ENGAGEMENTS By Chidi Amuta
The period between a general election and the swearing in of a successor administration ought to be filled with excited anticipation. It is usually a time of pleasant speculations on the new faces that will soon grace television screens and newspaper front pages. For the masses in a polity in virtual captivity, it is time to begin getting used to new overlords and masters. For the elite, this ought to be time to debate policy perspectives and options for the new administration.
There is so much in the present atmosphere that defies the tradition of a civilized political transition season. Instead, the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC), which is also the incoming triumphant squad, is consumed by an overwhelming nervousness. Instead of engaging the public in sensible debates about policy options and directions, the APC appears to have retreated into a perpetual campaign mode.
Party hawks and attack hounds are still busy insulting our public sensibility. They are berating, abusing and profiling their election season opponents. It is as though the elections are not yet over. In the process, two dangerous things are happening. First, the polarization and bitter divisions in the country is being further deepened. Second, the groundwork for a new climate of tyranny and authoritarianism is being laid. Clearly, we are in the throes of an imminent administration that is likely to invest in tormenting the opposition and abridging the liberties of citizens. Otherwise, why has Mr. Tinubu not disbanded his abusive and divisive campaign propaganda machinery?
After a bitterly fought election, the nation requires soothing words and healing hands to mend broken bonds and assuage wounded feelings. But unfortunately, all we are getting from APC’s front line propagandists is an overdose of negativity and sickening ethnocentrism. They are still fighting the ghosts of Mr. Bola Tinubu’s opponents in the presidential election. Consequently, in the prelude to May 29th, the nation still wears the appearance of a landscape of war with hate as the dominant language of public discourse.
By some unwritten law of tyrannical power consensus, however, all the post election hostile barbs have now found one common target: Mr. Peter Obi and his political movement. Hardly any one in the APC and the incumbent government (one and the same) mentions Mr. Atiku Abubakar who came second in the INEC presidential election vote tally. It is now all about Peter Obi, Datti Ahmed and the Obidients. This systematic narrowing down requires further investigation.
To give official stamp to the concerted targeting of Mr. Obi, Buhari’s Minister of Information, the famous Lai Mohammed has gone junketing to far away Washington DC to announce that Mr. Obi could be guilty of treason. His crime? Just expressing his reservations about the credibility of February 25th presidential elections ‘won’ by Mohammed’s party, the APC. He has followed this by getting the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to slam a fine of N5 million on Channels Television for hosting an interview with Obi’s running mate in which the gentleman expressed strong reservations about the conduct and outcome of the presidential elections.
Quite interestingly, the rhetoric of the APC/Tinubu campaign trumpeters has opted for the same choice of words as the government organs in characterizing Peter Obi and his followers. ‘Treason’ is the word of common choice. Insisting that the election of 25th February was not free and fair is now treasonable. Going to court to challenge the outcome of that election is now also ‘treason’. Pointing out anomalies in INEC’s procedures and processes is also ‘treason’.
They have gone several steps further. Government and APC propagandists and pro-Tinubu enthusiasts on the social media have begun linking Peter Obi with IPOB and ESN, even if there is no evidence to that effect and in spite of the man’s repeated dissociations from these groups. Implicit in these mischievous associations and linkages is the assumption that Mr. Obi is just another Igbo politician. There is also an ongoing feverish attempt to use paid party jobbers in the Labour Party to destabilize the party and discredit the Obidient movement. The desperation is to disentangle the Obidient movement from the Labour Party and return the party to its previous small time status. In Imo state, the party has been factionalised and its offices shut down by factional hoodlums supervised by the police. In Abuja, a renegade faction claims to have ousted the party chairman and forced its way into the party headquarters.
The Department of State Security (DSS) has joined this nattering choir of scare mongers by issuing a yet unsubstantiated warning against those planning to disturb the peace by plotting to emplace an interim Government in preference to the swearing in of the elected new administration on May 29th. The Defence Headquarter and the Army have sounded the same warning. All Nigerians agree that we do not need any interim arrangement. It is uncalled for.
What unites all these voices is that they are in one way or the other tied to the incumbent power setup. They are all either officials of government or affiliates of the APC in one way or the other. They are united in a strange consensus that the most consequential adversary of the Nigerian state at this point in time is the combination of Mr. Peter Obi, his running mate and of course the Labour Party respectively. This writer foretold this eventuality as the campaigns unfolded.
