For Nigeria’s ruling All progressives Congress (APC), it was a long night and one of drama. The party after several postponements had set June 6 for its special congress to elect its presidential flagbearer for next year’s elections. The drama started few days to the primaries. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the leader of the party and front runner, in a momentary loss of temper accused President Muhammadu Buhari of blocking his way to power. Confidants of the two men said President Buhari had promised to hand over power to Tinubu in return for the latter’s support to enable him defeat then President Goodluck Jonathan at the 2015 polls. However, the deal between the two men fell apart because no sooner had Buhari got into office than a powerful cabal (made up of the president’s kinsmen) formed around him. Taking advantage of his frail health which necessitated frequent medical trips abroad, the cabal took charge of the government. They side-lined Tinubu, and his protégé, Yemi Osibanjo, the vice president. As a result, the character of the government was a deviation from the manifesto the party presented in 2015.
As the race for the nomination of the party’s candidates drew closer, the cabal hatched a plot to frustrate his ambition to fly the party’s flag. They encouraged candidates from the southern part of the country to pick up nomination forms, promising each of them that they intend to back him to succeed Buhari. Among those encouraged to contest were Osibanjo, Godswill Akpabio, the former minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Rotimi Amaechi, the former minister of transportation. The intention was to split the votes of delegates from the southern part of the country among many candidates. At the same time, they plotted for Ahmed Lawan, the Senate President, to also contest. The plan was to split the voting along North/South lines. Lawan, being the strongest candidate from the north would have easily won the ticket.
Tinubu’s supporters, among them influential state governors, got wind of the plot. The governors from the northern part of the country wrote to President Buhari to return power to the southern part of the country in the interest of national unity. There is an unwritten code that power must rotate between the Northern and Southern parts of the country. Among those who signed the letter was Abubakar Badaru, governor of Jigawa State and one of the candidates. The governors leaked their letter to the media to force the president’s hands. The President publicly agreed with their position. Having failed in the game to split the votes, the cabal used Abdullahi Adamu to announce that Lawan had been adopted as the consensus candidate of the party. Although every aspirant signed a withdrawal letter to make it easy for the party to adopt a consensus candidate, the law also stipulated that every aspirant must also write endorsing the consensus candidate as such. Tinubu held on to this and challenged the consensus plot.
The only option left was for the candidates to test their strength among the delegates. Some Candidates from the southern part of the country started to withdraw from the race in support of Tinubu to ensure the southern votes were not split. Akpabio led the way and this emboldened six others to step down for him. One other candidate stepped down for Osinbajo. Badaru also withdrew from the race. After voting that went on throughout the night, Tinubu won by 1271 votes. His closest rival, Amaechi scored 316 votes, Osinbajo came third with 235 votes. Lawan came a distant fourth with 152 votes.
Against many odds, Tinubu is now the flagbearer of the ruling party. He will square it out with another political veteran, Atiku Abubakar, two term vice president. Abubakar from the Northern part of the country won the primaries of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He defeated Nyesom Wike, governor of the oil producing Rivers State after Aminu Tambuwal, governor of the northern state of Sokoto State, stepped down for him. It was Wike’s unexpected loss at the PDP primaries that forced southern candidates in APC to step down for Tinubu to forestall two northern candidates emerging. That would have guaranteed that power will stay in the northern part of the country for at least another four years, after eight years of President Buhari.
Neither of the two candidates is going to have an easy ride. This is because a third candidate has become something of a movement. Peter Obi, the toast of youths, the middle class and Nigerians who are seeking a break with corruption ridden politics, was a leading candidate in the PDP. Expectation was that he would be given the party’s ticket. Apart from his popularity, he is also from the politically marginalised Igbo ethnic group in the South East region. Besides, the region has been loyal voters of the PDP. As it became apparent that he would not get the party’s ticket because of his avowal of buying votes, he dumped the PDP for the Labour Party.
Obi was the governor of Anambra State and ran what was a corruption free government. By the time he left office after eight years, he left a positive balance in the treasury. It is unheard of in Nigeria where governors and presidents accumulate debts for their successors to pay. More than this, he has clear ideas of how to make Nigeria an economically great country. The fact that he is a successful businessman with a spartan lifestyle has won him hearts.
The Obi movement goes beyond the candidate. It is also a let up of the bottled frustration expressed by Nigerian youths during the 2020 ill fated End Sars movement. The same energy with which they took on the government using social media as mobilisation tool is what they are deploying now. They want a different country.
The word on the street is that many Nigerians are also fed up with the two main political parties. In 2015, the country voted out the ruling PDP because they bought into the mantra of anti corruption. The then opposition APC had succeeded in casting the PDP government as corrupt and the then President Jonathan as ‘clueless’. Seven years on, the APC government, in the perception of Nigerians has beaten the party it ousted on all negative indices. The government is perceived as more corrupt. Some of the corruption stories like using N523 million to feed school children when schools were closed would have been unthinkable many years ago. And this is happening in a government led by a man, friends and foes alike, see as one of the few leaders who are not corrupt. If Buhari, a celebrated ‘clean’ Nigerian, cannot run a corruption free government, then the APC cannot be trusted to deliver on that count.
