By Agbo, Ochonu & Kperogi
In the face of existential challenges facing Nigeria and leading up to the 2023 presidential election, the ensuing conversation arose among three Nigerians in the Diaspora on the way forward for a nation in crisis.
Each time I think about Nigeria’s 2023 election which by the way is just a mere 18 days away, what comes to mind is the Igbo proverb; “Echi di ime, anyi amaro ihe oga amu.” This proverb speaks to the unpredictability of the outcome of a pregnancy and that the most a husband could do is anxiously await the day of delivery to see the fruit that the divine brings forth. Though a couple may sometimes show preference to a particular sex over another, depending on the pre-existing family dynamics, the most importantly prayer has always been to birth a healthy child, naturally prepared to face the harsh realities of this troubled world.
But at this point and with all the issues staring us in the face, I worry if 2023 will ever give Nigeria a healthy child or just end up in a stillbirth. Worse still, I fear it might become the year mother Nigeria hemorrhages to death, peripartum.
I need to stop already. Mo, please help us make sense of all these. May it’s just a case of anticipatory anxiety pushing me to overthink these things.
Well, we’re in uncharted territory no doubt. That’s the source of the unpredictability. We’re used to elections with two main candidates and two main parties. Since 1999, that has been our electoral experience. This time Peter Obi and his Labor Party and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Rabiu Kwankwaso and his NNPP have added to the uncertainty and competitiveness of the contest. You can see that the dynamics of this election cycle are different. Candidates and parties are not taking the electorate for granted and are actually trying to articulate both messages of persuasion and messages that challenge and criticize their opponents’ record and plans. That can only be a good thing from the perspective of the electorate. Previous elections were determined or even predetermined by elite political consensus. That’s not the case in this election. The political elites themselves under different party cleavages are confused and are scrambling to respond to the new electoral environment. Another factor that may have complicated the picture and added to the unpredictability is the advent of the BVAS voter verification mechanism, which may, if properly implemented, curb rigging and other manipulative shenanigans. No one seems to know whether or to what extent BVAS will play a role in the election and what parties and candidates are doing to respond to it in their strategic calculations.
Absolutely. You know, very few people may remember that Nigerians have harbored this dream of midwifing an alternative political platform outside PDP and APC for a while. I believe the concept of what was then referred to as the “Third Force” came into reckoning just months after President Buhari’s electoral victory in 2015. It didn’t take long before we realized that there is no daylight between APC and PDP and that the two are just two sides of the same recycled gerontocrats. Both parties never lost sleep over it though, probably because they have perfected the art of dangling carrot in the face of any serious opposition and how to beat the fringes into shape. But this time, Mr. Peter Obi and his Labour Party defiled all the odds and are charting a different course, propelled by an army of committed youths and has brought so much disruption to the status quo. The two major political parties now feel like they have been hit by a ton of bricks, out of nowhere. They are taking it real hard and lashing out, manifesting in lots of ad hominem attacks being lobbed across.
There have always been alternatives to the two dominant parties. It’s just that the alternatives have never had traction. They still don’t. Obi isn’t exactly an alternative to APC and PDP because he was himself a PDP member. He joined the PDP after his governorship, which he won on the platform of APGA. He was Atiku Abubakar’s running mate in 2019 and was a presidential candidate on PDP’s platform until he hopped on to the Labor Party at the last minute when it became apparent that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the PDP nomination.
It was the political cachet and visibility that he got from being a former PDP presidential running mate that has redounded to his formidability on a previously unknown platform. So, in a sense, he isn’t an alternative to the APC and the PDP. He’s actually an extension of them.
Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso was also a two-term governor and minister on PDP’s platform. He moved to APC, returned to PDP, and has now formed his own party. That’s not my idea of an alternative candidate.
Neither Obi nor Kwankwaso has articulated any blueprint that is different from PDP and APC. The only truly alternative political parties, such as Omoyele Sowore’s African Action Congress, are still as marginal as third parties have always been.
It is the justified and legitimate resentment against APC and PDP’s choice of Muslim presidential candidates (in APC’s case a Muslim-Muslim ticket and in PDP’s case a northern Muslim after eight years of a northern Muslim president) that propelled the rise of Peter Obi. Every other thing is just a rhetorical add-on. If either APC or PDP had a Christian candidate, neither Peter Obi nor Labor Party would be a factor in the election.
And on the issues that matter, such as subsidies for the poor, he is completely indistinguishable from APC and/or PDP.
My own worry for the election is that Obi supporters are being set up for a devastating heartbreak that might precipitate post-election violence. Phony opinion polls that sprout from the depths of the imagination of his supporters are priming supporters to expect his victory even when the indices show that he can’t win. He has huge deficits in almost as many states as he has an upper hand. No one wins a national election like that.
