Abubakar worked in the Nigeria Customs Service for twenty years, rising to become the Deputy Director, as the second highest position in the Service was then known. He retired in April 1989 and took up full-time business and politics. He ran for the office of governor in the Gongola State (now Adamawa and Taraba States) in 1991, and for the Presidency in 1993, placing third after MKO Abiola and Babagana Kingibe in the Social Democratic Party (SDP) primaries.
In 1998 he was elected Governor of Adamawa State. While still Governor-Elect he was selected by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Presidential candidate Olusegun Obasanjo as his running mate. The duo went on to win elections in February 1999, and Abubakar was sworn-in as Nigeria's second democratically elected vice president on 29 May 1999.
Abubakar's second term as Vice President was marked by a stormy relationship with President Obasanjo. His bid to succeed Obasanjo did not receive the latter's support, and it took a judgment of the Supreme Court to allow Abubakar contest after he was initially disqualified by the Independent National Electoral Commission on the grounds that he had been indicted for financial misconduct by an investigating panel set up at Obasanjo's behest. The Supreme Court ordered the electoral commission to restore Abubakar's name onto the presidential ballot. Abubakar ran on the platform of the Action Congress, having quit the PDP on account of his issues with President Obasanjo. Atiku lost the election, placing third after Umaru Yar'Adua and Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP).
Atiku is a co-founder of Intels, an oil servicing business with extensive operations in Nigeria and abroad. He is also the founder of Adama Beverages Limited, and the American University of Nigeria (AUN), both in Yola.
Atiku Abubakar was born to an itinerant Fulani trader and farmer Garba Abubakar, and his second wife, Aisha Kande, in Jada village in what is today Adamawa State, formerly Gongola state. He was named for his paternal grandfather, Atiku Abdulkadir. An older sister died in infancy, making Atiku the only child of his parents who divorced before his father's death by drowning in 1957. Atiku's early years were spent in Kojoli, 30 kilometres east of Jada. His mother later remarried. She died of a heart attack in 1984.
Like many of his generation, Atiku's father was opposed to the idea of Western education, and tried to keep Atiku out of the traditional school system. When the government discovered that Atiku was not attending mandatory schooling his father spent a few days in jail until Aisha Kande's mother paid the fine.
At the age of eight Atiku enrolled in the Jada Primary School where he performed well. In 1960, he was admitted to the prestigious Adamawa Provincial Secondary School in Yola where he did well in English Language and Literature, struggled with Physics and Chemistry and Mathematics. He graduated with a Grade Three WASC/GCE Certificate in 1965.
Following secondary school, Atiku studied a short while at the Nigeria Police College in Kaduna. He left the College when he was unable to present an O-Level Mathematics result. He worked briefly as a Tax Officer in the regional Ministry of Finance, from where he gained admission to the School of Hygiene in Kano in 1966.
He graduated with a Diploma in 1967, having served as Interim Student Union President at the School. In 1967 he enrolled for a Law Diploma at the Ahmadu Bello University Institute of Administration, on a scholarship from regional government. After graduation in 1969, during the Nigerian Civil War, he was employed by the Nigeria Customs Service.
While at Idi-Iroko Atiku met nineteen-year-old Titilayo Albert, who he secretly married in December 1971, in Lagos, because her family was initially opposed to the union. On 26 October 1972, Titilayo (affectionately called 'Titi') delivered a baby girl they named Fatima. She later gave birth to Adamu, Halima and Aminu.
In January 1979 he married Ladi Yakubu as his second wife. "I wanted to expand the Abubakar family. I felt extremely lonely as a child. I had no brother and no sister. I did not want my children to be as lonely as I was. This is why I married more than one wife. My wives are my sisters, my friends, and my advisers and they complement one another," Abubakar has said. He has six children with Ladi: Abba, Atiku, Zainab, Ummi-Hauwa, Maryam and Rukayatu.
