/ 8 October 2022

Who is Peter Obi, and why is he making the Nigerian establishment so nervous?

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Obidients: Peter Obi’s supporters fly the Labour Party’s flag during a march of one million for the presidential candidate ahead of Nigeria’s 2023 general elections. Photo: Kola Sulaimon/AFP

It is not easy to get 2 000 Nigerians to sing the national anthem as if they mean it.

On a Monday evening earlier this month, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, Peter Obi did exactly that. He was there to give a speech on the role of the Nigerian diaspora in civic leadership, as part of his global tour.

But the audience was not really there to listen to his address; it was frequently interrupted by chants of “Obi, Obi, Obi.” They were there to see the politician they believe could be the next president of Nigeria; of the man they and others think could turn the country’s fortunes around.

Nigeria’s presidential election is in February next year. The frontrunners are Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the former governor of Lagos, and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a former vice-president. 

But a surge in support for Obi, running on the ticket of the Labour Party, has analysts and voters wondering about the potential for a major upset.

In Los Angeles, Pat Utomi, an academic and a Labour Party stalwart, tells each audience member to call five people in their village to tell them about Obi and his plans to transform Nigeria. “This is a movement, not a political party,” he declares. The movement, and its adherents, have a name: the Obidients.

Political resurrection

Obi’s background is in banking. He first entered politics in 2003, when he contested for the governorship of Anambra State in the south of the country. At the time, he was ridiculed and nicknamed “Obi the boy”. 

From village to village, Obi spoke to the Anambra youths who were tired of bad governance and godfather politics in the state. A quiet revolution took place. After a lengthy legal tussle, he was declared the winner in 2006, and served two terms.

His time in the governor’s residence in Anambra has become the foundation of his political appeal today. In his trademark black native attire, and with just a few aides walking beside him, Obi’s public image was not that of a typical Nigerian politician. 

Even more atypical were the state’s finances under his watch; unlike almost every other governor in the country’s history, Obi saved money during his tenure.

In 2014, when he left power in Anambra, he was granted a chieftaincy title: Okwute (the rock).

After a period running the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission, Obi returned to politics for the 2019 election as running mate to Atiku Abubakar. They lost to incumbent Muhammadu Buhari. 

As late as March this year, Obi was campaigning against Atiku for the PDP’s presidential nomination. When it became clear that Atiku was going to win, Obi defected to the Labour Party. The consensus among political analysts at the time was that Obi had dug his own political grave.

The consensus was wrong.

Challenger: The Labour Party’s candidate, Peter Obi.

Third way

In October 2020, young Nigerians took to the streets to protest against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a Nigeria Police Force unit notorious for illegal detention, torture, extortion and killings. 

They demanded an end to police brutality but found themselves on the receiving end of state violence, culminating in the reported killing of at least 12 protesters by soldiers at Alausa and Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. 

The government may have quelled the protests but they had ignited a political consciousness. With 70% of the population under the age of 30, this can be a powerful force for any politician who can harness it.

Enter Obi. With his reputation for good governance and his disdain for the trappings of office, he represented a far more plausible candidate for change than either Tinubu or Atiku, both of whom are mired in corruption allegations. 

Over the past few weeks, Obidients have taken to the streets, flying the Labour Party flag over Lagos, funding billboards emblazoned with Obi’s face and donating offices across the country to be used for campaign planning and coordination. Logistical support too has come from the Nigerian diaspora, which is why events like the one in Los Angeles are so important to his campaign.

His main rivals remain better funded and organised. The APC and the PDP have national reach developed over years, and can call on many political heavyweights in support of their respective causes.

Obi is unfazed, he insisted in June when he received the Labour Party nomination to run for president. “The 100-million Nigerians who live in poverty will be the structure. The 35-million Nigerians who don’t know where their next meal will come from will be the structure.”

A verse in the Bible reads: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” Obi’s supporters have tweaked it for their slogan: “Obidience is better than sacks of rice,” referring to a tactic used to buy votes.

This fervour has propelled Obi from fringe candidate into the mainstream, but it has also masked potential weaknesses. Last year, the online newspaper Premium Times reported on a web of shell companies in tax havens controlled by Obi. He admitted he had not declared these assets.

Nor is there much clarity on how he plans to turn Nigeria around. 

A few months ago, such policy vagueness didn’t matter, because no one thought that Obi had any chance of taking power. But a Bloomberg poll this week found that of voters who had decided how to vote, some 72% were voting for Obi. The poll was conducted through an app, however, which excludes nearly two-thirds of the population who don’t have smartphones.

But it does prove that Obi and his followers have forced the country to take him and the youthful constituency he represents seriously.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download free copy here.