Nigerian Peter Obi started the movement. Can he become president? | Elections

This month, after eight years of Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency that saw Nigeria become the poverty capital of the world and suffer two recessions in five years, Nigerians will go to the polls to choose his successor, hoping for a new era.

Since the country’s return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria’s presidency has rotated between two political parties, the now-opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).

But now, the union-backed Labor Party is campaigning with Peter Obi, the former two-term governor of the southeastern state of Anambra, as its leader – and people are noticing.

Several polls and surveys predicted an Obi victory on February 25, including one conducted for Bloomberg News by Premise Data Corp in September 2022 in which 72 percent of respondents listed him as their first candidate.

The competition, however, remains strong despite Obi’s rivals carrying a lot of baggage.

The headliner is APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu, an influential former Lagos governor who played a key role in Buhari’s historic victory in 2015. He is seen as the candidate to beat, despite struggling to shake off controversies over a past life of alleged drug dealing and falsifying his age.

Tinubu’s choice of a fellow villager, Kashima Shettima, as his running mate continues to be divisive in a population that is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Tickets for the main parties are usually split between the two major religions.

Allegations of corruption continue to dog Tinubu’s time in office and that of his former friend and business partner, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is the PDP’s presidential candidate. There is also Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian People’s Party (NNPP), a former governor of Kano and an influential figure in the north.

Both Tinubu and Abubakar can command vast resources and can benefit from organized party structures that could help turn the election. But Obi, who was Abubakar’s opponent in 2019, sought to take the moral high ground.

“I challenged everyone, go and see if there are kobos anywhere [coin] there is lack of government money in Anambra,” the 61-year-old stated emphatically at a town hall series organized by Channels Television, one of the leading broadcasters in the country, this January.

In the eight months since he defected from the PDP, Obi’s promises of inclusion and accountability have resonated far and wide, resulting in an outpouring of support that has revived an otherwise lackluster campaign.

A number of endorsements followed that rattled the political establishment, including former president Olusegun Obasanjo describing Obi as “mented” as well as prominent writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calling him her “dearest big brother”.

The cost of producing jollof rice, one of West Africa’s favorite dishes and a common meal across Nigeria, has more than doubled in about five years. (Al Jazeera)

“Preparation for a special meeting”

For Obi, who was born in Onitsha, the city home to West Africa’s largest open-air market, success first came in business. He is listed as the youngest chairman of a public bank in Nigeria and also has interests in liquor importation.

His wealth came in handy during the protracted litigation process that preceded his first stint in public office as governor of Anambra. His then party, the All Grand Progressive Alliance (APGA) accused PDP’s Chris Ngige of electoral malpractice.

Obi’s swearing-in in 2006 was a pivotal moment that effectively skewed Nigeria’s electoral calendar; five of the 36 state elections will not be held this year as other candidates followed Obi’s lead in getting Supreme Court approval that their terms began after they were returned to office, rather than when the election results were initially announced.

Obi was also impeached by the state parliament, but the courts overturned the decision.

But how did a wealthy capitalist and establishment figure become a figure of political disruption and the candidate of the union-backed Labor Party?

Amaka Anku, a professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and head of the Eurasia Group’s Africa practice, said Obi had influenced people’s desire for change.

“It’s less about Obi himself and more about frustration with the status quo that he was able to exploit. It is an opportunity to prepare for the meeting,” Anku told Al Jazeera.

Obi’s supporters say he has ushered in a simple style of leadership that downplays the privilege of power and has ended political “godfatherism,” in which an individual chooses an often less influential leadership candidate to influence him, an entrenched concept in Nigerian politics.

As governor, Obi designed major public infrastructure and invested heavily in primary health care and education. He also tried to clean up Onitsha, the commercial nerve center of the Southeast that was once named the most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organization.

His heirs dispute the amount he allegedly left in the treasury and mock his frugality. But his administration has also received high marks from the Senate and the Office of Debt Management, as well as recognition from organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

His frugality with state funds has since become one of Obi’s biggest selling points as Nigeria spends up to two-thirds of its revenue on debt obligations.

Citizens of Africa’s largest economy are used to frequent episodes of fuel shortages and sporadic electricity supplies, despite the country also being one of the continent’s biggest oil producers.

Insecurity is also widespread across the country; for example, armed groups such as Boko Haram continue to carry out attacks in the northeast despite the government’s insistence that this is not the case.

“The enemy is more formidable than the government, but because of the lack of leadership and poor coordination of the management of the entire security architecture,” Obi told Al Jazeera. “We will find solutions.”