In 1983 he married his third wife, Princess Rukaiyatu, daughter of the late Lamido of Adamawa. She gave birth to AIsha, Hadiza, Aliyu (named after her late father), Asmau, Mustafa, Laila and Abdulsalam. His fourth wife, Fatima Shettima, followed in 1986. Fatima gave birth to her first child Amina (Meena), Mohammed and two sets of twins Ahmed and Shehu, Zainab and Aisha then her last daughter Hafsat.
Abubakar later divorced Ladi, allowing him to marry, as his fourth wife (the maximum permitted him as a Muslim), Jennifer Iwenjora, who then became Jamila Atiku-Abubakar. Jennifer gave birth to Abdulmalik, Zara and his youngest child, Faisal.
Atiku started out in the real estate business during his early days as a Customs Officer. In 1974 he applied for and received a 31,000 naira loan to build his first house in Yola, which he put up for rent. From proceeds of the rent he purchased another plot, and built a second house. He continued this way, building a sizeable portfolio of property in Yola.
In 1981 he moved into agriculture, acquiring 2,500 hectares of land near Yola to start a maize and cotton farm. The business fell on hard times and closed in 1986. "My first foray into agriculture, in the 1980s, ended in failure," he wrote in an April 2014 blog.
He then ventured into trading, buying and selling truckloads of rice, flour and sugar.
His most important business move came while he was a Customs Officer at the Apapa Ports. Gabrielle Volpi, an Italian businessman in Nigeria, invited him to set up Nigeria Container Services (NICOTES), a logistics company operating within the Ports. NICOTES would go on to provide immense wealth to Atiku. Conflict of interest accusations have since trailed him on account of his involvement in business while a civil servant, who exercised supervisory authority.
On his part, Atiku has defended the decision, saying his involvement was limited to the ownership of shares (which government rules permitted), and that he was not involved in day-to-day running of the business. NICOTES would later be rebranded INTELS, and go on to feature prominently in accusations of money laundering levelled against Atiku by the US government during his Vice Presidency.
Atiku's business empire also includes a beverage manufacturing plant in Yola, as well as an animal feed factory.
Atiku’s first foray into politics was in the early 1980s, when he worked behind-the-scenes on the governorship campaign of Bamanga Tukur, who at that time was managing director of the Nigeria Ports Authority. He canvassed for votes on behalf of Tukur, and also donated to the campaign. Towards the end of his Customs career, he met Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, who had been second-in-command of the military government that ruled Nigeria between 1976 and 1979. Atiku was drawn by Yar'Adua into the political meetings that were now happening regularly in Yar'Adua's Lagos home. In 1989 Atiku was elected a National Vice-Chairman of the Peoples Front of Nigeria, the political association led by Yar'Adua, to participate in the transition programme initiated by Head of State Ibrahim Babangida.
Atiku won a seat to represent his constituency at the 1989 Constituent Assembly, set up to decide a new constitution for Nigeria. The People's Front was eventually denied registration by the government (none of the groups that applied was registered), and found a place within the Social Democratic Party, one of the two parties decreed into existence by the regime.
On 1 September 1990, Atiku announced his Gongola State gubernatorial bid. A year later, before the elections could hold, Gongola State was broken up into two – Adamawa and Taraba States – by the Federal Government. Atiku fell into the new Adamawa State. After an acrimonious contest he won the SDP Primaries in November 1991, but was soon disqualified by government from contesting the elections.
A similar fate – disqualification by the military – would befall Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, Atiku's friend and political mentor, in his 1992 bid for the presidential primary of the SDP. With no chance of contesting for the presidency, Yar'Adua decided to push Atiku forward as the focal point of SDP's ambitions. Atiku came third in the convention primary. But because MKO Abiola, the winner, had won by only about 400 votes a run-off was due. Atiku stepped down for Abiola, asking his supporters to cast their votes for him, with an unwritten agreement that Abiola would announce Atiku as his running mate. Abiola won the SDP ticket, and announced Babagana Kingibe, the runner-up, as his running mate.
