Nigeria’s Peter Obi started a movement. Can he become president?
Obi has inspired a zealous movement of mostly youths and disrupted Nigeria’s traditional two-man presidential contest. But can he go all the way and win the vote?
This month, after eight years of a Muhammadu Buhari presidency under which Nigeria emerged as the world’s poverty capital and endured two recessions in five years, Nigerians will head to the polls to elect 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 Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) now in opposition, and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
But now, the trade union-backed Labour Party is campaigning with Peter Obi, former two-term governor of the southeastern state of Anambra, as leader – and people are taking notice.
Several polls and surveys have projected a win for Obi on February 25, including one conducted for Bloomberg News by Premise Data Corp in September 2022 in which 72 percent of respondents named him as their first-choice candidate.
Competition, however, remains stiff despite Obi’s rivals carrying plenty of baggage.
The main one is APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the influential former governor of Lagos who was instrumental in Buhari’s historic victory in 2015. He has been deemed the candidate to beat, despite fighting to shake off controversies of a past life of alleged drug dealing and falsifying his age.
Tinubu’s choice of a fellow Muslim, Kashim Shettima, as a running mate remains divisive in a population split almost evenly between Christians and Muslims. Tickets for the major parties are usually been split between the two major religions.
Allegations of corruption continue to trail Tinubu’s time in office and that of his former friend and business partner, the former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who is the PDP’s presidential candidate. There is also the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP)’s Rabiu Kwankwaso, former governor of Kano and an influential figure in the north.
Both Tinubu and Abubakar can marshal immense resources and may benefit from organised party structures that could help swing the election. But Obi, who was Abubakar’s running mate in 2019, has sought to claim the moral high ground.
“I have challenged everyone, go and see whether there is anywhere a kobo [coin] of Anambra state money’s missing,” the 61-year-old declared emphatically at a town hall series organised this January by Channels Television, one of the country’s leading broadcasters.
In the eight months since defecting from the PDP, Obi’s promises of inclusion and accountability have resonated far and wide, resulting in a groundswell of support reinvigorating an otherwise lacklustre campaign.
Numerous endorsements that have ruffled feathers in the political establishment have followed, including from former President Olusegun Obasanjo who describes Obi as a “mentee” as well as prominent author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who calls him her “dearest big bro”.
‘Opportunity meeting preparation’
For Obi, who was born in Onitsha, a town home to West Africa’s largest outdoor market, success first came in business. He is listed as the youngest chairman of a publicly listed bank in Nigeria and also has interests in beverage imports.
His wealth was useful during a lengthy litigation process preceding his first stint in public office as governor of Anambra. His party at the time, the All Grand Progressives Alliance (APGA) alleged electoral malpractice against the PDP’s Chris Ngige.
Obi’s 2006 swearing-in was a seminal moment that effectively distorted Nigeria’s electoral calendar; five of 36 state elections will not be held this year because other candidates have followed Obi’s path in getting the Supreme Court to agree that their tenures began after they were restored to office, not from when election results were initially announced.
Obi was also impeached by the state parliament but the courts reversed the decision.
But how did a wealthy capitalist and establishment figure become the avatar for political disruption and candidate for the union-backed Labour Party?
Amaka Anku, professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and head of Eurasia Group’s Africa practice, said Obi has keyed into people’s desire for change.
“It is less about Obi himself and more a frustration with the status quo which he has been able to leverage. It is opportunity meeting preparation,” Anku told Al Jazeera.
Obi’s supporters say he has brought an unfussy style to leadership that downplays the privileges of power and has done away with political “godfatherism”, in which an individual handpicks an often less influential leadership candidate to exert influence over them, an entrenched concept in Nigerian politics.
As governor, Obi engineered a massive public infrastructure drive and invested heavily in primary healthcare and education. He also tried to clean up Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of the southeast that the World Health Organization once named the world’s most polluted city.
His successors dispute the amount he reportedly left in state coffers and have jeered at his frugality. But his administration was also given high ratings by the Senate and Debt Management Office, as well as recognition by organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
His frugality with government resources has since come to be 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 scarcity and sporadic power supply, despite the country also being one of the continent’s largest oil producers.
Insecurity is also rampant nationwide; for instance, armed groups like Boko Haram continue to carry out attacks in the northeast despite the government’s insistence that things are not so.
