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Is Peter Obi the messiah Nigeria has been waiting for?

His disposition as an outlier has earned him a reputation among those desirous of a progressive nation
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On 25 February 2023, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect their next president, as the second and final term of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari comes to a close in May 2023. The election comes with high stakes, given the country’s various challenges, from an ailing economy to a complex security crisis that has claimed thousands of lives in recent years. And judging by how political campaigns have so far unfolded, many indicators point to a potential Peter Obi presidency, with the Labour Party candidate emerging ahead of the crowded field in various polls.

Before delving into the reasons for this development, there is a need to take stock of Nigeria’s challenges in the lead-up to the elections. The past eight years of the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration of Muhammadu Buhari has seen development indices declining on various fronts, including poverty, unemployment, and education. According to Statista, Nigeria is currently experiencing an unemployment rate of 33 per cent (which has not been seen in many years), in addition to an ailing economy, and armed violence that has claimed thousands of lives in various parts of the country over the last year. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari rode to power in 2015 on the promise to address the country’s many challenges (especially corruption and security), but Nigerians’ expectations have been utterly dashed, given increasing economic hardship, endemic corruption, and unparalleled security challenges in the country.

Amid these challenges, many Nigerians, especially the young, who make up 40% of registered voters, have relocated or are considering the option of relocating overseas in search of a better life, resulting in a brain drain in various key sectors. For many people who are yet to relocate, this year’s presidential election plays a crucial role in their decision-making.

It is in this context that Obi – who was initially seen as an underdog to the other two frontrunners (Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling  APC and Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP) – is emerging as a serious contender, with ever-growing support among social media-savvy young Nigerians.

A country in search of a messiah

Nigeria is a country divided along ethnic and religious lines, and there are increased separatist agitations in the southeastern region where the Igbos, Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group, are demanding secession. This is also where Labour Party (LP) candidate Obi, coincidentally comes from.

The alignment of Christians with Obi, a Catholic, is not difficult to see. In a country with the largest Christian population in Africa (about 80 million), Christian leaders have positioned him as the only candidate able to stop the incessant Boko Haram and herdsmen killings, particularly in the northern region.

Ethnicity and religion are, however, only two of the highlights of Obi’s presidential campaign. At 61, he is the youngest of the frontrunners and enjoys widespread support among the youth, unlike the other two leading candidates who have played key roles in Nigeria’s corridors of power over the years. Also, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, a third-party candidate is a contender for the presidency. Recent polls, including the latest from Stears Business, a data and intelligence company, predict victory for Obi in a high-turnout scenario.

The youth vote will play a crucial role in these elections, and an “Obi presidency” is gaining unprecedented social media mobilisation and campaigns in a country where a good number of registered voters will be voting in a Nigerian presidential election for the first time ever. Beyond their first-time votes, the youth seem more determined to put aside ethnic and religious considerations and vote for who they believe will fix Nigeria’s challenges. The LP’s Obi appears to be the one favoured as his disposition as an outlier has earned him a reputation among those desirous of a progressive nation.

Furthermore, his consistent catchphrase “Go and verify”, -a call to fact-check the claims of his achievements as a governor and as an entrepreneur, – has served the purpose for which it was initiated as his support base continues to grow, especially among the data-reliant youth who make up 40% of the voting population, the highest demographic.

Most interestingly, Obi’s popularity in Lagos, a key stronghold of Tinubu and where at least 8% of the total voters in Nigeria are based, has reinforced hopes of victory among his supporters while also unsettling the camps of both the ruling and main opposition parties.

Even more important is that his candidacy has navigated the campaigns to become more issue-based than the normalized “stomach infrastructure” and poverty porn that politicians use to lure voters in a country with a 63% poverty rate and 33% unemployment rate. Arguably, for the first time since Nigeria became a multiparty system, we are seeing a campaign where the integrity and portfolio of the candidate in the political space are more important than the ideology of the party. This is a much-needed fresh air in a country where voters alternate between the two major parties that are riddled with corruption.

It is worth noting that Obi’s lack of experience in politics at the national level is also his strength. Obi’s only major political experience came as a governor of Anambra State, an office he left in 2014, but his foothold is growing across Nigeria after running as vice-president for the main opposition party in 2019. He boasts of being prudent and effectively managing the state’s resources, reportedly leaving over $156 million in bonds and over N75 billion in cash and investments after his time as governor, an unprecedented feat in Nigeria’s political history. Obi’s campaign promises to ramp up domestic production to drive human capital development and rid the country of endemic corruption. He has spoken about his desire to disrupt Nigeria’s political landscape and has denounced the campaign of the ruling party’s Tinubu, who pledges continuity, and that of the main opposition’s Abubakar, who is seeking to “rescue” the country from the ruling party and get it back in the hands of the PDP.

To be sure, despite Obi’s fast-growing support base, the ruling party’s Tinubu remains a force to be reckoned with. Verisk Maplecroft’s research recently claimed that Tinubu stands the best chance of winning the election due to his political alliances. Widely known as the “Godfather” of Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub and the largest city whose development his supporters credit to him, Tinubu is a founding leader of the ruling party and played a key role in the emergence of President Buhari. However, he faces allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering, which he has denied. His choice of a fellow Muslim as his running mate – a rare occurrence in Nigerian elections – has caused anger in Nigeria’s Christian-dominated southern region. But even his party members argue that such a decision could be his biggest bet in winning the votes in the north, which has a higher number of voters than the south.

As for Atiku Abubakar, after his defeat in the 2019 presidential election to Buhari (when he contested under the PDP with Obi as his running mate), his voting bloc, particularly in the southern parts of Nigeria, is now being challenged by the growing support for the LP candidate. Nevertheless, he is believed to still have a core support base in the northeast, where he hails from, and has recently been predicted to win. There is, however, an Achilles heel in Abubakar’s quest for the presidency: what many Nigerians refer to as “AtikuGate“. One of Abubakar’s former aides, Mike Achimugu, has accused him of fraud, including the alleged use of illegal accounts to launder public funds.

While Tinubu and Abubakar continue to point fingers at each other over graft allegations, Obi is being hailed for the opposite: his prudence as governor, which ensured he had some savings for Anambra State upon leaving office.

As an embodiment of hope to the displaced and lower class, Obi’s unplanned town hall engagements often take place away from the city centres in markets, camps for internally displaced people, and other remote locations. These are a testament to his campaign strategy in the country. By choosing to visit locations often ignored by other contenders, Obi has earned sentimental value among the masses. This could be the key that would open the door to the presidential office for him.

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