A former governor of one of Nigeria’s most electorally volatile states, Peter Obi is no left-force tyro. Regardless, he faces almost impossible odds of winning the election. But should his ‘Obidience’ movement succeed, and should he win, he and his supporters must contend with the reality of the sacrifices he might have to make to fulfil his campaign promises.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Road to 2023. Buy the issue here.
Among the stories and anecdotes extolling former Anambra State governor and current Labour party frontrunner, Peter Obi’s humility and frugality, one that stands out involves Lady Bianca Ojukwu. In this story, the former ambassador to Spain and wife of the late Biafran leader tells what transpired when Obi (then a governor) was scheduled to attend a black-tie event as a guest of her family in Dallas, Texas. On discovering that Obi did not travel with an attire suitable for the event, she took him to a luxury men’s boutique to select a suit. He protested and instead opted for a much cheaper, basic suit. She recalls,
To cut the story short, he refused to pay what he termed ‘that outrageous price’ for the Tom Ford suit and that was how we ended up at Steinmart where he agreed to pay a more acceptable price of 220 dollars, tax inclusive, for a basic men’s suit which he was happy to wear to that evening’s event. What struck me, was that as we were on the way to the airport to see him off for his return flight back to Nigeria, he reached for his pocket where he brought out an envelope of crisp hundred-dollar bills. The amount in the envelope was 3,800 dollars. He said … this is the balance of the money I would have paid for the ‘Ford’ suit… Please use this balance for your Charity foundation to help those in actual need.
Similar anecdotes and experiences have become both common on social media and among the highlights of the current political season. The stories, diverse and some no doubt embellished, have all contributed to Obi’s appeal. His reputation for being conscientious has ingratiated him to ordinary Nigerians, especially younger citizens who see him as a departure from the current political class they revile for its ostentatious, aloof and kleptocratic tendencies. Like Barack Obama in 2008 and Emmanuel Macron in 2017, Obi has managed to present himself as a political maverick despite having served in government.
However, Obi’s appeal is also his Achilles heel. It is, arguably, the reason he was unlikely to emerge as the presidential candidate of any of the more established political parties. Indeed, some Nigerians believe Obi’s rising popularity, and what it represents, is a threat to the current political order. For instance, Communications and Knowledge Management Lead at Nigeria Climate Innovation Center, Daniel Oladoja, observed that an Obi presidency ‘is a tragedy the establishment cannot afford.’ According to Oladoja, ‘the establishment cannot afford to lose their grip on power or to appear weak. To the establishment, Peter Obi is an existential threat, not just a political opponent.’
The promise that an Obi presidency holds notwithstanding, the question remains whether this candidate—without having the backing of either of Nigeria’s two major political parties—will have the political fortitude to be an effective president if he emerges victorious at the 2023 polls.
THE PROBLEM OF STRUCTURE
Whenever the viability of Peter Obi’s candidacy is mentioned, his detractors are quick to cite his party’s lack of national ‘structure’ as a possible roadblock to his success. Those familiar with Nigerian political lexicon might interpret this ‘structure’ in one of two ways:
First, structure could mean a robust network of institutional, financial and human support that connects a political aspirant to their grassroots constituents. This is often the result of decades of groundwork laid by politicians and political parties. This structure guarantees ‘boots on the ground’ to disseminate a party or candidate’s message in every corner of the nation.
Secondly, and perhaps more cynically, structure refers to Nigeria’s corrupt political patronage system, which makes it nearly impossible for political aspirants to succeed without obeisance to godfathers and kingmakers. This, too, is by design and the result of decades of foundational work. This type of structure is what guarantees that a potential candidate must bribe their way through every level of the political pecking order to stand a chance of running—not to talk of getting elected. After enduring an expensive elective process mired in black tax, politicians often go into government with a mind to ‘recoup the investments’ they made to get elected, and the cycle continues.
Obi’s supporters believe that his refusal to bribe delegates for votes during People’s Democratic Party presidential primaries contributed to his eventual resignation from PDP and move to Labour Party. In lieu of this ‘structure’ Peter Obi has relied on independent supporters who believe in his message to mobilize on his behalf. Many, like Weyimi, a 24-year-old Lagosian and part of Peter Obi’s Volunteer Network, are getting involved in electoral politics for the first time. According to Weyimi ‘People and not politicians make up a structure. The “Obidients” have contributed their time, money, resources and skills to build Obi’s structure from scratch.’ Weyimi also believes that the massive outpouring of support for the ‘Obidient’ movement is motivated by the fact that the youth consider the 2023 election a matter of life or death. ‘After EndSARS,’ she told me, ‘we realized our lives were on the line and that we had to get involved in deciding the leadership of Nigeria. This goes beyond Peter Obi. We are all running for president through him.’
