Ambition Vs. Leadership: How the 2023 presidential election may have been won and lost

10 Jul 2022, 12:00 am
Jide Akintunde
Ambition Vs. Leadership: How the 2023 presidential election may have been won and lost

Feature Highlight

Months before the next general election, the consensus for Igbo president has been defeated. This is so, regardless of whether or not Peter Obi becomes president in 2023.

The electoral race to Aso Rock Presidential Villa in 2023 has narrowed to the candidates of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, respectively. But Labour Party’s Peter Obi is likely to have a say in the matter. His candidacy is clearly the most popular on social media. However, the role that the virtual world has played in Nigeria’s election is to reflect the situations in the physical world of Nigeria’s realpolitik, not the other way around. Whether Obi can upend this is anybody’s guess at this time.

Cheery or grave election

Until the primaries of the political parties were concluded last month, the next year’s presidential election was going to be either cheery or grave. For it to rouse Nigerians, the major candidates in the election would have to be relatively young, well-educated, professionally competent, and cosmopolitan. And, at the minimum, both the APC and PDP would have to pick their candidates from the southern part of the country, specifically from the Southeast.

These requirements have a fundamental utility. Together, they would produce, in every sense, the very opposite of President Muhammadu Buhari as his successor. Over the last seven years, overwhelming majority of the citizens have been disheartened by Buhari’s presidency – including those who voted for him. His ill-health (associable with advanced age), certificate saga, economic mismanagement, nepotism and the escalation of insecurity have caused most citizens to despair.

A southern president from Igbo’s Southeast was also thought to be overdue in 2023. For a sense of equity and justice – as promoted by power rotation between the Northern and Southern parts of the country – an ideal Igbo candidate had also become an ideal president for the country. Not few people believe this is a necessity to counter separatist agitations, provide a sense of belonging to all Nigerians, and show that the citizens can aspire to any position in their country.

These aspirations are not a luxury. The economy has grown at below 2 percent – which is above the population growth rate of 2.8 percent – on the average since 2016. While the Buhari administration has invested in road and rail infrastructures, it has amassed over N26 trillion in new public debt, raising the share of debt service as a percentage of government revenue above 70 percent. The government’s lack of competence and policy coordination in other areas of economic management, combined with insecurity, global recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, has spread poverty to half the population.

The poor performance of the economy has frustrated the citizens, driving many to relocate abroad, and instigating ethnic nationalism and an upsurge in criminal activities. But from all indications now, unfortunately, it is improbable that the 2023 presidential election will produce a leader that can fundamentally address the many issues bedevilling the country.

Defeated Consensus

Months before the next general election, the consensus for Igbo president has been defeated. This is so, regardless of whether or not Mr. Obi becomes president in 2023. His candidacy would have kept the aspiration for power-shift to the Southeast alive, had he emerged as a candidate of the PDP. But he had to leave the party three days before its presidential primary because Atiku Abubakar, who hails from the Northeast and thought to be able to out-muscle other aspirants in the fight for the presidential ticket of the PDP, was set to do just that. Indeed, any concession for Peter Obi as arguably the best Igbo presidential aspirant of the party was discountenanced by the other gladiators in the hunt for the PDP’s presidential ticket.

It has been argued that PDP was not morally bound to honour the power rotation arrangement which has been a major mechanism for maintaining a geopolitical balance and keeping the current democracy alive and kicking. Since the last president from the PDP – Goodluck Jonathan – hails from the South, some elements within the party said the next candidate of the PDP would have to come from the North.

This is a flawed, self-interested argument by its peddlers. PDP’s consensus about power rotation was not about which part of the country its presidential candidate will come from. It was about where the president will come from. Of course, the party had more or less envisioned Nigeria as a one-party state in the Fourth Republic, during which it will rule for at least straight 60 years from 1999. This partisan arrogance was defeated in 2015 when Buhari became president on the platform of the APC. But in achieving the unprecedented feat of defeating an incumbent president, the APC had to evoke power rotation – from the South, back to the North.

The emergence of Tinubu as APC presidential flagbearer because of the strong support of the party’s state governors from the North who argued that the South has to produce the next president, indicates power rotation is a consensus across the dividing line of the two major parties. That dividing line itself is blurry. Atiku, who wielded the PDP presidential ticket in 2019 as he is also doing now, was a presidential aspirant on the APC party platform in 2015. Similarly, the current chairman of the APC, Abdullahi Adamu, was a two-term PDP governor and was also elected senator on the party’s platform. In short, power rotation was meant to be a consensus among the political elite.

The power-rotation gentleman’s arrangement was imperfect, not least because it is legally non-binding. Its defeat in 2022 only shows that Nigerian frontline politicians are not gentlemen.

Ambitious Men
Essentially on the presidential ballot next year will be the long-term ambitions of two men – Tinubu and Atiku. The aspirations of Nigerians are not going to be very much on the ballot. Neither Tinubu nor Atiku represents the leadership that Nigerians broadly want in 2023. Both of them are old and tired, but they believe that they have to occupy the Presidential Villa before they finally retire.

Also, neither of them can offer moral leadership to the country. And for both of them – even based on the experience of their prime years in government – their hope of performance rests squarely on their political appointees. But even as Tinubu had worked with technocrats when he was governor of Lagos State and Atiku brought a few technocrats into government when he was vice president, the bitter lesson from the Buhari administration is that the president – supported by his inner circle – must be able to coordinate the works of his appointees for the technocrats to be effective. The health of the leading candidates – which again is natural with age – may stretch the hope of a vicarious presidential performance.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu

Bola Ahmed Tinubu is enigmatic. His name, parentage, state of origin, and educational qualifications are subjects of controversy. But he has been riding the chaos, seemingly on his way to the summit of the country’s political leadership.

