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02/16/23, Isaac Umunna
Can Labour Party's Obi pull off an unlikely victory?

Whatever the outcome may be, the 2023 presidential polls in Nigeria seem sure to usher in a new era for Africa's troubled giant. The signs are already evident.

A new era has dawned in Nigeria. For the first time in the country's history, youths have seized the gauntlet, largely dictating the pace ahead of the next presidential ballot scheduled to hold on February 25, 2023. Figures released early January by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) show that 48 million out of the 93.5 million eligible voters registered for the election are youths. As an indication of their surging political interest, out of a total of 9,518,756 valid newly registered voters between June 28, 2021, and July 31, 2022, those aged between 18 and 34 years old are 7,286,871, representing 76.56 per cent. This, according to INEC, means that the youth are in a pole position to determine the outcome of the 2023 elections.

 Apart from registering to vote, youths have been quite active on and off the social media, campaigning for Nigerians to come out in large numbers to vote during the polls. This is unusual in a country where moneybags usually dominate politics - either seizing the power themselves or by deciding who gets elected to office. As a result, the country which marked 62 years of independence from British rule last October 1, has seen its politics dominated by two powerful political parties since the restoration of democracy on May 29, 1999. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which used to pride itself as the largest political party in Africa, was in power until 2015 when the All Progressives' Congress (APC), an amalgam of three opposition parties, dislodged it from the Aso Presidential Villa in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

 But as the country counts down to the 2023 polls, the contest for power is not between two but three major parties - PDP, the ruling APC and the new darling in town, the Labour Party (LP). There is even a fourth, though distant contender - the New Nigerian People's Party (NNPP).

On the hustings: PDP's Atiku Abubakar

 Largely dormant since its registration in 2002 by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), LP has suddenly become a serious power contender in Africa's biggest democracy of over 200 million people. What happened? Simple: One man who has become the rallying point for Nigerian youths and the country's new symbol of hope joined the party and millions of Nigerians decided to go with him.

 That man, Peter Obi, formerly of PDP and the party's vice-presidential candidate in 2019, suddenly resigned on May 20, 2022. It was a move which took everyone by surprise as Obi had crisscrossed all but one of Nigeria's 36 states making consultations in his bid to become PDP's candidate for the 2023 presidential ballot. (He said he left out Adamawa out of respect for one-time vice president Atiku Abubakar, to whom he was running mate in 2019).

Now Obi was suddenly out of PDP with only eight days left until the party's national convention in Abuja to pick its 2023 presidential candidate. Giving reasons for his action, Obi said in a letter to PDP's National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu: "It has been a great honour to contribute to nation-building efforts through our party. Unfortunately, recent developments within our party make it practically impossible to continue participating and making such constructive contributions.

 "Our national challenges are deep-seated and require that we each make profound sacrifices towards rescuing our country. My commitment to rescuing Nigeria remains firm, even if the route differs."

 Those 'unfortunate recent developments' in PDP, Obi later explained, centred around obscene monetisation of the process leading to the party primary. Since he did not believe in buying delegates and could not match the purchasing power of other frontline aspirants even if he wanted to join the fray, Obi chose to walk away. 

 Seven days after quitting PDP, Obi announced his membership of the hitherto moribund LP and was elected its presidential candidate at a modest national convention held on May 30 in Asaba, a Niger Delta city located on the banks of River Niger. That had a bandwagon effect: Seemingly in a twinkle of an eye, people started joining LP in droves. More significantly, a political movement known as the Obidient Movement soon came into being as more and more people started identifying with Obi and calling themselves Obidients.

 At first the movement was visible only on social media, drawing scorn from APC and PDP faithful, who took pleasure in claiming that Obi's supporters existed only on social media. That soon changed, however, as Obidients started holding massive rallies across the country.

Tinubu on the campaign trail: Buhari lends a hand

 Though he appears to be an overnight sensation, Peter Gregory Obi has actually taken decades to get to where he is today. A philosophy graduate from the famous University of Nigeria (UNN), Obi, whose parents were popular traders in Onitsha, the famous commercial city nestled on the banks of River Niger, went into trading while still in school, selling eggs to make money as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, he didn't bother to look for a white-collar job but relocated to Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital, where he set up shop in the famous Idumota market, selling diverse items. With time he became a big trader and one of Nigeria's biggest importers, after which he diversified into banking, acquiring the majority stake in Fidelity Bank PLC. He at some point relocated to England, where he operated as an international businessman for some ten years before returning to Nigeria.  

