Though the Labour Party has spent much of its energies in the post-election period challenging the outcomes of the 2023 elections, the party has several unique opportunities to leverage its strengths while in the opposition.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A Nation Divided. Buy the issue here.
It may not be wrong to feel disappointed by Nigeria’s 2023 elections. Despite N305 billion reportedly being spent on the most eagerly anticipated political event in Nigeria’s recent history, the aftermath of the 2023 general elections has seen widespread dissatisfaction over such concerns as the poor performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and its Result Viewing (IREV) platform, late arrivals of election materials at polling units across the country, and widespread accounts of violent voter suppression, sometimes with fatal consequences. The days of the elections saw social media flooded with posts showing alleged violence against voters and at polling units, and organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based pro-democracy think tank, have estimated that over 100 people were killed in violence related to the 2023 elections.
These concerns cast a long shadow over the election and its outcomes, particularly for the fact that its victor, President-Elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu, has been accused of criminal activity in Nigerian and in foreign courts, and may be a key figure in the godfather politics of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic (1999-present). That Tinubu and Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, are both members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) also means that his victory has been seen as vindication of Buhari’s administration, and of governance under APC, despite their deep unpopularity.
Nowhere has these grievances be more deeply felt than among supporters of the Labor Party (LP). LP’s presidential candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, entered the race a well-known figure, though running on a party with ‘no structure’––one seen to lack the strategic depth and breadth to compete against Nigeria’s two largest parties, APC and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in national elections. Obi quickly gained popularity online and in nationwide media for his image of frugality, relative youth, and appearance of disconnection from the corruption and power politics that have shaped the Fourth Republic. Obi’s now famous humility, resistance to corruption, and no-frills, issues-based approach to politics, added to this appeal. The excitement around his candidacy crystalized into solid political potential when a bevy of pollsters, including Stears, SBM Intelligence and Bloomberg, published results suggesting Obi, until then the dark horse candidate, might win the election. Some foreign news media followed, with such publications as The Economist endorsing Obi as ‘the only candidate to offer Nigerians much hope of change’.
In the 2023 elections, Obi performed more successfully than any other third-party presidential candidate in Nigerian electoral history, receiving over a fourth of all votes cast. In a rebuff to concerns about the party’s structure, LP evenly split the country’s states with the two major parties, winning landslide victories throughout the South East, three states in the South South, two in the Middle Belt, and surprise wins in Lagos and Abuja. Down-ballot LP candidates also benefited from enthusiasm around the party, winning 43 seats in the national legislature, and the governorship of Abia state.
All of this stands in stark contrast to LP’s previous electoral performance. The 2023 elections were just the second in Fourth Republic history to have LP win more than one seat in the House of Representatives, and any seats at all in the Senate. Alex Otti, the incoming LP governor of Abia State, is just the second to win an election on an LP ticket, and Obi is far and away the most successful presidential candidate in the party’s history. While the party has sometimes been home to influential political figures, such as Adams Oshiomole, an early LP leader, and Olusegun Mimiko, the two-term LP governor of Ondo State, much of their influence failed to accrue to the party itself. Oshiomole, for example, still an LP member, ran for and won two-term governorship of Edo state on an Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) ticket instead, and would later become an APC member, even serving a turbulent two-year term as that party’s national chairman. In the 2023 elections, Oshiomole was recorded goading supporters of his new party into intimidating potential LP voters, an ironic display of estrangement from his previous political home, and of perceptions of LP’s political limits.
LP and its supporters now contend that their party’s official performance in 2023’s elections, improved as it was, still does not reflect the full measure of its support, and have taken legal action to challenge results where they feel they were short changed. These challenges have cited inconsistencies in INEC’s vote counts, disruptions to normal voting procedure, and cases of violent voter disenfranchisement, each of which, the party has argued, disproportionately affected potential LP voters. Controversy around Lagos State’s gubernatorial election, which featured alarming displays of state-sanctioned ethnic bigotry and voter suppression seen to have targeted LP supporters, puts some of the context that informs these challenges on grim display.
While these efforts may take months and even years to find resolution, the fervour around them and their potential consequences speaks to the remarkable energy of LP’s coalition, now a force with veritable political power. These factors may now present LP with a unique opportunity to capitalize on its recent gains through, effective, people-centric and value-driven opposition party politics, and hold promise for substantial change in Fourth Republic politics.
