The battle of 2023 has taken definite shape with the conclusion of presidential primaries of the two leading political parties in the country. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former vice president and Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State are set to battle for the soul of Nigeria as candidates of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), respectively; in what promises to be an epic battle between two evenly matched opponents.
However, their emergence as presidential flag bearers has sharply divided a cross section of the country, most of who feel a sense of hopelessness and resignation. General reactions following the primaries point to disappointment and the need for something new and different.
While the two giants are considered favourites in the 2023 race, Mr. Peter Obi, a former Anambra State governor and candidate of the Labour Party, is gradually emerging from the recess of a fringe player to a real factor in the contest.
“Peter Obi is now a strong contender, adding him to “others” when reporting instead of saying Atiku, Tinubu and Peter Obi is condescending. Are these platforms not seeing the engagement he is pulling? They should mention his name, he deserves it,” said Sally Suleiman, Founder of The Isolycia Foundation.
Mr. Obi now embodies two major aspirations: the desire of a vast number of the country’s youth population for a new political order; a departure from the usual, amid worsening economic and security challenges in the country, particularly under the present Muhammadu Buhari led APC government; and the push by the Igbo of the country’s southeast for power shift to the region.
“The media should try not to make it look like Atiku and Tinubu are the only ones in this race. Headlines like “Atiku, Tinubu others…” is an injustice to other contestants with potential like Peter Obi,” observed journalist, Nurudeen Akewushola, @NurudeenAkewus1
The quest for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction had become a rallying cry for the Igbo street and many fair minded Nigerians, and had been canvassed by such groups as the Middle Belt Forum, the Afenifere, Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), and Ohanaeze Ndigbo.
The quest, however received a major setback with both the APC and PDP, the two major political parties, failing to produce a Southeast candidate. Obi, whose decision to withdraw from the PDP and pitch tent with Labour Party ahead of main opposition party’s presidential primary on May 28, had seemed like a bad gamble, is fast becoming a rallying point, and could indeed push far enough.
“Let’s be fair and just, the presidency should go to the southeast, and if the people of the south east really want to make a record and save Nigeria, they should all come together and vote Peter Obi for President,” noted Rev Yinka Yusuf, president, Love for all nations ministries and lead pastor Household of Love Churches worldwide.
“A vote for Peter Obi is a vote for conscience. I know for sure that if conscience is allowed to vote, even the presidential aspirants will all vote Peter Obi for president.”
Obi’s support base is rapidly expanding, helped by his media appearances and testimonies of his record of good governance in Anambra, but even more importantly, his down to earth attitude. As governor, he shunned the flamboyance of office and related directly to the people, including prefects of practically all the schools in Anambra who had direct access to him.
His chances may be further boosted by emerging talks of possible merger with the New Nigeria People’s (NNPC), which could see a joint ticket between the former Anambra governor and Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, former governor of Kano State.
“We need a president and not an emperor,” said activist, Aisha Yusufu. “And the only person that is going to be obedient is Peter Obi. Desperation must not make you to forget your rights. The citizen remains the highest office in the land.”
Since joining the Labour Party late last month, and subsequently becoming its presidential candidate, the party’s following has continued to expand. On microblogging site, Twitter, the party’s handle, @NgLabour created in May, has suddenly jumped from about 4,000 followers to over 120, 000 followers.
The Obi movement, being likened to a revolution, has been equated to the push that saw Emmanuel Macron push through the barricade to become French president in 2017 at age 40.
“In 2014, a young man was minister of economy, industry and digital affairs in France,” said John Networq, a U.S. based Nigerian artist, @JohnNetworQ. “He left the Socialist party. Started a movement En Marchè in 2016 – a 3rd Force and claimed victory in 2017 at the polls. They say Peter Obi is wasting his time, I say Macron did. How market?”
“Peter Obi can win if we the youths, the biggest victims of the status quo agree.”
It’s a dream Valentine Obienyem, the former Anambra governor’s media aide, shares.
“What is happening in Nigeria today is a peaceful revolution. Nigerians want to break away from the old order. Nigeria is ripe for a peaceful transition and Peter Obi is lucky to be at the forefront of that change,” Obienyem said in an interview with a national daily.
Asked how Obi would penetrate the North, he said Nigerians, including northerners, were desirous of good governance and that “what matters is that he has already penetrated the minds of Nigerians all over the country.”
But Nigeria is not a settled democracy like France. It’s a country where nearly 100 million people live below the poverty line, and high poverty rate means that politicians with big pockets always have their way, as again demonstrated by the emergence Atiku and Tinubu, the two big spenders as candidates of the two major political parties in the primaries that delegates smiled home with millions of naira and tens of thousands of dollars.
The reality check for many, therefore is that the Obi movement will ultimately not measure up to the deep pockets and the “structures” of Tinubu and Atiku. Indeed, many argue that Obi’s quest would ultimately hurt the PDP and its candidate, Atiku.
The Southeast, Obi’s primary constituency, is a PDP stronghold. The party has won presidential elections in the zone since 1999, and without the Obi factor, would have been expected to give block votes to Atiku, the PDP candidate.
But with Obi in the picture, many argue that the PDP may struggle in the zone, combined, too, with the decision of Kwankwaso, to pull out of the main opposition party and run for president on the platform of his new party, the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP).
Kwankwaso has massive support base in Kano, and substantial number of supporters in Jigawa, Katsina, among other states in the Northwest geopolitical zone. Beyond these areas, he’s hardly a factor elsewhere, but observers say while he may not have the nationwide appeal to stand a chance of winning, he may hurt Atiku and give Tinubu, the APC candidate, who is expected to sweep votes in the Southwest and share substantial votes in the north an edge.