  As at the time Obi took a plunge into politics by contesting to become governor of his home state, Anambra, he was serving as chairman of four banks - a record yet to be equaled in Nigeria. In seeking to govern Anambra, Obi suddenly left PDP after he was not allowed to speak at a party meeting and joined the smaller All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). Though many people wrote him off, he won the election, virtually retired the political godfathers who hitherto held Anambra by the throat and completed his constitutionally allowed two terms of four years each.

 As Anambra governor from June 14, 2007, to March 17, 2014, Obi refused to give money to political godfathers and legislators despite the fact that his party did not control the state House of Assembly. As a result, he was impeached twice but went to court each time and had his mandate restored. By the time he finished his second term in March 2014, Obi had connected almost all parts of the state by tarred road, upgraded public hospitals and revolutionised public education, taking Anambra from number six to number one in the West Africa Examinations Council (WAEC) exams. He also promoted industrialisation and, what is more, he left huge sums of money in both dollars and the Nigerian naira, in addition to making significant investments for the state, including in South Africa's brewing giant, SABMiller, which he brought to Onitsha. Where did he find the money? He simply dismantled protocol and drastically cut costs to the extent that he refused to build a Presidential Lodge as is the norm among Nigerian state governors but rather moved to a hotel with his wife and vacated his house for then President Olusegun Obasanjo while visiting the state.      

 A simple man, Obi has one wife and two children - a boy and a girl - did his dishes and refused to have others carry his bag, even while serving as governor. He was not known to fly first class, preferring, rather, to give money to schools and hospitals. He is not known for partying and discourages friends from placing congratulatory messages in newspapers during his birthdays, advising them to rather give the money to the less privileged. His simple lifestyle despite being a billionaire has made some people dub him 'stingy'.

 After leaving office as governor, Obi spent time studying in some of the best universities across the world and devoted much time to public speaking, proffering solutions to Nigeria's problems. A much-sought-after speaker, he eventually struck the right cord with his constant exhortation to Nigerian youths to "take back your country".

 Lacking the kind of stupendous wealth for which his main rivals, PDP's Atiku and APC's Bola Ahmed Tinubu, are known - both boast private jets, for instance - Obi has had to rely mainly on Twitter to pass across his message, which largely accounts for his popularity among Nigeria's cyber natives. Younger than his main rivals at only 61, and energetic, he is also always on the road directly interacting with the people. To connect with the Nigerian Diaspora, he undertook successful foreign tours after his emergence as presidential candidate, with Nigerians abroad eagerly paying to attend his speaking engagements.

 Obi is promising to take Nigeria "from consumption to production" if elected president, even though his opponents taunt him as a consumption advocate, his businesses having been largely based on importation. He believes that the country's main asset is not oil but the vast land in its northern region which he has pledged to convert into an agricultural gold mine. The other priorities of his administration, according to him, would include securing and uniting Nigeria; effective legal and institutional reforms (rule of law, corruption and government effectiveness); leapfrogging Nigeria from oil to the Fourth Industrial Revolution; expanding physical infrastructure through market-driven reforms (unleashing growth-enabling entrepreneurship and market-creating innovations); as well as human capital development that empowers competitiveness; and robust foreign policy that restores Nigeria's strategic relevance.

 An Igbo from Nigeria's South-East that unsuccessfully tried to break away as Biafra (1967-70), Obi enjoys significant national acceptance. First to endorse him was a wing of the Afenifere, the apex Yoruba socio-political group, which rates him over and above their own son, Tinubu. Another wing of the group endorsed Tinubu. Several other influential groups have since endorsed Obi, among them the Middle Belt Forum, Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and South and Middle Belt Leadership Forum (SMBLF).

 Prominent Nigerians such as Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom (a PDP chieftain) and respected elder statesmen Edwin Clark and Afe Babalola have equally endorsed Obi. However, the mother of all endorsements came from former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a global statesman whose support traditionally carries a lot of weight. After a scramble for his endorsement, including by Tinubu and Atiku, Obasanjo on January 1 released a New Year letter to Nigerian youths in which he urged them to support Obi to become president. Obasanjo in the six-page open letter declared that Obi is the presidential candidate with the best character, antecedent, understanding, knowledge, discipline and vitality needed to lead Nigeria at this point in time.

"None of the contestants is a saint but when one compares their character, antecedent, understanding, knowledge, discipline and vitality that they can bring to bear and the great efforts required to stay focused on the job, particularly looking at where the country is today and with the experience on the job that I personally had, Peter Obi as a mentee has an edge," Obasanjo said in the letter which hugely rattled Tinubu and Atiku's camps in particular, drawing protests that left Obasanjo unshaken and resolute on his support for Obi.