A NEW WAY TO WIN
It may not be correct to say Nigerian parties have always lacked ideology. It may be more so to note that they have found it difficult to develop ideology not rooted in religion and ethnicity. The parties of the First Republic (1963-66) may be seen to have been profoundly ideological, though with ideological leanings often strongly influenced by sectarian interests, such as in the Northern People’s Congress’ recruitment of expatriates over Nigerians from the Eastern and Western regions for government roles. This type of sectarian-ideological alignment was made considerably more difficult by the constitution of the Second Republic (1979-83), which mandated that political parties maintain ‘federal character’ in their leadership, and register in at least two-thirds of the country’s states. These mandates were passed onto the abortive Third Republic (1992-93), and to the modern Nigerian Fourth Republic.
This requirement has often meant that modern Nigerian political parties emerge from coalitions of disparate and sometimes even conflicting interests, united in the pursuit of limited political goals. The diversity of perspectives that parties may accommodate is reflected in the geographic breadth of the support that major parties find during national elections, and the tumult that parties have sometimes experienced after they realize the goals for which they were created. This may be seen in the internal divisions APC suffered soon after its electoral victories in 2015, or PDP’s 2007 crisis over former president, Olusegun Obasanjo’s bid for a third term in office, which featured such political theatre as the party’s expulsion of Obasanjo’s vice president, Atiku Abubakar.
Perhaps too broadly-based to pursue other objectives, Fourth Republic parties have often been organized around the sole pursuit of power. This pursuit motivated the merger of military and business interests that would become the PDP in 1999. Sixteen years later, concerns that their presidential candidate might cost them power motivated some PDP members to join ACN, Congress for Progressive Change and All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), among others, in Muhammadu Buhari’s APC. In 2023, after eight years under President Buhari, cross-carpeting and political defection have become commonplace in Nigerian politics, with politicians regularly aligning and realigning with political parties in pursuit of fleeting strategic advantage. Three of the four front-runners in 2023’s presidential elections were, in 2015, members of APC, and, just four years before he was LP’s presidential candidate, Obi was (as he’s commonly known) Atiku’s Vice Presidential candidate on a PDP ticket. The tremendous influence of godfatherism and patronage politics at all levels of governance has often meant, then, that the party that enjoys power very often tends not to be the party with the most appealing political platform. Instead it is often the party that is most able to secure and maintain the support of godfathers and other individuals with political influence and unite their interests in pursuit of power. In 2023, PDP’s failure to maintain support from Nyesom Wike, the influential PDP governor of Rivers State, for example, may have cost the party a win in that state.
Here, we find another remarkable aspect of LP’s 2023 performance. The party went into the election with considerably less godfather support than either of the two major parties. While a number of well-recognized figures, including former President Obasanjo, came out in Obi’s support in the months leading up to the election, it is not clear what these endorsements might have meant against those enjoyed by PDP and APC, whose membership allows both parties access to state coffers, substantial elite support, and ready recourse to the means of violence. That LP was able to compete against these parties, despite this relative disadvantage, speaks to the strength and promise of its coalition and political approach.
ISSUES OF IDEOLOGY
LP’s lack of godfather support may lend to another one of the party’s strengths—its relative ideological consistency. Though some aspects of LP’s platform drew heavily from already-established language and ideas around good governance in Nigeria, others still remain poorly defined even after the election. Nonetheless, LP approached the campaign with consistent messaging around reducing the costs and increasing the efficiency of government, decreasing the influence of entrenched and elite interests, and better representation for the average Nigerian––‘Mama, Papa and Pikin’—in Nigerian politics. LP candidates running for office emphasized inclusion and belonging across religious and ethnic lines, and also spoke in support of youth protest movements, such as #EndSARS, that had not received the same recognition from other parties.
Much of this consistency comes out of the party’s coalition, which draws from movements like #EndSARS and the Feminist Coalition, trade unions, like the Nigerian Labor Congress and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, as well as groups that have historically been excluded from the Nigerian political centre, such as Igbo people and Northern Christians. Shared experiences of frustration with and marginalization within Nigerian society may mean that this type of coalition is more likely to find common ground around issues of ideology than other parties, who may lack these types of shared perspective. That LP does not yet have significant godfather support may also mean that the party finds less need to compromise on these issues of ideology for political patronage, a type of power negotiation that may occur elsewhere in the Nigerian political landscape.
