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Niggling Doubt Amid Evident Political Surge Driving Peter Obi’s Campaign

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Peter Obi’s presidential campaign has taken off. The candidate is riding what seems like a favorable, even frenzied, wave of public sentiment. But… but… does basic political arithmetic justify heady optimism about Obi’s chances in the 2023 election?

By Chudi Okoye

Revolution!

That frightful word.

Or that risible word.

Depending on your perception. Or your apprehensions.

Is a revolution afoot in Nigeria, or is it not?

If it is, tell it not in the ornate palaces of Nigeria’s political elites. Tell it not to the country’s pretentious political pundits perched on their rarefied pedestals with premium access.

Whatever it is that’s happening today in Nigeria, vast swathes of the established cognoscenti seem oblivious or contemptuous of it.

Are they missing something?

In the year 1970, amid the Black civil-rights uprisings and inner-city conflagrations roiling the United States of America, the author, poet and jazz/soul musician, Gil Scott-Heron, wrote his iconic poem titled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. The poem was then set to music, released on Scott-Heron’s album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The art song was re-recorded in 1971 and included in the artiste’s new album, Pieces of a Man.

The song has become an anthem of revolutionary protest, along with other classics such as: Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”; Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn”; Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”; Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and his “What’s Going On?”, Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”; James Brown’s “Say it Loud”; Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and his “Redemption Song”; Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”; Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage”; and several other revolutionary anthems stretching back to Billie Holliday’s 1939 steamroller, “Strange Fruit”. On our own shores, pretty much Fela Anikulapo’s entire oeuvre might be considered of the revolutionary genre.

All these songs can be invoked at this moment of what I would call political surge in Nigeria, a tumultuous lead-up to the 2023 presidential election. But Gil Scott-Heron’s assertion that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” seems particularly apposite for our moment. Many of us, accustomed to the encrusted drudgery and putrescence of the Nigerian polity, still doubt the possibility – let alone the reality or sustainability – of the political surge we are witnessing. The more cynical amongst us simply won’t acknowledge its potency. You could argue, invoking Scott-Heron, that the ripples of change will not be evident to many of us until maybe they lead to an explosion.

Maybe such doubt is justified, and maybe the doubters who dismiss the ‘shouters’ will be proved right in the end. But this moment’s revolutionary thesis seems cogent and insistent, as far as I can see: A stodgy political primaries process has regurgitated two wobbly septuagenarians in the major political parties, Atiku Abubakar in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Bola Tinubu in the All Progressives Congress (APC), setting up their bid to succeed another senescent septuagenarian, Mr. Muhammadu Buhari; in a country with a median age of 18 going through near-total collapse, this is arrant provocation demanding a radical youth resistance. It is almost unimaginable that the dispossessed youths of Nigeria would not rise up in protest, though they haven’t always seemed progressively or radically engaged.

We certainly should not deny or discount what we are witnessing. It seems to be real. However, it is a different thing altogether whether this incipient movement will sustain its fervor and evident vigor through to the election and beyond. It is uncertain if the political surge will actually lead to a purge or dislodgement of the dominant elites who maintain a vice-like grip on Nigeria. And it is certainly unclear whether a ‘revolutionary’ outcome, if it materializes, will be accepted by the entrenched oligarchy in Nigeria. We have only to recall the ‘coup’ of June 12, 1993 when the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida annulled the legitimate election of Chief M. K. O. Abiola, on grounds which are still being debated but which certainly had to do with the threat the result posed to the prevailing political order.

Whilst wholly acknowledging the indubitable reality of the current political surge, I myself remain skeptical about a revolutionary upset in the 2023 election cycle – as some more hopeful observers seem to expect.

The presidential flag-bearer of the Labor Party, Mr. Peter Obi, who decamped from PDP, one arm of Nigeria’s partisan duopoly, seems to be becoming – some of his supporters insist he has already become – the embodiment of the frustrations of hapless Nigerians at various rungs of society. He has become Peter the Slate, shall we say, on whom teeming numbers of voluble citizens are scribbling their disaffections. This is the stuff of political popularity. And it is striking that the flag-bearer of a political party that was all but invisible in the last presidential election is getting almost same air-time as the candidates of the major parties in the current cycle.

We can’t quite yet – this far out from the February 2023 election – assign a precise statistical value to Peter Obi’s popularity (or his celebrity, as some dismissive observers imagine). However, we might be able to establish an initial baseline number that could help us begin to project the opportunity for Peter Obi and his Labor Party in the 2023 presidential election.

Analysis of the 2019 Presidential Election Data

As we find in the featured chart above, the ruling party, APC, secured 56% of national votes in the 2019 presidential election; PDP secured 41%; and the fringe parties – all 71 of them in that cycle – chalked up a meager 3% of the votes.

If we drill down to state-level results in that election and look specifically at PDP’s scores, we find that the party had some of its highest share of votes in the South-eastern states. Those states comprised three of the party’s top five states by share of votes, and five of the top ten.

In total, the South-eastern states made up 15% of PDP’s overall vote haul in that election, as I derive in my summary stats.

