2023: Can The Popular Appeal Of Peter Obi Secure Him The Presidency? How Far Can He Go?

By Olusegun Adeniyi

THISDAY headquarters on Creek Road, Apapa, Lagos was not far from Mr Peter Obi’s corporate office. So, we visited each other regularly before he became Governor of Anambra State. Not only has our friendship endured, but Obi has remained the same man I first encountered more than two decades ago. Simple. Gracious. And, as I have learnt over the years, someone who is not affected by the trappings of power. In fact, Obi demystifies what most Nigerian politicians call power.

I cannot count the number of times he has visited me either at home or in my office, including when he was governor (both in Lagos and here in Abuja), and he comes only in one car. When he left office as Anambra Governor, I singled him out in my 29th May 2014 column, ‘Peter Obi on Democracy Day’, praising him for a sense of perspective when it comes to the management of public funds.

Those virtues may have attracted him to many young Nigerians, but I can discern two extreme characterizations of Obi in the broader public’s imagination. For those who consider his presidential aspiration an irritation, Obi is an IPOB promoter, peddler of fake statistics, political spoiler, etc. To his army of supporters, especially on social media, Obi is the next thing to a Nigerian saint.

And because saints are canonized, never scrutinized, any attempt to raise questions about the claims he makes in his numerous media engagements or his stewardship as Anambra Governor instantly elicits attacks. To these supporters, it is almost as if they have invented a new Obi who has no record of public service in Nigeria or political participation before now.

When the whole OBIdient ‘movement’ started evolving early last year, I had an interesting conversation with Obi, asking whether he had a strategy to harvest the enormous goodwill he enjoys, especially on social media.

He confirmed to me that it all came to him by surprise. I find it refreshing that ordinary people can invest their time, energy, and resources to promote a Nigerian politician without gratification or expectation of reward. But while many of these enthusiasts have helped, Obi has also had to carry vicarious responsibility for the antics of some in a milieu where abuse is often substituted for critical engagement. I followed the drama of the former Enugu State Governor, Chimaroke Nnamani, who gave as good as he got from the ‘OBIdients’ on Twitter. And then, it was the turn of the Anambra State Governor, Chukwuma Soludo. The positive from the fightback by both Nnamani and Soludo was that it helped to dispel the notion that Obi’s presidential aspiration is an Igbo project. Just as he has supporters across the country, there are also people within the Southeast who do not support his aspiration. And nothing can be more ludicrous than the suggestion that his presidential ambition was motivated by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB).

Obi is a patriotic Nigerian who is seeking the presidency of his country and he is eminently qualified for the job. Indeed, by most projections, Obi is one of the four candidates Nigerians expect to emerge as our next president. Others are Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). But while Tinubu and Atiku—(former) friends with a long history of political association dating back three and a half decades—are daily trading insults and damaging allegations against each other in the name of campaigns, Obi has stayed on message.

In nations where elite consensus is taken seriously, Obi’s aspiration ticks some important boxes. There was a revealing exchange last week in one of the WhatsApp chat groups to which I belong between two respected Igbo professionals during a discussion on what President Olusegun Obasanjo’s endorsement of Obi means. The first one wrote: “One nation, two oracles. One in Minna and the other, in Abeokuta. One North. One South. Balanced Republic!” Not long after came this riposte from the second person: “Typical! Once again, the Southeast is being marginalized… not even half an oracle. God dey!”

Although the interactions were in the lighter mood, I believe the second post sounded truer than the writer may have intended. If one were to extrapolate, the only reason why we have an ‘Oracle’ in Abeokuta and another one in Minna is because they have led Nigeria at different epochs. To the extent that we have not had a democratically elected civilian president (or military leader with sufficient time in office) from the Southeast, Nigeria has also not been blessed with an ‘oracle’ from the region. Given the tripodal (as in WaZoBia) nature of our political arrangement in Nigeria, one can then surmise that there is a value in Obi’s aspiration that transcends his personal ambition. Nothing can advance a society better than equity in the distribution of political opportunities, especially at the highest level of government.

Overall, there is no doubt that there is a ‘Peter Obi effect’ on the coming election among urban elites and young Nigerians in the South and the Diaspora.

That perhaps explains why Obi remains the toast of international media. It is also why most people believe it is to Obi’s advantage that as many as 71 per cent of the 12.2 million Nigerians newly registered are young people. But we must also understand that these newly registered young people still constitute only 12 percent of the total number of registered voters in Nigeria.

Given their varied socio-economic status, there is no evidence to suggest that they will all vote the same way. The greater challenge is whether members of this demographic group even have the discipline to stay the course on election day. This now brings me to the question: How far can Peter Obi go in the 2023 presidential election?

To win a national leadership election anywhere in the world, you need three things: Popular appeal, party structure and ‘logistics’.