Obi has been tipped as likely winner of the February 25 ballot by most opinion surveys - including the ones by northern and foreign groups. Some critics have, however, dismissed the results of the surveys, describing them as elitist and pointing out that much of the Nigerian voting population is not on the Internet.

Aligning itself with this line of thought, Global Rating Company, Fitch, said in a report released on October 29, 2022, that Obi is unlikely to win the presidential election. According to it, "Since only 36.0% of Nigerians use the Internet (World Bank, 2020), we believe that these results are skewed towards urban, affluent voters who are most likely to support Obi."

"Even if these surveys were accurate at a national level, Obi's lack of support in Nigeria's Muslim-majority North would make it difficult for him to win next year's election. Indeed, the North is home to the majority of all voters and turnout in this part of the country tends to be relatively high, underscoring the importance of the Northern electorate.

"According to Nigeria's 1999 constitution, a candidate can only be elected if they both receive the majority of overall votes and over 25.0% of votes in at least 24 of the country's 36 states. Given that Obi's Labour Party has limited infrastructure in the North, he will struggle to meet this second voting requirement.

"Indeed, the Labour Party is not even running candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives in many northern constituencies. Furthermore, the northern electorate historically tends to vote for presidential candidates from their region. With Obi being a Christian from the South (Anambra State), increasing his voter share in the North will prove challenging," Fitch said.

It is the view of Fitch that Tinubu, 70 and a veteran political kingmaker better known for opposition politics before he midwifed the alliance that birthed APC and swept it to power in 2015, is best placed to win the 2023 presidential election. The agency believes that despite the undying controversy surrounding Tinubu's choice of a fellow Muslim as running mate, APC "will repeat its strong performance in the North." "Given that Tinubu is a former governor of Lagos, the party is also likely to improve on its performance in the Southwest. Furthermore, we expect Tinubu to benefit from incumbency advantages, with the APC having been in power since 2015," Fitch projected.

It equally believes that public concerns about Tinubu's health are not enough to deny the former Lagos State governor of victory but would only make "his chances of winning to become smaller." 

Tinubu is marketing himself on his track record as governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007. The former senator from Lagos West Senatorial District during the brief Third Republic (1992-1993) is credited with implementing a massive infrastructural development in the state in addition to drawing up a roadmap for the transformation of the state to a globally competitive mega city. Succeeding governors of the state have followed the roadmap and Tinubu is promising to replicate the feat if elected Nigeria's president.

Ordinarily, Tinubu should win a near landslide in view of incumbency factor or what Nigerians refer to as "structures" - his party being in power in 21 out of Nigeria's 36 states. Traditionally, every governor is expected to deliver or win his state due to huge financial resources in his control and the enormous influence governors consequently wield on security agencies who police the electoral process, and on some electoral staff themselves. However, Tinubu's presidential run has been dogged by too many controversies which may end up eroding his chances at the ballot. Almost everything about him is shrouded in controversy. To date, many still doubt that he is an authentic Tinubu. And he has not been able to prove that he attended the pre-university schools he claimed to have gone to and some of the places he claimed to have worked.

Besides, Tinubu is accused of political greed for installing his wife, children, in-laws and other relatives in plum elective and appointive positions. It has also been alleged that he has used fronts to siphon the resources of Lagos State for himself.

To compound issues, Tinubu, who is running for the presidency for the first time and has publicly said that it is his life ambition, has refused to submit himself to debates and media interviews. Instead, he has relied on Town Hall Meetings to address various segments of the voting public. He is known for occasional gaffes and sparked outrage by claiming that the presidency is his turn (Emi lokan), as he put it in Yoruba Language.

Yet another disadvantage for him is the fact that the core northern states in APC's control he is relying on have a history of voting for their own. If that proves to be the case on February 25, that would be to the benefit of PDP's Atiku and NNPP's Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso - the former from Adamawa State in the north-east and the latter from Kano State in the north-west. Ordinarily, Atiku would have been expected to sweep the two geo-political zones, but his lead would likely be cut by Kwankwaso - who is regarded as the strongman of Kano and Jigawa politics - and Tinubu, who is expected to win Borno and Yobe states where his running mate, Senator Kashim Shettima, a Borno native, is expected to bring his influence to bear.

For Atiku, 76, who failed in five previous attempts to be president, his main argument in what is apparently his final bid for the plum job, is his experience as former vice president, during which time he supervised the Nigerian economy. While the economy performed fairly well, the privatisation of state assets handled by him was controversial. He has promised to continue the privatisation process if he becomes president and has promised to restructure Nigeria, a major demand of southern Nigeria.