Mr. Peter Obi, a former governor of one of the South-eastern states, Anambra, was running mate on the PDP ticket, alongside flag-bearer Atiku Abubakar. So, we might make a reasonable assumption that, given the momentum he is building behind his current candidacy, the bulk of the South East votes might swing to his Labor Party in 2023. If we make a further – equally reasonable – assumption of an 80% swing, then it means, by my calculation, that Obi would have migrated to Labor with a baseline of about 12% of PDP votes in tow. This re-weights to about 5% of the total national votes in the 2019 election.

Let’s remember that this estimated national baseline share of 5% accrues from the South-eastern states only. We should now consider Obi’s potential inroads elsewhere, particularly in the denser conurbations of southern Nigeria – primarily in areas with large concentrations of Igbo voters. Lagos and Port Harcourt come especially to mind here. Ditto for Kano, Kaduna and Abuja in the North, if the Labor Party – as expected – chooses a strong running mate for Obi from northern Nigeria.

But, given Obi’s growing popularity, it would not be unreasonable to expect him to cannibalize APC’s base as well, not just that of his previous party, PDP. The impact of APC cannibalization, however, is likely to be limited. The South East made up a measly 3% of the party’s total votes in 2019, amounting to about 1.5% of the national votes. The Labor Party will have to burrow deep into APC bastions in the South West, North West and North Central, in the latter two of which it will be competing in a four-way race with APC, PDP as well as former governor Rabiu Kwakwanso’s New Nigerian Peoples Party Party (NNPP). But even in these competitive geographies, Peter Obi’s message of frugality and sound economic management should resonate with the lumpen mass of dispossessed and disaffected Nigerians who have suffered from the profligacy and depredations of the governing duopoly.

Then, we have to factor in the massive surge in voter registration, presumably driven by Obi’s insurgent candidacy, especially among the usually apathetic youths and the professional class. We cannot also discount some potential for rural inroad, however limited it might be.

This political surge among the masses is important in another significant sense. It is not entirely clear if there is unanimous support for Obi’s presidential bid among Igbo political elites. For instance we had news recently that Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi, who contested in the just concluded APC presidential primary, has said that Ebonyians would not be voting for Peter Obi in the 2023 presidential election. Perhaps this is not an unexpected statement from Umahi, coming fresh from his party’s primary. But this wholly unnecessary statement likely reflects a deep-seated fissure in Igbo politics between what I would call the “majoritarians” who want to stay within the major political parties and the “minoritarians” operating in fringe parties.

The majoritarian camp includes some current and previous governors such as former Imo State governor Rochas Okorocha, former Abia State governor Orji Uzoh Kalu and current Imo State governor Hope Uzodinma (and probably the current governors of Abia and Enugu states, Okezie Ikpeazu and Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi respectively). The camp also includes federal legislators like former Senate president Ken Nnamani in APC and Senator Ike Ekwerendu in PDP. The minoritarians include the likes of Peter Obi himself and maybe Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, recently reported to have dumped the PDP but whose current partisan perch is unclear.

This is a political fissure that could potentially impact Obi’s performance in the South East, the geopolitical zone which is supposed to provide the absolute baseline of support for his presidential bid. The good thing is that the South-eastern political elites will likely have very limited influence in the presidential election, given the groundswell of pro-Obi sentiment swelling in the region. The only issue, however, per my earlier analysis, is that South East votes constitute but a minuscule proportion of the national vote – merely 6.4% of the two major parties’ national vote haul in the 2019 presidential election. That could change significantly with the current political surge seen in the massive voter registration triggered by Peter Obi’s candidacy.

With time, we should be able to make a holistic projection for Peter Obi, as input factors become more stable for statistical modeling. Right now there’s no polling data; and it would be noisy anyway, were it available. But the legacy data from the 2019 presidential election gives us a starting baseline.

Reaction to Peter Obi’s candidacy runs the gamut from cynical disregard to idealistic optimism and cheery certainty about his chances in the 2023 election. While I don’t subscribe to cynical insouciance about Obi’s candidacy, I also do not believe in unwarranted optimism or exaggerated expectancy. Election is a game of numbers, as much as it is of emotion. And the path to electoral victory often follows from clear-eyed polling and analysis of voting intentions, intermittently performed to enable a campaign to adjust where necessary – to leverage its strong points and to mitigate its vulnerabilities.

I am sure that Peter Obi’s campaign, whilst riding the wave of frenzied sentiment apparently flowing towards the candidate, is crunching the numbers to improve the party’s odds against the muscular machines of the major parties.

Obi and the Labor Party do not need to defeat the governing duopoly in the 2023 election cycle to have made a mark on Nigeria’s political landscape. Certainly, the fundamentals are challenging, considering that PDP will defend its stronghold in the South South; that APC will do the same in the South West; and that the whole of the North will be an intense battleground for four parties: APC, PDP, NNPP and Labor. However, Obi would have transformed the dynamic of contemporary presidential politics in Nigeria if he comes out of the 2023 election winning a sizeable share of the total votes (no less than 15%) and 25% or more in at least 10 states of the federation. Such a result would pull Labor out of the speculative pack of fringe parties, setting it up as a viable third party – fitting for Nigeria’s three-way majoritarian ecosystem – to take on the governing duopoly in subsequent elections – including state and federal elections.

Now, that would be indeed a revolution worth televising!

I wish them the very best of luck. Honest, I do!

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