By Biodun Jeyifo
It was the strongly counterintuitive nature of my initial interest in Peter Obi and the Obidients that made me almost instantly a dedicated observer of the man and the movement. As the term implies, to be counterintuitive is to go against intuition and normal expectations and yet be correct in so doing. In a typical counterintuitive act, all the usual expectations and calculations prompt you to move ahead but you move back. Or you are prompted to ignore or pay little attention to an event but something tells you that it would be better to pay careful attention to it.
Obi and the Obidients burst into the 2023 electoral cycle with the announcement that they were going to put “production” back into Nigerian capitalism, they were going to make it work for all Nigerians and not just the elites and the Socialist Library and Archives platform almost immediately decided that as dedicated Marxists and socialists, we should not support them, we should not waste our attention, our interest on them. But counterintuitively, for the very reasons for which we were shunning them, I was being drawn to increasing interest in the candidate and the movement – though I did not make my interest in them a matter to discuss on the platform!
Indeed, as Obi soon appeared to be the most ideologically neoliberal among the four major presidential candidates and as overseas legacy newspapers of global capitalism like The Financial Times and The Economist either took keen interest in Obi or gave him their endorsement, I became even more keen to understand what was going on with and around this candidate and his movement. Instinctively, I understood that a possibly huge populist movement was coming into being, possibly built around capitalism and neoliberalism. But at a more profound level, I suspected that the ultimate nature of the bourgeoning populism of Obi and the Obidients would be decided, not by the big legacy newspapers of global capitalism and not even by the Nigerian Diaspora; it would be decided on the ground at home in the country itself. At that moment, I completely overcame my lingering “Marxist” doubt or guilt about my keen, almost all-consuming interest in the Obidients and their candidate-leader. This is how my deployment of a counterintuitive and not a standard or orthodox Marxism kept me dead set on maintaining my interest in the Obidients throughout the period before, during and now well beyond the elections.
The Marxist historical-materialist method of analysis is not normally or usually based on counterintuitive premises; but sometimes in exceptional historical and social circumstances like the present time, it makes use of counterintuitive reasoning and tropes, not to displace standard Marxist methods but to enrich them. This is what I hope to achieve in this analysis. However, as readers will soon find out, being counterintuitive is not the only or even the main aspect of this analysis. Indeed, if I were to ascribe any main aspect to the analysis, it is a determination, a will to counter the profoundly disturbing, even terrifying fears and anxieties that most patriotic, peaceful and progressive Nigerians are feeling now in the wake of these 2023 elections.
In particular, I address the community of the Nigerian Left and say that the last thing(s) that we should allow to mark our post-election mood and discourse is/are confusion, panic, despair, or collective and mutual self-recrimination concerning what we did or did not do during the elections and what we ought to do now. This is the purpose to which my counterintuitive premises are addressed in this analysis: a plea for sober, robust and hopeful thought and action. More specifically, in the analysis, I formulate this plea around my sense of what Obi and his movement should mean to us, the Nigerian Left, as an open ended question about which we have more than enough pointers to guide us. Finally, as a special point on which to end in this introduction, I wish to inform comrades that as I will be making use of some surprising, perhaps even startling hypotheses and hunches in this analysis, I ask comrades to please give them their patient consideration since, as a matter of fact, I suspect that many Nigerians, on this platform and beyond it, may themselves be secretly having the same thoughts!
As quiet as it is kept, there is a longstanding Western mythology that holds that Nigerians are the African continent’s, perhaps the whole world’s, most “natural” capitalists. I wish to invoke this myth to negotiate the considerable or even bewildering challenges of coming to terms with the sources of the spectacular successes of Obi and the Obidients in the recent elections. In the heady or steamy intricacies of this myth, it is claimed that Nigerians are the world’s most natural capitalists because they can and will sell anything and everything, and they can and will convert any space, any object to sellable material.