All the promises made by APC, from steady electricity to ending the insecurity, have been unfulfilled. Rather things have got worse. Electricity generation is down to 3,284 MW. Insecurity has got worse. More Nigerians are killed daily and the bandits (or terrorists anywhere else) have got bolder. They bombed a train to take hostages and even kidnapped the leader of Nigeria’s Methodist Church. (He was released on the payment of a ransom of N100 million.) Some of those kidnapped from the train are still in captivity. On the eve of the APC convention, bandits attacked worshippers at a Catholic Church in Owo in South Western Nigeria. The death toll: 35.
The Obi movement is also driven by the hunger in the land. The standard of living in the country has deteriorated. Unemployment is running at 33.3 per cent, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics. A further 22.8 per cent are under employed. The statistics for youths are worse: 42.5 per cent of them are unemployed with a further 21 per cent underemployed.
As is normal with situations like this, the crime rate has gone up. At the same time, the political class is living a charmed lifestyle, which cannot be accounted for by their legitimate pay. Even the perks of office available to them has no correlation with the state of affairs in the country. Members of the National Assembly, 469 of them are entitled to SUV cars worth at least $100,000 apiece. Their leaders have more than two and are also entitled to the bullet proof versions. In the executive arm, the governors, their deputies and wives have up to five vehicles attached to them. Each of the governors is entitled to at least 61 security men for his all round protection. In a country where armed robbers will spend three hours attacking a home before any policeman can show up, the feeling of frustration can be understood. At the level of the president, there is a presidential fleet of 10 aircraft in a country that has no national airline. President Buhari’s promise to sell off the aircraft has remained a campaign promise, seven years later. The corollary promise to float a national airline is yet to be realised. (The new airline got an air operating certificate early June and is yet to run a single flight).
Obi who has built his political career on prudent management of public resources and trimming the cost of governance is reaping the frustration over the paradox of the lifestyle of the political class (and their business friends). Nigerians now need a man who can fix the country. They do not appear to have much faith in the flagbearers of the two main parties. Obi is harvesting the fruits of that frustration. His message resonates. He wants to arrest the economic decline of the country by growing the productive sector. He loathes a situation that manufacturing accounts for a mere eight per cent of GDP in a country of 200 million people. He also wants to stop what he calls the ‘bleeding of Nigeria’ by ensuring that loans are only taken for investment and not consumption. He wants to invest in human capital development and promote a consciousness of group interest among Nigerians.
Although he has no structure on ground, youths have taken it upon themselves to mobilise voters across the country for the so called ‘Obi-dient’ movement. They are spending their time and money to build networks in support of his candidature. As Mebele Edwin Okugbo, a social media influencer put it: ‘Forget those who tell you about structure. 2023 is a referendum on the two irresponsible and incompetent parties: PDP and APC. They are the two heads of the same cobra, that have stung Nigerians massively. They are damaged brands. Only reason many still follow them is because no strong movement have come up to challenge them. But that has changed with Obi. It's a whole new game now. 2023 is going to be about the person, not the party.
By the way, don't let anyone tell you elections are not won on social media. It's all a strategy to demoralise you. The truth is, Nigerian social media and the streets have finally converged. This is not 2013. The shoe maker and vulcanised are now on Facebook and TikTok. Old and young are now online.’ To drive up their numbers, Obi’s supporters are mobilising their friends to get their voter’s cards.
The other political parties who were initially dismissive of the movement as a social media sensation have woken up to reality. Atiku of the PDP who chose Obi as his running mate in the 2019 election is trying to broker an alliance with him.
The Obi movement is also driven by a growing national consensus that injustice is threatening the survival of the country. The first place to start is ensuring threat political offices go round. This consciousness is what informed 12 APC governors from the northern part of the country to insist that the presidential flagbearer of their party must come from the southern part of the country. There was an expectation that the Igbos who have never produced a president in the last 40 years should have a turn at leadership. As it turned out, no Igbo politician in APC had the clout to win the party’s ticket. Tinubu, a Yoruba, from the South West part of the country got the ticket. His group has produced a president (Olusegun Obasanjo (1999 – 2007) and a vice President (Osinbajo (2015 to date). It was regarded as the run of the Igbos. The most likely platform was the PDP but Obi was frustrated out of the party because of his refusal to bribe delegates. For many Nigerians, Obi is the route to justice.
That search for justice was at the root of intrigues in the two political parties in the run up to the primaries. The PDP had spurned the zoning culture of the party and rather, threw the contest open to all persons regardless of region when it got to the turn of the South East to produce the presidential candidate.
Perhaps, as part of their protest over this development, Obi, Ike Ekweremadu, former deputy senate President, and Enyinnaya Abaribe, Senate majority leader, all withdrew from participating in the primaries.
The challenge the candidates of the two main parties are facing is that Peter Obi has acquired a messianic toga. Once a candidate does so, he is unstoppable. Unfortunately for the other candidates, there is no known formula for acquiring the toga: it is a product of the coming together of many elements: time, circumstance, and the candidate.