He won’t get 25 percent in at least Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Kebbi, Zamfara, Sokoto, Borno, Yobe, Kwara, Bauchi, Kogi, Niger, Osun, and Oyo. That’s an insurmountable deficit even if he wins more than 90 percent of the votes in the Southeast, the South-South, Benue, and Plateau, and does well in Lagos and Nasarawa. But his supporters are being mentally and emotionally prepared not to accept any outcome that doesn’t pronounce him the winner. It’s precisely this kind of manipulation that used to cause Buhari’s supporters to get violent after presidential elections he couldn’t possibly win because his appeal was limited to the Hausaphone Muslim North.
Oh my! Farooq, you made some salient points, many of which we can all agree with. But in my opinion, you are completely off your mark by stating that APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket was what propelled Obi’s rise. Seriously? Anyway, the issue I have with that viewpoint is that it seems to suggest that Obi’s candidacy picked up steam, only when Tinubu chose Shettima as his running mate. Nothing could be farther from the truth and that to me is turning the fact on its head. Your assessment here is not fair to Obi and I am not even one of the “hair-brained” Obidients that you love to constantly throw jabs at…Lol
Look, I know it’s a tall order for Peter Obi but I actually believe the man stands a good chance if the BVAS works how it’s supposed to and results get electronically transmitted. I think we may be underestimating the power of a mass movement and I wish to remind you guys that there was an Obama, a black man who defeated a revered Vietnam war veteran and an American hero to become the president of the United States. In Kenya too, most recently, there is a William Ruto who survived arduous shadow battles with his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta and vanquished a political war horse, Raila Odinga to prevail. Of course, I know that Nigeria is not the United States and what obtains in Kenya, may not be the case here but those disruptions should serve as a cautionary tale to those already parading themselves as presidents in waiting. For the record, I am not placing any bet though…Haha!
Osmund, it may interest you to know that Obi himself privately made the point about the reason for his rising profile to someone I know whose name I will not reveal. But why is that difficult to come to terms with? If the situation were reversed, northern Muslims would react the same way. If a southern Christian ruled for eight years and the major parties chose Christians as candidates for the next election, Muslims would rally around a visible political figure in even a barely visible party. It’s so obvious that I’m at a loss why you think Obi just became a sensation on his own. I’m not denying that he has his own qualities that mark him out. But I was only talking about the overarching reason for his rise. That in no way delegitimizes him.
Farooq, I still would disagree with you on the main reason behind Obi’s rise but like the fact that you provided a little bit of context on what you had indicated earlier. Let me also admit that some of Obi’s supporters are unruly and I stand here to condemn it. But so are Tinubu and Atiku supporters. I just hope we are not expecting the candidate to rein in on every dog that barks. It will be quite unfair. That said, I can authoritatively confirm that you are a committed “disObidient”and that we have already invoked Amadioha and Sango to come pay all of you guys a visit, one after another. Haba! No be Peter Obi una see o..! lol. Mo, where do you stand on this?
Osmund, I am afraid I lean slightly towards Farooq’s position here in terms of some of the unrealistic expectations of Obi supporters. In fact, just a few days ago, I worried privately and contemplated writing something publicly about how the opinion polls, pro-Obi online punditry, and the youthful online and terrestrial energy of his supporters have converged to create the perfect groundwork for potential election denialism. I wasn’t even thinking about the 2011 Buhari election loss and the subsequent violence, but that’s a great example of what could happen when supporters are primed to expect and accept only a favorable electoral outcome and to reject, even if violently, any other outcome. I was thinking about Donald Trump supporters and the January 6 Capital insurrection. We’re US residents so forgive me for using that as my go-to reference.
Regarding the Obi phenomenon, Farooq is also right about the fortuitous convergence of the Southern and Christian rebellion against APC and PDP and how Obi has become a lucky beneficiary and an embodiment of that rebellion. There is however another factor that Farooq hasn’t reckoned with: the parallel youth rebellion. This rebellion is trans-regional, multiethnic, and multi-religious. I have personally encountered it and I know that it’s real. Obi’s mainstream political antecedents notwithstanding and whether he deserves it or not, the youths have adopted him as the avatar of their anti-Establishment revolt and as the vehicle through which to imagine and pursue a different trajectory. Obi, much to his pleasant and anxious surprise, has been placed on a pedestal from where he is now expected to carry the hopes and frustrations of Nigerian youths . This is the demographic that’ll be most devastated by an Obi loss and perhaps react in the way Farooq was alluding to.
I think there is some kind of a consensus here which is the fact that Nigerian youths propelled Obi to stardom and remains his most committed foot soldiers even up till this moment. I believe that most who now identify as Obidients got sold on his message of austerity and modesty as well as his overall interest in reducing the cost of governance. As far back as one could remember, the man has been preaching this gospel and unsurprisingly, it is resonating with a large segment of the Nigerian society who, for good reason, are disgusted by the tasteless showiness of politicians in positions of public trust. You could recall that Obi was already garnering followership, breaking ethnic and religious boundaries which many believed was why Atiku settled on him as his running mate in the 2019 presidential election, ahead of others, including party’s favorites at the time. It wasn’t because of his wealth, the faith he professes or any other primordial considerations. No. To your point though, there is no doubt that he may have picked up more supporters, some of whom are Christians feeling disregarded and disrespected by APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket and southerners nursing the anger of marginalization by the PDP. But Obi had already built huge momentum prior to that and those are just some little extras.