“It is not that the enemy is more formidable than the government but because of a lack of leadership and poor governance coordination of the entire security architecture,” Obi told Al Jazeera. “We will find solutions.”
The rise of the ‘Obidients’
Obi’s candidacy has instilled a sense of hope among some of the electorate, especially among young people who represent Nigeria’s biggest demographic – 70 percent of its estimated 200 million people are aged below 30 – but have little control over the levers of state that determine electoral outcomes.
Many see Tinubu, 70 and Abubakar, 76 as career politicians who represent a continuation of existing conditions that have failed to deliver economic prosperity and security.
Analysts say Obi’s swift pivot to the Labour Party represents a turning point. For a number of young people, he is perceived as the brightest hope for a country in the doldrums.
There are 10.5 million new voters this season – a record high in a country where voter turnouts are often low – and 85 percent of them are aged 18-34. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, half of the total 93 million registered voters also fall into this age category.
It is from this demographic that a zealous movement has arisen.
Obi’s supporters call themselves “Obidients” and have gone to great lengths to sell their candidate, including fervent evangelism on social media.
Volunteer groups have sprung up within and beyond Nigeria to encourage people to campaign and raise funds. Even Nollywood, the country’s film industry, has jumped on the trend, producing a movie about Obi.
“He is proof that charisma, competence and credibility can win elections regardless of ethnicity,” Balami Isaac, deputy national campaign manager of the Obi campaign council, told Al Jazeera. “That represents hope for my people and the youth.”
In a country with endemic corruption, Obi, seen as a rare “principled” politician by his supporters, has repeatedly challenged critics to find any evidence of corruption tied to him or even that he has drawn a pension since exiting office.
His critics point to the Pandora Papers investigation of 2021 which listed offshore holdings in his name in tax havens, as evidence of improper financial dealings.
Obi admitted to being silent about them in asset declaration filings to the Code of Conduct Bureau, in direct contravention of Nigerian law. He said he was unaware that the law required him to do so for assets jointly owned with his family members.
He has also been accused of being sympathetic to separatist agitators whose paramilitary wings violently enforce sit-at-home orders in the country’s southeast on Mondays.
“I have said it repeatedly, I will sit down and discuss with every agitator,” he told Al Jazeera. “We will win those who are winnable and then deal with those who are not – carrot and stick.”
Obi has also promised to appoint a special counsel to prosecute corruption cases. He has also proposed replacing the current salary structure with an hourly productivity-based minimum rate as part of a larger drive to move Nigeria from a consumption-based economy to a production one.
Still, analysts say he is also likely to face tougher challenges if elected, as was the case during his tenure as governor.
“Historically, Labour Party is pro-workers and trade unions and not the party that will champion Obi’s cost-cutting ideas,” said Anku. “There may be an ideological clash in which he bends the party to his will or leaves. Either will take time.
“Also, elite consensus is a key part of fundamental reform,” she said. “Obi has struggled to get the elite even in his region to support his candidacy. It remains to be seen how he can build national consensus.”
The path to victory seems complicated even if Obi is often welcomed like a rock star as his campaign train crisscrosses Nigeria, sometimes hitting multiple locations in a day.
Cash inducement still reigns supreme in Nigerian politics, which is at odds with Obi’s famed frugality.
The Labour Party has also been dismissed as having little national appeal and his critics point to knottier issues like religion and ethnicity which can often determine how votes are cast.
Obi is Igbo, the only of Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups to have never had a candidate clinching the presidency since the country’s civil war ended in 1970. His running-mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, a former senator from the northwestern state of Kaduna, is expected to help draw out the northern Muslim vote.
Abuja-based political analyst Mark Amaza thinks making inroads into the north will be a tall order even though areas with religious and ethnic minorities appear wary of the APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket.
“[But] even in the core north, there are large non-indigenous populations that can fetch him votes,” Amaza told Al Jazeera.
The duo insist their candidacy is not sectional but represents a different, more inclusive way of doing things. At an interactive session in Kaduna last year, Obi said simply, “I want to give Nigerians hope.”
And their message seems to be winning new support.
“I’m here for a radical change,” said Fejiro Orhoro, a 30-year-old Lagos-based financial analyst and first-time voter. “Do I know whether it [voting for him] will work or not? No. I’m just willing to try and see if someone fresh can effect the change we need.”