2023 Election and the Consequences of ‘Obidience’
The 2023 presidential election served as a test not only for Nigeria’s democratic credentials but also as a conduit for certain political figures and their supporters to rekindle deep rooted prejudices and sentiments. The political atmosphere was shrouded in sturdy fabrics of ethnoreligious and regional schisms that weaponized our diversity and prevented many from adequately contemplating the consequences of such divisive inclinations with respect to our politics and democracy.
For proper context, Nigeria’s current political landscape is predominantly controlled by two major parties; APC and PDP. This two-party dynamics has been prevalent since 1999 when Nigeria adopted democracy. Political contests in the country has always been between a ruling party, a major opposition party (or at most two) and other minor opposition parties in the background. Until 2015 when the marriage between CPC and ACN was consummated, major opposition parties were largely representative of regional voting blocs.
The 2015 merger was borne out of the realization that Nigeria’s presidency cannot be won by the sole or combined agencies of popularity, resource strength and sectarian influence. It could only be won by a concerted effort at forging alliances and establishing demographic balances that can assure transnational political cooperation. The APC achieved that in 2015 and was resultantly able to displace the political hegemony that PDP represented at that time.
Contrastingly, 2023 election was defined by the direct opposite of the events of 2015. Instead of consolidating the strength of the PDP which is Nigeria’s major opposition party, it was instead hit by a wave of fragmentations as seen with the emergence of Kwankwaso’s New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) and Peter Obi’s Labour Party (LP). These supposed third forces went ahead to seize political influence from the grip of the PDP in some of their strongholds and cost the party tremendous political capital.
The rise to prominence of Labour Party constitutes the biggest misfortune for not only PDP, but all Nigerian opposition parties. Peter Obi, who was Atiku Abubakar’s running mate in the PDP in 2019 defected from the party in protest against the party’s refusal to zone the presidential ticket to the South. Some reports suggest that Obi also got an early signal that Atiku would not be picking him again as his running mate. These, reports suggest, were his major reasons for defecting to Labour Party.
Obi’s candidature started as a representation of the general agitation for good governance in Nigeria. His Labour Party provided a political platform for Nigeria’s huge population of angry and aggrieved youth, especially those with affiliations(both active and passive) to the leaderless #EndSARS Movement through which mass protests against the government were held in Southern States and some North Central ones in 2020. Obi sparked a consensus among these young people who formed the ‘Obidient Movement’ and became the driving force for his campaign.
The second agitation that Obi symbolized is that of a Southern presidency. There’s this widely held assumption that Nigeria’s presidency is subject to a nationally-binding power rotation arrangement. Hence, after 8 years of Buhari’s administration, the people that hold this assumption expected a seamless rotation of power to the South, particularly to a Christian southerner. Although this assumption is flawed because zoning is strictly subject to the peculiar political dynamics of individual political parties in Nigeria, APC’s zoning arrangement favored the South.
As a result, agitation for the PDP to also zone their presidential ticket to the South became louder. But the party’s zoning arrangement did not favor a southern presidency. This is because for the 16 years of PDP rule, 13 years were administered by a Southern presidency while only 3 years were administered by the North. Jonathan by contesting in 2011 and 2015 (even though he lost) sought to fulfill another 8 uninterrupted years of a Southern presidency. Hence, it was only fair that a Northerner also contests for two consecutive elections (whether he wins or loses).
The APC eventually settled for a Muslim from the South West and the PDP, a Muslim from the North East. Peter Obi of the Labour Party was seen to be the only hope of achieving a power shift to a Christian southerner and he became a symbol for this agitation which he proudly embodied and radiated.
The third symbolism that Peter Obi’s candidacy represented is that of a politico-religious crusade. Although PDP’s ticket had Atiku, a Muslim from the North East and Okowa, Christian from the South South; his candidacy was still invalidated by the agitators of a Southern presidency. Unfortunately for them, the APC decided to settle for a ticket that had a presidential candidate that is a Southern Muslim (which in itself is less preferred by this group of agitators) and a running mate that is also Muslim from the North East. This Muslim-Muslim configuration was strictly borne out of APC’s desire to attain unmatched political advantage in relation to the demographic factors that define Nigeria’s politics. This was considered politically blasphemous and became the final recipe needed to start a political war against all Muslim candidates irrespective of the faiths of their running mates like Atiku.
Resultantly, the ethnic and religious aspects of the factors that strengthened Peter Obi’s candidacy relegated that of advocacy for good governance to the rear and he became a symbol for multi-dimensional identity politics that was successful in polarizing the country’s politics along ethnic cleavages and religious schisms.
From the outset, the impossibility of fulfilling the constitutional requirement of securing not less than 25% of votes cast in at least 24 states including the FCT was glaringly obvious for Peter Obi, not to talk of securing the highest number votes. He knew he could only go as far as securing the states in the South East, some states in the South South, one or two states in the South West and North Central and some fraction of votes from Christian-dominated constituencies of the core North. Notwithstanding, the Obidient Movement-backed “Ellu P” jettisoned traditional political structure-based mode of political mobilization that is usually deeply penetrative in favor of radical media approaches. And he chose to deliberately and unapologetically ride on ethnoreligious sentiments at the expense of fostering trans-national politicking.
