My fears For Peter Obi’s 2023 Presidency–Eni-B
OpenLife Nigeria reproduces an article by the Group Managing Director of ThisDay Newspaper, Mr. Eniola Bello, popularly knowns as Eni-B, which dwells extensively on the strength and weakness including effects on the polity of the presidential aspiration of Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi
When he quit the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) late May 2022 and picked up the presidential ticket of the Labour Party a few days after, few people outside of the man Peter Obi, and his handler Doyin Okupe, could possibly have believed he knew what he was doing. Obi who had been cleared, with 12 others, to contest the PDP primary, and even touted to be one of the top contenders, suddenly withdrew from the contest, quit the party and joined Labour. To many observers at the time, even if he was unable to pick the PDP presidential ticket, Obi stood a very good chance of emerging the party’s vice-presidential nominee. To abandon the endless possibilities in the main opposition PDP to pick the ticket of a fringe party like Labour, many had thought laughable. Four months on, however, Obi has not only become one of the top three contenders for the 2023 presidency, he has been the symbol of a political rebellion his supporters call The Obi-Dient Movement, a rebellion capable of causing a tectonic shift in the nation’s polity, nay the structure of its power relations.
The moment Obi picked the Labour Party presidential ticket, there was a promotion, if not a celebration, of his candidacy on twitter and other social media platforms. When he was dismissed as having only twitter supporters of mostly youths who were not even registered voters, there was a massive mobilization of, and an unusual turnout of young men and women, to participate in the voter registration exercise. And for that, supporters of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition PDP dismissed the notion that Obi could impact, in any shape or form, the 2023 election on the platform of Labour, a fringe party they dismissed as having no structure. In response, the Obi-Dients countered with an apt riposte that the people are their structure. To walk the talk, they have, in apparent show of strength, marched out in their hundreds of thousands on solidarity rallies in Abakaliki, Awka, Enugu, Onitsha and Nnewi in the southeast; Abeokuta, Akure, Ibadan and Ondo in the southwest; Port Harcourt in the south-south; Jos and Makurdi in the north central; Jalingo in the northeast; and in Abuja the Federal Capital Territory. As they move from city to city, the turnout at the rallies becomes larger and larger. Along the line, Obi has been on the road, answering calls for, or inviting himself to, media interviews; honouring speaking engagements organised by different professional groups in the country; and delivering stump speeches across some cities of Europe and the United States on the invitation of diaspora Nigerians.
The Obi-Dient Movement prepares for more of those rallies in other cities on the strength of the massive support for Obi in the southeast and the generality of Igbo populace in other parts of the country, coupled with the growing support for his candidature among southern youths, professional groups, a cross section of Pentecostal Christians, and many others frustrated by years of poor governance and desiring genuine change. When about five regional parties merged to form the APC in 2014 on a bold campaign of Change, anchored on some exaggerated integrity of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, most Nigerians tired of the corruption, mismanagement and impunity of the PDP government voted the APC candidate in the 2015 presidential election. It didn’t take long to find out that there’s much more to competence and good governance than personal integrity.
With Nigeria seemingly worse off in the last seven years under Buhari, there is a general feeling that if the APC administration brought about any change, it was one for the worse. It was therefore easy for those desiring genuine change, one free of the structures and strictures of the behemoth APC and PDP, to settle for Obi and his Labour Party. For the youths desperate for a symbol of genuine change, a politician who had not been contaminated by the PDP and APC, it didn’t matter that Obi had pulled out of the PDP presidential race before joining Labour, had been the PDP vice presidential candidate in the 2019 election and had served as honorary adviser in the PDP administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. It was enough that Obi consistently spoke their language – constantly railing against the political establishment in his public speeches, supporting End SARS movement against police brutality, promoting frugality and simplicity in government, and calling for full disclosure of terrorism financiers and those behind oil theft.
The Obi candidature is particularly attractive for more than one reason. One, his biggest supporters are the youths. The Obi-Dients are aggressive and impatient and self-driven. Having bought into the Obi advisory that they take their country back, they dominate the social media, organise rallies and marches for Obi independently of his Labour Party, make sacrificial donations to fund their operations, and are fiercely passionate, if not fanatical, of his candidature.
Two, Obi has not anchored his campaign on an ethnic platform. When Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Igbo socio-political organisation, and other southeast presidential aspirants in the two major parties – PDP and APC – demanded that aspirants from other parts of the country concede the presidency to their zone, and threw tantrums when that did not happen, Obi did not join the-tribal-mark-presidency campaign. Although the Igbo people, sans their establishment, appears to have made him their candidate, in what supporters of the two other major candidates interpreted as IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra, a secessionist group) support, Obi has so far carefully avoided being entrapped as a regional candidate. Indeed, Obi has always stood for character instead of zoning; he has consistently waived the banner of competence rather than that of it-is-our-turn.
