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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Trumpet With Certain Sound

Moment of Truth: Who Should Win vs. Who Might Win Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Election

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The unspoken issue in Nigeria’s impending presidential election is the tension between who ought to win and who might actually win the election. If fate would favor this forlorn country, what ought to be will become fact in the Feb. 25 poll. But it is not at all clear that Nigerians – despite the current hardships – will call the winds and summon the rain to change their fate in this particular election.

By Chudi Okoye

The moment is nearly upon us: merely a matter of days before Nigeria decides in a critical election that will reveal, perhaps more poignantly than previously, the political character of this country. The dreamers and their drummers have had their say. It is now time to explore the lay and see who might actually win the day. I propose to provide insights to that hereunder.

The 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, provides a useful conceptual framework we might use for our task. In his highly acclaimed Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume tackled what is termed the ‘is-ought’ problem, criticizing the moral philosophers of his day for deriving normative conclusions from positive or empirical reality. His critique of moral philosophy is encapsulated, in part, in what is often called ‘Hume’s Guillotine’ (a.k.a. Hume’s Law) which posits that it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ where there is no logical link between the realm of value and the realm of fact.

Much the same can be said, despite fervent conjectures, about the conjuncture of factors in the Nigerian presidential election due to hold, all things being equal, on February 25.

Polls and the ‘Ought’ Argument
There has been much postulation and much polling, even beyond our shores, about the likely outcome of the election. Nigeria being a country sized for significance but punching well below its weight, the impending election has attracted much global attention. This is in part – to borrow from Einsteinian physics – because it is thought that the gravitational fields of Nigerian politics could warp time and speed up the deepening of democracy in wider Africa. At least that is the impression usually given by giddy global observers.

The polls have been clear, as I myself observed back in June 2022 shortly after the party primaries, that the 2023 presidential election, notwithstanding the crowded field, is essentially a three-way contest which could go into a runoff. Some of the polls – like that by SBM Intelligence for the Enough is Enough Nigeria group – seem reluctant to predict a likely winner in the election, merely indicating plausible paths to victory for the three leading candidates: Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and Peter Obi of the Labor Party (LP). One of the polls, by POLAF, tips Atiku Abubakar to win what it expects – as do other pollsters – to be a close race. A few other polls, specifically those by Fitch and Dataphyte Research, predict a win for Bola Tinubu. But many more of the polls posit Peter Obi as the presumptive frontrunner, including those by Stears, Nextier, Bloomberg/Premise, ANAP/NOI and Redfield & Wilton.

Perhaps tilted (or titillated) by this tally of polling and the apparent zeitgeist, the London Economist, in a lead editorial that probably reflects global sentiment, came out with a strong endorsement of Peter Obi. The magazine was pretty contemptuous of Atiku and Tinubu, saying that “Nigeria desperately needs a new kind of leadership” and that “Peter Obi offers the best hope of it.”

The Economist’s opinion aligns very much with mine. Going back to David Hume’s ‘is-ought’ dichotomy, there’s no doubt in my mind who ought to win this election. Peter Obi is the outstanding candidate of the entire field and, without putting too fine a point on it, ought to carry the day. I have argued this point in several writings from the very beginning of this election cycle. I argue this case not because I am persuaded by the padded resume of Obi’s governing record often put about by his supporters and the candidate himself. Nor am I impressed by the sheer exaltation and lionization of Peter Obi by his overzealous supporters – a fluid mass of idealistic meritocrats, urban professionals, rural primordialists and frenzied youths – some of who all but equate Obi to Jesus the Christ and Obi’s hopeful victory to the Second Coming. In one pro-Obi WhatsApp forum I’m familiar with, members once recounted, with unending glee, a story told about some woman at some event who supposedly spread her wrapper on the floor for Obi to walk on, not unlike the biblical account of cloaks and palm fronds laid out by Jesus’ followers for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. When I protested such unseemly Jesusification of Obi, one forum member, a brilliant and well-travelled petroleum engineer, justified it on the ground that the Scriptures also mention a woman (named as Mary of Bethany in John) who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oil. I kid you not!

With such unbridled zeal, and maybe because Jesus reportedly said his true followers must forsake friends and even family, it is not surprising to find that the more ardent ‘Obidients’ have been willing to forsake their friends and even family to follow Obi. Because they’ve become so emotionally invested in the candidate, some supporters cannot countenance even the slightest likelihood of Obi losing the election. So Obi’s victory has become religion, assuredly invoked in his adherents’ frenzied glossolalia. And from this follows a disturbing level of impatience and intolerance – what seems really like a dictatorship of the faithful, reminiscent of Russia’s dictatorship of the proletariat – with terrifying portents of what might follow if Obi wins the election.

