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. Abubakar'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, Abubakar's father was opposed to the idea of Western education, and tried to keep Abubakar out of the traditional school system. When the government discovered that Abubakar 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 Abubakar enrolled in the Jada Primary School. In 1960, he was admitted to 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, Abubakar 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, Abubakar 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 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.
Abubakar 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 Abubakar. 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, Abubakar 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 Abubakar by the U.S. government during his Vice Presidency.
Abubakar's business empire also includes a beverage manufacturing plant in Yola, as well as an animal feed factory.
Abubakar'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. Abubakar was drawn by Yar'Adua into the political meetings that were now happening regularly in Yar'Adua's Lagos home. In 1989 Abubakar 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.
Abubakar 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.
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, Abubakar 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 Abubakar 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 Abubakar-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."
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
On 2 February 2014, Abubakar 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.
On Friday, 24 November 2017, Abubakar announced his exit from the All Progressives Congress (APC), a party he helped to form.
On December 3, 2017, via a Facebook Live broadcast, Abubakar announced his return to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The announcement on Sunday followed consultations the former Vice President had with party leaders and stakeholders from across the country. He said he decided to 'return home' to the PDP now that issues which made him leave the party have been resolved.