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2023: Populist Aspiration vs. the Force Fields of Nigerian Politics

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Presidential candidate, Peter Obi, is riding the wave of populist and progressive support which makes him a highly credible contender in the coming election. But he confronts the rigid force fields of Nigerian politics which are opposed to radical tendencies. Obi needs to build a cross-cutting class consensus for his candidacy, reaching out specifically to hegemonic stakeholders, if he hopes to win in 2023 and send his two leading (septuagenarian) opponents into political retirement.

By Chudi Okoye

What a time of it we shall have!

We are mere months from what might be a momentous presidential election in Nigeria, probably the most critical since the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999, and the build-up is spellbinding.

In some recent articles I wrote concerning the 2023 presidential election, I hinted at possible challenges facing what some expect to be a radical shift in election result – that is, an outcome wherein a so-called Third Force prizes the presidency from the palm of the major political parties that have controlled it since the beginning of this dispensation. I wish to develop that argument further in this latest installment on the election.

I have written so much about the upcoming presidential poll because, with the arraignment of partisan forces now beginning to manifest, this may not end up like any of the elections we had between 1999 and 2019. Although a plethora of puny parties participated in those earlier polls, the tussle was often between two or three elite coalitions hewed from the same liberal-welfarist archetype which has dominated Nigerian politics going back even to previous democratic dispensations. The 2023 election is rapidly shaping up as a potential confrontation between fully mobilized conventional forces lodged in the two currently dominant parties seeking to preserve the status quo and a swelling rank of progressive and radical forces seeking to transform the Nigerian political economy.

After 23 years of misgovernment by the civilian political class, Nigeria is at a critical juncture. The Nigerian state has failed spectacularly as a categoric institution, unable to perform even the most basic functions of a state. We are all familiar with the grim indices of its failure. In fact there is ongoing debate among scholars and diplomats as to whether the Nigerian state is on the verge of failing or if it has already failed. If the Nigerian state has not totally collapsed, it may not be unconnected with the following facts: (1) Nigerian people themselves are self-organizing, through private non-state interventions, to provide to their communities political goods normally delivered by a state, including security and economic welfare; (2) the Nigerian state is preserved by Nigeria’s corrupt elites because it serves as a formal apparatus for their prebendal appropriation of public funds; (3) the international system props up the Nigerian state by providing diplomatic, economic and security assistance, in part to keep Nigeria’s peripheral economy viable for metropolitan interests, and in part because Nigeria’s continued existence is vital for regional cohesion in Africa.

A Progressive Corrective
If military intervention in politics were not already passé, and if the Nigerian military were not institutionally exhausted, there might already be a coup d’état to overthrow this wobbly Fourth Republic. After all, in the past the military had intervened under far less adverse conditions. But a martial correction seems improbable (though not impossible) in the current conjuncture. Instead, the 2023 election offers Nigerians the chance for a democratic corrective – much in the manner that military intervention might have previously hoped to do – if the growing progressive coalition triumphs in the upcoming presidential election.

The progressive forces are coalescing, rapidly and enthusiastically, around the candidacy of Mr. Peter Obi, the Labor Party flag-bearer. It was for this reason that, in a previous article I coined the words ‘Obisessed’, ‘Obisession’ and ‘Petermentum’ as literary devices to vivify the magnetism, the movement and the growing momentum of the Labor candidate. Although there have always been progressive (or radicalist) tendencies in Nigerian politics, they have often been schemed out of the political configuration and have rarely found mainstream electoral outlet. What Peter Obi offers is a potential mainstreaming of radical and progressive tendencies which hitherto had subsisted at the periphery of Nigerian politics.

Obi started his quest for the presidency as a mainstream aspirant chiefly concerned with what we may call the efficientization of the Nigerian government. His principal concern was the reduction of governance costs and a re-focusing of public policy planning away from consumption to production. Obi’s agenda had not seemed to resonate very much in his former party, PDP, resulting in his being outmaneuvered in the lead-up to the party’s primary. Reading the tea leaves, Obi had quickly decamped to the Labor Party where he was promptly selected as the flag-bearer. His candidacy has since caught fire in his new perch, powered by passionate support from a cross-section of eager youths, members of the enlightened urban professional class, and a primordial base of the Igbo South East. We have also seen growing support for Obi from organized religion, particularly from evangelical pastors, in an unabashed display of clerical activism quite uncommon in Nigerian politics.

But it’s not just the churches. Organized labor is also rallying behind Obi’s candidacy. Perhaps impressed by his record and growing popularity, the Nigerian Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress have come out fully in support of Obi’s candidacy, pledging to avail their organizational structures for his cause.

Peter Obi Meets with NLC Leadership

Organized labor’s support for Obi might simply have arisen from the appeal of his political message. But it might also be construed as a conscious play at entryism, a tactic sometimes used by left-wing forces to infiltrate mainstream parties in order to attain political power in an otherwise unfavorable environment. In this case it might not be so much the infiltration of a party as the appropriation of a candidacy.

This latter point – the potential for radical appropriation – is the centre of the matter. It raises the question of whether Peter Obi’s burgeoning radical base – comprising groups and organizations that may be considered radical, populist, progressive, or left-wing – portends a potentially radical tilt when he gets round to elaborating his policy agenda. There’s also the question of how the political system might respond to a potential radicalization of Obi’s platform. Obi’s originating agenda of governing efficiency and production-oriented policy-making could be challenging, in and of itself, to the distributive ethos of the Nigerian political economy, a real threat to the ruling elites who depend on Nigeria’s prebendal state for status and material accumulation. But Obi’s candidacy could be considered even more threatening if his initial agenda, disruptive as it might seem, becomes more radically inflected due to his dalliance with progressive forces like labor. In that case, he could face resistance not only from a political class dependent on the distributive state but also from a corporate and industrial class apprehensive of a potential radical capture of an Obi presidency. It is for this reason that I also, in my previous piece, coined the words ‘Obistacles’, ‘Obistruction’ and ‘Obistructionist’ to point up a potential systemic reaction to Obi’s progressive surge.

