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NIGERIA: Vice President Fights for His Political Life

Sam Olukoya

LAGOS, Feb 10 2007 (IPS) - ‘’Military democracy,” this is what Nigeria’s vice-president Atiku Abubakar calls the electioneering process that is supposed to produce a successor for president Olusegun Obasanjo in April.

Abubakar believes he is best suited to succeed Obasanjo under whom he has been vice president since 1999. He says Obasanjo, a retired Army general, is using military tactics to scuttle his aspiration of succeeding him as president. ‘’We are dealing with a dictator,” Abubakar said of Obasanjo during a campaign rally.

Both men are locked in what is arguably the worst rancour between a Nigerian president and his deputy. In a newspaper interview, Abubakar confirmed the extent of the feud. ‘’We haven’t spoken in the last three months,” he said.

The feud between Obasanjo and Abubakar got out of hand last year, when the later led opposition to a constitutional amendment that would have enabled Obasanjo seek re-election for a third term in office.

Contrary to expectations, Obasanjo’s failed third-term bid did not make it easier for Abubakar to pursue his presidential ambition. In the last months, the government has created one obstacle after another for him in what seems retaliation for his role in denying Obasanjo the opportunity of a third term in office.

First, the vice president was accused of mismanaging the Petroleum Technology Development Fund which was under his supervision.

This was followed by suspension from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for three months. The suspension denied Abubakar the opportunity to contest the party’s presidential primaries.

Refusing to be bullied by his colleagues, Abubakar left the party, contested and won the presidential primaries of the opposition Action Congress. The president and his vice are now in opposing parties.

‘’This is good for democracy and for the checks and balances in government, because for once we have someone in government who can stand up to question the actions of the president,” says Jire Afolabi, a political scientist, based in Lagos.

The ruling party is making legal moves to get Abubakar out of office. Nigeria’s constitution prescribes that both president and vice president come from the same party. This is one of many legal battles between Abubakar and the ruling PDP which is effectively under Obasanjo’s control.

Bode Olufemi, a pro-democracy campaigner, expresses concerns about the tactics being employed in the feud between the president and his deputy. ”By the tactics being employed you will wonder whether true democracy is being practiced,” he says. ‘’What we are seeing is the man with the stronger political power using (tactics) against the weaker (man) in the name of democracy.”

President Obasanjo denies his fight against Abubakar is retaliation for the vice president’s role in his failed third-term bid. Rather he says his grouse with him is part of his fight against corruption.

‘’The number two man in this country is fighting a fight of a life time because of corruption around and about him,” he told a team of American newspaper editors on a fact-finding mission to Nigeria recently.

But two reports accusing Abubakar of corruption have been thrown out of the court. Abubakar is trying to turn the table against Obasanjo by also making allegations of corruption against him. He accuses the Nigerian government of approving over 2 billion dollars to buy weapons to suppress the people of the Niger Delta region who are agitating for a share of the oil revenue taken from their land. He says if he becomes president he would channel funds to the development of the Niger Delta to satisfy the aspiration of the people there.

If Obasanjo hands over power to another civil government in April as schedule, it will be the first time Nigeria will make a transition from one democratic government to another. Since independence from Britain in 1960, democratic governance has always been punctuated by military coups.

But the build up to the April general elections has been characterized by violence and political assassinations that have left scores of people dead in the last months. ‘’There is tension in the land,” says Godwin Tonjo from the Niger Delta, one of the regions worst hit by the spate of violence and political assassinations.

Many see violence and the feud between Obasanjo and the vice president as a threat to democracy. ‘’Both of them command huge political following and it is very dangerous for the country,” says Olufemi.

President Obasanjo is a Christian from the South and power is likely to shift to the Muslim north. There are 27 presidential candidates but many believe the election will be a close race between three Muslim Northerners:

Abubakar for the Action Congress; Umaru Musa Yar’Adua from the ruling PDP and Muhammadu Buhari who is running on the platform of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP).

In a country where power of incumbency is very crucial, president Obasanjo’s support is a major advantage for Yar’Adua who is currently governor of Katsina State. The state is one of 12 operating the Sharia legal system that observes such punishments as stoning to death and amputation of the limbs of criminals. Some people have raised concerns about Yar’Adua’s candidature.

On his part, Buhari, who Obasanjo beat to second place in the 2003 presidential election, enjoys a lot of support in Northern Nigeria. Some of Nigeria’s smaller political parties have teamed up to support him.

But Buhari, who was military head of state between 1984 and 1985, does not have the support of human rights groups who say his rule was characterized by abuses.

The corruption allegations against Abubakar do not help his presidential aspiration even though the court voided the allegations against him.

Abubakar derives his strength from a powerful political structure that took him almost two decades to build. He also believes his feud with the president will work in his favour.

‘’It has enhanced my chances because people see that there is clear political victimization of me,” he said in a newspaper interview.

But the hurdles against him continue to increase. The latest is the inclusion of his name in a list of 135 politicians Nigeria’s anti-graft body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), says are too corrupt to contest the April elections.

‘’We are supposed to be practicing democracy in this country but this travail I am going through as the number two in this country is not proper,” he told a crowd of his supporters.

‘’We need democracy that will give freedom for anybody to aspire to any position in this country,” he said. It remains unclear whether or not Abubakar will have the freedom to contest the elections.

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