In 1998 Atiku launched a bid for the governorship of Adamawa State on the platform of the People's Democratic Party. He won the December 1998 elections, but before he could be sworn in he was tapped by the PDP's presidential candidate, former Head of State Olusegun Obasanjo, as his vice-presidential candidate. The Obasanjo-Atiku ticket won the 27 February 1999 presidential election with 62.78 percent of the vote.
Atiku Abubakar was sworn in as Vice-President of Nigeria on 29 May 1999. He presided over the National Council on Privatization, overseeing the sale of hundreds of loss-making and poorly managed public enterprises.
In 1999 he, alongside South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma, launched the South Africa Nigeria Binational Commission.
In 2006, Atiku was involved in a bitter public battle with his boss, President Olusegun Obasanjo, ostensibly arising from the latter's bid to amend certain provisions of the constitution to take another shot at the presidency (for the third consecutive time).
In a November 2013 interview Atiku is quoted as saying, regarding Obasanjo's alleged attempts to justify his third term bid: "[He] informed me that 'I left power twenty years ago, I left Mubarak in office, I left Mugabe in office, I left Eyadema in office, I left Umar Bongo, and even Paul Biya and I came back and they are still in power; and I just did eight years and you are asking me to go; why?' And I responded to him by telling him that Nigeria is not Libya, not Egypt, not Cameroun, and not Togo; I said you must leave; even if it means both of us lose out, but you cannot stay."
The debate and acrimony generated by the failed constitutional amendment momentarily caused a rift in the People's Democratic Party. The Nigerian National Assembly eventually voted against any amendments allowing Obasanjo to run for another term.
The Atiku-Obasanjo face-off damaged the personal relationship between both men.
On 25 November 2006 Abubakar announced that he would run for president. On 20 December 2006, he was chosen as the presidential candidate of the Action Congress (AC).
On 14 March 2007, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released the final list of 24 aspirants for 21 April presidential election. Abubakar's name was missing from the ballot. INEC issued a statement stating that Abubakar's name was missing because he was on a list of persons indicted for corruption by a panel set up by the government. Abubakar headed to the courts on 16 March to have his disqualification overturned.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on 16 April that INEC had no power to disqualify candidates.
The ruling allowed Abubakar to contest the election, although there were concerns that it might not be possible to provide ballots with Abubakar's name by 21 April, the date of the election. On 17 April, a spokesman for INEC said that Abubakar would be on the ballot.
According to official results, Abubakar took third place, behind PDP candidate Umaru Yar'Adua and ANPP candidate Muhammadu Buhari, with approximately 7% of the vote (2.6 million votes). Abubakar rejected the election results and called for its cancellation, describing it as Nigeria's "worst election ever."
He stated that he would not attend Umaru Yar'Adua's inauguration on 29 May due to his view that the election was not credible, saying that he did not want to "dignify such a hollow ritual with my presence."
Following the 2007 elections, Atiku returned to the People's Democratic Party. In October 2010 he announced his intention to contest for the Presidency. On 22 November, a Committee of Northern Elders selected him as the Northern Consensus Candidate, over former Military President Ibrahim Babangida, former National Security Adviser Aliyu Gusau and Governor Bukola Saraki of Kwara State.
In January 2011, Atiku contested for the Presidential ticket of his party alongside President Jonathan and Sarah Jubril, and lost the primary, garnering 805 votes to President Jonathan's 2736.
On 30 March 2014, Nigerian media reported that a delegation from the Northern Youth Leaders Forum visited Obasanjo at his home in Abeokuta and pleaded with him to "forgive your former vice-president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of whatever political sin or offence he might have committed against you." In response Obasanjo is quoted as saying that "as a leader and father, I bear no grudge against anybody and if there is, I have forgiven them all."
In August 2013, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registered two new political parties. One of them was the Peoples Democratic Movement. Local media reports suggested that the party was formed by Atiku as a back-up plan in case he was unable to fulfill his rumoured presidential ambitions on the PDP platform. In a statement Atiku acknowledged that the PDM was founded by his "political associates", but that he remained a member of the PDP.