In Nigeria the last is so elastic that it includes infrastructure for rigging. In most countries, ‘logistics’ is included in money deployed for media adverts. It can also be a potent weapon for other critical areas. For instance, we have seen situations where a popular politician with a heavy war chest was able to hijack a party structure for his election. In the United States, a certain Donald Trump was able to wrest the Republican Party from the traditional members and went on to win the election.

Same happened in Nigeria in 1993 when the late Bashorun M.K.O Abiola seized the Social Democratic Party (SDP) structure from national chairman and presidential aspirant, Babagana Kingibe. Despite their wealth and popularity, both Trump and the late Abiola still recognized the importance of a political party with structures that go to the grassroots. In contrast, what Obi has going for him is popular appeal. But he lacks a strong party structure, even if we discountenance the factor of Nigerian ‘logistics’.

Let’s examine the issue of party structure. I have gone through the 410-page Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) final list of candidates for national elections (Presidential, Senatorial and House of Representatives) as well as their 894-page document containing the final list of candidates for state elections (Governorship and House of Assembly). The Labour Party is grossly disadvantaged in terms of the number of sponsored candidates for all these offices.

Yet, these are the people any presidential candidate needs the most on election day because they also have personal interest in the outcome of the poll. Not only do the APC and PDP have candidates for all elective offices both at federal level and in the 36 states, in some instances they have two or three people battling for the same seat. The idea is to eventually settle these contests in court should their party win since it is already concluded in Nigeria’s electoral jurisprudence that votes belong to political parties.

The Labour Party has no Senatorial nor House of Representatives candidates in Borno, Ekiti, Katsina, Kebbi and Lagos States. And therefore, no direct stakeholder on the ballot beyond Obi on presidential election day.

These five critical states collectively boast of more than 20 percent of the total registered votes. The party also has only one Senatorial candidate each in Ondo and Yobe without a single candidate for House of Representatives in both states. That has serious implications for capacity and resources to mobilise party agents for 176,846 polling units in 774 local governments on the presidential election day.

Against the background that the presidential election and that of the National Assembly hold on the same day, the fact that the Labour Party is without the requisite number of candidates for Senate and House of Representatives in many states across the country is already a huge political drawback. Statistics for the House of Assembly constituencies are worse. We are not even talking about the APC and PDP governors in 28 states either seeking re-election or plotting to have their successors in place, knowing that the outcome of the presidential election would affect what happens in subsequent polls. This is where the Labour Party may witness the vicious power of Nigerian ‘logistics’ in a society where poverty has reached the level of a husband killing his wife over a loaf of bread. Deployment of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Result Viewing Portal (IReV) will make a significant difference this time, but whoever believes the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has effectively curtailed vote buying knows little about our politics.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, Obi remains the revelation of this election. He left the PDP to pick the Labour Party presidential ticket at the end of May last year (less than eight months ago) yet, he has become not only a front runner in the election but more significantly the most preferred by young people. In a country where citizens are in perpetual search for a ‘Messiah’, it comes as no surprise that Obi is the anti-establishment candidate and standard bearer for those who seek something new. It worked for President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 as ‘breadth of fresh air’ and drove the Muhammadu Buhari campaign in 2015 as ‘Mai Gaskiya’ (the honest one). Will it work for Obi this time? We have less than 50 days to find out.

Months before the 2011 presidential election, Buhari formed the Congress for Progressives Change (CPC) which made a significant dent, but it was still not enough for the election of that year. That then explains the feeling among structuralists that the ruling APC and the main opposition PDP are too entrenched to be easily displaced by the presidential candidate of the Labour Party in this election.

However, since Leicester Football Club won the 2015/2016 English premiership title against all odds, it has become obvious that in politics and sports, anything can happen.

So, there is nothing to suggest that Obi may still not win this coming election, although the real tragedy would be for him to walk away in the event of a loss. He is well-positioned to galvanise Nigerians into the alternative platform (third force) many have clamoured for, and time is on his side. The credibility he has built and the network of genuine support across different strata of our society can change the trajectory of party politics in Nigeria.

Two plus two does not always approximate four in politics, but it is also true that for the rational gambler, there is no surer way to bet. Even at that, the contention about who will win the presidential election is needless. Pundits cannot decide for the people. David Arnor and Shelley Taylor have made us realise in their essay, ‘When Predictions Fail: The dilemma of unrealistic optimism’ that when it comes to elections, people usually predict their bias. “By a number of metrics and across a variety of domains, people have been found to assign higher probabilities to their attainment of desirable outcomes than either objective criteria or logical analysis warrants,” they wrote.

Whatever happens at the polls on 25th February, Peter Obi can take solace in the oft-quoted 23rd April 1910 ‘Citizenship in a Republic’ speech of the former American President Theodore Roosevelt as a reminder of what this contest is all about for him. In the final analysis, ‘The man in the arena’ is not only the one who defies critics even in the face of sweat and blood but also one who, “at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”