“The election is largely going to be a two-horse race. Kwankwaso’s NNPP is likely to cannibalize some votes in Kano and maybe Jigawa and parts of Katsina,” said Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State and member of the APC.
“Peter Obi is going to cannibalize PDP votes in the Southeast. So, we will prevail in the end because we have the largest footprint. It’s a race between APC and PDP, and NNPP and Labour Party are going to cannibalize PDP votes, which strengthens our position.”
Perhaps, with this realization, Atiku, the PDP candidate, is said to have started to reach out to both Obi and Kwankwaso with a view to getting them to his side. But at this stage, an Obi/Kwankwaso merger seems more likely.
Obi who was Atiku’s running mate in 2019, left the PDP days to the presidential primary that produced the former vice president, after complaining about being treated shabbily by the party’s leadership, who apparently didn’t consider him to be a big factor at the time.
But that must have changed with the movement the former Anambra governor is inspiring, and the party is said to be desperate to reach out to him. However, it’s unlikely that Obi would accept to return to the main opposition party, given the circumstances.
“The support Peter Obi is getting across the country is too massive for anyone to ask him to step down for anyone,” said Doyin Okupe, Director-General of the Peter Obi Campaign Organisation.
“Nobody ever thought Obi could leave the PDP, but he left. The real third force is here with us. The coming revolution is beyond Obi. Peter Obi is a man whose time has come. The PDP and the APC have expired. They are no longer relevant in Nigeria’s current situation.”
Okupe’s views were corroborated by Obienyem who also told Punch, that, “If today he (Obi) says he is going back to the PDP to be a running mate, I can tell you that if he walks on the street, many Nigerians will stone him and they will see him as a disappointment.
“Nigerians want him and the only thing we can do for him is to encourage him to answer the call of Nigerians. So, he will contest and I’m sure he will win, all things being equal.”
Kwankwaso has also insisted on running, noting in an interview with the Punch that he was certain of victory over Tinubu and Atiku in 2023 and that he would not step down or withdraw his ambition for any other candidate.
“I won’t be stepping down for anyone; our party is popular across the country and we are sure of victory at the polls,” he said.
“Our candidacy is based on capacity and performance. People are looking for those who have done it better in the past, and people who are trusted. Nigerians want someone who can unite Nigeria, improve the educational system and end insecurity.
“We will defeat the two major parties at the polls in 2023. The Kwankwasiyya Movement is very popular, and we will win even in the North-East. I’m happy that the Electoral Bill was signed into law, and that will make it difficult for anyone to rig us out as they have always done. Once there is a free and fair election, it will be difficult for anyone to defeat us.”
For Obi, the question is whether he has the financial muscle to compete, given the role of money in the country’s politics. However, he believes that the mass of poor people in the country will be his strength, rather than weakness.
“Whenever I hear people talk about no structure, my answer to it is simple: the 100 million Nigerians who live in poverty will be the structure,” Obi said on Friday, after getting his certificate of return as Labour Party candidate from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
“The millions of Nigerians who don’t know where their next meal will come from will be the structure. Our mothers and fathers, the old ones that are dying because they are being owed gratuity and pension will be the structure.
“ASUU members that have not been paid and the students that are at home will be the structure. And they will see what the structure is about. Structure is about human beings.”
Obi’s aspiration appear to have awaken his Southeast, and the larger Igbo constituency who see him, not necessarily as their own person, amid agitation for Southeast presidency, but one who is tested and trusted, and can deliver good governance as president.
“If Alaba, Aba, and Onitsha Market traders contribute to his campaign, Peter Obi will be able to match anyone dollar for dollar,” says Reno Omokri, @renoomokri, author and ex-aide to former president, Goodluck Jonathan. “This people movement is good for Nigeria. It is the type of movement that swept Macron to power in 2017. Spontaneous.”
Atiku, Tinubu battle
Meanwhile, for Atiku and Tinubu, candidates of the two major political parties, it promises to be a battle of grit, deep pockets and high level politicking. The former vice president, a Muslim from the Northeast, is expected to pick a running mate from the Christian South, with the Southeast and South-South being on the cards.
Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State, and his Delta State counterpart, are considered favourites, while Anyim Pius Anyim, former secretary to the government of the federation and Emmanuel Udom, governor of Akwa Ibom State, have also been mentioned as possibilities.
For Tinubu, that’s not as straightforward. He is a Muslim from a largely Christian south. He is expected to pick a Christian from the predominantly Muslim north in order to maintain the delicate balance of religion in an increasingly polarized country.
It’s going to be delicate for the former Lagos governor. Picking a Christian in the north could alienate the Muslims in the region, and settling for a Muslim would mean that he would be running on a Muslim-Muslim ticket, which could put off most of the Christian population.
Indeed, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has since warned candidates against picking running mates of the same faith as themselves, a warning apparently targeted at Tinubu, who is said to be considering El-Rufai, a Muslim as potential running mate, as well as Boss Mustapha, secretary to the government of the federation, a Christian from Adamawa State.
The former Lagos governor is expected to sweep votes in his Southwest constituency, and get substantial amount of votes in the Northwest and Northeast, more so in the former, as the Northeast is more likely to be split.
Atiku on the other hand, is expected to make huge inroads in the Northwest and Northeast, given that his opponent this time is a Southerner, while also carrying the day in the South South and South East, which are ideally PDP strongholds. But Obi’s Labour Party candidacy may change that and indeed shake the entire political landscape of the country.