Is a new Nigeria really ‘POssible’?

The Labour Party’s Peter Obi has disrupted Nigeria’s traditional two-way presidential contest with promises of meaningful change. But can he go all the way?

Supporters of Peter Obi attend a rally
Supporters of Labour party's presidential candidate, Peter Obi attend a campaign rally, ahead of the Nigerian presidential election in Lagos, Nigeria, February 11, 2023. [Nyancho Nwanri/Reuters]

If Nigeria’s presidential election was scheduled for next year, Peter Obi, candidate of the trade union-backed Labour Party (LP), would likely win outright. But Nigerians are going to the polls this Saturday, and despite being the candidate with the highest momentum, it is not at all certain that Obi will be the one declaring victory.

Whether he eventually wins or not, however, Obi’s current position as a leading contender for Nigeria’s highest office, after just a few months of campaigning with a relatively minor opposition party and limited funds, is a remarkable achievement.

One year ago, the election had all the markings of a contest between two old warhorses: Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Tinubu has been eyeing the presidency forever, strategically working his way to the front of the queue over more than two decades. Atiku, meanwhile, has been moving for years from party to party in search of a presidential ticket, saying and doing whatever is necessary to position himself as a worthy contender for the highest office in the country.

A longtime democracy campaigner who confronted military rule in the 1990s, Tinubu’s two-term Lagos governorship and subsequent role in building the political merger that enthroned the Muhammadu Buhari presidency have served to position him as the candidate to beat in this election.

In an ideal world, where all candidates are exactly who they claim to be on the campaign trail, Obi’s current momentum would have perhaps been Tinubu’s. But we are not living in an ideal world and a long list of red flags is seriously hindering the ruling party candidate’s chances of securing a victory on Saturday.

Although he has never been convicted of any crime, allegations of money laundering and drug dealing have been looming over the 70-year-old candidate since the 1990s. And even after a political career spanning many decades, the source of Tinubu’s immense wealth still remains a mystery. In 2016, he claimed that he became an “instant millionaire” while working for auditing giants Deloitte and Touche. In 2022, he changed his story completely to suggest that he “inherited great real estate [and] turned the values around”. In the interview where he made the latter claim, he also suggested those questioning the source of his fortunes may be “enemies of wealth”.

Tinubu’s age, ancestry and education history also remain in doubt. While contesting the governorship in 1999, he claimed to have attended primary and secondary schools in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria. Four years later, while running for a second term, he unceremoniously withdrew those claims. Ahead of the current election, he stunningly claimed his academic certificates were “stolen by unknown persons”.

His deteriorating health, evidenced by his unsteady gait, shaky hands and repeated gaffes on the campaign trail, meanwhile, raises concerns that if elected president, Tinubu may struggle to do justice to the demanding job and may require frequent visits abroad for medical reasons, just like the current president.

In many ways, despite his seemingly impressive political resume, Tinubu embodies in himself everything that is wrong with Nigeria’s political culture and gives Nigerians, especially young voters hungry for change, little reason to support his candidacy.

The main opposition candidate, former Vice President Atiku, also appears to be offering more of the same.

Atiku blew his best chance at becoming president in 2003 by conceding the PDP’s candidacy to his boss, despite being a favourite, and he has been desperately trying to make up for this mistake since. At 76, and some three decades after his first attempt at becoming president, many consider Atiku’s best years to be behind him. His party is also no longer the all-conquering force it once was.

Moreover, just like Tinubu, Atiku has a long trail of corruption allegations in his past. In 2010, for example, an investigative subcommittee of the United States Senate detailed in a substantial report how Atiku used offshore companies to siphon millions of dollars to the US bank accounts of his former wife, Jennifer Douglas.

Just like Tinubu, Atiku has neither the reputation nor the youthful stamina necessary to do justice to the presidency and meet the expectations of Nigerians eager to see fundamental changes in the way their country is governed. In other words, he is an “opposition” candidate only in name and a shock victory by him on Saturday would achieve nothing other than keeping the current political arrangement fully intact.

And this is exactly why Labour Party’s Peter Obi, or “PO”, stands a chance of causing an upset on Saturday. Today Obi boasts a large army of young supporters who say “a new Nigeria is POssible”. Unlike the other two leading candidates, he has never faced corruption allegations – a rarity among Nigeria’s political class.

Calm, measured and respectful in his ways, Obi offers a welcome alternative to the hyperbolic performances of other leading candidates. Once Nasir el-Rufai, the irascible governor of the Kaduna State, branded Obi a “Nollywood actor” to drive his argument that the presidential contest is solely between Atiku and Tinubu. Obi refused to hit back with insults of his own and instead urged all of Nollywood to vote for him since he has been proclaimed to be one of them.

Obi insists he is in the race for the people and not for himself, and his message appears to be hitting the right notes with young voters, many of whom are disillusioned with widespread poverty and misery in their country.

Obi’s rise as a contender has sent shockwaves through the political landscape and truly rattled his opponents. Despite the much-criticised lack of structure within the Labour Party, he managed to organically build a large support base and share his message with the masses, convincing many that he may after all be what Nigeria needs at this moment.

But Obi’s campaign is also facing several significant and perhaps unsurmountable problems – problems that are mostly of his own making.

 Obi remained in Atiku’s PDP until May 25, 2022, until it became clear that Atiku would win the party’s presidential primary three days later. Ditching the PDP so late and positioning himself as the new order’s poster boy just nine months before the election has left him with a mountain to climb, particularly as he would be running against two grand masters of Nigerian politics.

His late entry into the race also caused him some practical problems, as the deadline for voter registration in Nigeria ended on August 31, 2022, just a few months after he began campaigning as the Labour Party candidate. This means, all of Obi’s latter-day supporters, including recent converts due to the long-drawn-out insecurity, fuel scarcity and naira crisis, cannot vote to elect him if they did not register for a voter card a whopping six months ago. In essence, the real worth of Obi’s support is limited to the pre-September voting population.

Voters without party affiliations see this Saturday’s election as an opportunity for the emergence of a new Nigeria – one where citizens don’t have to buy their own currency at the black market, queue for fuel despite their country being blessed with crude oil reserves, feed off the crumbs from politicians’ tables, know a “big man” to stand any chance of securing a government job, or watch helplessly as their collective wealth gets stolen.

Many believe Peter Obi is the man who can, as president, make all this happen. But while the popularity and competence of candidates will have some influence over the result of Saturday’s election, it is obvious to many Nigerians that in the end, it will once again be political capital, religion, ethnicity, and most importantly, wealth that determines who will be the country’s next president.

So, under these conditions, is a new Nigeria really “POssible”?

We will all find out soon enough when Nigerians make their decision.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.