NIGERIA 2023: A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OR A REFERENDUM?
Next year’s presidential election is a disguised referendum to decide whether to keep Nigeria as one or not, writes Reuben Umunna
The 2023 presidential election is more of a referendum disguised as an election. Underlying the election is an important question of whether Nigerians want Nigeria to remain as a country. What is the consequential implication of a win for each of all top three presidential hopefuls—Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar, and Peter Gregory Obi? A vote for Peter Obi’s presidency is a tacit vote in support for one Nigeria and a vote for Bola Tinubu or Atiku Abubakar is a vote to split Nigeria.
Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar are respectively the presidential flag bearers for the two largest political parties in Nigeria—APC and PDP. Both political parties and aspirants pitch policy continuity and business-as-usual to Nigerian voters. The problem is that policy continuity, and business-as-usual means more economic and security misery to Nigerian voters. A younger, more awake voters are not having any of it. With feet of clay, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar unfortunately, struggle under their inertias to rebrand, represent, and market themselves as men of reputable character.
Tinubu served as governor of Lagos State from 1999 – 2007. He is controversial. On the eve of the 2019 presidential election—President Buhari’s second term—bullion vans were seen leaving Tinubu’s residence in Lagos State. The vans were alleged to contain either huge sums of money or ballot papers to swing the election outcome for his party. Legal website, Plainsite.org, uploaded dockets of Bola Tinubus’s drug money forfeiture case files in the United States. Bola’s 2023 presidential bid is deeply challenged by transparency on the source of his wealth, age, and educational certificates.
Between 1999 – 2007, Atiku Abubakar served as the vice president of Nigeria. He is the 2023 presidential flag bearer for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Like Tinubu, Atiku leaves in his wake a trail of corruption allegations behind him. In 2006, Atiku and one of his wives were implicated in an international bribery scandal along with William Jefferson. According to a 2006 WashingtonPost
article, Jefferson was quoted to have told his business partner that Atiku Abubakar had demanded a cut of the profit “as a motivating factor” from the iGate Inc deal. In 2009 Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years. Atiku, however, maintained his innocence.
Since 2015 under President Buhari’s watch, Nigeria has suffered troubling turmoil. Inflation rate surged to an all-time high of 18.6% in June 2022. A total of 1,532 deaths were recorded from terrorist attacks in 2017 alone, according to data from the National Consortium for the Security of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Debt repayment exceeded revenue in Q1 of 2022 for the first time. On a scale of 0-100, with 100 representing very clean and 0 for highly corrupt, Nigeria occupies 24th place on the 2021 Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is fundamentally threatening the legitimacy of governance in Nigeria. Yet, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, entrenched in various high-profile corruption scandals themselves, are ostensibly opting not to campaign on any anti-corruption promise. Why? They know that given their public images, it is a tough sell to Nigerians. Since transitioning to democracy in 1999, blatant moneybag politics has dominated the Nigerian political space. For Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, the 2023 presidential election and post-election governance is business-as-usual. However, that electioneering model is about to be turned on its head.
Peter Obi served as a governor of Anambra State three separate times between 2006 and 2014. Upon leaving office in 2014, Obi became an advocate for good governance in Nigeria. Obi—a billionaire, maintains a frugal lifestyle. Peter Obi claimed he left Anambra with investments worth $156 million. He is quoted for claiming to have left N75B in cash and investment for the State. However, in 2021, Peter Obi’s name appeared in the leaked Pandora Papers that exposed the hidden wealth of the powerful.
Obi’s campaign for a new Nigeria resonates strongly amongst Nigerians between the ages of 25-44. And this is no coincidence. Unemployment rate for people between 15-24 is 39% and 32% for ages 25-44. The unemployment numbers reflect a 25 percentage points increase from 2015, when the APC- led government took over office. Obi stands on his track record to campaign on transforming Nigeria from a consumer to a producing nation. Youths between 24-44 are trusting Obi’s campaign promise.
For the first time since Nigeria’s nascent democracy, a youth-led movement is picking up responsibility for building an inexistent structure funded through a highly decentralized and fragmented mechanisms that is challenging the two largest political parties. This movement marks a one-eighty degrees flip from the business-as-usual electioneering model where politicians and their parties rely heavily on vote procurement and rigging to win elections. The fact that this is a never-been-attempted move presents the highest obstacle to Mr. Obi’s presidential bid. Nonetheless, Peter Obi has made it clear to his supporters that he isn’t in the business of purchasing votes. Peter Obi’s movement, spearheaded by the youth, is a rescue mission to save a severely ailing Nigeria. Supporters of Obi, known as OBIdients, are economically disenfranchised youth tired of reckless spending of public funds by old business-as-usual politicians.
President Buhari’s administration has left hopes dashed and public trust further debilitated as corruption cases went unprosecuted. As the 2023 presidential election draws close, the OBIdient movement continues to build behind Peter Obi’s narrative of transparency, accountability, and austere governance. Peter Obi is the new hope that is expected to bring unrealized integrity-based potential from the Buhari led government. Whether or not Peter Obi wins the 2023 presidential election, the legacy and voice of the movement built behind his campaign message remains clear—the era of moneybag politics in Nigeria has met its waterloo. The moral standards by which Nigerian politicians would be judged has been raised and business-as-usual politicians such as Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar may be stranded with their dreams in hand. For Tinubu, he helped carve the Mr. Integrity branding that brought President Buhari to power in 2015. Unbeknownst to him, he was laying groundwork for the integrity narrative that would usher in Peter Obi’s presidential candidacy. Tinubu paved a clear path that he was never going to be eligible to tow.
Just as John Campbell, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, titled his 2013 book “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink”, Nigeria is indeed on the edge! Should a Tinubu or Atiku presidential bid become successful, it is unlikely that Nigeria would survive another four to eight years of business-as-usual leadership offered by these two. Economic and security distress is likely to pull Nigeria beyond its elastic limit and eventually into several fragments. A vote for Tinubu or Atiku is an implicit vote to disintegrate Nigeria. A vote for Peter Obi, is a vote for what he represents—a chance to get Nigeria working, which can only be attempted by a president with integrity and credibility amongst other notable virtues. Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election is a disguised referendum to decide whether to keep Nigeria as one or not.
Umunna (Ph.D.) is a Johns Hopkins University trained policy analyst. He writes from Washington D.C.