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Nigeria 2023: The Peter Obi Insurgency

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Presidential aspirant, Peter Obi, lamed and tamed in the primary process of one of the major parties, PDP, decamped to a fringe Labor Party where he promptly picked up nomination and is mounting a formidable challenge for the presidency. What are his chances in 2023?

By Chudi Okoye

In the run-up to the presidential election primary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which held on May 27, 2022, some political leaders from the South East, fearing the vicissitudes and an unfavorable outcome from the process, decided to leave the party for more promising pastures. The presidential aspirant, Peter Obi, a former governor and erstwhile vice-presidential candidate, was part of that minor wave of party switchers. Obi bolted from PDP just before the primary election got underway, to join the Labor Party. It was smart timing that enabled him to stay in compliance with the relevant rules of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC).

In very short order, a popular Peter Obi was able to snag nomination as the Labor Party’s presidential flag-bearer, after several aspirants in the party enthusiastically stepped down for him.

There is something of a momentum building up behind Obi’s candidacy, powered by his apparent appeal to the youths and educated professionals. Certainly, the major political parties cannot afford to ignore Peter Obi’s momentum, which will likely be strongest in the South East, his native region, as well as a swathe of the denser conurbations across the South. Obi’s emergence complicates the calculus somewhat for the major parties. He might not have much of an impact on the parties’ choice of personnel, but I fully expect that his growing momentum and issues-oriented campaign will serve to radicalize the platform of the mainstream parties, likely forcing more rigorous thinking within their policy development units. This will surely be a salutary development.

I believe Peter Obi will have a significant impact on the presidential election as an issue driver and a policy thought leader. He will also drive democratic participation, as witnessed in emerging reports of a surge in voter registration, especially among eligible youths, since his migration to the Labor Party. Obi will certainly be a boon to Labor, a 20-year-old party which managed to secure only 0.019% of votes in the 2019 presidential election and currently has no seat in either the Senate or House of Representative, and has no governorship or House of Assembly seat (it once had a two-term governorship seat in Ondo State).

We will wait to see, however, if Peter Obi’s flight to the fringe will foster the presidential quest of the South East geopolitical zone, and prove a successful strategy for him personally. It is doubtful if any politician, not even one as fortunate and formidable as Peter Obi, can win the presidency from the periphery of Nigerian politics.

And it’s not just in Nigeria. No fringe candidate has been able to win the presidency in modern times in the United States of America which, like Nigeria, operates a duopolistic multiparty system. In the 1992 presidential election, for instance, Texan billionaire and business magnate, Ross Perot, ran as an independent (non-partisan) candidate. He ran again in 1996, this time as a third-party candidate under the aegis of the Reform Party, a fringe political outfit he had formed in 1995 based on a movement started by his grass-roots supporters in 1992. He lost to the Democratic Party candidate, Bill Clinton, in both elections despite heavy spending and strong grassroots mobilization. He did not win a single state in either election, polling 18.9% of the popular vote in 1992 and a dwindled 8.4% in 1996.

Contrast Ross Perot’s performance with that of Donald Trump, another iconoclastic political outsider who had had an unsuccessful run as a fringe candidate in 2000. Trump won the presidency in 2016 when he ran on the mainstream platform of the Republican Party.

There is everything to be said for controlling the structures of a political party, especially those of a mainstream party in a diverse polity such as the United States or Nigeria. There could be an argument that Peter Obi should have stayed in the PDP – which he joined only but a few years ago – to deepen his contacts in the party hierarchy. Nigerian politicians are usually ambulatory, we know, in part because they have no ideological anchor and are entirely transactional in their political behavior. Even at that, the spectacle of Obi’s skedaddling is nothing but dizzying.

He had spent eight years as Anambra State governor under the aegis of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA); with the party, he fought off many challenges to his mandate. Obi had contested in the Anambra State governorship election of 2003 on the platform of APGA, but his opponent, PDP’s Chris Ngige, was fraudulently declared winner by the electoral commission, INEC. Obi challenged that decision in the courts. After nearly three years of litigation, on March 15, 2006, Chris Ngige’s supposed electoral victory was overturned. This enabled Obi to assume office as Anambra State governor on March 17, 2006.

However, barely seven months after he assumed office, Obi was impeached by the state’s PDP-dominated house of assembly, and was promptly replaced by his deputy, Virginia Etiaba. Once again, Obi headed to the courts, to challenge his impeachment. He won the challenge and was re-instated as the governor on February 9, 2007.