Was it due to the direct or subliminal workings of this myth that Obi based his electoral platform so centrally on “production”? But before we give an answer to this question, we must know that there is also the socio-economic imaginary which posits that if and when a productive, manufacturing capitalism takes off in Nigeria, its hub will be in the South-East, precisely in Anambra State around the Onitsha-Nnewi industrial conurbation. The plot thickens and we must now rephrase the question: Was it this imaginary of Obi’s home state and region or the one about Nigerians, as a special economic subspecies of humanity gifted with a natural propensity for buying and selling, that powered the imagination of Obi and the Obidients, the man and the movement in the 2023 elections? Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between the two because Obi won big in the South-East and he also won big across Nigeria, subtly indicating that if his pitch for “productive” capitalism was the cause of his spectacular successes in the elections, the thanks are due to the happy coincidence that he is from the South-East and he is a Nigerian. This thought brings to my mind the well known joke about a non-existent complaint among the footballers of all the other African countries that when they compete against our players, they are unfairly playing against footballers from two countries – Nigeria and Biafra!
I confess that I have “strayed” deliberately into the delicate territory of these mythologies and tropes of identity and belonging that were so prominent in these last elections and yet are so difficult to talk about rationally and productively, that in the end bursted negatively and destructively into open discourse at the end of the elections. In plain language, this is what I am saying here: In the first round of the elections, Nigerians from everywhere rallied to Obi and the Obidients. But the second round of the elections was conducted under the drumbeats of ethnic hatred and bigotry.
I deem it very fortunate for us that before this destructive negativity around identity erupted with and in the second round of the elections, Obi and the Obidients had scored their huge electoral successes in the presidential and National Assembly elections. Obi was not declared the victor in the presidential contest, but everyone knows that a symbolic and psychosocial boundary of an epic magnitude had been crossed: Obi had proved decisively that Nigerians were willing to make a man from the South-East their president. Many norms and habitudes of the Nigerian political order were upended in these recent elections; this one that was the most astonishing and, for me personally, the most welcome among them.
If there are some on the Socialist Library and Archives platform who would question the appropriateness of applauding a victory won by and for capitalism, I wish to say that the matter is not so simple. As far as we know, there have been only two previous official referendums pertaining to capitalism in Nigeria. In both cases, capitalism lost. Both took place in the 1980s, during the dictatorship of Ibrahim Babangida. In the first case, under the supervision of a body that he set up and called the Political Bureau, Babangida asked the whole country to choose between free-market capitalism and socialism. The country overwhelmingly chose socialism.
In the second case, the dictator put it before the country to decide whether or not Nigeria should take loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on the condition that if we refused to go a-borrowing from those citadels of global neoliberalism, we would be forced to contend with sacrifices that come with national economic independence and self-reliance. The country overwhelmingly rejected neoliberal capitalism by choosing not to take the loans. So much for peddling and believing the myths of Nigerians being the world’s most “natural” capitalists!
I have said that as a dictator, Babangida compelled Nigerians to participate in those referendums in which, by the way, he expected the country to vote for capitalism. With Obi and the Obidients, it is an entirely different dispensation, one in which anything and everything is possible. Indeed, if Obi had won and become president, he would have found out in due course that when you open the door to a national conversation on the things that make Nigerian capitalism the worst in the world, you are opening a Pandora’s box in which you will find not only a variety of capitalisms but also of socialisms.
Obi made “productive” capitalism the central plank in his electoral platform and he went traipsing all over the world in search of its “secret”. This should interest us as Marxists and socialists – this idea that capitalism in Nigeria itself is so wasteful, so backward, so unregenerate that, without losing faith in ourselves as a nation, we should look for the solution out there in the world among the more successful national and regional economic formations of capitalism in the globe. This idea was the initial message or mission that made Obi’s appeal and followership multi-ethnic and trans-regional, especially among the youths and the Diaspora.
