The political ascent of Peter Obi is evident; some even think his presidential quest is providential. Does Obi have a date with destiny, or will ‘Obistructionist’ forces rise up to impede his progress? The wind may be in Obi’s sails, but there may be ‘Obistacles’ ahead he and his supporters should prepare to confront.
By Chudi Okoye
There is no longer any serious doubt about it. At this point in the 2023 presidential election cycle, we have three, not two, credible candidates in the race. If the current trend continues, the 2023 election will be a vibrant three-way contest – though this does not mean, as yet, a presumption of equal chances for the three top candidates. Yes, we have a powerful duopoly – comprising the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – which currently dominates the institutions of the Nigerian government. It is also incontrovertible that the two major parties are currently the only ones, in the traditional sense at least, with the political structure to mount a national campaign. But there is no doubt that Peter Obi, in the four weeks or so since he dumped the PDP and jumped into the Labor Party (LP), has acquired a national profile and a name recognition rivaling those of the older gladiators in the major parties: Atiku Abubakar of PDP and Bola Ahmed Tinubu of APC. It is an astonishing achievement.
There’s no question that the party chieftains are now taking a closer look at Peter Obi. They had been so very busy, these two big kahunas, working to earn Fortuna’s favor to clinch their parties’ presidential tickets. And they’ve since been striving to settle the internal dissensions that followed from the primary conventions. But now they are gazing up from their exertions only to find that some mild-mannered smarty in an ill-bannered party has made himself into a credible contender in the coming presidential contest.
Some of Obi’s supporters have taken to calling themselves the ‘Obidients’. It is an awkward buzzword, likely invented by some wag among the candidate’s throng of ‘Obisessed’ supporters. That word, evoking submissiveness, seems at odds with Obi’s change-oriented message. But it is trending nonetheless. And it suggests that a cult-like following may be building up for this weirdly charismatic Labor Party flag-bearer, especially among his massing base of youthful but yearnful supporters. It is a populist phenomenon we haven’t seen in recent time in Nigerian politics. You’d have to look outside of politics to find such fervent following.
As Peter Obi’s presidential profile begins to bloom, the challenge of it is starting to loom. And it seems the mainstream political leaders are beginning to take notice.
Just a few days ago, a video circulated showing the governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, reacting to the poor performance of his party, PDP, in the just concluded Ekiti governorship election. Clearly in a pensive and even apprehensive mood, the governor said the future of politics in Nigeria is changing. He specifically brought up the problematic of Obi and his supporters:
“I do not know whether you are closely watching what is going on; the level of disenchantment with the existing parties. I am sure in all of our homes here, we have so many people now who call themselves ‘Obidients’. I don’t know whether you have them in your house. Just ask them, ‘which party are you?’, they say ‘Obidients’. Do you understand? They do not want us; they are not talking about APC or PDP. They are looking for alternatives. And they are many; there are much much more. You see all of them queuing for their PVCs now. They are not looking in the direction of APC or PDP. They are looking for alternatives. If we do not curb this…, if we do not make our party attractive, I don’t know what will happen in the next elections.”
It was a dead giveaway. But the governor was not alone. A week before Obaseki’s somber articulations, Olisa Metuh, a lawyer and stalwart of PDP who has held various key positions in the party, spoke in vernacular to BBC Igbo bemoaning the exit of Peter Obi from the party. He spoke at length about Obi’s quality, admitting that the latter’s exit has hurt his party. He even allowed that he had mulled the idea of boarding Obi’s departing train, but reluctantly decided otherwise.
It isn’t only PDP that seems to be reacting to the Obi phenomenon. On the same day that PDP’s Metuh was baring his heart to BBC, Bola Tinubu was flagging off his presidential campaign in Ekiti State. It struck me, watching a video of the event, that the first words out of the candidate’s mouth, at least in that short video, was a stream of salutations to the “great Ekiti youths” and the youths of Nigeria generally. It was an obvious pandering to the growing dynamism of youths in this election, a trend presumably favoring Peter Obi’s candidacy.
It’s not just the politicos that are starting to react. Obi’s surge has long been tracked in the media, especially on social media platforms where it generates a fare of frenzied discussions. But now, even the more perceptive media pundits seem to be becoming enthused by Obi’s prospects, with one well-known media scholar and ink slinger coming forth recently with what he called ‘the Peter Obi Tsunami’. He’s not the only mainstream writer caught up in the euphoria. Another pundit, a professor of political science no less, also writing recently, described Obi’s political surge as a “seismic movement.”