In the run up to the last presidential election, I wrote in a piece in this column, “What If Macchiavelli Votes” in which I speculated on what the victory of each of the three front runners would mean for the power equation in Nigeria as we know it.
On the threat posed by the possible emergence of Mr. Peter Obi Obi of the Labour Party, here is what I wrote in January 2023, a few weeks before the presidential election:
“With Mr. Obi of the Labour Party, we come face to face with a real threat to Nigeria’s power nexus. Mr. Obi is challenging the political establishment, the traditional architecture of parties and the ethos of old politicians. He is challenging the bastions of vested interest, the organized crime syndicates of fuel subsidies and inflated state contracts. He has openly indicated a desire to run a people oriented administration that is accountable, frugal and open. All these grate on the nerves of the deep state and the warlords of enshrined corruption. He wants to reorganize national security and thus curb the crime dividends enjoyed by the security high command.
Peter Obi and his OBIdients movement could have been dismissed with a wave of the hand if they were not so consequential, menacing and expanding. In a relatively short space of time, Mr. Obi has had a movement grow around him and his counter narrative. He has become the emblematic poster “man in black” of this season with a targeted appeal mostly to the youth.
He is the convergence of moment, message and messenger. His message is simple: ‘It is time to take back our country’. That message has resonated with the youth and the disenchanted majority of urban poor and unemployed. The desire to create a new Nigeria transcends the barriers that have held Nigeria hostage. There lies Obi’s real threat to the power establishment.
The system is not going to sit idly by while Mr. Obi and his followers sweep vested interest out of power. Therefore, he will be the meeting ground of all the dark forces intent on maintaining the status quo. In quick rehearsals, financial blackmail of Mr. Obi has been tried and did not work. Ethnic profiling has not stuck. As the campaign season progresses, more sophisticated antics may be rolled out if Mr. Obi and the OBIdients sustain their appeal and gather momentum.
But the ultimate triumph of our democracy will remain a function of the state of health of our democratic institutions: a truly independent and credible INEC, a judiciary of honest judges, a media of fair and truthful journalists and a non- partisan state structure.
In a sense, the speculative possibility of a Machiavelli vote in 2023 is another way of posing the great universal question of history: What if?
The moment prefigured in that prophetic excerpt has arrived. We have crossed the junction of “What if?” The election has produced an outcome. INEC has pronounced Mr. Bola Tinubu as the President-elect on the basis of its best judgment of what transpired and the summation of the information and other procedural outcomes. As required by law, those who lost have since filed their objections in the form of petitions to the relevant tribunals and courts. It would therefore be a natural course for the winners to set about setting up their programmes, policies and unique governance procedures and structures so that the business of Nigeria could proceed unhindered.
The losers in that disgraceful election should be busy putting our judiciary to an ultimate test of their credibility. The pursuit of justice according to law should be the final berth of the journey of democracy. Peter Obi was not pronounced winner by INEC but somehow, his political presence and electoral feats have earned him unusual attention by the Octopus of the Nigerian power behemoth.
We must make some concessions. Admittedly, there have been a few incensed and even careless statements by both the losing PDP and the LP. Peter Obi’s running mate, Mr. Datti Ahmed, may have been a bit too emphatic and irreverent in his Channels Television interview on a matter that should be left to the judicial finality of the Supreme Court. But Mr. Dino Melaye of the PDP has been even more unguarded. Not to talk of the serial indiscretion and incendiary incitements of Mr. Fani-Kayode and Festus Keyamo of the APC. Mr. Bayo Onanuga of the Tinubu campaign has been even more vitriolic and dripping with ethnic hate in his choice of utterances.
In the heat of the campaign, some fringe elements of the Obidients movement may have overstepped the bounds of decent assembly in response to the hooliganism of the APC in places like Lagos for instance. Even then, with the Labour Party and the Obidients, we are dealing with uncharted territory. A populist movement that finds itself as the rave of the political moment has a capability to go overboard. But critics of the Obidients have hardly spared a thought for the many of them that were killed, maimed and seriously injured in parts of the country by APC professional thugs.
