commentator, predicted that “If Atiku joins the PDP, many others will follow; giving the party much needed momentum.”

The APC has failed to transform itself from a coalition of interest groups that formed the merger, into a cohesive political entity. There are many within the party who will be oiling their political machinery as the election season begins in March 2018, with the local government, state and national primaries.

How the party manages the delicate balancing act of keeping the competing factions, grandees and state executives united will determine whether Abubakar’s resignation is dismissed as a singular act of dissent, or comes to be seen as the first sign of the APC’s unravelling. NA

Written By
Lagun Akinloye

Lagun Akinloye, a British Nigerian, studied Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of West Africa, specifically Nigeria. Follow him on twitter @L_Akinloye.

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