Regrettably, the idea of politics as a game of consensus and compromises and an exercise in trans-demographic consensus building, which is critical in Nigeria’s democratic context, was noticeably suppressed in favor of politically motivated ethnoreligious sectarianism. This portended profound political ramifications with severe potential repercussions for Nigeria’s quest for national unity and cohesion.
A man whose performance as governor of Anambra State was mediocre at best; who was a beneficiary and product of the supposed “evil political status quo” as a former member and vice presidential candidate of the PDP; who was fingered in the pandora papers for operating secret overseas companies in tax havens in a manner that violated Nigeria’s laws; who was overly simplistic in his articulation of the solutions to the myriad of problems facing Nigeria and who is popularly known for his rendition of incorrect statistics and incongruous analogies of development stories; was elevated to political sainthood in a short period of time solely because he represented certain sentiments. It was as though there was an epidemic of selective amnesia!
Social media platforms became tools for political mob actions against supporters of other candidates and political parties by the members of the Obidient movement. One had to either join them in embodying their bandwagonist tendencies or risk being vilified and tagged an enemy of development. A section of Nigeria’s media incessantly portrayed him as a political messiah who had all the solutions to Nigeria’s problems and painted all other candidates as Nigeria’s major problems and impediments to progress and development.
But even with all these factors conspiring in his favor, he lost as expected, polling third with 6.1 million votes and securing 25% votes cast in just 16 states. This expected loss is not without dire consequences for Peter Obi as a person and the constituencies whose interests he was seen to be representing.
Specifically, he has been tagged as an agent of a politico-religious crusade that was blatantly furthered by the church and would never be trusted by Nigeria’s Muslim population without whose votes he can never smell the scent of Aso Rock. As I inferred in another article, “the religious and ethnic colourations of the factors that influenced his relative prominence and gave him a comparative advantage in this election would be same that would mar his chances in future elections. Hardly would he ever get the chance to command protest votes like he did this time around because of APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket. He is basically done”.
Secondly, his candidacy and eventual loss at the polls did as much harm to his political career as it did to the general Igbo presidency agitation. Unlike the PDP where a South Eastern presidency was possible in 4-8 years especially with Atiku who promised to personally lead this charge, APC’s South western Presidency with Tinubu which is likely to run for 8 years assures a rotation back to the North for another 8 years in line with the party’s zoning arrangement. This makes it 16 years of South western and Northern exclusive presidency. All courtesy of Peter Obi, the South East has been rendered incapacitated in the quest to securing the presidency for the next 16 years unless a significant disruption of the status quo is experienced which is not expected due to the lost opportunity that was not utilized in the 2023 election.
Thirdly, the parochial tendencies of the members of the Obidient movement (especially the Igbos) as deeply embedded in the manner through which their campaigns (of self-righteousness and entitlement) were fostered have widened ethnic intolerance and further compromised the possibility of a sustainable sociocultural handshake between Igbos and Hausas as well as the Yorubas. This seems to be further exacerbated by the subsisting manner in which some Igbo supporters of Peter Obi have continued to stereotype the Hausa/Fulani by tagging them as terrorists and Yorubas as rascals even after the elections. Interestingly, same set of people have started to complain of victimhood (what they like to term ‘Igbophonia’) which most consider self-inflicted — what a juvenile attempt at ad hominem!
As overbearing as the implications of Obidience to Nigeria’s political and sociocultural prospects may seem, it still presents us with an opportunity to learn significant lessons which are essential for the rectification of the fault lines that have been further emboldened by their misadventure. As stated in the opening paragraphs of this article, it is now clear that Nigeria’s presidency can never be won by the sole or combined agencies of popularity, resource strength and sectarian influence. Neither can it ever be won through political mobilization methods that are entirely fueled by sentiments and emotions irrespective of the strength of the media power behind their propagation.
Winning presidential elections in Nigeria requires building bridges across the nation’s demography and evoking transnational consensus on the need to stand on a candidate’s mandate. Expression of excessive entitlement and self-righteousness in the quest for securing power by a people only breeds resentment and isolation. Dexterity in political bargaining and deliberateness in playing this game of consensus and compromises is what is required in order to succeed in this exercise in fostering transnational alliances.
As for political parties, the events of the 2023 presidential elections have further proven the fallacy of the third force in Nigeria. As posited in my article titled 2023 Elections: Nigeria and the Third Force Fallacy, “the formation of APC in 2014 has greatly stalled chances for the emergence of any other strong coalition or third force movement” that is capable of dislodging a ruling party. Unless APC disintegrates, it will take a strong alliance of opposition parties just as the ACN, CPC and a section of APGA and ANPP did in 2013 to end the reign of the ruling party.
In the end, ‘Obidience’ has proven to be a lost cause with great long term consequences on our political and sociocultural fabric. We must never allow for such misadventure to befall us again.
Abdulhaleem Ishaq Ringim is a political and public affairs analyst. He writes from Zaria and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org