The proverbial “Third Force” in Nigerian politics is finally making itself heard, but its chances of causing an upset are slim.
What does mounting enthusiasm about the presidential prospects of former two-time governor and presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, suggest about the state of affairs in Nigeria? Can Obi really topple the two-party consensus that has defined Nigerian politics since the inauguration of the Nigerian Fourth Republic in 1999, or is he, in the fashion of Oby Ezekwezili, Kingsley Moghalu, Godwin Emefiele, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Akinwumi Adesina, the latest instantiation of a recurrent technocratic tease?
Obi’s supporters–the “Obi-dient,” as they take pride in being called–believe he is the chosen one, and their deep conviction that Obi stands apart from the political establishment is captured in the following tweet by activist and businesswoman Aisha Yesufu: “We need a President and not an emperor and the only person that is going to be “OBEDIENT” is Peter Obi! Desperation must not make you forfeit your rights! The #OfficeOfTheCitizen remains the highest office in the land!”
Much of the growing support for Obi among a cross section of disaffected young people is born out of understandable frustration with the system, specifically the fact that the presidential candidates of the two main political parties, Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are septuagenarians (both are seventy and seventy-five, respectively) perceived as symbolizing the business as usual brand of politics that has led the country to the brink of economic collapse.
Contra these two political ancients, the thinking goes, Peter Obi, although himself not exactly a spring chicken at sixty, represents the best chance of an orderly transition to a less gerontocratic, more sprightly leadership. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is eighty this year.
But age is not the only reason the “Obi-dient” are willing to bet the farm on their man. They invoke his decent, if not outstanding, record as two-time governor of Anambra State in the southeastern region, his experience in the private sector before he entered party politics, and what appears to be his personal tenacity.
Above all, they like his often self-inflating rhetoric. Of the major candidates in next year’s election, Obi is the only one who seems to grasp that the country’s problems require more than the usual band-aid, who seems to understand that the country will have to dream big, and who appears ready to make the political sacrifices necessary to accomplish these goals. He has vowed to turn the economy around by reducing dependence on oil (in 2019, the country’s oil exports were 94.1 percent of total exports), cut down the cost of governance (Nigerian lawmakers are among the world’s highest paid), and eliminate petroleum subsidies (the scheme is expected to cost the government $9.6 billion in 2022 alone) which he decries as “financing inefficiency.”
The sour political mood in the country also seems to favor Obi’s candidacy.
Heading into its final year in office, the Muhammadu Buhari administration has been nothing short of a disaster. On Buhari’s watch, the economy has cratered. In January, a World Bank report concluded that the Nigerian economy was worse than it was a decade ago. According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in the first quarter of 2021, unemployment among Nigerians aged twenty-five to thirty-four stood at a staggering 37.2 percent. At 17 percent, inflation is at an eleven-month high. With killings and abductions happening daily, the country’s security situation is arguably at its worst since the end of the Civil War in 1970. In May of this year alone, at least 594 people were killed while 227 were kidnapped for ransom. Given this situation, it comes as no surprise that, according to a 2021 Africa Polling Institute survey, seven out of ten Nigerians are willing to leave the country if given the opportunity.
In all this, Buhari has been a study in passivity, and has over the past several years done more than enough to justify critics’ original reservations that he lacks the intellectual resources required to run a modern state. Having run for the presidency three times before eventually getting his wish at the fourth time of asking in 2015, Buhari’s general unpreparedness has lent weight to the suspicion that he merely ran to compensate for his dispatch from office via a coup d’état in 1985. Seven shiftless years later, the advantage to the country of a presidency he so desperately craved remains to be seen.
The problem of course is that Buhari is not the only one taking the heat for his lugubrious tenure. Perhaps justifiably, the “Obi-dient” are also blaming those who helped him accede to power, most especially the influential Bola Tinubu.
In any event, the latter’s apparent resolve to nominate a Muslim as his running mate in next year’s presidential election has put him in the crosshairs of those who feel that the move will amount to adding insult to injury for Christians who have borne the brunt of repeated attacks by sundry gunmen and bandits. Between January 2021 and July 2022, “at least 139 clerics and worshippers have been killed in various attacks across the country” with “no fewer than 394” worshippers kidnapped over the same period. Last week, citing the “religious violence and intolerance directed toward Nigerian Christians” which “has worsened in recent years,” a group of United States senators urged the Biden administration to “redesignate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC)”.
Obi, a Catholic and the only Christian among the quartet of presidential front runners, seems to be the primary beneficiary of this growing Christian ferment, at least to the extent that a growing number of Christian clerics are warning against the danger of taking Christians for granted and urging their congregants to register to vote.
Does Obi have a chance of upsetting the two-party balance and contenders who have spent their entire careers preparing for this moment?
Obi faces many obstacles. The first, paradoxically enough, is one of the reasons for his popularity among the youth, which is that he does not belong to either of the two parties which have traded power since 1999. While this boosts his standing among the “Obi-dient,” (Obi had dumped the PDP back in May when it became clear that he stood no chance of becoming the party’s nominee for president), it deprives him of the resources and infrastructure that come with being the candidate of a major party. As things stand in the country, and notwithstanding the legitimate grievances of his supporters, not to mention the moral and political flaws of the APC and PDP standard bearers, it is difficult to see a path to the presidency for any candidate not named either Abubakar or Tinubu. While both APC and PDP are entrenched, the Labour Party is a marginal entity, largely kept afloat by stragglers and malcontents from the two main parties, and still largely hobbled by the decline of the trade union movement in the wake of the divide and rule tactics of the military era.
Second, it is naïve to simply extrapolate a youth vote from youth angst, and not just because, similar to the pattern in other countries, young people cannot always be counted upon to show up on polling day. Besides, insofar as the rump of the “Obi-dient” appears to comprise elements from the 2020 #EndSARS protests against police brutality (a picture of Aisha Yesufu, right hand raised in defiance, was the iconic image of the protests), it remains, sadly, a predominantly southern phenomenon. Obi badly needs a toehold in the northern part of the country, hence his courtship of former Governor of Kano State Rabiu Kwankwaso, presidential candidate of the marginal New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP).
Third, it is not clear how Christian agitation will evolve in the coming months, and whether cracks will emerge between its mainline and Pentecostal constituencies. Is the Christian community in Nigeria truly homogeneous? Put differently, is there really a Christian vote? Will Christians put their eggs in the basket of an Igbo candidate who does not–at least at this moment–seem to enjoy the general support of the Igbo political elite, never mind the Igbo nation?
Fourth, the more popular Obi becomes, the closer the scrutiny his public record will attract. Late last year, he was summoned for questioning by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) following allegations that he had engaged in secret and illegal offshore activities “in contravention of Nigeria’s laws on code of conduct for public officers.” While Obi continues to maintain his innocence, the allegations do raise questions as to whether a candidate who ran as Atiku Abubakar’s running mate on the ticket of the PDP just three years ago is as anti-establishment as the “Obi-dient” would like to believe.
No matter what happens next, Obi can take the credit for galvanizing a core constituency among the Nigerian electorate and helping to create an outlet for grievances that otherwise would have fallen between the cracks of a commanding two-party system.
Obi’s chances of winning the presidency in 2023 are marginal at best, but that does not mean that the labors of the “Obi-dient” have been in vain.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.