None of this, however, subtracts from the compelling case for Peter Obi. Despite the worrying cult of personality and the frenzy at the core and fringes of Obiworld, no cool-headed analysis, if fair, would deny that Obi is the best of the contesting bunch. Obi offers as deep a diagnosis of Nigeria’s problems and as creative a remedy as any on the table in this cycle. But that is not where he earns distinction. What Obi seems to have that eludes the establishment candidates is a relatively unspotted (granted, not superseding) record of governance; his unpretentious charisma and apparent authenticity; a spontaneous and energetic followership resulting from his relatability and facility with popular engagement; and an accessible vernacular of politics laced with the idiom of social contract far removed from the current patronage system and the clientelist approach of establishment politics. All of this lends freshness and even a revolutionary veneer to Obi’s political project, an antithesis to the current praxis which may be what Nigeria needs for a post-Buhari recovery. Under Obi, based at least on the tenor of his campaign, Nigeria’s current ersatz democracy would likely improve and become more people-centered.

Added to all this, there’s a geopolitical imperative powering Obi’s candidacy, given that it represents an affirmative correction for his native South East region which has long been locked out of real power in Nigeria’s post-independence dispensation. Obi himself affects a disavowal of this imperative, but it is part of the calculus of much support he has attracted, both inside and outside his native region. Such a correction might bring equity and needed tranquility to the polity.

All of the above represents the ‘ought’ argument in our discourse, making a normative case for an Obi win. But the question is: even though Obi ought to be elected the next president of Nigeria, can he in fact win the election?

Alas, despite the promising predictions of many polls presented above, it is not at all certain that he can.

Structure and Resistance
Obi deserves great credit for propelling himself to the frontline in this election, in a rather short span of time and on the platform of a once inconsequential fringe party. But whilst he has created a credible political vehicle, it is unclear that he has had the time to build a formidable movement with elaborate structures that may assure him victory in this election. According to the latest data from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), there are about 176,606 polling units for the 2023 election. Obi’s Labor Party submitted a total of 134,874 polling unit agents (PUAs) to INEC, covering about 76.37% of the total polling units, and 4,859 collection agents (CAs). These compare with 176,223 PUAs (99.78%) and 9,581 CAs for APC; and 176,558 PUAs (99.97%) and 9,539 CAs for PDP. Even Rabiu Kwankwaso’s New Nigeria Peoples Party, which is scarcely within polling radar, has submitted 176,200 PUAs and 9,604 CAs, far higher than Labor’s. By these numbers, it would seem that Obi’s Labor Party has a deficit in excess of 40,000 polling agents to the establishment parties, APC and PDP, and about half their collection agents. The party is also not fielding any (or strong) candidates in many of the federal and state elections that will hold on the same day as the presidential election and subsequently in March, the consequence being that Obi, even were he even to win, would rule Nigeria as a minority president.

It is impressive how Obi’s Labor Party has ramped up in the past few months. But its deficit to the main parties in terms of political structure cannot be ignored.

Electoral Monetization: There is also an issue as to the funding of field operations, including the unfortunate reality of voter mobilization and inducement, a constant in Nigerian elections. Recent improvements in INEC’s election management technology and the heavy messaging against vote buying should help to mitigate this factor. But the situation is complicated by human factors which we must consider. For one thing, there’s the evident desperation of the two ambitious septuagenarians running on the platforms of the main parties: this being their last opportunity for a presidential run, they can be expected to pull out all the stops to achieve their dream in this election cycle. This plays into the exigent conditions in Nigeria today marked by continuing terror and insecurity, fuel scarcity and a recent currency change which has severely curtailed money flows in the economy. The combined effect of these challenges is that electoral monetization may again play a decisive role in the outcome of the election, regardless of relentless messaging to the contrary.

Without question, many amongst the increasingly fretful and financially stranded electorate will be well disposed to inducements from our practiced politicians and their agents. The major parties are poised to take advantage of the current situation, with their elaborate resources and control of incumbent governing structures.

Many commentators have praised President Muhammadu Buhari for initiating the currency change, arguing that it will limit the opportunity for election monetization. However, the opposite may well be the outcome, with cash-strapped and desperate voters more easily induced by politicians and their agents. I’m not at all certain that the authorities are well prepared for such an outcome.

Resistance to Change: There’s yet another angle to this besides the current national exigencies which offer desperate politicians an opportunity for dirty tricks. We must consider too the many force fields of the Nigerian formation that may likely negate the momentum of change in this election cycle (a subject about which I have written several recent essays). There is, no doubt, a great desire for change in the country, in part inspired by Peter Obi’s rhetoric, which changed the dynamics of the election and helped to propel his political ascendancy. Obi came along and electrified what might well have been a run-of-the-mill election, exerting a force that has changed the usual inertia of the political public. His forceful momentum, built largely on his personal celebrity, has altered the mechanics of presidential election contest, eroding some of the structural advantages enjoyed by his establishment opponents. However, whereas we may be seeing in political play something of Newton’s First Law of Motion (F∆t = m∆v), classical physics also tells us, in the Third Law of Motion, that when an object exerts a force on another object, it receives an equal and opposite reaction (F1 = -F2).

