With barely a month to Nigeria’s Presidential elections, Presidential hopefuls – Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar – are making last-minute efforts to sink each others’ campaigns as allegations of fraud, drug trafficking and blackmail reach climax. How will this influence the minds of voters?
Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar spent most of his 2019 Presidential campaign responding to allegations of corruption. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) mocked Atiku every day for being unable to travel to the US after he came under investigation for allegedly wiring $40m through shell companies to his fourth wife in the US.
But after he was granted a special visa ahead of the 2019 poll, the allegations of graft simmered down. However, this was not enough to sway the electorate as he went on to lose to President Muhammadu Buhari whose reputation as an incorruptible leader was hard to puncture.
Entering the 2023 election season, it seemed Atiku’s troubles were over.
First, he would not be contesting against Buhari this time but Lagos godfather, Bola Tinubu, who himself has been battling allegations of graft and drug trafficking for the last 30 years. Besides, Nigerians had heard all the past allegations against Atiku and there was nothing new, or so they thought.
However, Atiku’s campaign came under heavy attack recently after his former trusted aide, Michael Achimugu, released an audio conversation he had with the former Vice-President in 2018.
In the phone conversation, Atiku purportedly explains to Achimugu how he and former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) or shell corporations through which government funds were siphoned in the early 2000s.
One such company was Marine Float, a firm that received N100m ($735,294 at the time) from Plateau State Governor, Joshua Dariye, who was later convicted.
“What happened was when we came into office and I advised the President against open corruption,” Atiku said. Adding: “I told him to give me three people he trusts and I will prepare three companies in which they will be subscribers or rather the directors.”
Atiku, who is the Presidential candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was heard saying Obasanjo subsequently nominated individuals that included businessman Oyewole Fasawe; and his trusted aide, Andy Uba; and a third person who has since died.
Achimugu released the audio on Twitter and on his Youtube channel. Soon after, #SPV began trending on Twitter for several days.
APC blows hot
Having seen a clear opportunity, the Tinubu campaign took no prisoners as it launched a tirade against Atiku. At a press conference which was organised by the Tinubu campaign, they called on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other federal agencies to investigate and arrest Atiku for fraud.
“Those SPVs were companies Atiku admittedly registered upon assumption of office as Vice-President (with the approval of President Olusegun Obasanjo) using trusted allies as shareholders.
“The purpose was to divert government contracts to these companies as consultants and then pay monies into these companies and use those monies to fund the PDP and their private businesses and family activities,” said Festus Keyamo, the media director of the Tinubu campaign.
They also called on Atiku to immediately drop his Presidential ambition in the interest of the country and return all the monies that were received through SPVs.
“In this case, the judiciary will not be quiet as we shall clearly take steps in the next few days to initiate a judicial process seeking the outright disqualification of Atiku Abubakar from the race based on these facts,” Tinubu’s campaign stated.
Atiku strikes back
Refusing to go down without a fight, the main opposition claimed Achimugu was not a whistleblower but a blackmailer who is now on Tinubu’s payroll. They also dismissed the audio recording as fake and levelled several allegations against Tinubu, bringing back his past drug case with US authorities dating back to 1989 where he settled out of court for $460,000.
They made reference to a testimony by US Special Agent, Kevin Moss, who linked Tinubu to two notorious heroin traffickers – Mueez Akande and Abiodun Agbele – and called on Nigerians not to allow an alleged drug trafficker like Tinubu to become President.
Atiku’s campaign called on the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) to investigate and arrest Tinubu for drug trafficking and allegedly diverting public funds through Alpha Beta Consulting, a firm that has exclusive rights to generate taxes on behalf of the Lagos State Government.
“In the recent case revealed in the US, it is on record that the APC presidential candidate forfeited the sum of $460,000, which was confirmed and found to be proceeds of trafficking in narcotics, an international crime for which Nigeria, being a signatory to the international convention on trafficking in narcotic, is obliged to enforce.
“The effect of the forfeiture of the sum of $460,000 by Tinubu confirms that he is ineligible and not qualified to contest for the office of the president of Nigeria,” Kola Ologbondinyan, a Spokesman for Atiku’s campaign, said.
The Presidential campaign of Peter Obi has expressed delight with the mudslinging between Atiku and Tinubu’s camps.
“The APC and the PDP are one monster with two heads. Tinubu and Atiku are one and the same,” says actor Kenneth Okonkwo, who is also a spokesman for Obi’s campaign. He argues that Nigerians must reject both parties next month.
However, Obi himself has not been without allegations of corruption. In 2021 his name was mentioned in the Panama papers for keeping secret funds in foreign shell companies without declaring them in violation of Nigerian law. His campaign downplays this as a lesser scandal than those of the two frontline parties.
With frontline candidates battling allegations of fraud and drug trafficking just one month to the election, anti-corruption crusaders tell The Africa Report that Nigeria may be on a downward spiral.
Speaking to The Africa Report, Auwal Rafsanjani, who heads the local chapter of Transparency International, said the party primaries that produced frontline Presidential candidates were marred by vote buying and bribing of delegates and this has left Nigeria with choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea next month.
Rafsanjani says Nigeria ought to have a system whereby corrupt people are easily prosecuted and jailed so that they would not have the opportunity of holding sensitive political positions.
“Virtually all candidates have one baggage or the other and this is because the party primaries that produced them have been hijacked and commercialised. Therefore those who have integrity are prevented from emerging.
“Secondly is that Nigeria has weak institutions. There is impunity in the Nigerian system mainly because the anti-corruption agencies are not doing their job and this gives corrupt people the opportunity to emerge as political officeholders,” he says.
Adeniran Adedokun, a public commentator and author, tells The Africa Report that the mudslinging between both parties will have no effect on next month’s election.
Adedokun says Nigerian voters usually make their decisions based on tribe and religion, and not on integrity and capacity.
“Nigerians are too star-struck with politicians. They don’t understand the essential ingredients of democracy. Most voters have already made up their minds and such decisions will be based on primordial interests and ignorance. Also, because of the high rate of poverty, most voters see elections as an opportunity to just make money for themselves,” he says.