LP’s ideological potential may set it apart from other Fourth Republic political parties. Though APC emerged from a popular atmosphere of dissatisfaction with Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP government, and while APC’s rise was aided by its support from and for popular protest movements, such as #OccupyNigeria, the sheer breadth of interests that came to influence the party may have limited the influence of any one ideological inclination on party direction and policy. This may explain why, despite Tinubu’s description of his party as ‘progressive’ and interested in the ‘fairness of prosperity to all of society’, the APC government in Nigeria has generally been ideologically ‘directionless’–– the pro-poor sentiment of initiatives such as the National School Feeding Programme and N5,000 cash transfers to poor Nigerians conflicting with trade and foreign exchange regimes that have broadly limited access to economic resources to the exclusive benefit of well-connected elites, bold-faced state sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters, and massive expansions of poverty. These and other factors have caused some researchers, such as Oxford University’s Sa’eed Husaini, to argue that APC, like PDP, is, if ideological at all, a centre-right populist party, far from Tinubu’s progressive claims.
For its part, PDP has also shown precious little in the way of ideology in its approach to politics and governance. The party’s overwhelming dominance through much of the Fourth Republic, where, for 16 years, it controlled the presidency, the legislature and a majority of Nigerian states, may have provided it the luxury of avoiding ideology altogether. PDP in this period achieved power through power, using its access to state funds to manipulate elections in its favour. PDP also attracted political candidates through promise of access to these funds and means of electoral fraud. As such, much of Nigerian political ideology in this period came not from PDP but instead was defined against it, as was the case with APC’s 2015 coalition.
In opposition, PDP has floundered. The party is widely considered to have underperformed in the 2023 elections, failing to capitalize on widespread disappointment in APC’s governance, contributing little to public discourse around the vote, and entering the election divided, with a ‘G-5’ coalition of PDP governors, led by Rivers State’s Wike (and in which Olusegun Mimiko of early LP fame is a prominent member), uniting to withhold support from their party’s presidential candidate, Atiku. PDP’s vote margins against LP were under half its 1.8 million vote margin against APC, a substantial deterioration from its previous position in Nigerian politics, and reflective of the impact that lethargy and disunity have had on the party’s appeal.
This poor performance was foreshadowed by the PDP’s broader failures in political opposition. As if unable to imagine any role for itself outside of power, PDP has spent much of the last eight years relatively idle, reacting ineffectively, if at all, to the APC government’s failures, neglecting visible advocacy for popular youth and other movements, and not articulating any particular direction for much government policy. Much of this may have come out of frequent infighting within PDP during these years, over critical aspects of party function such as its national chairmanship, as well as the party’s vulnerability to the same godfather interests that have shaped its political strategy. Some conflict within the PDP, for example, has concerned with the party’s willingness to accept the return of politicians that had abandoned it for the APC in 2015, and actively worked against the party’s victory in those and other elections––a rank that includes Atiku Abubakar, who is alleged to have influenced the party’s presidential primaries by buying more votes than his primary rival, the previously mentioned Wike. That the PDP was built to accommodate godfather interests may mean that these interests, like Atiku’s, may compete with, and even eclipse, other political imperatives, such as the party’s ability to satisfy other key stakeholders. All of this contrasts with the approach LP took to 2023, which, for the consistency and activist energy previously described, may hold promise for a new type of nimble, people-first and values-based type of opposition politics in Nigeria, more based in ideology than has yet been seen in the Fourth Republic.
The appearance of ideology in Nigeria party politics would parallel the experiences of other countries with recent experiences of democratization. David Steinberg and Myung Shin, both Georgetown University researchers, note these in their 2006 study of South Korea, which, after its 1948 independence, oscillated between brutal military dictatorship and multiparty democracy, passing through five republics before the establishment of the modern Sixth Republic of Korea in 1987. According to the authors, in the democratic periods before South Korea’s sixth republic, parties were generally ‘used to fulfill the aspirations of their leaders to achieve daekwon (great power),’. Additonally, like in Nigerian godfather politics, parties took the shape of ‘personal cliques that formed, disappeared, or merged at the direction of key individuals, the “bosses”,’ and were otherwise ‘programmatically meaningless’. Some of these outcomes were informed by prominent anti-communist sentiment throughout South Korea, a consequence of the country’s tensions with its communist northern neighbour.
