By Oladeinde Olawoyin
The biggest favour admirers of Peter Obi would do the man and Nigeria this campaign season is to continually situate his candidacy around the ISSUES, and not necessarily Identity. The man’s most enchanting USP is his appreciation of Nigeria’s numerous challenges, and he has tried to stay on those ISSUES since he began his campaign – warts and all. This is perhaps the reason he is the most talked-about of the leading candidates.
To be sure, anyone with even the faintest understanding of the complexity of Nigeria’s problems in key sectors—Power, Oil, Trade, Investment–can see that Obi doesn’t have it all figured out yet in terms of an appreciation of the depth of the problem and practical solutions (and he doesn’t necessarily need to have ALL THINGS figured out at this stage, anyway). But when put in a broader context, his level of engagement has been quite impressive. In effect, it would be a very wrong move to wrap his appeal around anything but the ISSUES. I’d explain.
The demand for an Igbo presidency is valid, in the interest of equity and inclusiveness. But the harsh reality is that power isn’t served a la carte; and politics is no respecter of ideals. The politics of who becomes Nigeria’s numero uno is determined by a whole lot of intriguing factors, including alliance formations across divides especially in the big parties with tested—and, well, “election-winning-cum-rigging”—structures. We all know what the status quo is today. I’d keep it at that. But the interesting thing is that Peter Obi—warts and all—comes to the fore with something much more significant than his Igbo identity, and he wants Nigerians to appraise him with those things. That’s the way to go! (In recent times, I find any appraisal of the man’s eligibility based solely on his Igbo-ness a tad naïve, and in some cases, dubious/mischievous.)
Outside ethnicity, the other part of the identity politics that is being amplified and I consider quite dangerous is the religious. If this becomes a full-blown concern, and we allow it elbow the real ISSUES off the radar screen, I doubt if Obi (or even Nigeria) would be a beneficiary on the long run. But given the irrationality that comes with (religious) identity politics, I’d keep it at that for now.
Now back to the issues: Folks who expect Obi not to talk “too much” are probably missing the point. Apart from his relatively younger age/outlook, Obi understands that his most potent arsenals are his rhetorics, stuff with which he endears himself to the people. He also knows that he is running on the platform of a party with limited visibility. Unlike others who have structures that can deliver the votes, he needs to sell himself directly to the people and he is doing just that to build organic base/”structures”. Perhaps what he needs to do his cut down on anecdotes and speak more about his policy ideas/direction. There are open-minded Nigerians who still vote based on the substance on display, and not because of propaganda or some provincial considerations. Perhaps they are in the minority; but there are.
In yesterday’s interview, I noticed that Rufai Oseni of ARISE TV tried endlessly to make him speak specifically to the issues and flesh out his proposed solutions, away from the banality of (personal) anecdotes. Cool. But there were moments he asked for Yes or No answers, and Obi (RIGHTLY in my view) maneuvered some of those questions. He’s been dragged for not answering Yes or No. But I don’t agree that those kinds of questions can be satisfactorily answered with YES or NO responses. Policy issues are way too complex to be reduced to such simplistic exchange.
I am probably one of the few Nigerians who do not see a synergy between Obi and the conduct of his “indecorous” supporters. (They may even come for my head for posting this but that’s how I see it). For me, the numbers say it all: an army of un(der)employed youths (c. 53%) battling skyrocketed prices in food and basic stuff in an insecure country where the president just joined the wailers’ club would be everything but “calm”. Now, I am not in support of “unruly” behaviors but I understand that there is little anyone (including OBI) can do to tame them, especially in an election season. It’s not as though this is new. Moreso, the underlying factors driving the madness are staring us all in the face; it would be disingenuous to hinge it on Obi. Besides, anyone who was part of the #EndSARS movement of anger would know that Obi is just a conduit for these young angry Nigerians cursing everyone to hell because his stated ideals appeal to them; he doesn’t influence their rascally behaviours. To understand the phenomenon, there are a whole lot of social issues to point at: failed parenting; withering ideals; a morally adrift society etc. But a part of me would still say this: it’s the economy, stupid!
It’s in the same light that I’d also identify that, in addition to issues of perceived competence and all, a key factor driving this 2023 campaign like every other one before it is deep (ethno-religious) HATE. To fail to see these things is to be naively susceptible to wicked manipulation. And that’s why some of us aren’t influenced by propaganda, whether it’s the wicked one against Obi’s Son (reported to have stepped on the Nigerian flag, even though the dude in the viral picture was a doppelganger) or the one about his Commissioners or the brainless one about Tinubu’s take on VAT (wherein a video tape was maliciously edited to imply that Tinubu wanted to “reduce the peoples’ purchasing power” whereas a simple search for the full tape would have shown that he actually advocated for a rethink on the VAT policy and told Osinbajo that FG should expand the tax net rather than introduce a new layer of tax because the policy would reduce peoples’ purchasing power.) Now even in that tape, I do not agree with Tinubu’s prescription—I’d rather say that if the policies are right, both the tax layer and net could be rejigged/expanded—but I was beyond surprised that otherwise intelligent folks who could verify stuff hawked that anti-Tinubu sacharine. Hate is a dark, dark dungeon, you know.
Now to be sure, I have a somewhat different perception on how the “Third Force” (or Alternative Platform) can indeed win election in Nigeria. In a piece I wrote about the brilliant, cerebral Prof. Kingsley Moghalu last year, I reckoned that the strategy might only be effective if it is LONG-term and driven by structure building and alliance formation across divides and in major cities and hamlets across Nigeria. I know that “structure” is the most derided word on Cyber Nigeria now but then, erm, let’s keep it at that and see how things unfold. It is what it is.
I have read funny Twitter threads and even serious OP-eds on the Obi phenomenon and how, f-i-a-a-a-m, he would turn everything to gold if he gets there. Some of the pieces are laughable because they are far detached from the complexity of the problems on our hands. But the good thing is that Obi (perhaps knows that he) doesn’t even need to immediately turn things into gold; let him—or anyone else who inspires hope—address the basic ISSUES with sincerity of purpose and Nigerians who understand institution building and know the difference between fantasy and reality would applaud and support when they see progress—even if marginal in the short/medium term. Those condemned to a life of perpetual wailing would go on with their lamentation but who cares? The nation does not need a magician because there is none anywhere. What it needs is incremental growth driven by the right people implementing the right policies in the right places. And we can only get to that route if, during campaigns, we focus majorly on the ISSUES.
*Oladeinde Olawoyin is a public affairs analyst