On 2 February 2014, Atiku left the Peoples Democratic Party to the join All Progressives Congress. According to local media reports, he will be seeking to contest for the Nigerian presidency in 2015, on the party's platform.
American University of Nigeria (AUN) is the first American-style university to be established in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was founded in Yola, the capital of Adamawa State as ABTI American University of Nigeria (AAUN) by Atiku in 2005. He has said that having benefited from the US system of instruction as a young man, he was eager to make available in Nigeria an American trained faculty – emphasising critical thinking, small classes, student participation, problem-solving. AUN has received special recognition from Google.
In 2012 Atiku donated $750,000 to the National Peace Corps Association in the United States, "to fund a new initiative featuring global leaders who will discuss Peace Corps's impact." It was the largest ever individual donation in the Association's history.
In his speeches and commentary Atiku is a vocal advocate of the importance of Nigeria's educational system. In August 2013 he sponsored a students' essay contest to generate solutions to Nigeria's most pressing institutional educational challenges. Entrants were asked to write between 2,000 and 5,000 words on the topic 'More Learning to More People: How can Nigeria be more innovative in bridging its literacy and skills gap?'.
A longlist was announced on 21 October 2013, and the winners a week later. The joint first prize went to Kenechukwu Nneka Lily Nwagbo and Emeka Chigozie Ezekwesiri.
Upon the release of the dismal results of the May–June 2014 West African Examinations Council (WAEC) results, Atiku said, in a statement:
″Our country’s educational institutions are clearly not providing quality learning. Our teachers need to be taught. This situation is a new development—of the past 10 years or so. The steady decline of education in Nigeria is a reflection of our country’s relegation of education to the background of national essentialities. That is where the change must begin. Teachers are important—as important as senators and doctors. Indeed, teachers determine the quality of senators and doctors. And so, the entire country stands to suffer the effects of this neglect in future. Nigeria must once again make education a priority. We must return to the basics.″
In a bid to alleviate the educational decadence in Northeastern Nigeria, Abubakar issued scholarship to 15 escapees of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping.
In 1982 Atiku was awarded the chieftaincy of the Turaki of Adamawa by Adamawa's traditional ruler, Alhaji Aliyu Mustafa. The title had previously been reserved for the monarch's favourite prince in the palace, as the holder is in charge of the monarch's domestic affairs.
In 2011, while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US Peace Corps in 2011, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) – an independent 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organisation, separate from the Peace Corps, that serves as an alumni association for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers – honoured Atiku with the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
At the presentation of the award, the National Peace Corps Association described Atiku Abubakar as one individual who contributed to the development of higher education on the continent of Africa. "No private businessman in Africa has worked harder for democracy or contributed more to the progress of higher education than Atiku Abubakar," the NPCA said.
In June 2017, Atiku Abubakar was conferred the title of "Waziri" of Adamawa, and his previous title of Turaki was transferred to his son, Aliyu.
Abubakar has been active on Twitter since the 2011 elections, but stepped up his engagement in May 2013. In August 2013 he became only the second Nigerian politician to be verified, after Lagos State Governor Tunde Fashola. As at November 2015 he had more than 390,000 followers. He currently has 450,000 Facebook fans. Also in 2013 he launched a blog.
In an August 2013 post he shared his views on the role and relevance of social media to governance and democracy in Nigeria.
One of his most recent campaigns is True Federalism. He has been delivering speeches all over the country inspiring Nigerians on the need to restructure the country. He has been receiving massive endorsement for his stand on True Federalism.
He recently declared at an event where he was conferred the award Hero Of Democracy by Hall of Grace Magazine.
“Political decentralization will also help to deepen and strengthen our democracy as it will encourage more accountability. Citizens are more likely to demand accountability when governments spend their tax money rather than rent collected from an impersonal source.”
He also said
"True Federalism will encourage States to competes to attract investments and skilled workers rather than merely waiting for monthly revenue allocation from Abuja"
Many of his speeches have caused positive stir nationwide as Nigerians are supporting the idea of True Federalism which involves allowing states to have control over their resources most especially the South South and South East of Nigeria.