The Peter Obi paradox in Nigeria’s fortunes
Leadership has failed Nigeria, and has done so woefully. With scarcity of the basic necessities of life and inflation rife, intractable insecurity of lives and property, stubborn agitation by separatists for independent states, and a general sense of despair, many believe Nigeria has finally hit rock bottom and are craving for the emergence of a leader-redeemer who could salvage things.
In this regard, some construe Mr. Peter Obi’s entrance as a presidential candidate in the 2023 elections as a veritable game changer in that, perhaps more than any before him, Obi may be Nigeria’s finest prospect for recruiting a credible leader since the callous exit of the first generation purveyors of independence in 1960.
Obi’s teeming embrace signals that Nigeria’s youth and the distressed grassroots have summarily rejected the status quo. For them, the revolution has begun—encapsulated in the “Obidients’s” movement that is quickly unraveling the paradigms of the nation’s political landscape and creating what even the most ardent observers now concede is an unfolding national political Cinderella story.
I must caution that Obi’s candidacy is a minefield fraught with both opportunity and peril for Nigeria. It is an opportunity in that it portends a great chance to recruit a credible leader. It is a minefield in that it foreshadows immense threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria—if (1), Obi loses the election and that loss is not seen by both progressives and external observers as having transpired fair and square at the polls; (2), Obi receives massive support from Ndigbo (Ndigbo, South East, and Igbo are used interchangeably throughout this essay), and wins all Southeastern states, but still loses the election; and (3), Obi wins the election and is denied a peaceful transfer of power (the Moshood Abiola dynamic).
That Obi is eminently qualified to contest—and serve—as president is not disputed. His age of 61, educational exploits, experience as a former executive governor of Anambra State, and evident expansive corporate life experiences far exceed the nominal requirements codified in Section 131 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended. Beyond that, Obi’s youthful vigor, exuberance, and mastery of contemporary economic and management principles, position him rather well to provide strong leadership for Nigeria.
Moreover, when each contestant’s matrix is audited based on available information, Obi, the self-styled Mr. “No Shishi,” is not saddled with the kinds of definitional ambiguities, the least of which is the damning charge of appropriation of the commonwealth for self-enrichment that bedevil his chief rivals. In short, Obi’s pedigree is as close to the “total package” as one can expect.
Notwithstanding the fine pedigree, Obi is also from Nigeria’s South East—an Igbo and a Christian. The battle lines are drawn as Ndigbo and progressives are coalescing around him, while Nigeria’s reactionary political class and ethnics continue to echo his supposed second-class citizenship, as he is trapped in the “original sins” of Ndigbo. Therein lies the “albatross”—the big elephant in the room that portends danger for Nigeria.
Ndigbo kicked off the 2023 election cycle by clamoring for the presidency to be zoned to the South East—justifying their demand by simply contending that it was the region’s turn to produce Nigeria’s next president, based on what was understood as a firmly established national social contract of regional power rotation scheme. Specifically, since President Muhammadu Buhari is completing his eighth-year tenor (2015 – 2023), power is supposed to rotate to the South. Within the South, the South-West has eight years of Olusegun Obasanjo’s Presidency (1999 – 2007) and eight years of Yemi Osibanjo’s vice presidency (2015 – 2023); while the South-South has four years of Goodluck Jonathan’s vice presidency (2007 – 2010) and six years of presidency (2010 – 2015).
But, while the South East fronted rotation as a sufficient justification for zoning, its agitation was in fact underwritten by a flanking vector of expansive contentions rooted in its marginalization grievance—unrelenting violence against Ndigbo, exclusion of Ndigbo from positions of power and key national development projects, particularly during the Buhari regime, and the absence of an Igbo in Nigeria’s apex office since the close of the Civil War in 1970, among others.
South East’s entreaty was summarily rebuffed by the two major political parties, the PDP and the APC (All Progressives Congress) which, instead, threw “open” their primaries (majority of Northern APC Governors reportedly supported rotation to the South). No Igbo in contention secured the candidacy of either party. Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Igbo’s apex cultural organization, construed the “playbook” with the worst possible Igbo opprobrium—as part of the saga of “Oke rum naka gi si ka eke gharia ya” (When it is my turn to get my share, you change the rules and restart the process).
While Ndigbo clearly score failure to zone the presidency to the South East as a strike against Nigeria’s political class, their prognosis now appears to be to soldier on with a-wait-and-see outlook, hoping Nigeria would avail itself of the rare second chance afforded by the general elections to back pedal by, at least, providing Obi a level playing field and averting a potentially catastrophic second strike.