Nonetheless, in spite of coming third in INEC’s ranking of the presidential candidates in the last election, interest in Peter Obi and his movement has recently been on the increase. Obi is lately being demonized systematically. The Obidients are being rebranded as urban terrorists by people who should know better including, most regrettably, Mr. Wole Soyinka. The threat level has become so intense that Mr. Peter Obi recently hinted that he has come under pressure to leave the country for fear of his personal safety.
The reasons for the special interest in Peter Obi by the Nigerian power establishment are multiple.
Of all the presidential candidates, he posed the most credible threat to the Nigerian power status quo. By side-stepping the established bipartisan architecture of the political structure and stepping forward to directly seek the top power slot, he audaciously upset the tripodal ethnic architecture of Nigerian power. He threatened the existing political order by challenging the old money politics of African Big Men. By openly challenging the system to name his wrongs, if any, he was calling out the decadent moral edifice of traditional Nigerian political culture.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Peter Obi evolved a message that appealed to a cross section of Nigerians across ethnic, religious, class and geo-political divides. As it turns out, what unites most Nigerians is the hunger for a better country in which the leadership presents a moral and performance example that most citizens can emulate. Obi embodied that message and it conferred on him an automatic charisma and electrifying appeal especially among the youth.
Peter Obi thus threatened the hegemonic dominance of power fundamentalists and regional/religionist hegemonists. His electric popularity attraction came as a rude shock to those who had come to take the youth and urban detribalized Nigerians for granted. A man who joined a small party and, in less than a year transformed the Labour Party into a serious power contender, a populist magnet and an electoral threat cannot be written off casually.
Like a bolt out of the political blues, Peter Obi and the Labour Party trounced Mr. Tinubu and his thriving thuggery industry in Lagos. He swept the Federal Capital Territory like a political hurricane, leaving his rivals no room for even a miserable 25% vote score. He demonstrated the truism that every politics is first local by sweeping through the whole of the South-east and South-south as well as the bulk of the Middle Belt states of Nasarawa, Benue and Plateau. From Nasarawa and Southern Kaduna, Obi and his rampaging political train menacingly eyed the conservative Northern bastions with the force of a powerful national message. INEC announced a Bola Tinubu win with 12 states; so also did Peter Obi win in 12 states and perhaps more.
These electoral milestones should frighten the traditional political establishment. They were achieved without a so called political structure. They were achieved without lorry loads of ‘stomach infrastructure’ or bullion vans of Naira or dollars.
However, because of his surname, Peter Obi has also become a strategic threat to both the Nigerian power machinery as well as the political elite of his home base South East. Aspirants to the trade mark ‘Igbo presidency’ slot in the big parties were thoroughly rattled and shredded.
To the political elite in the rest of the country, Peter Obi, perhaps unconsciously because of his surname, also became the unspoken voice, the uncomfortable variable and indeed the ominous face of something that at once frightens and attracts the Nigerian imagination. All those factors that have held Nigeria hostage since 1970 have remained curious of what Nigeria could become under the leadership of the Igbo people who have been absent from the central seat of Nigerian power for 57 years.
There is in the Nigerian subconscious a certain envious curiosity and yearning about the difference that the Igbo ethnic identity could make in the way Nigeria is run. But Nigeria is also united by a baseless fear of what the Igbo could become if Nigeria were to let them add apex power the entrepreneurial and mercantile sagacity and expansive spirit. There lies their strength and also their weaknesses as a people.
But Peter Obi is a completely detribalized Nigerian. He is also above everything else an Igbo man, a quintessential one at that, one who is both a catholic, a trader, a politician and a man of Spartan discipline. Nigerian youth and the urban majority believed in the power of his example and shared his vision of a new better Nigeria.
The many pluses of the Peter Obi and Obedients phenomenon has engendered a fear in the political consciousness of both the incumbent and incoming dispensations. Fear of the man in black has replaced normal opposition allergies. Having commenced a programme of repression and harassment of Mr. Obi and his followers, we can look forward to a coming dispensation ruled by fear and that will therefore rely on authoritarian methods to silence an opposition that is already in place as an alternative power contender. Unfortunately, the incoming government can only fix the economy through unpopular policies. When trouble erupts in the streets because of hardship, the natural first recourse would be to blame it on Mr. Obi and the Obidients. Welcome to the new APC republic!