The emergence of the Obidients—fervent supporters of Nigerian politician Peter Obi—has added another layer of vitality to the country’s democracy, which has the potential to make the country’s political landscape even more competitive.
Although Nigeria has been a multiparty state for the majority of its democratic existence, except for the 1992/1993 electoral season when General Ibrahim Babangida imposed a two-party system, the country’s political system, since 1999, has rarely been as diverse as it was before and following the 2023 elections. The emergence of the Obidients—fervent supporters of Nigerian politician Peter Obi—has added another layer of vitality to the country’s democracy, which has the potential to make the country’s political landscape even more competitive. Nevertheless, while a case can be made for a growing democracy, there still remains ethnic bigotry and religious intolerance across the country, which, among other reasons, remains a clog in the wheel of Nigeria’s development.
2023 ELECTIONS: A NEW DAWN
Nigeria’s 2023 general elections were the most tightly contested since the beginning of the fourth republic. In fact, for the first time since 1999, there were predictions that the election may go on to a run off. Several reasons gave rise to its unpredictability, chief of which was the candidacy of Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) and, to a lesser degree, that of Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP). Ultimately, on 1 March 2023, Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) was declared the election winner and sworn in on 29 May 2023 as Nigeria’s 16th head of state. Following the 18 March gubernatorial elections, APC now controls 20 states since 29 May, while the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) follows with thirteen, and LP, All Progressive Grand Alliance and NNPP with one each.
While a long-time politician, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was announced the winner of the presidential election, some things seem to have changed this past electoral season, which indicates the possibility that Nigeria’s democracy may be growing. These changes can be categorized into the growing multiparty ethos, particularly in the South East, and the rise of a powerful new political bloc steeped in dynamism.
THE CURIOUS CHANGES IN THE SOUTH EAST
Attention must be directed at the National Assembly and state government elections to understand or recognize these changes. First, the five South East states, since 29 May 2023, have been governed by four political parties. This has never happened in Nigeria’s history. Also, five parties are represented in the zone at the National Assembly. Thus, the plurality of South East governing parties may affect the zone’s overall approach to governance. Usually, at most, two parties govern a zone at a time; occasionally, in the past, three have, but never have there been four. On this note, states will likely be involved in healthy competition for who performs better because close-by comparisons can be made with another state governed by a different party in the same zone that is doing well. In essence, productive pressure is placed on the governors to outdo themselves so that their chances of maintaining their party’s political position in the zone are strengthened. As it stands, no party is too strong or has a significant spread to give room for complacency. A key hallmark of democracy is the sharing or opening up of power among people. Therefore, with such development in the South East, this sign bodes well for a growing democratic Nigerian state.
Secondly, on 28 March 2023, former minister of information under the PDP from Nasarawa State, Labaran Maku, stated on live television that ‘the Obidients took us by surprise. We did not expect it.’ He was speaking about how LP won Nasarawa State in the presidential election while also defeating the chairman of the ruling APC in his polling unit. Many observers may have also been surprised when LP defeated APC in the home state of President Tinubu in Lagos. While it may also be easy to attribute these unprecedented victories to LP presidential candidate, Peter Obi, such a position will be, at best, myopic. As he stands today, Peter Obi is not a making of himself alone. Obidients, a moniker culled from his name, have probably played a more significant role in making Obi. For instance, Obidients pressured Peter Obi and LP to replace Doyin Okupe as the director general of the party’s presidential campaign council when allegations of fraud were made against him. These same Obidients were the ones who recently prevailed on LP to reduce the cost of the governorship nomination forms in Imo, Bayelsa and Kogi from N25 million to N15 million.
Obidients are not necessarily loyal LP followers, as seen from the voting patterns in the governorship elections. LP won Nasarawa, Plateau, Delta, and Edo states and came second in states like Benue and Cross River at the presidential election, but performed abysmally at the gubernatorial elections of the states above or did not participate at all. Instead, Obidients are attracted to the person, Peter Obi. For example, in Plateau State, residents voted massively for Peter Obi but switched over and voted for Caleb Muftwang of PDP during the governorship election, and for both elections, the state went agog with celebrations.
Obidients propelled Peter Obi to ‘major contender’ status with three critical acts. First is what is called agenda setting. This they did unconventionally. In the past, news media were at the forefront of setting the pace for public discourse; however, with the growth of digital media, that is changing. Digital platforms have increased the capacity of various kinds of actors to shape the agenda, which was what Obidients did by ensuring they trended almost every day on social media. They used ‘one million man’ marches to gain the attention of the general populace and traditional media, which often led to these traditional platforms reporting about Obidient activities. Secondly, with youths in the campaign’s driving seat, Obidients expertly infused popular culture—music and comedy skits— into the campaign, making it relatable and admirable to belong to. Finally, deploying various forms of affective politics, such as paying the transport fare for students travelling back to their homes from across the country, made the campaign more humane and attracted several supporters to their fold.