Even a rich billionaire can build a political brand as the austere, penny-pinching candidate. That’s Obi’s appeal. Politics is mysterious like that. Some of the richest people have the biggest populist appeal. Look at Donald Trump and how he was able to galvanize support among poor white Americans. There are several differences between Obi’s appeal and Trump’s, namely that Trump pretends to be a regular guy but he’s not, that he has private contempt for his white rural and working-class supporters, and that some of his poor white supporters are fueled by racism, xenophobia, and cultural resentment. Nonetheless, you can see the parallel–two rich men using different techniques to appeal to citizens by portraying themselves as one of them or as someone who can relate to and who cares about their issues. Obi seems to genuinely live a life of austerity and modesty. And that life seems to inform and spill over to his governing and political temperament. He seems disinclined to the familiar Nigerian political foible of public, oppressive ostentation and can be overly deferential and self-effacing. All of these qualities are winners with many Nigerians. I’ll confess that I myself find those qualities admirable as our country is one in which rich people are usually arrogant, flamboyant jerks with a chip on their shoulders and with contempt for the ways of regular Nigerians.
To be honest, I wouldn’t call Obi austere. Maybe he isn’t as offensively showy as people of his wealth are, which is exactly what Buhari has always been, but I don’t see that as a virtue. It’s merely a personality trait about which he can’t do anything. But he takes care of himself and his family lavishly.
His children live abroad and live a good life. I don’t want Nigerians to fall for the seduction of the simplicity of elites, for a version of what French theorist Pierre Bourdieu once called strategies of condescension, where elites mimic the speech patterns of common people to reap often unearned political mileage from it.
I guess I’ve learned too much from Buhari to not want to fall for another person like him. Maybe I’m being overly careful, but I’d rather be that than be a chump again.
I thought of the youth angle as well and agree with Moses entirely. The #EndSARS youth brigade, realizing that there’s no distinction between the candidates of the PDP and the APC, chose to align with Obi, and that’s the single most important reason for his social media popularity. Note, however, that his support among the EndSARS youth isn’t because of anything he has done in the past; it’s actually in spite of what he has done in the past. For example, when it emerged that, as governor of Anambra State, he countenanced extra-judicial killings, one example being his 2006 shoot-on-sight order, certain young supporters of his asked for an accounting of that part of his past.
They were attacked, bullied, smeared, and called supporters of Tinubu. A famous, young EndSARS activist by the name of Rinu is one of them. Although she was, and still is, irrevocably pro-Obi, she was mauled, torn apart, and slandered for merely leading the charge to ask Obi to explain why he supported police brutality as governor of Anambra.
Many people learned from that experience. Now, like their name suggests, everyone is just “Obedient” and unquestioning. So, I also think we should examine the possibility of a spiral of silence as a factor in Obi’s social media visibility and clout. That is, most people don’t have the mental stamina to withstand the mob if they question him or express opinions of him that are critical, so they play along for their own personal peace.
I don’t know about Peter Obi ordering extra-judicial killing as a governor of Anambra state. But it’s a fact that during his tenure as governor of Anambra State, SARS led by one Officer James Oshin Nwafor was accused of committing all kinds of unimaginable atrocities including the killings Farooq referenced, though none was directly or indirectly linked to Obi, to the best of my knowledge. But I can understand why someone would want to know the actions taken by a state governor as the Chief security officer of his state while his people were being slaughtered by rogue elements within the Nigerian police force. And just so you know, yours truly penned an opinion piece titled “Ezu River Dead Bodies: The Stench that refuses to go away” which was published in Premium Times November 10, 2020 edition. We asked some serious questions on what was done by the Obi administration when dead bodies were found at Amansea, a town not too far from Awka. But in that piece, I also noted that both Civil Liberties Organization, through its then South-East Zonal chairman and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), a group that claimed that nine of her members were killed by SARS operatives, both separately issued statements absolving former Governor Obi of the blame and grievances surrounding the Ezu River killings. Those were the facts as far as I know. We also have to remember that the Nigerian Police Force is not under the control of state governors. The officers will gladly let you know they only take orders from their Ogas in Abuja.
Anyway, I think we may just have to agree to disagree on some of these issues. February 25 is here and in our next chat, I would like for us to weigh in on some crucial issues to be addressed by the incoming C-in-Chief from day one. Thank you guys for your time. Echi di ime!
Farooq: Ka chi fo!
Osmund Agbo, a medical doctor and social justice advocate, writes from Houston, Texas, while Moses Ochonu, is a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, and Farooq Kperogi, is a professor of Communication at the Kennesaw State University, Georgia.