We do not need to buy into a tsunamic or seismic metaphor at this point to acknowledge Peter Obi’s political surge and rising profile. Nor do we need such to recognize the threat he likely represents, and the likelihood that if the surge continues there may be an ‘Obistructionist’ reaction, with a mélange of ‘Obistacles’ conjured up to stop his momentum.
Threats and ‘Obistacles’
Peter Obi projects the image of a complaisant, soft-spoken, harmless fella merely seeking to enforce simple correctives to the chaotic operation of the Nigerian political economy. Do not let that fool you. He represents a triple threat to the prevailing orthodoxies in Nigerian politics and public administration.
One: He is Igbo and there is still, even now – fifty-two years after the civil war – a powerful ruling bloc opposed to Igbo political ascendancy. Obi’s election would be a historical correction for the Igbos of the South East, but in this it would unsettle some ossified power blocs which consider Igbo political exclusion an immutable geopolitical imperative.
Two: Although Obi is yet to articulate a coherent ideology of governance (neither have his competitors, by the way), his rallying cry for frugality in public sector spending and his insistent talk about switching from consumption- to production-orientation in public policy reveals an instinct to fiscal conservatism. This stands as an ideological critique of the prevailing mode of accumulation in Nigeria and a rejection of the governing orthodoxy which construes government spending, however undisciplined, as a legitimate redistributionist practice. Obi’s election would be transformative since he is seeking to overturn, or at least to sanitize, the chaotic orthodoxies and the prevailing ethos of Nigerian public administration.
Three: Obi’s personal asceticism and saintly affectations represent a piercing moral critique of the indulgent, decadent and meretricious style of the governing elites. In this latter respect it is notable that Obi, usually equable in his public disposition, has begun lately to ratchet up his rhetoric, decrying the “gangsterism” in Nigerian government; claiming that “70 percent of those who are in politics today should not have any reason to be there”; and saying that “politics in Nigeria is a case where lunatics have taken over the asylum.” He also says that “[Nigeria] is the only country where the worst is leading,” seemingly in agreement with those, like myself, who consider the country a kakistocracy.
Given the above, it must be expected that Peter Obi’s political surge, should it continue, will be vigorously resisted by the governing parties. This will come in all forms. At an innocuous level, expect the competitive campaigns soon to create their own buzzwords, seeing how ‘Obidients’ has helped to quicken the pitter-patter of Petermentum (if I may coin a word). Gov. Obaseki hinted at some concern about this. The competitive campaigns will be looking to show that their flag-bearers also have enthusiastic followership. If I may, then, just to keep the political theatre buzzing, let me suggest ‘Tinubullients’ for the ebullient supporters of Bola Ahmed Tinubu; and maybe ‘Atikuherents’ or ‘Atikuvocates’ for the adherents and advocates of Atiku Abubakar. Those campaigns can thank me later!
Competitive response to Peter Obi’s political surge will of course go well beyond a battle of buzzwords. I can imagine the major parties creating a team of ‘Tinubullies’ to ‘dis-Atikulate’ Obi’s political operation. I hope you noticed earlier the Freudian slip in Gov. Obaseki’s comment about Obi’s popularity. He had begun to say “If we do not curb this…,” but then he caught himself and immediately pivoted to a politically correct statement, one about what to do to cope with the situation. That slip was revelatory. It raises the possibility that the entrenched parties might not shrink from employing any means necessary, including a deus ex machina, to squelch Obi’s political surge. It is a major concern, given the antecedents of these governing parties and their hegemonic allies.
The question then becomes how Obi and his campaign, as well as his supporters, are hoping to meet that resistance.
Resisting the Resistance
Peter Obi reminds me of the line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where Lady Macbeth says of her husband: “Thou… art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, that wouldst thou holily.” The lady is certain that her husband would want to become King of Scotland, as prophesied by the witches, but she worries that he is too virtuous – “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” – to do anything untoward, such as committing regicide, to attain his dream.
Obi certainly ain’t a saint. He can’t be, being a banker, trader and politician all rolled into one! (We can’t forget so quickly his cluttered financial dealings revealed in the Pandora Papers, though no charges have so far been filed against him). But he has successfully created a public persona as a decent dude who generally plays by the rules. This is of course an admirable quality we should expect in our public officials. But the key question in this election is this: how does an apparently rule-obedient player (with a fervent base of ‘Obidients’ to boot!) cope with diehard competitors dogged by infamy who would not shrink from bending the rules in their bid for power? Is Obi disadvantaged by his affectations of moral rectitude?