Three, in his quest to realise his 2023 presidential ambition, Obi decided to tread the narrow path. The founding fathers of the PDP, at inception of the democratic journey into the Fourth Republic, consciously formed a big party with strong presence across the country to comfortably win the 1999 presidential election. And in 2014, a coalition of regional parties joined forces with a splinter group from PDP to win the 2015 presidential election. Obi, however, in a reverse political strategy, opted for Labour, a fringe party that has no state governor, no national assembly member, no state assembly member, no council chairman, and indeed no known presence in several states. Yet, in four months of becoming Labour’s presidential nominee, Obi has dominated the airwaves, bestrode the blogosphere, clocked many crowd-pulling rallies and marches in several cities, become a dominant issue in political discourse, won hearts and minds in unexpected places, led in three different opinion polls, and been touted one of the top three candidates. In those four months, the Obi presidency quest has become a movement, and this is not so much because, but in spite, of him. He carries the hopes of the dissatisfied and disgruntled, the frustrated and angry, the unemployed and hungry, the choked and suffocated; indeed, those who desire new ideas and fresh thinking, who want a new country, and are tired of seeing a recycling of jaded politicians in power. He has soared on the waves of the passionate support of frustrated and angry youths, those youths who could not be bothered about party platform, so long it’s not APC and PDP; nor about any other election, whether National Assembly or governorship.
There are, however, concerns. For in the aforesaid attraction and strengths of the Obi candidacy also lies its weaknesses. In the first place, perhaps because of his penchant for frugality and simplicity, Obi appears to be working alone, or almost alone. Four months into his presidential quest, Obi should have had around him different teams or advisors on Strategy, on Finance, on Media, on Legal, on Policy, on Foreign Relations, on Economy, on Security, amongst others. Had he a research team, he couldn’t possibly have been making those elementary errors of facts for which he has become infamous in his stomp speeches and interviews, making supporters of his competitors to weave a liar tag on him. The presidential office is too big and important to be a one-man show. Secondly, Obi is a believer in free enterprise who has been making a case, in his public statements, for market forces, limited government, heavy private sector involvement, deregulation of the downstream sector, privatisation and all that. And yet he is a candidate of Labour, a party whose philosophy is big government, limited private sector involvement, non-removal of fuel subsidy, etc. An Obi victory could possibly replicate the APC scenario when a party supposedly of progressives picked an archconservative Buhari, a man who did not even believe in the party’s manifestoes, as its presidential candidate. The result has been the disconnect, in the last seven years, between campaign promises and delivery.
To complicate matters, Labour Party is owned and promoted by workers’ unions, the leadership of which are arguably the biggest hinderance, outside of politicians, to Nigeria’s developmental progress. Since the Obi-Dient Movement is only interested in Obi’s candidature, it is unlikely an Obi victory, should it happen, would necessarily result in Labour candidates’ victory in the governorship and National Assembly elections. How a President Obi would run an effective government, or any government for that matter, in which the lawmakers are antagonistic, state governors unsupportive, and ruling party disconnected is difficult to imagine. Some have argued that the party is a mere platform, that with Obi’s victory at the polls, Nigerian politicians, as they are wont to do, would necessarily decamp to the president’s party. Those who harbour such thoughts are poor students of power relations. It is unlikely that would happen.
Occupation of presidential office is not necessarily synonymous with possession of presidential powers. Despite the ruling PDP having a dominant majority in the National Assembly between 1999 and 2003, President Olusegun Obasanjo had a bruising battle with the legislators and even survived impeachment attempts. Most of the top politicians in the APC and PDP know very well that Obi plays a different kind of politics from the one they revel in; therefore, they would rather likely prefer to compromise or break him. We’ve seen a similar thing happen in our political history. In the Second Republic, Balarabe Musa who was elected Kaduna state governor on the platform of the PRP (People’s Redemption Party) ran into a storm when he refused to compromise his governance principles with the NPN (National Party of Nigeria) dominated State Assembly members. Of course, the Assembly broke him by impeaching and removing him from office.
Lastly, the youths, whose energy and enthusiasm have been the moving spirit that has projected the Obi candidacy to the realm of possibility, also have implanted in them an avoidable hubris. In their driving passion is embedded destructive negativity. They can’t be too bothered to market their candidate’s selling points, to persuade supporters of other candidates and the undecided on why Obi is the real deal. They would rather taunt and insult and intimidate and threaten anyone they assume, right or wrong, is opposed to their candidate. They see Obi as a perfect candidate, if not some saviour, who has no faults and whose victory is assured. My worry is their likely violent response when faced with crisis of expectation versus reality at one level should Obi fail to win the election, and at another level should he win but is unable to effectively govern for reasons internal or external to him.
Win or lose, the nation’s politics would find the Obi challenge enriching, if not revolutionary. By the time the elections are over, he would have shaken the two dominant parties, given Labour Party a lift, shown our youths the power of their collective action, and point the way to what is possible.