Of course, Ndigbo categorically reject Obi’s scapegoating as basically an ethnic jingoist. Obi is no more an ethnic partisan than his rivals, or anyone else who has governed Nigeria. Nor are his supporters anymore parochial than those supporting other candidates—such as Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso has sworn would not vote for a South Easterner.
Given the reality of Nigeria’s ubiquitous identity politics, then, slapping Obi with the tag of an ethnic champion is not only patently absurd—at best, it is a ridiculous case of the pot calling the kettle black. It aims to discredit Obi’s candidacy in an ether bereft of compelling arguments against his, otherwise, comparatively unimpeachable qualifications. If the stampede to stain Obi with the veneer of an insular (even “IPOB”) partisan sticks, how does one reconcile the fact that he has become the rallying cry for the youth and dejected grassroots?
This is not to suggest that Obi should be stripped of his inimitable symbolism—even as a term of endearment to his traducers, because he represents more than another fleeting political exercise. Obi embodies Ndigbo’s aspiration for re-incorporation, quest for parity as a federating partner, and petition for inclusion on their own terms into Nigeria’s body politic. He stands tall as Ndigbo’s veritable litmus test of the summons by the Nigerian state to partake in politics as the route to remedy grievances, by checkmating the openness of the political process to Ndigbo.
Obi’s fate should hinge on free and fair elections, instead of his Igbo progeny per se. But that is improbable in Nigeria’s diabolical Shakespearian design of “fair is foul and foul is fair.” Ohanaeze Ndigbo decries what it sees as a grand conspiracy (“gang up”) against Obi, even as reckless voices continue to make free and fair elections in 2023 more tenuous, stoking embers of ethnic hegemony and stressing the polity. Indeed, it appears Nigeria is plunging head-on into a messy “do or die” affair.
Some continue to spread their brazen venom that no Igbo will/should ever rule Nigeria. Even one notorious pastor politician in the South-West has leapt on the “sideline-the-Igbo” bandwagon blaspheming same dispatch from God. Other desperados assert, confidently, that even if an Igbo would rule, such a momentous transition would not be permissible in 2023. There are also intimations that Obi would be stopped by any means necessary, even if it requires rigging the elections from under him outright—and, if all else fails, luring the north controlled military back to power as a last resort (some are already suspecting that recent high profile attacks—Kuje Prison, President’s convoy, etc.—where Nigeria’s security apparatus was conspicuously absent, are orchestrated to soften Nigeria for termination of democracy via such a military incursion).
Capping off this battery of incitements is the perplexing taunting daring Ndigbo to do their worst, assuring them that with both their comparatively paltry numerical voter strength and number of states precluding any capacity to elect a president independently, they will remain under leash. Purveyors of this derision flout it as an absolute sense of security guaranteeing Nigeria’s immutable stranglehold on Ndigbo.
Frankly, one must not equivocate in conveying a clear message to Nigeria’s cabal of impunity over stopping Obi unconventionally. Bluntly, if Obi must lose the 2023 presidential election and be denied the presidency, it is not only imperative that he does so fair and square at the polls, but he must be seen as having done so fair and square at the polls.
Progressives who have renounced the status quo and drawn a line in the sand for change may not stomach unconventional denial, and may seek redress the best way they know how in the streets. Moreover, the international community that has its own refined barometer for weighing these outcomes, to whom abundant complaint has already been lodged on Ndigbo’s plight, must also perceive him as having been trounced fair and square at the polls.
Anything short of a transparent conclusion, a scenario where Obi wins all Southeastern states but still loses the election (bloc voting), or even the Abiola treatment, where he wins and is denied peaceful transfer of power, could be veritable evidence to the world community that political participation is a farce devoid of the answer to the Igbo question. It might trigger prompt action that could disavow the nay Sayers of their illusion of false sense of security and hasten partition of Nigeria through plebiscite or other means. The Sudan proves that this is not novel in modern Sahel. Basically, Obi’s treatment will be under scrutiny from within and without, both laden with potential hazards for Nigeria’s survival.
In the end, Nigeria’s Waterloo may not be the gladiators many decry, after all—the secessionists that opportunists and their errand boys and apologists hinge their insular politics upon, or the marauding Boko Haram, herdsmen, bandits, ISWAP, and supposedly faceless “unknown gun men” that continue to terrorize the land. It may come down to Peter Obi’s epic presidential run—that kind of obscure, endogenous catalyst that has sent empires crashing through the ages.
Alozie, Ph.D. is Professor of Public Policy and Head, Faculty of Social Science
College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, Arizona State University, USA.
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