The rise of Peter Obi in the campaign for Nigeria’s presidential election on February 25 has shaken up the country’s politics, hitherto dominated by two major parties since the end of military rule in 1999. But analysts say that Obi still faces an uphill struggle.
Promising a different way of doing things, Obi hopes to defeat the two favourites and political heavyweights from traditional parties: Atiku Aboubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
With speeches hailed as fresh and unifying – but criticised as populist by his detractors – the 61-year-old businessman has caught the attention of Nigeria’s young population, 60 percent of whom are under the age of 25.
“The current government is in a bad situation, and the way many young people see it is that people like Abubakar and Tinubu are part of the problem,” said Dele Babalola, a Nigeria expert at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent. “Obe is 61 but he’s the youngest of the candidates [the other two being in their 70s] and a fresh face.”
Over the course of the five-month presidential campaign, Obi has gone from minor curiosity to credible candidate, with vast social media support amongst Nigeria’s youth turbocharging his standing. Obi has also enjoyed endorsements from prominent Nigerian figures such as ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and renowned novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
As Nigeria endures an economic slump and a troubled security situation, Obi’s supporters (nicknamed “Obidients”) see him as an antidote to a political class they accuse of corruption and bad governance.
In this context, Obi has cultivated an image as the picture of integrity and prudence. “I have two children, they are graduates, they have never participated in any public life. I have a son that is going to be 29, 30 soon, he doesn’t own a car because he has to buy his own car, not me,” Obi said in a speech last year to his supporters’ applause.
Obi’s candidacy first emerged in October 2020 as Nigeria saw the #EndSARS protest movement – in which young demonstrators demanded the disbandment of the SARS police unit they accused of violence and saw as benefitting from total immunity, a movement Obi largely supported.
The #EndSARS movement then took its demands further, denouncing corruption and economic inequality. These are burning issues in a country where oil revenues lavishly reward a small proportion of Nigerians while nearly half of the population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
A Nigerian Macron?
Born to Christian parents from the Igbo ethnic group – Nigeria’s third-largest – Obi’s background is a common one in the country’s economic elite: studies in Lagos, at Harvard and at the London School of Economics, followed by a business career including management roles in several Nigerian banks.
As an ex-banker who wants to smash through the old two-party system and reinvigorate his country with a technocratic style of politics, Obi has prompted comparisons to French President Emmanuel Macron – who described himself as “neither left nor right”, created his own political party and swept aside the traditional vehicles of social democracy and conservatism when he took the Élysée Palace and then won a crushing parliamentary majority in 2017.
Obi became leader of Nigeria’s Labour Party last year. Unlike the established British party bearing the same name, it is a rather marginal party – without much political machinery nationally, nor governors with power bases in Nigeria’s provinces.
But “likening Obi to Macron is a mistake”, said Ladipo Adamolekun, a Nigerian public administration expert and Francophile. “Macron created his En Marche! party when France’s traditional parties were already in decline – it’s not like that for Obi.”
And unlike Macron – whose sole political experience when he ran for the Élysée was a short stint as François Hollande’s economy minister – Obi is very far from a political neophyte.
Obi was governor of Anambra, a southern Nigerian state, from 2006 to 2014, before standing as the PDP’s vice-presidential candidate at the last presidential elections in 2019. He has changed his political allegiance four times since 2022, leading to accusations of opportunism.
Obi’s critics also question his probity, since he was mentioned in the Pandora Papers in 2021. However, his supporters say he has proven his integrity with effective governance of Anambra during his eight-year tenure there, which ended with huge savings in the state’s coffers – a compelling argument in an economy burdened by heavy public debt.
Igbo vote ‘won’t be enough’
But for all the hype surrounding Obi, many analysts doubt he can pull off a victory – even despite strong polling figures.
“In reality, a lot of the young people who’ve created all that social media buzz live abroad and can’t vote in Nigeria,” Babalola said. “As for polls, the numbers aren’t as reliable in Africa as they are in Europe,” he added.
Then there is the classic phenomenon of young voters’ poor turnout – which may well be amplified in Nigeria, which tends to have low turnout overall, with just 33 percent going to the polls in the 2019 presidential elections.
Finally, analysts doubt Obi can transcend the issues of ethnicity, religion and regional identity, all of which tend to be crucial factors in Nigerian voters’ choices. “The Igbo vote won’t be enough for Obi to win,” Babalola emphasised, while highlighting the importance of winning votes in the predominantly Muslim north.
Whoever wins at the ballot box, they will face colossal challenges. Nigeria’s economy is Africa’s largest but is troubled by inflation running at more than 20 percent, fuel shortages, a lack of cash during the ill-timed introduction of new bank notes, and an energy crisis causing frequent blackouts.
Public finances are in a bad shape, with debt servicing consuming 41 percent of public spending in 2022. The country’s sovereign ratings downgrade by Moody’s at the end of January is unlikely to help matters.
“As things stand, I doubt the new president will be able to put in place good governance,” said Adamolekun – who favours a “more decentralised federal system” to replace the current political structures.
“The new president will have to accept that the current political system isn’t conducive to the effective governance,” Adamolekun said. “The 1999 constitution was too centralising, especially when it came to the police, and that is a big factor in Nigeria’s security problems.”
Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari’s last term was plagued by a marked deterioration in Nigeria’s security situation, fuelled by inter-ethnic conflicts, criminal gang activity and jihadism. According to the UN, jihadist violence has killed more than 40,000 people and displaced some 2.2 million in northeastern Nigeria since 2009.
So regardless of whether Obi pulls off an almighty political upset, the new Nigerian president will find plenty of challenges waiting in their inbox.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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