It is a measure of success, already, of the insurgent campaign of the presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP) and former governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, that a lot of Nigerians in polite and popular circles alike believe we’ll be having a three-horse race in next year’s presidential elections. But the ultimate measure of success in an election is of course victory at the polls. So, will he win it? With the election still months ahead, no one can answer that question definitively. Still, Peter Obi’s campaign is benefitting from three underlying political currents that are not fully captured by either of the two leading parties or their candidates in a way that will complicate, even if it will not upstage, the expectations of many about the race.
First, the Labour Party’s candidate has emerged as the face of that deeply emotional urge among the Igbos to see one of their own elected as president of Nigeria. Other Nigerians do not fully appreciate how deep the idea of an Igbo presidency runs in the polical psyche of the Igbos and often dismiss it with a wave of the hand, or explain it away purely in terms of a lack of the political skills to negotiate it or the numbers to realise it independently within the Nigerian context, particularly given the inelegant ways in which it has generally been pursued.
But the idea still beats in all Igbo hearts and has reached fever pitch in today’s Nigeria as the only test of their acceptance as Nigerians more than 50 years after our unfortunate civil war. This explains why the overwhelming majority of his supporters are Igbos, even though the man himself has been careful not to appear too much as the candidate for the realisation of Igbo presidency, and why the low hanging fruit, and perhaps a more realistic option, of Peter Obi as running mate to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar in the PDP proved impossible to settle for.
Secondly, the LP candidate also now symbolises that widespread yearning for a “Third Force” in Nigerian politics. For many Nigerians, the ruling APC and the main opposition PDP are both sides of the same political coin which gives you the same value in terms of governance and political behaviour, and the close similarities between the presidential candidates of the two leading parties in this election—Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu—only reinforce the cynicism among those who yearn for a third force. Peter Obi has somehow managed to present himself to this category of Nigerians as the messiah they have long waited for.
His youthfulness relative to Atiku and Tinubu, his quiet mien and carefully cultivated aura of a politician not desperate for power have all added up to his appeal among his supporters beyond his immediate ethnic group in the South East. This is why the things that would normally count in favour of a candidate for presidential office in Nigeria—experience, previous achievements in government or current plans for Nigeria—are generally muted topics among those who would favour him above the others in the race.
And then, there is his highly effective social media campaign. Former President Goodluck Jonathan and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo were also adept users of social media for their various campaigns in 2011 and 2015 respectively. But whereas these two and most other candidates use social media mainly to complement their on-the-ground campaign strategies, for Obi, social media are the core of his campaign. This has enabled him to reach voters who are otherwise disconnected from electoral politics altogether and those to whom political participation requires no more than a tweet. So, how far would all of these take the candidate on Election Day? And what would all these mean to the presidential contest more broadly?
First, the emergence of Peter Obi as the representative face of the urge for Igbo presidency in this election is still relatively recent. But it could well complicate matters for the leading candidates, particularly the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar who won across all the five states of the South East in the 2019 elections with a combined total of 1,693, 485 votes against Buhari’s total of 403, 967 votes in the region. The APC did not win a single state in the South East in both 2015 and 2019, and it would make strategic sense to not expect too much at the next turn, even with a new candidate in Tinubu.
But could Atiku still retain the 76.1 per cent of the votes he took from the region in 2019 against Buhari’s 23.9 per cent in the coming election with Peter Obi in the race? In the context of the politics of 2015, which in many ways extended to 2019, those votes were simply AGAINST Buhari, rather than for Atiku per se. Jonathan won the same five states with a combined total of 2,463, 906 votes in 2015, so it is safe to say that the region simply voted against Buhari rather than for Atiku in 2019. The electoral loyalty of the South East for Atiku would be difficult to reclaim if current trends continue and Peter Obi remains strong in the political imagination of the region’s voters in 2023.
This electoral outlook is made worse for the PDP candidate by the fact that South East voters have never once in Nigeria’s election history split their votes between two different candidates in a presidential election in the manner other regions of Nigeria have routinely done. In 40 years of presidential election results from 1979 to 2019, the votes of the region have always gone overwhelmingly to one candidate or party. This makes the choice of Ifeanyi Okowa, a ‘Delta Igbo’ partner that straddles political identities in both the South East and the South-South, a good strategic choice, but it also means that Atiku would still be well advised to focus more of his campaign attention on the home front than he has done in his previous contests.
Beyond complicating matters for other candidates, however, Peter Obi’s strengths in this election are also at once his drawbacks. The idea of an Igbo president does not mean the same thing to all Nigerians, and the more he is seen as the candidate of the Igbos, the less appeal he would have among voters in other regions in a country where regional affiliation remains the strongest metric of electoral behaviour. Furthermore, his choice of Doyin Okupe, another southerner, would probably exclude more than half of Nigeria in his political project in perception if not reality. It is a reverse of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s choice in 1979 that ended the late sage’s campaign even before it began. An Igbo-Yoruba presidential ticket in 2023, like Awo’s Yoruba-Igbo in 1979, is simply a waste of everyone’s time.
Finally, social media activism is not the same thing as activism on the ground. As Malcom Gladwell argues in his 2010 article for the New Yorker magazine, “Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted”, any on the ground political movement—for elections or anything else—is driven by two important factors: strong ties of family or close friendship among members of the movement, and a hierarchical leadership that ensures organisational discipline from campaign leaders to the foot soldiers. Both of these elements are absent in social media campaigns, and thus limit their capacity to effect any change against entrenched political or economic forces.
The evidence bears this out, from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to Nigeria’s #EndSars: social media campaigns have had little success, except where they are complemented with serious on the ground campaigns as in the case of Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016. So, to the important question of will he win it? I would say that unless these drawbacks change in this election, ask Father Mbaka.