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The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, has come under fire following his advice to Northerners that they should vote for him in the 2023 election because he hails from the northern region.

Atiku, who stated this during an interactive session with the Arewa Joint Committee in Kaduna on Saturday, told his audience not to support a Yoruba or Igbo candidate in reference to the presidential candidates of the All Progressives Congress, Bola Tinubu and his Labour Party counterpart, Peter Obi.

The PDP flag bearer, a Fulani from Adamawa State, declared that “what the average Northerner needs is somebody who’s from the North and also understands that part of the country and has been able to build bridges across the country.

“This is what the Northerner needs. It doesn’t need a Yoruba or Igbo candidate. I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of northern origin,’’ the ex-vice-president stated in a viral video.

However, his comment has attracted widespread condemnation from the APC, the LP, the New Nigeria People’s Party, the Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, the apex Igbo group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and civil society organisations.

This is happening against the backdrop of the crisis in the PDP which has resulted in the withdrawal of five governors and many members of the Southern bloc of the party from Atiku’s campaign council.

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There are suggestions that the former Vice-President, through his statement on Saturday, might have breached Section 97 of the Electoral Act.

The section states, “A candidate, person or association that engages in campaigning or broadcasting based on religious, tribal or sectional reason to promote or oppose a particular political party or the election of a particular candidate, commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction to (a) a maximum fine of N1m or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both and (b) in the case of a political party, to a maximum of N10m.’’

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Those who criticized Atiku on Sunday said despite presenting himself as a pan-Nigerian candidate, the former vice-president’s previous actions had aroused suspicions about his stance on critical national issues.

Atiku stirred a firestorm in May after he deleted a post on his Facebook and Twitter pages condemning the killing of Deborah Samuel, a student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, who was killed for allegedly posting comments that blasphemed Prophet Mohammed.

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After coming under a barrage of threats from northerners who asked him to forget his presidential ambition for criticising Samuel’s murder, Atiku hurriedly deleted the post, claiming it was done without his approval.

‘Atiku, a hypocrite’

Reacting, the ruling APC said Atiku’s statement inciting northern electorates to shun Igbo and Yoruba candidates was unbecoming of an elder statesman.

The National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Felix Morka, in a statement on Sunday described Atiku’s utterance as an attack on the country’s long-preserved national unity.

He attributed the statement to the PDP candidate’s desperation to rule the country.

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Scolding Atiku who is running for the President for the sixth time, the APC stated, “It is beyond the pale for a senior citizen and a former Vice-President of the Federal Republic to so brazenly instigate strife and disunity in our country in pursuit of his befuddled political self-interest.

“But it is not surprising coming from a desperate and serial failed candidate for the office of President. If, as Atiku believes the average Northerner needs a Northern President now, after a Northern President, when will they ever not need a Northern President?

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“What does Atiku think the average Southerner needs? Why is it about what the average Northerner needs, or even what the average Southerner may need? Why is it not about what Nigeria and Nigerians need? Nigerians need bold and visionary leadership anchored on a firm commitment to transcendental national unity, over and above ethnic or sectional obsessions.

“Atiku’s words ring loud of extreme and mindless desperation and such an extremely desperate man cannot and must not be entrusted with the most important job of President – a job whose core duty is that of leading, uniting and working in the best interest of all in an ethnoreligious, pluralistic society as Nigeria. Our country does not need this kind of highly inflammable rhetoric now or ever.’’

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The party further expressed surprise that Atiku who claimed to be on a mission to unify the country could engage in acts that undermined national unity.

‘’The cat has finally been let out of the bag of him that pays lip service to unity while working hard to undermine our national unity. Our Northern citizens and patriots know far better than what Atiku thinks, and will not walk down that slippery slope with him,’’ Morka noted.

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Touting the credential of its presidential candidate, Tinubu, and contrasting it with Atiku’s statement, the ruling party noted, ‘’As governor of Lagos State, his executive cabinet was a rare and admirable reflection of ethnic and religious diversity.

‘’We are confident he will enthrone equity, fairness, inclusion, and unity as operating national policy when elected as President in next year’s general election, as we urge Nigerians to do. ’’

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Berating the PDP candidate, the APC Presidential Campaign Council stated that his incitement of Northerners to snub Yoruba and Igbo candidates has exposed his true intention to Nigerians.

This was contained in a statement signed by the Director, Media and Publicity of the Presidential Campaign Council, Bayo Onanuga.

Onanuga described Atiku’s speech as ‘’the worst expression of ethnocentric opportunism ever uttered by a former Nigerian Vice-President.’’

He said the PDP flag bearer’s speech clearly demonstrated ‘’how low a man honoured with the second highest office of the Nigerian Constitution is willing to sink in search of a perennial wild goose chase after the highest office in the land.’’

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The statement added, “It confirms the argument that Atiku has feasted on such base, cheap, primordial sentiments to use the masses and the elite of the North as the ladder to ascend to power since 1989 without any dividends to show.

“In clear terms, Atiku who stole the PDP ticket with a similar mindset has cast himself as a northern candidate, who the people from his region should solely support.

“We view Atiku’s public declaration which framed him as an ethnic and regional champion as unbecoming for a man who was once a former Vice-President of Nigeria. But we are not surprised by his desperate position. Atiku has resorted to whipping up ethnic sentiments, knowing that his chances of being elected have become a mirage.

“He has himself, not anybody else, to blame for his expected electoral misfortune. First, he broke the fundamental rules of power rotation in his party and the country.’’