RIDING A NEW WAVE
Certain factors signal that Nigeria’s political atmosphere will imminently experience a paradigm shift. For one, President Muhammadu Buhari is expected to complete his tenure in 2023 and become only the second president in Nigeria’s history, to last two terms in office. His predecessors were either sacked through a coup d’état (Azikiwe, Shagari and Shonekan), died in office (Yar’Adua) or lost their re-election bid (Jonathan). Since the advantage of incumbency will not be a factor in the presidential election for the first time since 2007, each candidate must rely solely on their ability to convince voters of their viability. In addition to this, President Buhari has shown himself reluctant to expressly throw his weight behind Tinubu, his party’s presidential flag bearer, while the main opposition PDP has been dealing with internal schisms. By 2023, both parties would have been at the helm of Nigerian affairs for a collective 24 years, with little improvement in the lives of ordinary Nigerians to show for their time in power.
The disarray within these parties could be exploited by Obi’s campaign, as many Nigerians now acknowledge that the answers to their problems may lie outside the major political parties. For instance, Charles, a 25-year-old entrepreneur in Lagos, told me that ‘there is nothing anyone can say to justify the state of Nigeria’ after the leadership Nigeria has experienced under APC and PDP over the years. According to Charles, ‘This election is a watershed moment in Nigeria. The 2015 election was a fight for power amongst Nigeria’s political elite. This time around, the main opposition is from the people, especially the youth population, who are discontent with the state of the nation and want to take their country back.’
Next year’s election will also mark the first time since 1999 when no member of Nigeria’s military class is in the presidential race. By the time Buhari’s tenure elapses, Nigeria would have been ruled by ex-military heads of state for 16 of the 24 years since the nation returned to democracy. Some scholars argue that the influence of the armed forces in Nigeria’s politics has militarized Nigeria’s practice of democracy. Their departure from the scene, creates an opportunity for a psychological readjustment in the way Nigerians view political leadership. It could also mean democratization in access to funding, and media coverage. As Nigeria continues the path towards true democratic civility, more political outliers will get involved in electoral politics and challenge the bigwigs.
These factors could rejig previously held voting alliances, even the political playing field and leave room for an upset in Obi’s favour. While Obi’s chances of emerging victorious in next year’s polls is a mathematical improbability, there remains a chance nonetheless.
The question, however, remains: if Obi pulls off a political miracle and emerges president-elect, will he actually be able to govern Nigeria effectively?
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO RUN NIGERIA?
Like most democracies in the world, there are established checks and balances in the Nigerian political landscape to ensure rule of law. Nigeria has three equal but separate arms of government: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. For a president to be effective in passing laws and enacting policies, the president must have political leverage within the two arms that are determined through votes—the executive and the legislature. The friction between President Buhari and then senate president, Bukola Saraki, during the former’s first term in office offers an example of what can happen when there is a lack of constructive engagement and institutional collaboration between these two arms of government. Their terse relationship resulted in administrative roadblocks, notably, the consistent delays in approving national budgets and government agency nominees recommended by the president between 2015 and 2019. Likewise, President Olusegun Obasanjo had notorious skirmishes with the legislative wing of government during his tenure, culminating in Obasanjo allegedly sponsoring the impeachment of then-senate president, Chuba Okadigbo, in 2000.
Obi’s Labour Party currently holds two of 360 seats in the Federal House of Representatives (through defections), one of 109 seats in the Senate (also through a defection), none of 991 seats in the 36 State Houses of assembly and none of the governors across the nation’s 36 states. With 195 out of the 360,753 votes and 2,729 out of the 804,450 votes respectively in the recent Ekiti and Osun elections, the Labour Party barely performed. This shows that, while the party has a popular presidential candidate, Obi’s appeal does not necessarily extend to other candidates at the lower levels. This means that should Obi become president, he will always be in danger of being neutralized by a hostile legislature or, worse still, face impeachment. It is difficult to see how he will generate the political impetus needed to drive the reforms he has spoken about in the course of his campaign, except he chooses—like President Buhari—to bypass the legislature and implement policy through ‘executive order’. If Obi tows this line, he runs the risk of betraying the democratic principles on which he is currently running, even if he is exercising these powers ‘for the good of the people’.
