The presidential flag bearer of the Labour Party bolstered his already stellar reputation with an electric outing at Chatham House, but did he tell us anything about himself and his policies we did not already know?
In February 2015, Rtd. General Muhammadu Buhari addressed an excited audience of admirers and supporters at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. In so doing, he pioneered the trend of aspiring Nigerian leaders making the political pilgrimage to the institute to discuss politics, policy and matters of national significance.
While it is unclear exactly what effects (if any) these Chatham house engagements have on the outcome of the elections, the platform represents a good opportunity for aspirants to bolster their reputation by engaging with foreign stakeholders and Nigerians in diaspora. The current election cycle has seen all Nigeria’s major contenders for the presidency (bar one) give lectures at Chatham House.
First, it was Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the APC and two weeks ago, Rabiu Kwankwaso of the ANPP followed suit. Sandwiched between both appearances was Peter Obi’s January 16 address, which generated considerable excitement amongst critics and supporters alike with over 60,000 live subscribers tuning in across digital platforms.
The Chatham House speeches are akin to a performance. Like an actor on a stage, the goal is twofold; to inspire and to inform. A politician, like an actor, must rely on his skills as a communicator to sell a message; and the efficacy of his performance is as dependent on the delivery as it is on the content.
With this taken into account, Obi’s speech started out rigid and laboured. His inability to strike a steady rhythm belied the possibility that the speech was sparsely rehearsed, if at all. Compared to his rousing speech at the Nigerian Bar Association Conference in 2022, it is clear that Obi’s oratory prowess lies in improvisation.
However, once he had satisfied the formality of his address and began to engage the crowd, the subject matter expertise, easy charm and charisma his supporters have become accustomed to rose to the fore. Obi spoke for an hour and 12 minutes, responding to questions from the audience after his address. He touched on several issues of national interest, including the economy, security, climate change and education. But have we learned anything new about Peter Obi and his policies due to his appearance in Chatham House?
SOCIAL SOLUTIONS TO SECURITY CHALLENGES
Nigeria is currently plagued with a myriad of security challenges that threaten the corporate existence of the nation. Between the Boko Haram insurgency, the herdsmen crises and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) agitations in the South East; Nigerians have endured countless losses to lives, livelihood and property with no lasting solutions in sight. It can be inferred from Obi’s address that he favours a socio-political intervention over a militaristic one as a means to tackling insecurity.
While speaking, he reiterated that solving Nigeria’s youth unemployment crisis will go a long way in resolving the nation’s security challenges. According to Obi;
The growing insecurity in Nigeria is not because the enemy is formidable, it is rather because of lack of focused leadership, ineffective security governance structure and poor coordination from the center.
There is no denying that Obi is uniquely positioned to proffer a lasting solution to this crisis. As a former governor of Nigeria’s most productive south-eastern state, it is no surprise that his largest support base is in the South East. In spite of this, he has admirably avoided ethnic and tribal rhetoric in the course of running his campaign. Reacting to a question specifically about the IPOB agitation, Obi stated his desire to dialogue with the agitators to find common ground and seek a lasting solution.
His ideas on security are especially refreshing considering the fact that the military approach has so far failed to deliver lasting peace, and that conflict resolution experts have urged the Nigerian government for years to broaden their perspectives on peace and security.
FROM CONSUMPTION TO PRODUCTION
Since campaigns kicked off, Peter Obi has insisted that Nigeria can only rid itself of its economic problems by becoming production-focused. Couched within this ethos is his plan to diversify Nigeria’s economy as he plans to ‘move Nigeria from a country of rent seekers sharing oil receipts and consuming conspicuously, to one that produces, based on vast factor endowments whose value chains can move us towards a high employment economy’.
Obi has referenced plans to borrow funds in order to invest in the strategic infrastructure that will help Nigeria develop into a creative and production hub. In an interview with This Day, Obi expressed a desire to capitalize on the sprawling landmass available in Northern Nigeria to create an agricultural empire that rivals the likes of the Netherlands. He reiterated this desire during his speech, claiming that with the right policies, Nigeria can earn multiple times what it currently does from crude oil exports—while simultaneously creating jobs by bringing more people into the value chain.
‘WE WILL DEAL WITH IT’; SOLUTIONS WITHOUT STRATEGY
While Peter Obi displayed characteristic depth in analyzing issues and showed subject-matter understanding across relevant sectors, his address failed to provide a cursory explanation of his roadmap to solving Nigeria’s key problems.
When addressing a question on Nigeria’s power crisis, he gave a comparative analysis between similar power challenges in South Africa and concluded by saying ‘I am going to declare war on power, and I will solve it’.
On climate change, he pledged to ‘follow the protocols of climate change’ but did not elucidate on what those protocols are. He also pledged to plant trees and properly dredge Rivers Niger and Benue, but provided no further details on plans to address deforestation, air pollution or oil spillage. It was the same when tackling a question on corruption, providing no robust details on what he would do differently than former presidents who have tried and failed to end endemic corruption in Nigeria.
According to him:
…that is the structure we are trying to destroy—(the) structure of criminality…that structure that has impoverished Nigeria, we will dismantle it. It will not be there; I assure you of that.
Obi also failed to conclusively address how he would work effectively with a potentially hostile legislature if elected president. Instead, he said that ‘when you are doing what is right, everyone will want to go with you’; a naive outlook at best.
A TOWNHALL, DIFFERENT
Peter Obi’s performance at Chatham house has no doubt bolstered his reputation within the international community. For Nigerians who have followed his campaign and are familiar with his rhetoric, we only experienced a reinforcement of what we have already known about Obi.
It also did not go unnoticed that Obi frequently referenced his running mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed during the course of his engagements; often beginning statements with ‘Datti and…’ This could signal the potential for stronger cooperation between the two highest executive offices, a factor that has been missing from successive governments—the current administration inclusive.
Obi’s inability to lay out his plans for Nigeria in detail is worrisome. In 2020, I wrote an essay about how Nigeria has never lacked well-intentioned leaders but instead lacked qualified ones. In part, the reason for the trust deficit between Nigerians and their leaders is the trend of empty rhetoric that has existed since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. Every presidential aspirant promises to solve Nigeria’s chronic challenges; power, insecurity and unemployment—and perhaps they mean to, but the last eight years of the Buhari administration should teach us to be more scrutinous of the people who want to lead us.
Obi’s campaign is a breath of fresh air for Nigerian politics. He has campaigned with a degree of intellectual vigour and respect for civility that is not often associated with modern politics in Nigeria. He performed several times better at Chatham House than any other presidential aspirant, but for Obi to truly prove that he is ‘not just another politician’, he must back up ambitious ideas with realistic strategies⎈
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