Then there was the skirmish with Andy Ubah. Obi had had to leave office on May 29, 2007, after Ubah was declared winner in an election held that year at the culmination of the four-year governorship tenure that was supposed to have started in 2003. Obi returned to the courts once more, this time arguing that the four-year term he had won back in the 2003 election actually started running when he assumed office in March 2006. In a dramatic ruling delivered on June 14, 2007, the Supreme Court of Nigeria upheld Obi’s contention, ordering that he be returned to office to complete his term. This ended Andy Ubah’s tenure, which had lasted all of 14 days. Obi served out his first term, and on February 10, 2010 he won a re-election, again under APGA, governing thereafter until the end of his second term on March 17, 2014.

Still, after this rather checkered but charming history with APGA, Obi abandoned the party just months after leaving office in March 2014. This, after vowing on video not only that he would never leave but that he would “die with APGA“. Obi had acquired an ambition for federal office and probably felt that APGA, a regional (one-state) party, was not an auspicious platform for his new pursuit. Impatient to stay back and build APGA into a federal platform, Obi elected to join PDP, the same opposition party he had done battle with throughout his governorship tenure in Anambra State. PDP welcomed him with open arms, and, though relatively new to the party, he would be fielded as a VP candidate in the 2019 presidential election, running with the party’s flag bearer, Atiku Abubakar.

And yet here we are: just three years after PDP fielded Obi as running mate on its presidential ticket, Obi scuttled off again, this time to a fringe party, to contest against his former PDP ticket mate. It is ironic that the leading Igbo presidential contender feels he can only find a political home in a fringe party. This is feeding a dynamic leading to the minoritization of Igbo politics.

Look, I don’t mean to sound overly critical of Peter Obi, or to be unsympathetic to his motivations. I am told, on good authority, that forces in APGA were threatening him because he stood in the way of their corrupt embezzlement of state funds. Similarly, I hear that certain elements in PDP, feeling threatened by his profile of incorruptibility, were digging around trying to derail his presidential prospect within the party. If this is all true, one can understand Peter Obi’s compulsion to dissociate himself from political machines that might have been trying to harm him or taint his reputation.

Yes, a case can be made that he should have stayed to fight those retrogressive forces within his previous parties. Corruption is rife in Nigeria. It pervades our public institutions; it is ubiquitous in the private sector; it is endemic in our culture. One plausible argument then is that any political crusader who really wants to make a difference should stand his ground within the theaters of corruption in Nigeria and change them from within.

However, a credible case can also be made that one needs to stand outside a system to be able to change it. Every system follows a rigid logic of self-preservation, and therefore will resist or even eliminate any internal process that does not conduce to its preservation. For this reason, it may require an external force to effect a systemic change. This is like Newton’s First Law of Motion, the law of inertia which (greatly simplified) states that an object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it.

Perhaps, as in classical Newtonian mechanics, so in politics. Perhaps this is what Peter Obi’s repeated flights from the scene of political crime imply. His plea could be that he fleas in order to free himself from systemic snare, the better able to stir up a confrontation of the system.

It is an understandable revolutionary strategy; one that is in fact justified by many instances of history where it took an outsider to change the trajectory of a nation.

But then there is Newton’s Third Law of Motion, commonly known as the law of action and reaction. It says – again greatly simplified – that when two objects interact, they apply forces to each other of equal magnitude and opposite direction. Anyone trying to take on Nigeria’s entrenched oligarchic system better be ready to confront its resistance. You need persistence, you need endurance, you need constancy and fixity of purpose. You cannot get flustered by mere flutters within a regional party like APGA, or by shenanigans in the primary process of a party like PDP.

I certainly wish Peter Obi well in his new endeavor. I would be thrilled personally if he pulls off a meritocratic revolution as his giddy supporters are hoping.

While wishing Obi favorable auguries in his current quest, I myself am skeptical about his chances. Consider this: We are now witnessing an incredible power struggle in the presidential primary process of the ruling party, All Peoples Congress (APC), as contending power blocs jostle for advantage on ticket leadership. It would seem that a northern power bloc that has dominated the party (and the country) is unwilling to concede power to the South. We saw the very same dynamic in PDP which, presumably, had led to Obi’s decampment from that party. There also, the northern cabal closed ranks to prevent a potential power shift to the South.