Perhaps if Obi had been more forthcoming and more illuminating on the things that were so tragically wrong with Nigerian capitalism, especially as practiced by his fellow presidential candidates, we would have paid more attention to him on the Socialist Library and Archives platform in particular and more generally, the Nigerian Left. But while we on the platform for the most part had little or no interest in Obi’s “production” mantra, millions at home and in the Diaspora paid attention to him, to this particular aspect of his electoral platform.
At any rate, this much I wish to suggest now for our long term, long range, investigation: Nigerian capitalism is so wasteful and anti-human now that to large segments of the youth, the unemployed and the poor, any project or mission of reform of Nigerian capitalism as it is lived and experienced now, will seem like liberation, if not indeed “revolutionary”. Permit me to rephrase this observation: We may take the normally correct view that the struggle between capitalism and socialism is and should be the main content of both our electoral and non-electoral struggles. But what Obi and the Obidients have abundantly shown us is that there are millions upon millions of Nigerians out there at home and abroad for whom meaningful reform of the regnant form of capitalism in the country now would spell liberation.
Ultimately, and according to what we have learned from Marxism, it is an illusion and it is false consciousness to think that capitalism, especially in its underdeveloped, predatory forms, can be liberatory. But in the immediate historical context and given the tragic determinateness of human life and lived experience, the youths and the unemployed and poor people who flocked to Obi and the Obidients will see real improvements in their circumstances, not as illusions and false consciousness but as welcome material improvements and benefits in their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
There is also this factor which, in my opinion, the Nigerian Left must now engage: We have a longstanding tendency to see the struggle between socialism and capitalism mostly, if not completely, in schematic terms. This is why, in my opinion, there is now – and has been for a long time – a gross underspecification by us, the Nigerian Left, of the kind of capitalism regnant in our country. This capitalism is so corrupt, so wasteful, so cruel, so illogical that we can legitimately wonder whether or not we can call it capitalism. Of course, it is capitalism, but of a kind that is so seemingly unprecedented that an electoral platform that promised to bring “production” back into it appeared messianic to millions upon millions of our peoples at home and abroad. In my concluding reflections in this discussion, permit me to focus on this messianic element in the Obidient movement, especially with regard to its relationship to suffering on an epic scale – in the South-East and in the whole country.
What emboldened the ruling party and government to impose the harrowing hardships and suffering of the fuel shortages and the cash crunch on the masses at the climax of the 2023 election cycle? We may never know the answer to this question. For now, we can only speculate. However, what we cannot speculate about is the veracity of the historic fact that in the years and decades of the PDP-APC rulership, mass suffering caused by the economic order and governments has followed an arc of unrelenting expansion and increase, probably without precedent in the last two hundred years since the inception of colonial rule in the country.
At the centre of this phenomenon has been a presidency with a concentration, centralisation and personalisation of power that is probably without equal in all the formal democracies of the world. And as far as the scale of mass suffering under this order and dispensation of power goes, the South-East is perhaps unequaled by any other region in the country, caught as the region is between and under the ravages of the punitive “federal” mission of “Operation Python Dance”; the “protective” anarchro-fascist “stay-at-home” diktats of IPOB; the marauding brigandage of dozens of criminal gangs; and the “benign” economic and social depredations of highhanded state governors of the region, whose practice of the norms and rites of executive governorship in all the regions of the country, takes a spectral form in the South-East.
This, severally and collectively, is the background to the messianism of Obi and the Obidients: Epic, mass suffering in the country at large and in the South-East region in particular. Though they hero-worshipped him and sometimes related to him like a cult leader, neither Obi nor the movement specifically drew attention to this messianism. They didn’t have to because it was in the DNA of their formation, as symbolised, among other things, by the astonishing uniqueness and resonance of their name, Obidients.
It is in the very nature of messianism to avoid specificities and particularities. For this reason, it was enough for Obi to launch the Obidients with the promise, or sacrament, of “production”. In other words, the intimation, the annunciation was that once “production” was successfully restored to Nigerian capitalism, all the evils, all the suffering in the region and the country would gradually but inexorably begin to go away. You cannot ask more from a messianic candidate and movement.