Most Obidients, as mentioned above, are young Nigerians, mainly in the federation’s South and North Central states. However, they are not a minority. In less than a year, they were able to upscale Peter Obi from being a former vice presidential candidate who was repeatedly ridiculed as having ‘no structure’ to becoming one of the most spoken-about candidates during the campaign in a fringe party that had no elected candidate in office, across the country. Obidients ensured Peter Obi won the same number of states (twelve each) as the President Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, two politicians who have been leading figures in Nigerian politics since the 1990s. Therefore, it may be too presumptuous to consider Obidients irrelevant now and in the future. Interestingly, they may not remain Obidients, but they will likely consider candidates who bear attributes that they see in Peter Obi and go all out for such a candidate. Whether victory is guaranteed is another discussion, but what cannot be denied is that a new voting bloc has emerged and will grow.
ETHNICITY AND THE BATTLE FOR ONE NIGERIA
Meanwhile, Peter Obi’s rise may reduce the calls for secession from the South East. From the first term of the Muhammadu Buhari administration in 2015, the secessionist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, became prominent. Buhari’s administration’s perceived neglect of the South East was a key reason for the rise. Another reason for the agitation may be linked to the apparent vacuum in leadership in the South East. While the North East and North West had a national figure like Buhari and the South West had Tinubu, the South East has, since the decline of former vice president, Alex Ekwueme in national politics, struggled to produce a towering figure who commanded respect and following of South Easterners. This vacuum gave room for the rise of Nnamdi Kanu and IPOB. However, at the moment, Nigerians from the zone may have found a leader in Peter Obi. They may be more willing to follow his lead rather than put their lives at the mercy of the state, following Kanu and IPOB.
Finally, while elements of a deepening democracy surfaced following the elections, old national habits of ethnic profiling and bigotry still reared their ugly heads. In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial centre and arguably the most advanced city in the country, Igbos and non-Igbos, who were considered Igbos for whatsoever reason, were targeted for voter suppression and violence. However, what manifested against the Igbos is only a portion of a much larger problem interred in the social fabric of Nigeria. In Benue State, for instance, it is almost a Sisyphean task for someone who is not Tiv to become Governor. Tivs, one of Nigeria’s ‘major-minority’ ethnic groups—ethnic groups that are not part of the most populous three of Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, but still have a significant population size—but with an overwhelming majority in Benue State, have dominated the state’s politics at the expense of other ethnic groups. Ironically, however, at the federal level, Tivs, now a minority compared to the Igbos, Yorubas and Hausas, have complained of being marginalized. Similarly, the residents of Southern Kaduna, who are predominantly Christians, have continued to clamour for more inclusivity in the politics and governance of the state. Hence, it is not enough to call out Igbophobia because the issue far transcends prejudice against the Igbos and covers many other citizens of Nigeria. There is a reason why the minority ethnic groups were hesitant to call for Nigeria’s independence. They feared the WAZOBIA (denotes ‘come’ in the languages of Nigeria’s three most populous ethnicities – Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo) fold would dominate them. Sadly, these fears exist today and are based on real experiences of subjugation.
On this last point, while there are many things to do to get Nigerians truly united, it is suggested that the new government start by implementing the simple but brilliant suggestion of immediate past vice president Yemi Osinbajo, which is to discard the use of ‘state of origin’ and replace that with ‘certificate of residence.’ It is believed that it is an effective and efficient way to douse ethnic hate and promote cultural and religious diversity across the country.
In conclusion, Nigeria’s latest attempt at democracy—since 1999—has lasted the longest; therefore, this system of governance is becoming the norm rather than an exception. Before 1999, the longest time Nigeria had spent as a democratic state was six years—1960 to 1966—the years immediately after independence and just before the civil war. Although the country’s progress is painfully slow, Nigeria is getting used to being democratic. Evidence of such is the growing multiparty nature in the South East and the meteoric rise of Obidients. Obidients, while being supporters of Peter Obi, are not necessarily one and the same as him. There is a shared but distinct identity. As acutely stated above, it is a new political bloc that is likely to grow and become a greater force that has the potential to shape the political and economic trajectory of the country. Yet, while having a democratically relevant bloc like Obidients rise over the last electoral season, Nigeria still possesses the age-long attribute of being ethnically and religiously intolerant. This, in a nutshell, is the chequered nature of Nigeria’s democracy⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].