South Korea’s 1987 emergence into democracy, however, saw substantial change to this state of affairs, removing restrictions on media, civil society, and labour, and restoring administrative autonomy to local political constituencies. This liberalization created opportunity for the emergence of alternatives to the entourage politics that had dominated South Korean politics. South Korea’s 1996 accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of wealthy, industrialized nations, accelerated this change, as it caused the country to adopt labour laws more aligned with those of the group’s other members. This increased the political power of workers, a class that had expanded immensely during the South Korean economic miracle of the 1970s and 1980s. By 2000, these energies had coalesced into the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which, by 2002, had become South Korea’s third-largest political party.
While some of this success has been attributed to the popularity and charisma of DLP’s leadership in the early 2000s, and while the party has since dissolved into new ones, a substantial amount of the DLP’s support likely came out of the party’s leftist platform and its appeal to South Korean workers. This platform may have found particularly strong support among voters associated with South Korea’s minjung (masses), a nationalist leftist movement emerging from feelings of neglect and marginalization among South Korean workers facing increasing inequality and decreasing economic opportunity, despite ever-increasing educational attainment and economic productivity, and a push for greater national and foreign policy independence from the country’s historical allies, particularly the United Sates.
Though DLP would dissolve into new parties in 2011 (a consequence of shifting South Korean demographics and electoral dynamics), DLP lives on through its successor parties, and the normalization of liberalism and leftism in South Korean politics. The Democratic Party of Korea, now one of South Korea’s two major parties, is a centre-left party, whose platform, though limited by the party’s ‘big-tent’ overtures to centrists, makes appeals to DLP’s minjung coalition, including through advocacy for worker’s rights, and for the improvement of relations with North Korea.
HEROES OF THE DAY, LABOURS OF TOMORROW
Much of DLP’s early experience in South Korea may be seen in LP’s performance in Nigeria’s 2023 elections. Both parties emerged out of labour agitation, found support among marginalized and otherwise disadvantaged voters, and benefited from the appeal of charismatic leadership that gave life to their parties’ platforms and other voter aspirations beyond these. While DLP and its successors have never managed to win South Korean elections at the national level, the appeal of the party’s platform brought much of its ideas into other larger parties, and to South Korean government policy and even international relations.
Though LP has spent much of its energies in the post-election period challenging the outcomes of the 2023 elections, the party may now face a need to consider how it approaches its platform for at least four years in the political opposition. This is not an easy role in Nigerian politics, as parties in opposition must sometimes contend with limited access to funds, risk of losing voter support for lack of media coverage, and deliberate obstruction from state actors pursuing partisan goals, as many have alleged was the case with INEC in this year’s elections. That many in the APC have remained doggedly critical of LP and its candidates, even after the elections, may suggest that some in the ruling party may not be opposed to this type of obstruction.
Despite this, much opportunity remains for LP to leverage its strengths while in the opposition. It may find space to influence political discourse by pressing on issues of particular import to LP’s coalition, such as social inclusion and substantive engagement with young Nigerians, avoiding PDP’s failure to tap into popular energy around government and social reform. It may avoid APC and PDP’s experiences with cross-carpeting, enforcing constitutional rules that levy penalties against cross-carpeting politicians, and barring political opportunists from joining the party without demonstrating commitment to its values, to protect against offers of short-term political gain in exchange for demeaning ideological and programmatic compromise. It may be able to attract new voters by investing in candidates outside of areas where the party has already shown strength, dampening allegations of ethnic and religious bias that have levied against the party in the process, and in committing even more fully to social justice and other movements aimed at improving Nigerian governance and society. The party may also find opportunity to expand its impact by seeking opportunities to partner with others in opposition around common issues, and to better hold elected government to task, encouraging a broader dissemination of issues-based approaches in Nigerian politics, and creating potential for influence that may even outlast the party, as with DLP’s legacy in South Korea. That LP has been able to maintain much of this approach thus far gives some hope for LP’s new political role, and that it is the only major political party that shows this potential may mean that this hope is as ‘desperate’ as some have described. The greatest hope, however, is that LP lives up to this⎈
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