Former Anambra State governor Peter Obi is inspiring a powerful, social media-enabled, youth-led political tidal wave that will radically change the contours of the 2023 election.
But APC and PDP operatives, still inebriated with the overconfidence of the size and deep pockets of their parties, are sniggering at the suggestion that Peter Obi’s Labour Party will change the game next year. They comfort themselves with the mantra that there are no polling booths on social media where Peter Obi’s devotees form noisy cyber silos.
Well, there is no opponent more dangerous than an underestimated one. People who are habituated to the politics of the past may dismiss it, but something fundamentally novel is happening. There’s an unstoppably growing corps of fired-up young (and not-so-young) people who are investing their time, energy, and emotions in Peter Obi. We have seen spectacular spikes in PVC registration and an increase in offline political mobilization, all thanks to him.
Three factors appear to be driving this. One, there is mass disillusionment with the quality and character of the presidential candidates of the two major parties. They are the same woefully familiar, recycled, unimaginative, self-interested, careerist politicians who are deeply invested in sustaining the dysfunctions that keep Nigeria in the twilight zone between life and death.
They mouth the same flyblown clichés, can’t articulate any grand visions, are indistinguishable from past politicians, have no commitment to any grand ideals, and are in politics to steal from the public till and dispense favors to cronies.
Peter Obi seems to be different. He comes across as down-to-earth, self-aware, committed to transparency and the demystification of governance, and as someone who invests considerable intellectual energies into thinking about— and offering solutions to— Nigeria’s problems.
I am dubious of the facticity of some of his more self-righteous, messianic claims, and suspect that he sometimes hyperbolizes some of the too-good-to-be-true anecdotes about his time as Anambra State governor in order to gain the applause of his audiences.
As a scholar of rhetorical studies, I know that rhetors can sometimes feel an obligation to not violate the expectations of their captive audiences by telling stories that their audiences want to hear even if this means bending or sexing up the facts a little bit.
Nonetheless, compared to Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu, Peter Obi is a breath of fresh air.
The second impetus for the dramatic surge in Obi’s political profile is religious. Many Christians in both the South and the North feel excluded from the presidential tickets of the APC and the PDP. Churches all across Nigeria are drumming up support for Obi in protest.
I think this is legitimate in the interest of representational justice, particularly because Obi isn’t some pastor with a predetermined agenda to advance narrow religious or sectarian causes.
Although Obi is a devout Catholic, he is thoroughly secular and, based on some of his speeches I’ve watched, has a deep understanding of the imperative of separating the sacred and the profane in the business of governance.
The third driver of his popularity is Igbo resentment at their systemic political exclusion. In my April 2, 2022, column titled “Why Nigeria Needs an Igbo President in 2023,” I wrote:
“The Igbo are almost in the same spot that the Yoruba were in in 1998. There is mass resentment among them. Several of them feel emotionally disconnected from Nigeria. And we all know why. Apart from the fact that they have never produced a president or vice president since 1999, Muhammadu Buhari has done an extremely poor job of husbanding Nigeria’s intricate diversity.
“The sense of alienation that a vast swath of Igbo people feel now has made several of them, particularly their youth, susceptible to the murderous wiles of the mentally and emotionally disturbed mountebank called Nnamdi Kanu.”
Some of the secessionist oxygen that sustained Biafra agitation has now been redirected to Peter Obi, and Nnamdi Kanu has now been pushed on the backburner. While some people have put a negative spin to this, I think it is a golden opportunity. It shows that an Igbo presidency will solve the secessionist agitations and violence in the Southeast. For me, that’s a worthwhile reward for having a president who is Igbo.
Incidentally, in the April 2 column I referred to earlier, Peter Obi was one of two Igbo people I recommended as candidates for the presidency. The other was Kingsley Moghalu who sadly lost the primary election of his party.
I wrote: “The second is Peter Obi. In a March 25, 2022, article titled ‘Peter Obi: Applying to Be Driver of a Knocked-Out Car,’ I mentioned that listening to his speeches has captured my imagination. He appears to have a handle on Nigeria’s problems, and what I’ve read of his record as governor of Anambra State inspires some confidence that he isn’t just a talker. I can’t speak to his cosmopolitanism and commitment to seeing all of Nigeria as his constituency. That’s up to voters to find out.”
If Obi’s political momentum holds steady until February next year and the election is free and fair, I predict that he will cause a runoff. If he leads with the youth, Igbo, and Christian votes (I know there’s an overlap in some categories), he will upset both the APC and the PDP to the point that none of them can win in the first round of the presidential election.
If he doesn’t win or qualify to participate in the runoff, whoever he supports will be the winner. So, an intelligent political party won’t antagonize him or his supporters just yet.
But there are dangers for Obi, though, should he somehow defeat the structural impediments on his way to become president. First, his devotees call themselves “Obidients” and demand “Obidience” to him. That’s horrible. They would be worse than Buhari’s BMC trolls.
What is needed in democracy is critical citizenship, not “obidience.” “Obidience” in democracy suggests a surrender of one’s critical faculty, which is what precisely what Buharism is. It’s the death knell of democracy.
Obi’s rise to political stardom is propelled by anger at the political establishment. That’s the literal definition of populism. Populism instrumentalizes anger for politics without being able to transform the lives of the angry in any meaningful way.
Obi’s devotees imagine him to embody the solutions to Nigeria’s problems and expect him to wave the magic wand and make them disappear. As he himself admitted in a previous public appearance, Nigeria’s problems are structural and systemic and can’t be resolved with a mere change of the personnel in the corridors of power.
If his presidency violates the expectations of his devotees, they will turn against him. In other words, he is riding the tiger of populism, and it will devour him when he dismounts from it.