Alternatively, if Obi decides to work across party lines, how much of his personal values will he have to compromise to build allyship? If he is seen to be cosying up to the same politicians and parties he has criticized, his true allegiance could be called into question; he is, after all, just another Nigerian politician. Peter Obi’s critics accuse him of being part and parcel of the same system he maligns. Musician and activist, Femi Kuti, tweeted, for instance, that he was too ‘angry, sad and depressed to be “obidient”’. Defending his stance, Kuti cited Obi’s recent fraternization with ex heads of state like Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida, both of whom persecuted the Kuti family during their time in power.
Personal as it is, there may be some merit to Kuti’s criticism. In 2019, while still in PDP, Obi was the vice-presidential running mate to Atiku Abubakar, one of the candidates he is now running against. Atiku has been repeatedly accused of corruption from various quarters. He was even implicated in a bribery case that, according to Bloomberg, resulted in the imprisonment of an American congressman in the early 2000s. How much can Obi truly differ from a man he was happy to work with less than four years ago?
In 2021, Obi was among those indicted in the Pandora Papers, an investigative report detailing how hundreds of wealthy elites worldwide evade taxes by acquiring property and assets they keep hidden from regulatory authorities in their respective countries. Following the expose, Obi was accused of breaching Nigerian laws by failing to declare all his assets while serving as governor, an accusation he vehemently denies. Insisting on his innocence, Obi said in a 2021 interview that he could not declare as his what was ‘owned with others’. He also maintained that he did not breach any law because he paid taxes in all the countries where he owned businesses or made investments.
That said, it is undeniable that Obi is experienced at working within a political system that is antagonistic towards him. After initially losing out on the Anambra State governorship to Chris Ngige of PDP in 2003, Obi reclaimed the governorship seat through a historic court ruling in March 2006, which voided the results of the previous election and declared him winner. Barely six months after being installed as governor, Premium Times reported, Obi was impeached by the Anambra State house of assembly for allegedly refusing to inflate the state’s annual budget to allow officials siphon public funds. After contesting his impeachment at the court of appeal, he was reinstated as governor in February 2007. In May of the same year, Obi lost the governorship to challenger, Andy Uba. He again sought redress at the courts, arguing that since his tenure officially started in 2006, he had another three years to serve of his unfinished first term. The Supreme Court ruled in his favour, and he continued as governor until 2010, when he sought and won re-election.
Despite an unfriendly legislature and a governorship tenure staggered by legal battles, Obi managed to perform admirably as governor especially in education, infrastructural development and health, winning several local and international awards in the process. Under the Obi administration, Anambra state school students achieved first place in the nationwide common entrance examinations, a feat owing largely to his education reforms. He is also credited with constructing over 800 kilometres of roads, leading to the federal ministry of works judging Anambra as the state with the best road network. Additionally, his tenure saw the accreditation of two hospitals and ten schools of nursing, midwifery and medical technology. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Obi’s knack for getting results against the odds—both at the polls and in government—can be replicated at a national level.
‘OBIDIENCE’ OR SACRIFICE?
Election cycles in Nigeria come with the perennial hope of the emergence of a third force political party to challenge the hegemony of APC and PDP. Obi has tapped into this wave and generated a massive social following, but it will be inaccurate to think of him as a typical naive third-force candidate.
Whereas other third-force candidates such Fela Durotoye and Kingsley Moghalu have typically been private sector technocrats with negligible political street credibility, candidates whose optimism is matched only by their naivety, Obi is a former two-term governor in one of Nigeria’s most politically volatile states. Obi is also a former vice-presidential candidate of PDP. He will know better than anyone how realistic his chances at the presidency are, given the current political climate. But should the ‘Obidience’ movement succeed, and should Obi win the national mandate, he and his supporters must contend with the reality of the sacrifices he might have to make to fulfil his campaign promises. He runs the risk of alienating his core support base if he chooses to work within the existing political structure he has bitterly criticized. Conversely, failure to work within this system might hamstring him politically. Either choice will significantly jeopardize his chance of re-election. Ultimately, the question is whether it is better for Obi to be ‘Obidient’ to his principles or sacrifice them on the altar of exigency and pragmatic politics.
But above and beyond Obi’s chances of political success in 2023, perhaps the ‘Obidient’ movement is itself a calculated sacrifice on Obi’s part to lay the groundwork and create a blueprint for future progressive candidates. Perhaps, true to his name, ‘Peter’, Obi can be the rock upon which the structures necessary to break the APC-PDP duopoly are built. And if this is all he achieves, no one can call his campaign unsuccessful⎈
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