'Accidental' killings in airstrikes by Nigerian security forces
‘Accidental’ killings in airstrikes by Nigerian security forces [Al Jazeera]

Rise of ‘Obidjenat’

Obi’s candidacy has given hope to a section of the electorate, especially among the youth people who represent Nigeria’s largest demographic group – 70 percent of the estimated 200 million people are under 30 – but have little control over the levers of state that determine election results.

Many see Tinubu, 70, and Abubakar, 76, as career politicians who represent a continuation of existing conditions that have failed to bring economic prosperity and security.

Analysts say Obi’s quick turnaround to the Labor Party represents a turning point. For many young people, he is seen as the brightest hope for a country in decline.

There are 10.5 million new voters this season – a record number in a country where voter turnout is often low – and 85 percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 34. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, half of the total 93 million registered voters also fall into this age category.

It was from this demographic that a zealous movement emerged.

Obi’s supporters call themselves “Obedients” and have gone to great lengths to sell their candidate, including fervent evangelism on social media.

Voluntary groups have sprung up within and outside Nigeria to encourage people to campaign and fundraise. Even Nollywood, the country’s movie industry, has embraced the trend, producing a movie about Obi.

“He is proof that elections can be won with charisma, competence and credibility regardless of ethnicity,” Balami Isaac, deputy national campaign manager of the Obi Electoral Council, told Al Jazeera. “It represents hope for my people and the youth.”

Election posters of Peter Obi (L on the posters), the presidential candidate of the Labor Party
Campaign posters of Labor Party presidential candidate Peter Obi (L on the posters) are seen pasted on a wall in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria, on January 17, 2023. [Samuel Alabi/AFP]

Floating hope

In a country with endemic corruption, Obi, seen by his supporters as a rare “principled” politician, has repeatedly challenged critics to find any evidence of corruption linked to him or even that he has received a pension since leaving office.

His critics point to the 2021 Pandora Papers investigation, which listed offshore holdings in his name in tax havens, as evidence of improper financial dealings.

Obi admitted that he kept quiet about them in his asset declaration to the code of conduct office, which is in direct contravention of Nigerian law. He said he did not know the law required him to do so for property jointly owned with his family members.

He is also accused of being sympathetic to separatist agitators whose paramilitary wings violently enforce stay-at-home orders in the country’s southeast on Mondays.

“I have said it many times, I will sit down and talk to every agitator,” he told Al Jazeera. “We will defeat those who can be defeated, and then deal with those who are not – carrots and sticks.”

Obi also promised to appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute corruption cases. He also proposed replacing the current wage structure with a minimum hourly productivity rate as part of a larger effort to shift Nigeria from a consumption-based economy to a production-based economy.

Still, analysts say he is likely to face tougher challenges if elected, as was the case during his governorship.

“Historically, the Labor Party is for workers and unions, not a party that will champion Obi’s cost-cutting ideas,” Anku said. “There may be an ideological clash in which he will bend the party to his will or leave. Both will take time.

“Also, elite consensus is a key part of fundamental reform,” she said. “Obi struggled to get the elite even in his own region to support his candidacy. It remains to be seen how he can build a national consensus.”

The road to victory appears complicated even if Obi is often greeted like a rock star as his campaign train criss-crosses Nigeria, sometimes visiting multiple locations in one day.

Cash incentives still dominate Nigerian politics, which contrasts with Obi’s famous austerity.

The Labor Party has also been dismissed as having little national appeal, and its critics point to more complex issues such as religion and ethnicity that can often determine how votes are cast.

Obi is Igbo, the only one of Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups that has never had a candidate run for president since the country’s civil war ended in 1970. His opponent, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, a former senator from the northwestern state of Kaduna, is expected to will help draw Muslim votes in the north.

Abuja-based political analyst, Mark Amaza, believes that making inroads into the North will be a difficult task even as areas with religious and ethnic minorities seem to shy away from the APC’s Muslim-Muslim map.

“[But] even in the central north, there is a large non-indigenous population that can bring him votes,” Amaza told Al Jazeera.

The duo insists that their candidacy is not sectional, but represents a different, more inclusive way of working. At an interactive session in Kaduna last year, Obi simply said, “I want to give Nigerians hope.”

Their message seems to be gaining new support.

“I’m here for radical change,” said Fejiro Orhoro, a 30-year-old financial analyst from Lagos and a first-time voter. “Do I know if [voting for him] will it work or not? Not. I’m just willing to try and see if someone fresh can affect the change we need.”

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