 But unfortunately for Atiku, his latest presidential bid has suffered unexpected heavy blows. First was the exit of Obi, who has since eaten deeply into PDP's strongholds in the south-east, south-south and north-central, whose largely Christian populations have tilted towards Obi, a Catholic. Atiku and the PDP are also facing a rebellion from five governors known as G5, who insist that it is wrong for the party to be run by northerners and at the same time produce the presidential flag bearer. The aggrieved governors - Nyesom Wike or Rivers, who lost the presidential ticket to Atiku; Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia); Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Enugu); Samuel Ortom (Benue); and Seyi Makinde (Oyo) - have refused to campaign for Atiku. Their principal demand is for party chairman Iyorchia Ayu from Benue in the north-central to be replaced with a southerner, but both Atiku and the PDP have refused to yield ground, arguing that it is better to wait till after the presidential election before making any changes if the party comes out victorious. With the G5 governors wielding much influence in the south-south (Wike), south-east (Ikpeazu and Ugwuanyi), north-central (Ortom), and south-west (Makinde), some analysts believe that it would take a miracle for Atiku to win the election.

Nevertheless, Atiku, whose party controls 14 states (the 36th state is governed by APGA) has been projected winner of the February 25 ballot by the influential THISDAY newspaper. It said in an analysis published on December 27, 2022, that based on PDP's history and the traditional voting style of the north, "Atiku has 21 states sure of 25%, Tinubu has 20 states he's sure of 25%". The paper projected Obi, whose party does not boast a single state governor, to come a distant third.

Despite the projection and results of opinion polls, the common belief across Nigeria is that this year's presidential election is too close to call. As the election draws closer, the consensus is that no one can predict the outcome as any of the three main candidates can take it - Obi, Tinubu and Atiku. This also seems to be the thinking of INEC, which has disclosed that it is preparing for a possible run-off which, if it happens, would be the first in Nigeria's history.

Another worry is the probability of violence either truncating or significantly impacting the outcome of the election. There has been an upsurge in political violence in the countdown to the polls despite the signing of a peace accord by the candidates on September 29, 2022, under the supervision of the National Peace Committee headed by one-time military ruler, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd).

Among the 18 political parties contesting the forthcoming elections - parliamentary election holds the same February 25 and state elections on March 11 - PDP and LP have been the most affected by the violence, losing both human and material resources to the attacks. But INEC has been the worst affected, with "unknown gunmen" burning the commission's offices, destroying election materials and disrupting preparations for the polls, especially in the south-east, the hotbed of the Biafra separatist agitation.

The peace committee has been helpless in stemming the tide as it is essentially a moral force, lacking the powers to enforce the peace agreements it makes politicians sign before every state and national elections. INEC has however assured that the elections will hold nationwide while the federal authorities have also promised adequate security to make that possible. INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, said early January: "In preparations for the 2023 general elections, the commission is not leaving anything to chance in ensuring that intensive and extensive security are provided for election personnel, materials and processes."

Preparations for the polls are indeed in top gear, with INEC distributing Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) to registered voters. The commission says it would be relying on technology to electronically transmit results and has assures Nigerians that the attacks on its facilities would not affect the 2023 polls.

 According to INEC's National Commissioner in charge of Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, "The commission has already taken delivery of the full number of the Bimodal Voter's Accreditation System, for the conduct of the election in the 176,846 polling units across the federation. Additional BVAS for contingencies would be deployed to the 8,809 registration areas across the country.

 "The BVAS were designed to function offline, and, that only accredited voters would be allowed to cast votes on the day of the polls.

 "Only registered voters who present their Permanent Voters Cards, at the polling unit would be accredited to vote.

 "Over 1.4 million ad-hoc election staff had been engaged by the Commission for the conduct of the 2023 general election, and insurance police had been secured for them against hazards of the election, especially possible attack."

Despite pockets of violence, Nigerian democracy is gradually coming of age, with the military routinely assuring that the process, which has run without break for 23 years, would never be truncated again unlike it happened before 1999.

In Nigeria, democracy does not only guarantee plurality of choice but also provides much drama and colour. As a matter of fact, Nigeria's democracy has been rated by some analysts as the most vibrant in the world, especially as rallies give the vibrant population the opportunity to throng campaign venues in colourful party uniforms, singing and dancing to hit tunes by both traditional and secular music stars.

For the long-suffering Nigerians whose country dethroned India as the world's capital of poverty in 2018 and has remained so till date, the 2023 campaigns provide some kind of relief and the promises of the candidates much hope.  

Will that relief last beyond May 29 this year when the Buhari administration hands over to the new government expected to emerge on February 25? That is everyone's prayer, hope and expectation.

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