Tinubu had his university education in the United States. It is pretty much confirmed that the institution he attended was Chicago State University – not the more prestigious University of Chicago he said he attended in his sworn, notarised statement when submitting his nomination form for contesting the governorship of Lagos in the 1999 general election. Having majored in accounting, he went on to work as an accountant with Mobil.

BAT, as Tinubu is known with his initials, was a senator in the short-lived Third Republic. He later joined the pro-democracy movement which led to his self-exile, after the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida had annulled the June 12, 1993, presidential election.

Tinubu was the governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007. His standout achievement was instituting the framework that dramatically increased the collection of internally generated revenue (IGR) in the state. But this success has also shown that the leadership ethos of BAT is anything but selfless. His firm has continued to collect taxes on behalf of the Lagos State government, earning a handsome commission from it.

Since his constitutional tenure ended in 2007, Tinubu has been the de facto governor of the state. During his 23-year ‘governorship’ of Lagos, he has grown immeasurably rich and influenced the election of a president, many governors, lawmakers and the leadership of the National Assembly. By any consideration, however, the development of Lagos has faltered while Tinubu has become rich and powerful.

BAT is extremely calculating. He knows when to advance, hibernate, or retreat. His support for other people’s political ambitions over the years was part of his calculation for ultimately realising his own. And so, he declared that he wants to be president in 2023 to realise his ‘ambition’. While he has supported others, he now says “Emi lo kan” – meaning it is my turn.

2023, Tinubu says, is his turn – to be president. But to do what with the presidency? So far, he has not provided any answer whatsoever to the question.

Atiku Abubakar

Atiku Abubakar has a distinction in Nigeria’s politics and leadership. He is the only one amongst the political elite who is popularly recognised by his first name. So, for the former vice president, it does not smack of disrespect to publicly identify him on a first-name basis.

Atiku was a former officer of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) – an institution that is disreputable for the general corruption of its officers. After winning the governorship of Adamawa State in December 1998, he was adopted by the PDP candidate in the February 1999 presidential election, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. In many ways, Atiku defined the Office of the Vice President as powerful and influential. Using the Office – or abusing it – he ultimately helped in redefining who shouldn’t be considered for vice president after him. Little surprise, therefore, that he rejected Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike – a man that is ambitious, powerful and influential like VP Atiku was – as his running mate in 2023.

Atiku is a man capable of great miscalculations. As vice president, he wanted the job of his boss. When he had reached a point of no return in scheming to deny Obasanjo second term in 2003, he backed down. Thereafter, he became a political enemy of the then-President who ensured that he did not succeed him.

Since then, Atiku’s questionable wealth has fuelled his presidential ambition only to be confronted with the limitation of his money politics. And so, he won the PDP presidential ticket for 2023 but he is already realising that he cannot rally the party’s top guns behind him.

2019 was Atiku’s best shot at the presidency. He ran against Buhari, who had had a disastrous first term. By some account, Atiku won the election of that year, but he was allegedly denied his victory. His ambition in 2023 is treacherous against the Igbos – who backed him en masse in 2019 to their great cost – as 2023 was believed to be Igbo’s turn to produce the president. It would have been a great ending to Atiku’s political career had he decided to back such a noble cause; but he, instead, decided to betray it.

The hope of Atiku’s victory hinges on the possibility of kith-and-kin politics in which the predominantly Northern Muslims of the Northwest and Northeast would back him as a bloc. But this is not a very much viable prospect. And his candidacy is not likely to enjoy majority support in any of the remaining four geopolitical zones of the country. Even if he substitutes his current running mate, the governor of Delta State Ifeanyi Okowa, for his Rivers counterpart, Nyesom Wike, he would only be substituting one electorally consequential state in the South South for the other.


Peter Obi provides the best prospective leadership for the country in 2023. Although he has been a member of the political establishment of the Southeast as a two-term governor of Anambra State from 2006 - 2014, and at the national level as running mate to Atiku in 2019, he cuts a likeable image that is uncommon for politicians of such longstanding and profile. His wealth can be traced to his enterprise outside of government. He practices and advocates financial prudence, easily connects with people, and quite empathetic.

Without disrespect intended, Obi is also made for the Nigerian largely semi-literate audience and illiterate voters. He shoots from the hip. Speaking mostly from his ‘heart’ and not from his ‘head’, his policy prescriptions are often populist and discernible to be misguided on close examination. For instance, he said he wants to take the country "from consumption to production" and on this mission, ‘instead of spending foreign debt on consumption, we should all starve’.

However, these expressions can easily be refined to advise fundamental policy reforms that can make positive impacts under his leadership. In any case, his supporters are connecting to his heart and not his head.

When it looked like he would not have the opportunity to shift the paradigm of our national politics and governance from inside the political establishment, Peter Obi decided to come out of it. His major test would be whether he can actually campaign against his major opponents – including Atiku whom he describes as his ‘leader’. If he doesn’t, he will be taken as unserious by currently undecided voters. But his opponents will ruthlessly dismiss him as a lightweight who has no ‘structure’ to win. In this scenario, many would think they would have ‘wasted’ their votes if they cast it for a candidate that, based on substance, is the best on the ballot in 2023.

Changing the Forecast

A forecast is not the same thing as a prophesy. Although both offer insight – and sometimes warnings – about future events, a forecast is more amenable to change. The current reality suggests that Nigerians have to come together in 2023 to give an unmistaken mandate about how the country should be run. They need to demand a rigorous campaign season. Plans to address the big subjects – the economy, security, equity and justice, restructuring the country, etc. – should be demanded from these major candidates. This is the way to strengthen what is otherwise a very weak presidential ballot in 2023. Leadership can thereby snatch victory from the jaw of mere ambition.

Jide Akintunde is Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine. He is also Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum.

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