WIN OR LOSE, PETER OBI HAS MADE A MARK

The Obi phenomenon has potentially profound implications for Nigeria’s politics, writes Paul Nwabuikwu

“I wish to tell you my voluntary retirement has been approved by @HQNigerianArmy which has paved way for me to vigorously campaign for Peter Obi as my preferred candidate of choice come 2023 insha Allah we will rescue this country”, a young man who identified himself as Musa Dawa announced on Twitter last Sunday.

In Yola, another young man, in a clip on social media, declared that he is a member of “Like Minds for Peter Obi mobilized from the 21 local government councils of Adamawa State for a rally in solidarity with Peter Obi”. He adds that since the police had not guaranteed security for their planned event, his group has decided to suspend its planned rally at a popular square, but will send a letter to the state party headquarters to make a case for Peter Obi, the man they are supporting as the PDP presidential candidate.

Elsewhere in other parts of the country, the One Million Man March for Peter Obi is trending, as Nigerians, mainly youths from all the political zones demonstrate their support for a man who says that he will not bribe anybody. Obi’s strongest support understandably is in the south east but his appeal is significant in others zones too. What is going on?

I confess: I didn’t know Peter Obi would make such a big splash this time. I had thought his getting on the 2019 PDP ticket with Atiku Abubakar would be the zenith of his political prominence. Four years on, I had expected his political star to wane. How wrong I was.

In Nigeria, a country with a very short memory, a man who last served as governor 15 years ago, who is famous (or infamous, if you’re a professional politician with no other source of income) for flying economy and is not a big spender, is not a prototype for political relevance. In fact, Obi’s message of patriotic prudence and sacrificial leadership is not the usual formula for political success in Nigeria. Not in a system in which politics is all about money, ethnicity, regionalism and, of course, religion. Given the prevailing political culture, he ticks all the wrong boxes. His popularity upends the conventional wisdom of Nigeria’s politics and suggests that the Nigerian electorate may be smarter than we think.

Even though I knew he had struck a chord with his well-received appearances on The Platform as well as interviews in which he articulated his unique gospel of hard work and patriotic frugality to rapt audiences, I thought the Obi brand as a potent politician had reached its sell by date. But it has become increasingly clear that to Nigerians used to the conspicuous consumption of loud politicians whose power is defined, not by service to the people but their long convoys and retinues of fawning aides, his disarming simplicity and commonsense message is an invigorating blast of freshness. The Obi phenomenon has potentially profound implications for Nigeria’s politics and politicking. Here are some reasons why.

First, like already stated, his surging popularity suggests that the Nigerian voter may not be quite as jaded and greedy as many analysts say. This is particularly true of the younger generation which is leading the Obi revolt against seemingly settled political certitudes. Yes, this is a society defined by pervasive wrong values and the worsening economic conditions have made it even more difficult for the average citizen trying to make ends meet to choose right over wrong. No, Nigeria is not undergoing a moral revolution. Far from it.  The recent statement by American rapper, Da Baby that he had to “pay the whole airport” on his way out of the country confirms that we are still in a bad place. The repulsive culture of aggressive extortion and unctuous begging is alive and well. But the excitement over Obi is perhaps an indication that even while engaged in the wrong actions, many Nigerians can sense that to have a chance at a better future, we must to do things differently. It’s not unlike the famous research finding that children brought up in permissive environments know that there’s something wrong with the lack of discipline they “enjoy”.

Second, the Obi surge might also indicate that, despite the pungent ethnic, regional and religious flavour of our politics, there are millions of Nigerians who can rise above these primordial and sectarian considerations. I think one lesson that many have imbibed over the past eight years is that desperate times demand a new way of thinking. When you are in the harsh grip of hunger and insecurity and tomorrow is not certain, an incompetent corrupt kinsman is not the ideal saviour. In that sense, Obi represents something bigger than himself. He is a metaphor for all Nigerians in all parts of the country who have something to offer, who have the vision and the capacity to contribute to a better country but who, because of the corrupt and exclusivist politics that has held the country down for so long, are afraid to step out. Hopefully, Obi’s courage will give them courage. It is in the interest of the country that they do.

Hopefully, the Obi phenomenon will refocus our politics away from its current godfather-dominated trajectory which prioritizes the pliability of prospective candidates over their capacity. It’s one of the most retrogressive aspects of our democracy.

The current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, the first one without elite political and military antecedents was a popular high performing Governor of the country’s capital, Jakarta before his election. The current president of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol was a respected public prosecutor who, as Chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office, became popular after the key role he played in convicting two former presidents for corruption.

In the US, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush Jnr were all governors who became viable national political figures and ultimately US presidents based on their performance.

Godfathers are not a Nigerian invention. But in more successful political systems, they usually put their clout and money behind candidates who either have shown some promise which could resonate with the public or have already achieved a measure of popularity based on their performance. In Nigeria, godfathers generally pick those they can control even when they have nothing to offer – a recipe for producing the kind of underachieving disasters that dot our political landscape. Our politics needs to start growing in this people-led direction and away from the cynical godfather model. And Obi’s challenge of political orthodoxies, backed by his strong performance as governor, is a great example in this context.

The reality is that Peter Obi’s chances of winning the PDP ticket are virtually nil. He does not have what it takes to change the geo-political realities to sway godfathers or the delegates whose political ideology can be captured on a dollar note. But his example and efforts are ultimately good for the country. It’s change – the right kind of change.

Nwabuikwu is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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