With the 2023 General Elections approaching in Nigeria, the political space is being dramatized with the alliances and counter alliances taking place. One candidate that represents a new political wave is Mr Peter Obi, Presidential Candidate of the Labour Party.
Now, in my May 2022 article titled “The Race Towards 2023: Part 1“, I foretold that “candidates from APC and PDP are likely to seek alternative platforms to actualize their ambitions as soon as they get feelers of their loss in a consensus or primary process”. Mr Obi lived my prediction when he resigned his membership of the PDP and joined the Labour Party when it was clear he would lose the primary election of the former. His departure to the Labour party gave his ambition even more traction and was greeted with euphoria by his supporters
Peter Obi is a former two-time governor of Anambra State in the South-East where he earned a reputation as a stickler for prudence in governance, having plugged financial leakages and saved resources of the state against mindless spending. Also in his track record are remarkable efforts to improve the state’s basic education system and healthcare. However, his tenure as governor wasn’t devoid of blemishes; his administration executed shoddy infrastructural projects and according to the National Bureau of Statistics, poverty ballooned under his watch from 20% in 2004 to 68% in 2010. Obi conducted local government elections only when his second tenure in office was about to elapse; an indictment of his democratic credentials and he also invested state resources in businesses where his family has stakes, a case of conflict of interest.
It is this mixed performance his supporters, who call themselves “Obi-dients” believe accords him the status of a genius anti-establishment candidate amongst the usual politicians in the Presidential race. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Given the aforementioned and a listing in Panama papers, what differentiates him from his ilk in the political space is the extent of baggage, not the lack of it. For “Obi-dients”, his blemish takes nothing away from his appeal and this isn’t peculiar to them because all over the world, connecting with voters is most effective through rhetoric such as his “no shi-shi” mantra.
To win a Presidential election in Nigeria you need to run on the platform of a national party. National in the sense that it would require appreciable presence in the 36 states of the country with STRUCTURES. A structure is basically a coordinated network of people from the state to local government, to the ward level to the polling unit, mobilizing for a candidature and canvassing for a party across the nook and cranny of Nigeria. This network of people is required for penetration of the grassroots and sub-urban parts of the nation at large. Political office holders such as Governors, Senators, House of Representatives members, State House of Assembly members, Local Government Chairmen and Councilors’ in the party are also a plus. This isn’t some cliché assumption, it’s the only way to attempt to deliver on the constitutional requirement of at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of the state in the federation. These are Mr Obi’s biggest hurdles to becoming President and he has 8 months to tick these boxes.
Mr Obi’s campaign began in what looked like a social media fad, but has evolved into offline support springing up in different parts of the country; a timely realization that a larger-than-life social media campaign while fancy and appealing, can’t guarantee victory. Social media should amplify a campaign, not be the only realm in which it is executed. Most voters are on the streets, and social media following, and popularity cannot be automatically converted into votes on election day. The importance of a structure to canvass and lure voters cannot be over-emphasized whichever way one looks at it. Nigeria has 176,847 polling units, 8809 wards, and 774 local governments, it is wishful thinking to expect victory without party agents and mobilization in all these areas.
Despite online support that portrays a likely nationwide appeal, Peter Obi is in the Presidential race as an underdog, because his Labour Party has no solid political footprint across the country and it lacks the brand name popularity that resonates with the voters situated in communities of the South-West and the North.
Notwithstanding his underdog status, Mr Obi has a diverse support base. By discussing and analyzing the country’s basic internal and complex external issues to solve them, he has caught the fancy of Nigerians who desire a technocrat to be at the helm of affairs. He also seems to have a buy-in of a sub-set of the youth. This demography, battered by the agonizing trio of ASUU strike, unemployment and police brutality is prone to be despondent about Nigeria but has found renewed hope and optimism in Mr Obi’s candidature, the longing for a politician that would water down their cynicism and inspire hope has found a match in Peter Obi, whose simplicity, candor and accessibility are considered grounds for portraying him as a silver bullet. Expectations need to be managed but his candidature has rekindled their hope in this country, and it is a pleasing sight.
Certain social media demography of Mr Obi’s supporters is selling his candidature in a counterproductive way. They resort to condescension, name-calling, ethnic stereotypes, insults and virtue signaling in expressing support for him but these invectives can’t do much for a fringe candidate other than making people double down in opposition towards him. In campaigning and building support for an underdog candidate, you want to grow your ranks not alienate people. The cancel culture and bullying are entertaining on the surface but would only subdue other voices in cyberspace and create an echo chamber where only what is desired is peddled. This would create the facade of widespread popularity making it harder to measure or gauge the real quantum of support which is a recipe for a rude shock when reality sets in. All over the world politicians desire loud and unflinching supporters because it’s a mark of relevance and popularity but Obi’s supporters have gone about their support in a way that endears him to no one. But don’t take my word for it, you can take his.
The South-East geopolitical zone is his core base/stronghold. The South-East is home to violent secessionist agitations and suffers the twin negatives of the lowest number of registered voters and the highest amount of voter apathy. Secessionist voices up until Peter Obi’s declaration of his Presidential ambition were the loudest in the region. However, support for his candidature has drowned the cacophony of secessionist voices and is good for the unity of the country. This presents a silver lining and Mr Obi, if he’s astute enough can leverage his support to pull the rug under the feet of non-state actors.
Amidst the loud cries of political marginalization, secession and an Igbo Presidency in the South-East, Mr Obi’s candidature has gained massive support in the region and triggered enthusiasm in the youth. The surge in PVC collection and registration is novel in the South-East and perhaps a testament to waning apathy. Since the dawn of the fourth republic, the southeast has sought the presidency vociferously, but this pursuit has been a failure due to its political brinkmanship and naivety, it is now time for the region to put its money where its mouth is. The region has for 23 years given unflinching loyalty to the PDP with nothing tangible to show for it. Now is the time to break that yoke by delivering bloc votes for Peter Obi come 2023.
For Mr Obi not to be a victim of his support he must reach out beyond his cocoon to other parts of the country to espouse whatever is cosmopolitan of him if any. A political alliance with Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso is a fantastic piece of the puzzle in this regard, as it neutralizes perceptions of bigotry due to previous harebrained actions/statements.
The possible merger between Obi and Kwankwaso is a handshake across Niger that needs to happen to rub off on the fragile unity of Nigeria and change the political trajectory of the South-East. An alliance between the duo would stand as a solid alternative to the big two APC & PDP while assuming the position of what people like to call a third force. Given the friction between the North and South-East politically, a merger between the duo would augur well for national unity as it would be a pact between the North and the South-East, two strange bedfellows in the politics of Nigeria.
The major stumbling block to this alliance is the issue of a running mate, as both candidates struggle with the idea of deputizing the other. What is clear is that to give the Presidency their best shot, the duo needs each other because their chances range from slim to improbable if they stand alone. Moreover, their political structures are both largely regional, joining forces would make them the faces of their campaign in their respective regions while nationalizing their party structure. It remains to be seen if the duo can pull the merger off, but we must remember that a national party is a prerequisite for winning a presidential election in Nigeria. The talks might end up collapsing given the differences between the two, but they can try again post 2023 and see how it goes. Ultimately, Mr Obi seems to have the support of a multitude. So, it behooves him to strategize and make that support count.