Nigerian State Dreads the Reds
The response of the Nigerian state to radical politics has never been accommodating; it’s been historically antagonistic. The British colonial government frequently tussled with labor and other militant groups like the Zikist Movement which it suspected of having socialist inclinations. Colonialist antagonism towards radical politics clearly influenced the ideological outlook of the Western-educated politicians who inherited power from the British, and as well the instincts of the British-trained military brass which later sacked the civilian leaders and held power for much of the post-colonial period.

The military was wont to attack any groups or organizations that it considered radical or militant, be they workers’ or student unions, academic or professional bodies, often using brutally repressive tactics against such groups. It rejected socialist precepts in all the constitutional frameworks it engineered for democratic transition, whether in the 1975-79 (Murtala-Obasanjo), the 1986-93 (Babangida) or the 1993-99 (Abacha-Abdulsalami) transition programs. The military also moved to neutralize left-leaning political formations, clamping down on any concerted effort at radical mobilization. For instance it would not register any left-leaning groups so they could participate in the transition to the Second Republic. It rejected the recommendations of the Political Bureau it had created which called for the adoption of a socialist ideology in Nigeria; this, despite the fact that the recommendation was based on the Bureau’s intake of about 27,000 proposals from sources across the political landscape. Instead, the military created by fiat two centrist political parties – one “a little to the right” and the other “a little to the left” – as political vehicles for the transition to the Third Republic.

Even at that, the military still annulled the 1993 presidential election won by Chief MKO Abiola, candidate of the “little to the left” party which had attracted a strong progressive base, partly through its alignment with the Nigerian labor movement (the president of the Nigerian Labor Congress, Pascal Bafyau, became a major contender as running-mate to Abiola).

Finally, following the collapse of Nigeria’s Third Republic experiment, the military orchestrated the emergence of centrist formations which in time coalesced into the duopolistic parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which came to dominate the Fourth Republic politics.

The military of course often worked with, or for, the hegemonic interests In broader society.

A Reformist Consensus
If the Nigerian body politic has consistently rejected the ‘toxin’ of radical politics, what then is the likely consequence of Peter Obi’s growing alignment with populist and progressive forces? Will his movement become doomed like previous populist outings suppressed by military autocracies in behalf of hegemonic interests? Or, after 23 years of uninterrupted though chaotic civilian rule, do we have a different balance of forces, with hegemonic forces discredited and vitiated while progressive forces have become strengthened in the face of growing popular discontent? Have the two hegemonic parties so thoroughly misgoverned Nigeria in this Fourth Republic dispensation that a progressive coalition can successfully overcome the systemic resistance to radical politics and actually win power? Come to think of it, is it not possible that some enlightened factions of the hegemonic bloc would recognize that Nigeria is so broken and in need of repair that they might contemplate at least a temporary alignment with a reformist candidate like Peter Obi in order to resuscitate the economy and prevent systemic collapse?

With oil revenues dwindling, the Naira deeply devalued, debts mounting and lending sources drying up, fiscal planning in Nigeria is in turmoil. The economic basis for Nigeria’s distributive state is greatly weakened, and so its prebendal praxis is no longer sustainable. “The revenue of the state is the state,” writes Edmund Burke in his classic work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). For the distributive state to remain valid, the Nigerian cow needs to be re-fattened, so to say. So, if only out of enlightened self-interest, the hegemonic political classes should be willing to tolerate a reformist candidate who can rebuild their mainstay, even one seemingly exposed to radical influences. Even the corporate and industrial bourgeoisie, which might ordinarily oppose a radical or progressive ascendancy in the political sphere, could back a candidate with a properly constrained reformist agenda. But they have to be offered the right incentives to come on board.

Peter Obi’s populist appeal is growing and his progressive base is broadening. But he needs a cross-cutting class consensus for his candidacy, if he hopes to win power and sustain his victory. It is important for Obi to develop a detailed policy agenda and clear political messaging which more fully articulates his progressive aspirations, beyond the sketchy, populist punditry he currently peddles. There is already some grumbling from ideological purists in the labor rank and file who wonder what Obi – a mainstream, a neo-liberal capitalist – has in common with their movement’s socialist ideology. Obi needs to assuage such purist anxieties on the left. At the same time, as Obi’s campaign develops, he should begin to build inroads into what, in a previous article, I called “the ethno-politico-religio-security complex that controls power in Nigeria.” Although Nigeria’s political system has shown a deep aversion to radical and progressive politics, to the extent that one doubts the possibility of revolutionary change in a civilian milieu, there may be opportunity for an unthreatening candidate with a reformist agenda who appeals to various economic and ideological interests. Obi will end up straddling two ideologically-opposed camps – labor/socialist and capitalist/neoliberal – both of which he needs if he intends to win. He should begin to craft a policy platform and political messaging that can appeal to both sides. Obi needs to make his case across the substratum of Nigerian politics, and resist being owned (appropriated) by radical and progressive forces. He needs to win support across the economic and ideological divides in society.

It is only thus that he can hope to surmount the monumental challenge he faces trying to overcome the force fields of Nigerian politics, in the process of which, let’s not forget, he might also be hoping to heave two hefty and hoisted presidential hunchos into horrifying retirement.

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