Onanuga further dismissed Atiku’s claims as a detribalized Nigeria as pure hogwash, adding, ‘’the Nigerian public now knows better that a man who has been campaigning as a so-called unifier of our disparate groups, is a tribal jingoist, who has now totally eviscerated all pretensions to being a detribalised Nigerian.

“Atiku only pays lip service to national unity, despite that it features as one of the five cardinal points of his so-called ‘Covenant with Nigerians.’ The facade is over, he is now fully naked before the Nigerian people.”

LP demands apology

The Chief Spokesman of the Obi-Datti Presidential Campaign Council, Yunusa Tanko, called on Atiku to tender an unreserved apology to Nigerians over his ethnocentric sentiments.

Tanko stated that it is wrong for anybody whether in a position of authority or not to use the ethnic card as a yardstick or campaign tool in Nigeria at the moment.

He said, “What we observed is that it is unfair for somebody who had been in the saddle of leadership of this country to play the ethnic card as a way of generating support.

“Our principal has made it clear long before now that even when people are trying to play ethnic agenda, nobody should look at him as an Igbo candidate. Our movement is a Nigerian project for the Nigerian people.

“So, in the interest of our democracy and unity of this country, which of course we represent, I think the former vice-president should apologise to Nigerians in such a way that it would show him as a true leader of a free country.

“Our principal has made it clear too that if there are issues that have to do with his co-candidate, he would be able to answer them personally. I know he actually prefers to speak on issues like this personally.”

The media aide to the LP Presidential candidate, Emeka Obasi, told The PUNCH that he was shocked to see an elder statesman playing such an ethnic card.

He said, “I saw the video of Atiku’s ethnic sentiment but I didn’t want to believe he said those things. So, I waited in vain hoping he will deny saying them before I comment.”

 Commenting on the development, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Babatunde Ogala observed that Atiku’s statement was divisive.

Ogala said, “The North has never seen itself as the only region entitled to the office of the President. The northern electorate are above primitive and primordial sentiments.’’

The pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere similarly flayed the PDP candidate, saying it was disappointed in him.

The spokesman for Afenifere, Jare Ajayi, in a telephone interview castigated Atiku for resorting to an ethnicity campaign, noting that he should be preaching unity instead of seeking to divide the country.

Speaking in the same vein, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, in a statement on Sunday by its Secretary-General, Okechukwu Isiguzoro, said by Atiku’s utterances, he had finished whatever was left of the PDP.

“We find it very weird and disappointing that an elder statesman and a presidential candidate could mount the podium at a public function and play such an ethnic card.

“We are worried that at such a time Nigeria is seeking a unifier, Atiku is further pushing the country into disintegration. He has shown that he cannot lead and unite this country.

‘Atiku destroyed PDP’

“His ambition has already destroyed the PDP and pushed it from number one to third if not fourth force. Now, he wants to bring the same division into the affairs of the country. We ask Nigerians to say no by rejecting him stoutly at the polls,” Ohanaeze said.

The apex Igbo group added that the five PDP governors led by the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike had been proved to be the true lovers of the country.

It said, “We can see that the party has even suspended the presidential campaign after the flag-off in Uyo recently. All is not well with the team PDP.

 “Nobody can trust a man who said he is a stepping stone for the actualisation of the South-East presidency in the future but within 48 hours, he offered the same presidency to Wike. It’s absurd to see how the PDP’s presidential team now hawks counterfeit promises.”

A former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Prof. Kingsley Moghalu also disagreed with Atiku’s position.

Venting his dismay on his verified Twitter page, the ex-presidential aspirant said: “I was very disappointed to view the video clip of H.E. Atiku Abubakar @atiku, a former Vice-President of Nigeria telling an audience in Kaduna that what the North needs is a northerner to be President and not a Yoruba or Igbo candidate.’’

The Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Idayat Hassan, said it was worrying that candidates had lost focus on discussing the issues, and had allowed ethnicity and religion to take oversight during their campaigns.

She added that the statement of the PDP Presidential candidate did not bode well for the country, considering that it could tip the votes along ethnic lines.

The NNPP equally knocked Atiku over his inciting statement. A former governor of Kano State, Rabiu Kwankwaso, is the presidential candidate of the NNPP.

The National Publicity Secretary of the party, Dr Agbo Major, observed that Atiku’s utterance would afford Nigerians the opportunity to tell who the real ethnic jingoists are.

He said, “My reaction is as good as the outrage of the average Nigerian. Our unity is so fragile and somebody who wants to be president shouldn’t be seen making such divisive statements. It is left for Nigerians to judge.”

But defending the ex-vice-president, his media adviser, Paul Ibe, accused the APC of attempting to turn facts on its head regarding Atiku’s engagement at the Arewa House in Kaduna.

He stated, “For the benefit of the innocent public who might be hoodwinked by the usual behaviour of APC in telling a big lie, what transpired was a direct question to Atiku to address the Northern audience on why he should be voted for by the Northern electorate.

“In answering this question, Atiku started with a joke by addressing the questioner as ‘Mr. Northerner’ which is a veiled criticism of why he limited his question to the Northern audience in the first place.’’

He described the presidential candidate of the APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu,  as someone whose ambition to aspire to become the Nigerian leader as a rude attack on the integrity of every Black country and certainly an act of disgrace to all Nigerians.

Atiku said that it was offensive for the APC presidential candidate who could not declare his elementary education records would ask to be elected as president of the most populous Black nation in the world.

Meanwhile, the Director of the Universal Global Resolve for Peace, Shalom Olaseni, noted that the elections had become tribalistic and that Atiku was playing to the sentiments of the North, adding that the PDP candidate must address the issue.

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