Considering what actually happened in the 2023 elections, it is easy, it is tempting, to dismiss the messianism of Obi and the Obidients as being wildly naive, unrealistic and amateurish. Their opponents deliberately entwined and entrapped them in rabid, primitivising forms of the politics of religion and ethnicity. Evil, pure and mediated, ran freely and wildly in both the conduct and the announcement of the results of the elections, leaving both Obi and the Obidients bewildered and bereft of any contingency plans. INEC was particularly brazen and cynical in its misdeeds, its errors of both commission and omission, so much that up till now, weeks after the elections, it has not yet given either an explanation or justification of the things that went wrong and how it sought to correct them.
No political party or contending electoral platform suffered more from this reality than the Obidients and their adoptive platform of the Labour Party. Perhaps the most unanticipated and surprising thing for the Obidients in the elections is the fact that their messianism dragged them into waters of electoral religiosity that were much too deep and treacherous for them. At the most treacherous point in this vortex and as if they could not help themselves, Obi and some of his followers asked Christian masses around the country to “take back their country”. From whom? They did not say. But given how the Muslim/Muslim ticket of the APC presidential ticket had made electoral religiosity so potentially toxic for all contenders in the fight, it was a major, fatal misstep for Obi and the Obidients to have plunged head first into the boiling waters of this poisoned well. There is also their hymns to lack of “structure”, whose inanity has alreay begun to dog the electoral success of the movement, even before they have assumed the parliamentary seats and occupied the government houses that they won, for how can you plan for and eventually execute policies and programmes without “structure”?
These should not constitute the final or last word on Obi and the Obidients and their extraordinary performance and achievement in the recent elections. On this note, I now move to my concluding paragraphs in this analysis.
Early in this piece, I said that on the Socialist Library and Archives platform the majority of posts about Obi and the Obidients withheld both their support and their interest from the candidate and the movement. I now wish to slightly revise this claim. This is because it was not so much the lack of interest in Obi and the Obidients that was manifested on this platform, as an inchoate and confused interest. Most of those who either strongly supported Obi or wished his prospects well were rather tepid or halting in their support. I confess to having belonged in this category. Then there were those who were so obsessed with Obi and his prospects, positively or negatively, that they could not stop writing about them tirelessly, endlessly.
I suspect that among the many spectacular successes of Obi and the Obidients in the 2023 elections, what stands out the most, what will or should occupy us the most is their implicit “referendum” on capitalism. The essence of their message was/is that because “production” has been taken out of it, Nigerian capitalism is causing untold harm, untold pain and suffering to all our peoples without exception. We are all in the struggle together, they are telling us all. There is no period of tribal or ethnic war looming on the horizon of the present. And it is not true that when footballers from the other African countries play against our national team, they are playing against two countries. There is a profound dialectic between the Obidients and IPOB in this joke that I find haunting and, counterintuitively, find more cautionary than merely or naively reassuring. I would have liked to explore the heuristic ramifications of this trope further in this piece but that will have to be postponed to another discourse.
To my declaration in the analysis that there is no tribal or ethic war on the horizon of the horizon of the present, I wish to add here that we must call and fight for justice for all the victims of ethnically motivated violence during the elections, especially in Lagos. This is absolutely crucial: I do not wish my analysis to be seen as a complacent lionisation of the Obidients. It is very important to state this because it is fairly evident from the already established facts that although Lagos residents and voters who supported Obi and the Labour Party cut across many ethnic communities, those specially targeted in the ethnically motivated violence were predominantly Lagosians of South-East origin. There is relative silence and “peace” now, but there were open and loud drumbeats of ethnic warfare during the elections, especially during the second round of the elections. This “Addendum” will be a permanent part of this preliminary reflection on Obi and the Obidients.
*Biodun Jeyifo is professor emeritus and research professor in Comparative Literature in Harvard University, USA. He is a radical critic, scholar and public intellectual. He has also taught at Cornell University, Ithaca, U.S.A and the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Nigeria.