Only a few months ago, the contest for Nigeria’s presidency in February’s elections was billed as a straightforward battle between two wealthy septuagenarian veterans who had been on the political scene for more than three decades.
But former state governor Peter Obi, a comparatively youthful 61, has shaken up the race to replace outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari. With his promises of frugality and accountability, he has attracted the support of a youthful, “Obidient” movement tired of a profligate elite.
It would be a major upset if a candidate from a small party won, given the strength of Nigeria’s established political parties and their deep pockets. But Obi has excited parts of a disillusioned electorate, topping three recent polls, leading by eight points in a poll by NOI, a leading local pollster.
“People like his frugal attitude and his message about cutting the cost of governance,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) think-tank.
“But beyond that, young people are using him as a vehicle to channel their frustration with the Nigerian system. He’s not running just for himself, if you check online sentiment, you’ll see he’s running on behalf of young people,” Hassan said. Two political parties dominate Nigerian politics and Obi is the first credible “third-force” candidate since the return to democracy in 1999.
Obi faces Bola Tinubu, the 70-year-old former governor of Lagos and candidate for the ruling All Progressives Congress, and Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a former vice-president and serial presidential hopeful. Obi ran as the vice-presidential candidate for the PDP in 2019.
His campaign for the little-known Labour Party has gained momentum partly because of frustration with these two familiar — and elderly — faces. At 70 and 75, Tinubu and Atiku are hoping to preside over a nation that has a median age of 18. Tinubu’s campaign surrogates have spent much of the early campaign batting away questions about his health.
“Voting for [Obi] doesn’t mean Nigeria is going to be better immediately. He can’t fix everything but with him there’s a headway,” said Susan Abies, a driver in the southern city of Benin.
Obi’s support among young urban voters is also a reaction to Buhari’s second term in office that has brought 33 per cent unemployment, nationwide protests against police brutality and a ban on Twitter that curtailed speech among a social media-savvy generation, said Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist at Gatefield, a public affairs consultancy.
“Young people realised they were not top of the priority list of the old-guard politicians and started looking for a new figure to represent them. Young people are backing him because they believe he is the most credible candidate,” Emoruwa said.
The vocal support for Obi traces its roots to the #ENDSARS protests of October 2020 when young Nigerians flocked to the streets to denounce a police unit notorious for extortion, brutality and extrajudicial killings. Obi voiced his support on Twitter and used the movement to call for better governance in Nigeria. The police unit was disbanded and the movement was eventually quelled by the heavy-handed response of Nigeria’s military.
The CDD’s Hassan added that the two main parties’ choice of candidates had also upset Nigeria’s “informal” zoning agreement in a way that could benefit Obi, a devout Catholic. While power in Nigeria normally alternates between north and south and Muslim and Christian, the PDP chose Atiku, a northern Muslim, as its candidate to follow Buhari, another Muslim northerner. The ruling APC has a ticket of Tinubu, a Muslim southerner, and Kashim Shettima, a northern Muslim, as his running mate. Religious groups have decried the perceived marginalisation of Christians. “Obi is not just the candidate of the young people, he could eventually be a candidate of the church,” said Hassan.
For all the enthusiasm surrounding Obi’s candidacy, his path to Aso Villa, Nigeria’s presidential residence, is littered with obstacles.
No presidential candidate outside the main two parties has garnered more than 7.5 per cent of the vote since 1999. Candidates need to win at least 25 per cent of the vote in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states plus Abuja, the capital, to be declared the winner.
The leading candidates have the advantage of a nationwide party machinery backed by governors and members of parliament that Obi’s party, with only one senator and no governor, lacks.
Obi has said he is undeterred. “The 100 million Nigerians that live in poverty [and] the 35 million Nigerians who don’t know where their next meal will come from will be the [party] structure.”
Nigeria’s devastating floods, which have destroyed farmland across many states, add to the country’s economic problems, he said. “At a time when our country contends with rising food insecurity ... the ravaging floods will have deleterious consequences on food production,” Obi tweeted on Tuesday.
The wealthy businessman, with interests in everything from banking to a brewery, has promised to encourage local production and remove Nigeria’s costly petrol subsidies. But his critics say he has yet to provide a clear plan for tackling problems such as insecurity, oil sabotage, low revenues and inflation of more than 20 per cent.
Last year, the Pandora Papers investigation, a release of leaked files on wealth held offshore, revealed he owned business entities registered in tax havens and had failed to declare them to Nigeria’s asset registry for politicians. He said he did not know he had to declare assets jointly owned with his wife and children and that he had not broken any laws.
Critics have said Obi’s candidacy could split the opposition vote and hand victory to the ruling party.
Obinna Kanu, a 25-year-old first-time voter, shares those concerns but added: “The best-case scenario is that Obi wins but my personal goal is to shift the needle in Nigeria. The current powers that be have to be aware that the youth can bring a third relevant party.
“Even if Obi doesn’t win but gains 10-15 per cent of the vote, we can show the older generation that has sucked this country dry that this is just the beginning and the two-party system is coming to its end.” — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022