Obi’s populism and politics of change, seemingly unthreatening because of his mild and self-effacing manner, might nonetheless be considered a threat to the hegemonic forces of Nigerian politics and the prevailing modes of accumulation in the country. Obi has done the utmost in his campaign peregrinations to reassure the entrenched powers, even whilst virtue-signaling and promising populist changes. But it is unclear the extent to which he might have succeeded with his reassurances. All things being equal, we must expect a strong resistance – along class, geopolitical and generational lines – to any kind of power shift or a reconstitution of the political economy entailed in Obi’s politics of change. Nigeria’s history is replete with reactionary responses to radical change: from the gradualist negotiation of self-rule to an anti-secessionist civil war; from the tradition of reactionary military coups to the outright annulment of a democratic election victory secured by a progressive coalition.

Granted, much of Nigeria’s reactionary history is associated with a once dominant military institution which seems now somewhat vitiated. More so with Major-Gen. Buhari’s dismal presidency which likely has significantly weakened the political potency of the military brass and its hegemonic civilian allies. But the power of hegemony, as we learn from Gramsci, is that it isn’t only the ruling elites but even sections of the masses that may resist change and want to maintain the status quo.

A vocal section of the Nigerian populace is supporting Obi, believing perhaps that the dream of a ‘New Nigeria’ after Buhari would require a non-establishment change agent like the Labor candidate, a new ‘kid’ on the federal block, to bring it about. The Bible tells us after all to pour new wine, not into old wineskins, but instead into new ones to avoid a rupturing of the container (Matt. 9:17, Mk. 2:22, Lk. 5:37). Obi may be embraced by some in the population as new wine in the new wineskin of a post-Buhari Nigeria. Unfortunately, however, his very ‘newness’ may constitute a problem for some sections of the population. The same biblical parable concerning new wine warns us about reactionary instincts in broader society, saying “no one after drinking old wine wants new wine, because he says, ‘The old wine is better’” (Lk. 5:39).

This is part of the paradox of the masses: though the yearning for change is palpabe, it is possible that a significant portion of the populace, particularly amid the current exigencies, may end up voting for the status quo, against their own interest. We’ve seen this in many other places, even in advanced democracies. Can we forget, for instance, how the Nigerian Labor Party’s namesake in the United Kingdom ended up losing the 1992 general election, which it had been widely expected to win after years of torrid Tory rule? Labor lost that election primarily because British voters had been cleverly nurtured by right-wing media into fearing the changes a Labor government might introduce.

Destiny Awaits
I hasten to say that nothing in my foregoing comment rules out a possible upset by Peter Obi in this week’s election. What this man has accomplished in a relatively short time, rising to political stardom on the platform of a fringe party, is nothing short of astounding. Clearly Obi’s rhetoric resonated because of the disaffection in society which has long sought a political expression. It is to Obi’s credit that he has been able to channel this deep discontent and its latent energy, which had been a blind spot for the stodgy and unimaginative politicians in the incumbent parties. In the process Obi has turned himself into a political star, far outshining his own party. Perhaps Obi has been able to project himself precisely because the party itself is not a competing celebrity, and perhaps because there are no entrenched coalitions within the party that are powerful enough to constrain his rhetoric or political strategy.

Whatever it is, Obi deftly created a political space for himself after the short shrift he received in his previous party, and he has greatly maximized that opportunity. We will see if the party from which he exited, PDP, wracked by the exit of another stalwart, Kwankwaso, and the dissent of the G-5 governors, will rally to a victory nonetheless. Or if the ruling party, APC, will overcome the burden of its abysmal record and its own internal fissures to retain power, even with a singularly distasteful standard-bearer and the disagreeable single-faith ticket it has chosen. Even if Obi loses to either of the establishment candidates this time around, he will be able to bid for power in subsequent elections – if he can stick around to build a lasting political movement from the political vehicle he is currently riding. He could also use his new political stature to attempt a capture of any of the dominant parties so as to re-align it to a radicalist reform agenda. We will see if Obi has the temperament and talent for this, and if in fact his current following, a fluid and possibly ephemeral base, might stay with him even through electoral misfortune, were that unfortunately to happen.

The woman who reportedly laid out her wrapper for Peter Obi to walk on, a la Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, might be more prescient than we know. The biblical event presaged Jesus’ passion: his trial and subsequent crucifixion by the entrenched authorities. But that suffering mediated the ‘resurrection’ and the eventual theosis of Jesus Christ.

Peter Obi could yet pull off a surprise win in this coming election, and in doing so transform the physics of political contest in Nigeria. He could indeed surprise the pollsters by realizing their prediction. But even if he falls short this time, there is an opportunity to build his incipient movement so Nigeria can eventually witness the convergence of what ought to be and what finally becomes.


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