Like many Nigerians, I’ve come to recognize a fascinating development in Nigeria’s political landscape. It is this: next year’s presidential election is shaping up to be a contest between Peter Obi, on the one hand, and the rest, on the other hand.
To be clear, I’m not asserting that Obi, the former governor of Anambra, is the frontrunner. I’m not stating that he’s going to win the presidency. My point is that Obi has set himself apart in a way that no other prominent Nigerian politician has done in recent memory, if ever.
I must confess that this fact dawned on me in a stunning, unexpected way.
When Obi announced his current bid for the presidency, I was slow to pay him attention. In fact, I was inclined to deep skepticism about his project. I suspected that his ultimate ambition was to audition for the post of vice presidential candidate, yet again, on Atiku Abubakar’s presidential ticket.
Then my perception changed dramatically. The evolution of that change is quite instructive. In telephone conversations, numerous friends who hail from different parts of Nigeria began to tell me that they considered Obi not just a compelling candidate for the country’s leadership but, indeed, the imperative choice. At a small gathering I attended in New York City, Obi’s candidacy dominated the conversation. Several asked if I had information on how they could donate to his campaign. One man declared his readiness to temporarily relocate to Nigeria in order to be Obi’s foot soldier.
On social media, I witnessed a similar momentum. In video after viral video, Nigerians urged their fellows to make haste and obtain a voting card to ensure Obi’s victory. There are now countless skits in which parents, friends, and social influencers entreat eligible people to hurry for their voters’ cards. A few well known entertainers have recorded songs in support of Obi.
Originally, Obi was going to vie for the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party. Days before the PDP held its primary, the former governor seemed to realize that the contest would be won, not by the soundness of one’s ideas but by primordial considerations and—of course—the size of one’s war chest. He announced that he was quitting the PDP. Then he crossed over to Labor Party, easily securing the ticket of that much less established political organization.
The force of his political capital seemed to galvanize the also-ran LP. Overnight, he turned his new party platform into something of a household name.
Clearly, there’s a growing groundswell of excitement around this candidate. In revues, famous and not-so-famous supporters have declared themselves staunchly “Obi-dient”. All over Nigeria, homeowners have repainted their property in Labor Party colors, offering these for free as campaign centers for Obi’s party.
As I already stated, I was entirely taken by surprise by the political electricity generated by Obi. Why was that?
The former governor and I have had a rather complicated relationship. I had never ever heard about him when he ran for the governorship of Anambra State in 2003 on the ticket of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). He won that election, but the then ruling PDP imposed its candidate, Chris Ngige. Obi went to court, seeking to reclaim his mandate. Meanwhile, the gubernatorial impostor began to grow in popularity. He achieved this feat by paying salaries, building roads, and defying his swaggering, ill-educated and widely despised godfather, a rustic who exploited his closeness to then President Olusegun Obasanjo. Impressed by Ngige’s defiance and productivity, many notable indigenes of Anambra appealed to Obi to forego his legal challenge. I was contrarian. In a series of columns, I made the point that Obi must exhaust every means to reclaim his mandate. It was, I argued, his ethical obligation.
He earned my admiration when he stayed the course, mounting a three-year legal battle to regain a trust that was snatched from him. I had high expectations for his governorship. He worked hard in several areas—education, healthcare and road development among them—but not so much in others. I was sometimes critical of his tendency to over-promise. I felt outraged when he let a strike by public medical doctors drag out for months.
On the whole, by the end of his second term in office he’d become a much-beloved figure in Anambra and beyond. My now late mother was so fond of him that she often described him as her son. In a number of interviews, Obi has told how an encounter with my mother led him to pay off billions of naira the state government owed to hapless pensioners.
What accounts for Obi’s appeal as a presidential candidate? He is the only major candidate who appears to grasp the scale of Nigeria’s crises—and who’s possessed of a blueprint for tackling them. Where the APC’s Bola Tinubu may drone on about it being his turn to “rule” Nigeria and the PDP’s Atiku speaks in generalities about “moving the nation forward,” Obi projects marshals facts and figures to underscore his agenda. Atiku and Tinubu represent the staidness of the idea-less Nigerian politician, animated merely by the prospect of basking in self-aggrandizement. Nigerians watched, in amazement and disgust, as these two doled out obscene sums to delegates in order to buy their respective party’s presidential nomination.
By contrast, the cash-strapped Labor Party invited Obi—on the strength of his burgeoning political appeal—to take up its ticket. Unlike his fellow candidates, Obi speaks insightfully and eloquently about Nigeria’s feeble industrial capacity, electric power deficits, disastrous unemployment rates, ghastly infrastructures, and unsustainable rates of interest. He alone, among the triumvirate of major party aspirants, gives the impression of having done his homework.
He’s also the net beneficiary of recent events and trends in Nigeria. I believe that the reformist sensibility that fueled the EndSARS movement has found in Obi the most promising and pragmatic promise of fulfillment. In addition, President Muhammadu Buhari’s universal failure has left more and more Nigerians impatient with the old-style brand of politics.
As Nigeria wobbled its way through economic recession, wild fluctuations in the oil market, and the socio-economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, I think Nigerians came to see the nightmarish consequences of having a clueless leader like Buhari. Obi strikes voters—especially the young and enlightened ones—as the antidote to Buhari, in much the same way that Tinubu and Atiku come across as cut from the same lame cloth as Buhari. That’s why these two are loosing steam while a growing number of Nigerians cleave to Obi.
I won’t bet yet on Obi winning the presidency. But there’s no doubt that he has the momentum.