We heard sordid allegations of malfeasance in the recent primaries processes, particularly in those of the two major parties where it was alleged that a grotesque ‘dollarization’ of the process greatly influenced the outcome. We also heard valid claims of rampant vote buying in the recent Ekiti gubernatorial election which likely also influenced the outcome. And same is predicted for the upcoming Osun State governorship election. Osun is an APC-governed state, like Ekiti.
Whatever we saw in the primaries or state election, we can expect far worse in the 2023 presidential election, given the characters involved and the issues at stake. Ekiti was the first major election conducted after the enactment of the Electoral Act 2022. We certainly saw some welcome improvements in election administration including, as the British High Commission which monitored the election reported: “timely opening of polls, better functioning of the Biometric Voters Accreditation System (BVAS) devices for accrediting voters, and the transparent and efficient electronic transmission of polling unit results to INEC’s results viewing portal.” But the election was blighted by vote buying, as many, including the Embassy, reported.
How will a supposed ‘straight shooter’ deal with this and other as yet unimagined electoral malpractices? Mind you, it is not only in the election proper that we should expect the use of dirty tricks. We are already seeing some pre-emptive strikes, with the reported harassment of supposedly pro-Obi crowds seeking to register to vote in parts of the country, and the intimidation of INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) officials who are prevented from facilitating the registration.
That is precisely the challenge for Peter Obi. The candidate’s personal profile is certainly rising. But there are some challenges. For one, his fringe party, Labor, suffers significant structural disadvantages against the governing conglomerates, APC and PDP, which have extensive national infrastructure in place to fight the presidential election. Additionally, Obi might be said to suffer a kind of ‘moral impediment’ for his apparently ethical approach to politics, playing against political gladiators seemingly without any scruples.
Yes, yes, I know: Peter Obi has slain many a political monster in his day. He did so repeatedly to rescue and ride out his gubernatorial mandate in Anambra State. Each time, he was able to enlist the services of learned lawyers and fearless jujumen at the superior courts who rebuked the jejune imbecilities of the regional monsters. But that’s just the point: those were regional monsters. The monsters marauding the forests of presidential politics in Nigeria are of a different order and are altogether implacable.
It is certainly not a hopeless situation. Obi is tenacious. And he is backed by a moral army that seems to sense an opportunity for change in Nigeria’s otherwise static and unyielding political system. Obi needs to nurture his followership. His party needs to build a national political machine to take on the incumbents, which can be done in part by setting up a command center to coordinate the disparate self-started groups working in behalf of Obi’s bid. This can also be done by working out a tactical accommodation with some of the other small parties, including Rabi’u Kwankwaso’s New Nigeria Political Party (NNPP), though merger talks with the latter seem to be stalled. (Party mergers may now be out of the question, anyway, since we’re past the deadline for intending parties to notify INEC, which is nine months to the election, according to Section 81(2) of the Electoral Act). Obi and his party need to launch a massive funding drive to be able to mount a national campaign. The party also needs a rapid-response team of lawyers and politicos to react to any shenanigans that may arise in the course of the campaigning. And, for God’s sake, Obi needs to stop acting holier-than-thou – saying, for instance, that he isn’t “desperate” to become president, that he doesn’t need a political structure, or giving the impression that he can run his campaign on a shoestring. These may excite some segments of his support base, but they could also, potentially, depress the field.
This coming election may likely be one of the most exciting in Nigeria’s presidential history, given the antinomies of Old vs New Politics. The major political parties have great advantage over the fringe entities in terms of the mechanics of the election, with their extensive, well-primed field infrastructure. They also have flag-bearers who are undisputed heavyweights, who additionally might be preferred by the hegemonic forces of Nigerian politics. But, though these parties can play quite rough to win, they are weakened to some extent by their choice of these very candidates who may have severe ethical challenges, on the one hand, or may be unsellable in some geopolitical zones, on the other. Both major party candidates also seem like clunking dinosaurs from a bygone era who are acutely unsuited to the current zeitgeist of youth-animated politics.
The irony is that we have an alternative in Peter Obi who has a strong resume; is running a campaign anchored on competence and a cogent critique of the status quo; and, from all appearances, may be free from the ethical burdens of the mainstream contenders. But Obi’s party is not nearly as strong as the competition. Sure, the candidate is enjoying a soaring level of personal popularity, but you need far more than that to win the Nigerian presidency. You also need what I would call the Three Ms of modern competitive politics – Money, Machine and Mercenaries. The question is whether Obi is willing, and how fast he’s able, to bulk up on the Three Ms to take on the major party juggernauts who might not be invincible after all.
The theory of Peter Obi’s candidacy is captivating. It is the praxis that his supporters should hope doesn’t become frustrating.