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PETER OBI AND THE LONG GAME
Ike Okonta urges Obi to consider the welfare state as an ideological platform
Nigerians woke up in the morning of March 1 to the news that Bola Tinubu, candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), had won the presidential election. I live in Abuja, the nation’s capital and I can say that in the city the news of Bola Tinubu’s victory was greeted with profound silence. This is understandable. Several opinions running from September 2022 to early February 2023 had predicted that Peter Obi, candidate of the Labour Party, would win the election, and many Nigerians had come to expect this prediction to come to pass. Tinubu’a alleged victory therefore came as something of an anti-climax.
Peter Obi has said he would challenge the pronouncement of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in court. This is as it should be. Litigation after elections is part of the democratic process. In fact Nigerians have come to expect judicial challenge to INEC’s pronouncements as a necessary part of elections in the country. However, the Supreme Court has come under severe public censure of late for its decisions in some political cases, and not a few Nigerians have expressed the worry that Peter Obi’s case might suffer fatal injury in the hands of the Justices.
Beyond judicial litigation, however, there is need to examine Peter Obi’s politics and performance, to the extent that they point to the politician’s future prospects. Putting the predictions of the opinion polls to one side, it must be admitted that the Labour Party presidential candidate put up a very credible fight in the just ended presidential election. Sitting governors have a powerful grip on the electorate and their voting behavior in their various states. Consequently, it was expected that the APC and PDP, with several governors apiece going into the 2023 presidential election, would leverage on this and simply shove Peter Obi, who did not have a single governor in his corner, aside. But this did not happen. Obi not only swept the polls in his home base of the south east, he performed very well in the south-south and north-central.
It is only in the north-west, where the combined forces of the emirs, President Buhari’s loyalists, and the APC governors constituted a formidable wall, that Peter Obi and the Labour Party did not perform well. Even so, young Nigerians in the northwest made their voices heard calling for political change even though these voices did not translate into tangible votes at the end of the day. Still, it must be remembered that Malam Aminu Kano, the Kano-born progressive politician who campaigned strenuously against the grip of the conservative northern emirs on the ordinary people from the early 1950s till he died in 1983, only managed to win over Kano and Kaduna States in the governorship elections in 1979.
Peter Obi must therefore be prepared to play the long game, both in the north and elsewhere in the country. The ‘structures of criminality’ (to use his own words) which have gripped Nigerian politics by the throat did not begin today. In fact, one can argue that this criminal structure was embedded in the nation’s body politics right from the founding elections in 1959, and have only strengthened their hold with the passage of time. It has been 64 long years of criminal politics in Nigeria, and it will take patience, skill and gargantuan effort to loosen this grip.
The Labour Party on which platform Peter Obi ran for president is actually not a political party, properly so called. Although the Labour Party was established by the Nigerian Labour Congress several decades ago, it was quickly taken over by buccaneers and opportunists who offered the platform to any fly-by-night politician willing to pay their price. When Peter Obi came calling in 2022, he had just quit the Peoples Democratic Party and was on the lookout for any platform on which to stand to contest the presidential election. Even when young Nigerians began to rally to Obi’s flag in mid-2022, they made it clear that they would have nothing to do with the Labour Party but would only support the presidential bid of Peter Obi.
The challenge for Peter Obi going forward is therefore to transform the Labour Party into a proper organization with clearly thought-through policies and programmes that will not only resonate with ordinary Nigerians but also be able to win elections on its own merit. One man does not make a political party. There is a limit to which a presidential candidate can go electorally if he or she does not have the support of a proper political party with country-wide reach. This showed clearly in the just concluded presidential election. The Labour Party candidates who won seats in the National Assembly only did so riding on the coat-tails of Peter Obi. This is not good enough. Politicians should contest for office running on their personal merit and competence, and only rely on the presidential candidate of their party to formally endorse them publicly.
For Peter Obi, there is also the ‘little’ problem of ideology. Going into the presidential election he stated that there was really nothing that differentiated his platform from that of Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu. This is not good enough. Peter Obi’s support base is largely young Nigerians and the poor. Young Nigerians are clamouring for jobs and other enabling opportunities. The poor need universal health coverage, free and quality education for their children, and subsidized housing. Social democracy, combining state intervention and free enterprise in a Welfare State, is what enlightened leaders are pressing on their people in Europe, Asia and Latin America. This ideological mix is also what Bernie Sanders, the US senator who ran for the ticket of the Democratic Party against Joe Biden, is campaigning for. I urge Mr Obi to consider the Welfare State as an ideological platform going forward.
Peter Obi has triggered a storm in Nigerian politics. The storm troopers are not only young Nigerians who are rightly disgusted with the incompetence and corruption of the political class, it also embraces the poor in their millions who today are struggling to go beyond deadening ethic and religious barricades and put into power a new class of politicians who will represent their interests and values. Whether this storm will endure and yield fruitful dividends is up to Peter Obi and those who presently support him.
Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.