By Arun Kumar Shrivastav
Nigeria is holding its presidential election on February 25. After serving two terms, President Muhammadu Buhari is finally bidding adieu to political power. And, the one who seems to be on his way to replace him is a political outsider – Peter Obi. He is from neither of the two main political parties.
A leader of the Labour Party, Obi is a Christian while his opponents Bola Tinubu of the All Progressive Congress (APC) and Anubaker of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are Muslims, like Buhari. Roughly half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim and after a Muslim President Buhari for eight long years, at least the Christian population is thinking of having a Christian President. But while Obi is frequently visiting churches and social and political events organized by Christians, his political meetings in Muslim-dominated North Nigeria are also well attended. All election surveys, so far, point to his victory in the upcoming election.
So what makes the 61-year-old leader from the fringe of Nigeria’s political spectrum become so popular? Obi was the Governor of the Anambra state three times between 2006 and 2014. During this period, his reputation as a naira billionaire with frugal habits got fully cemented. Many people were not happy though! After all, what is the use of frugality in the face of hunger and lack of amenities, they ask. But Obi says his 30-year-old son has been denied a car by him while another of his son is happy working as a primary school teacher. This is a rarity in a country, BBC says in a report, where a politician’s name is enough to open “doors to more lucrative jobs.”
Despite his popularity and affirmative poll surveys, critics argue that his party is largely unknown and doesn’t have a nationwide structure to convert his popularity into votes in the elections. Obi vehemently counters this argument.
“The structure that has kept us where we are, the structure that has produced the highest number of people in poverty in any country, the structure that has produced the highest number of out-of-school children, that is the structure we want to remove,” he said at one of his public meetings, adding that the same structure has produced 100 million Nigerians that live in poverty [and] the 35 million Nigerians who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Even if half of these people turn out to vote for him, he will be perhaps home — The Aso Rock Presidential Villa, he asserts.
Much of Obi’s support comes from young social media-savvy supporters who like to elevate him to sainthood. Obi’s presidential campaign is pitched against two political heavyweights, both past 70.
Obi’s campaign is not without populism and rhetoric though. He often says: “It’s time to take your country back!”APC and PDP have dominated Nigeria’s political landscape since the end of 1999.
Obi’s opponents say that he is one of the many political imposters who spring up at election time and have the delusion that they can be the third force and wrest power from the main opposition. They agree that Obi is “head and shoulders” above the rest, but argue that he might end up wasting votes due to a lack of nationwide popularity, particularly, in the Muslim-dominated north. His presence in the political fray, they argue, would eventually help the ruling APC by splitting the vote. Obi is a Catholic from eastern Nigeria. These doubts notwithstanding, news reports suggest that Obi and his running mate Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed are attracting large crowds in the north as well.
His critics also find Obi picking corruption as the main agenda of his presidential campaign as plain rhetoric. They point to his name figuring in the Pandora Papers 2021which revealed the names of the rich and powerful and their hidden wealth.
Since 2022, Obi has changed parties four times. The last time he left a party was just before the May primary when he dumped PDP. Internal wrangling within PDP and Obi’s refusal to bribe delegates at the party primary were the two reasons cited by the media for Obi to leave the party that made him a vice-presidential candidate in 2019. He joined the Labour Party which considers him an unconventional leader who can beat APC and PDP, who many think are the two sides of the same coin.
Obi comes from Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic tribe Igbos and the country has seen only one Igbo as the President, which too largely ceremonial. The Igbo population is largely concentrated in south-east Nigeria and the community thinks if an Igbo becomes the President, this region will see some developments.
In a country where a billionaire can be recognized from a mile off, says the BBC report, Obi wear this thriftiness as a mark of distinction and pride. Obi points out he has got only two pairs of black shoes and always carries his own luggage rather than paying someone to do that for him. His suits cost between $200 and $4000, cheap for a naira billionaire whose net worth in dollar exceeds 250 million. (IPA Service)