If we are witnessing this much drama, this much tenacity and raw power struggle just at the primaries stage, is it plausible that a fringe insurgency started just one year to the presidential election – even one kindled by the electricity of a candidate like Peter Obi – can usurp the entrenched political oligarchy in the general election? I sincerely doubt it.

But the value and excitement of Peter Obi’s insurgency may not be the plausibility of him winning the 2023 presidential election. No, the Nigerian juggernaut cannot be turned that quickly, in my view. Rather, we may be at the starting- (not yet the tipping-) point of a long-term process which, if sustained, could lead ultimately to a revolutionary disruption of the entrenched politics of Nigeria. There are certainly revolutionary pressures in Nigeria – there have always been. The trouble is that such pressures have never found a mainstream political outlet.

What Peter Obi offers is a potential mainstreaming of revolutionary tendencies that hitherto had subsisted only at the margins of Nigerian politics. This means that he can enlarge the political base for that revolutionary endeavor. Not just in terms of the number of people recruited into the movement. He could also enlarge the composition of political constituencies supporting the movement.

To achieve this, Peter Obi needs to consult and recruit widely. He needs to build a political coalition transcending ethnicity, transcending democracy, transcending class even – an alternative political coalition to take on the established forces. He has started doing this, as his movement is incentivizing diverse politically apathetic demographic groups, including the youths, to become cognizant of the issues and to register to vote. Obi can also join forces with other fringe parties – for instance the Young Progressive Party and African Democratic Congress, among several others.

To do this, he also needs to articulate a coherent agenda, a revolutionary manifesto depicting the organizing philosophy of his movement. Right now, he speaks in off-handed ways on a vast range of topics, much in the manner of a media or political commentator. He needs to think more as a political revolutionary, someone leading a movement with clear-eyed revolutionary tactics. He needs to build a structure to sustain the movement – all across the country.

This will take time and resources. It will also require patience and dedication. This is where I worry about Peter Obi. Does he have the patience to stay for the long haul? Will he abandon the Labor Party, as he did APGA and PDP, if he finds more felicitous prospects elsewhere? It is instructive here that even after his defection to the Labor Party, Obi was still, seemingly, genuflecting to PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, calling the latter “my leader”. Perhaps this was just Obi practicing his own brand of “politics without bitterness” (a la Waziri Ibrahim of blessed memory). But I have heard hints suggesting that this may be more an opportunistic nod to the mainstream stalwart from a politically efficacious part of the country.

This is my challenge to Peter Obi: To stay the course on his current revolutionary enterprise and make lasting, glorious history. This is a long-term political project which goes beyond the search for short-term electoral opportunity. I sincerely hope that Peter Obi is in it for the long haul. I support him for the possibility of that long-term revolutionary project, not necessarily for the plausibility of his electoral victory in 2023 – although that would be a boon to the revolutionary cause if he can pull if off!

5 COMMENTS

  1. Well written and spot-on analysis. Peter Obi is truly a trail-blazer and an independent-thinking politician, a rarity in Nigerian politics. Agree he likely will not win this time around. His participation will hurt PDP more than any other party. Payback time for the party not keeping faith!!

    The most important aspect of Peter Obi’s project is not actually winning but raising the consciousness of Nigerians about governance and helping to enthrone issue-based politics in Nigeria, not just a candidacy based on ‘It’s my turn mentality’ that breeds incompetence in government.

  2. Altogether an encompassing piece. I just wanted to react to the part that used the US model as a case study.

    Outside the US model you cited, I think we have some other models that quite exemplify how youths successfully took power in their country. It includes:

    * The Emmanuel Macron French model
    * The Zambia model
    * The Sudan model
    * The Ivory Coast model etc.

    Hereby is a link that gives insight into the models above for your perusal. I think this is the what fits more with Peter Obi’s movement. https://twitter.com/SEzekwesili/status/1534494449039982592?s=19

  3. This piece isn’t correct on the nuance. Donald Trump, in the Republican Party, was able to upend it because of their system and how transparent it is.

    As for Peter Obi, no one person can upend APC/PDP like that. Best thing is to build a brand new structure from scratch.

  4. The best analysis of the Peter Obi political phenomenon. He needs to stay the course and prepare for the long haul. It is a marathon.

  5. I kinda disagree. Political permutations are usually consistent with the prevailing contextual dynamics of a given environment.

    Emmanuel Macron founded En Marche! in 2016 and won the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections with the party.

    But I get the point you’re trying to make.

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