Peter Obi’s supporters got their noses in front of the field in the opening week of the campaigns for the 2023 presidential election. While the two major parties are still trying to put their houses in order, the upstart Obidients are already in the streets showing off their numbers in simultaneous outings across the country.
They appeared to have seized the initiative in this campaign from the moment in June when Mr Obi abandoned his bid for the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and entered the race on the pony of the then unfashionable Labour Party. Since then, the supporters have managed to shove Mr Obi and themselves into the centre of national and even international media attention in their audacious efforts to rewrite Nigeria’s political and electoral scripts.
Adopting their moniker from the candidate’s name and branding themselves as a movement of the Nigerian youth angry with the status quo, they launched their campaign on Twitter, the microblogging platform that had been used so effectively a year and a half earlier for the #EndSARS protests of October 2020.
On Saturday, the Obidients marked Nigeria’s 62nd Independence Anniversary with rallies and street marches in many cities across Nigeria. Although the candidate did not appear in any of the events, his supporters defied the elements and attempts by the authorities to restrict them in some places and poured out in their thousands chanting the praise of the candidate and dancing to Nigerian pop music.
In Lagos, despite an early morning downpour, the supporters gathered at Lekki, Surulere, Ikeja, and Festac Town for what the organisers called a #4MillionManMarch4PeterObi. But they also made themselves seen in Kaduna, Bauchi, Uyo, Warri, Benin and other cities where they caused traffic gridlocks with their carnivals along major highways.
Mocking Bola Tinubu, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) over the impressive numbers at the rallies in areas considered his stronghold, a spokesperson of the Atiku Abubakar campaign organisation, Daniel Bwala, wrote on Twitter:
“They kept saying @PeterObi would steal @OfficialPDPNig votes until they saw the Obidient Lagos rally, then they realized Pitobi is on a mission to plunder Emilokan’s south west votes. Obi’s voters are all over the south west, cities, towns and villages. Hahahahahaha.”
In a second tweet, Mr Bwala also wrote:
The crowd at Pitobi @PeterObi rally in Kaduna despite @elrufai,..,suggest the decline of APC in that state. This is even labour, not PDP, Obi not Atiku. The EA amendment has de-mystified governors. If 2015 APC victory does not humble APC, the 2023 APC defeat would humiliate them.”
The tweets were good music in the ears of the Obidients. One of them responded to Mr Bwala with laughing emojis:
“What a time to be alive. They are no longer living in denial. APC is saying Peter Obi will take PDP’s vote.PDP is saying Peter Obi will take APC’s vote.Ladies and Gents, Peter Obi is the next president of Nigeria.”
Mr Obi has been mocked over his decision to run on the platform of the Labour Party, which had never made a serious impression in a national election. He was the running mate to Atiku of the PDP in the last election and started this one initially hesitant, before declaring his bid for the main opposition party’s ticket. His hesitation was then seen as a signal of his preference to pair again with Atiku, a man he still publicly reveres as “My leader.” His appearance at the public declaration of Atiku in Abuja earlier in the year had lent light to that view.
Thus, when he suddenly announced his departure from the PDP and picked the ticket of the Labour Party a few days later, many observers saw it as an act of desperation. Even the immediate traction that his candidature gained on social media did not impress many observers who noted that the party does not have structures in any state of the federation. He had countered that by describing his supporters as his structures. And with what we have seen over the past four months, and especially in the last few weeks since they took the online campaign to the streets, many may want to pay Mr Obi more serious attention.
The Obidients may be blustering political neophytes. But the marks they are making in this campaign and the attention they are drawing, even from their most arrogant opponents, show their hope of “taking back Nigeria” may not be as illusory as it first appeared.
APC, PDP distracted
While the Obidients are in their elements, the two major parties are being distracted by internal issues. The two had dithered over putting together their presidential campaign councils. This was more surprising for the APC, which appeared to have escaped the post-convention conflict that has manacled the PDP. However, soon after announcing a 422-member council, it emerged that powerful elements in the APC were squabbling over what roles to play in the campaign.
Some of the 23-member governors’ forum of the party complained that their nominees into the council had either been excluded or assigned minor roles. The bickering was confirmed when the draft of a letter was leaked to the media in which the national chairman of the party, Abdullahi Adamu, expressed his frustration at Mr Tinubu not carrying the national working committee along in his preparations for the campaigns. Although the spokesperson of the party, Felix Morka, later denied the authenticity of the latter, the party has confirmed that the list was being reviewed.
This was one of the reasons why the schedule for the inauguration of the council on Wednesday was cancelled. The minister of state for labour and employment, Festus Keyamo, who is the spokesperson of the Tinubu campaign, later said the party will issue an expanded list of over 2000 members that would accommodate all interest groups in the party.ⓘ
However, even that list will not accommodate Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha. Mr Keyamo said President Buhari had directed that the two be excluded from electioneering activities so that they can concentrate on government business in the final months of the administration.
That looks like a convenient ruse. The two men happen to be the most senior Christian officials of the administration who may not be pleased with Mr Tinubu’s emergence as the candidate and his nomination of a fellow Muslim as running mate. Mr Osinbajo was Mr Tinubu’s bitter rival in the party primary while Mr Mustapha was one of the Christian names Mr Tinubu was said to have rejected before settling for Kashim Shettima as his running mate.
While all the fighting over the campaign council was going on, Mr Tinubu suddenly left the country Sunday morning for London. His aides said the trip was to honour an invitation to a meeting by a group that they refused to identify but a section of the media reported that it was for a medical purpose. That report has taken the speculations about the state of the candidate’s health back to the front burner.
The trip also kept him away from a ceremony in Abuja for the signing of a so-called peace accord in which the 17 candidates committed themselves and their supporters to responsible conduct during the campaigns and elections. Mr Tinubu was represented at the event by his running mate, Mr Shettima, who had earlier been reported to be in London with him.
The ruling party candidate’s absence expectedly drew the ire of his critics and the mockery of his adversaries who also noted a trend of his avoidance of public events arranged to bring the candidates together. Mr Tinubu had been absent at a conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Lagos where the candidates were asked to speak on their plans for the country. He also did not turn up at a similar platform organised by the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry where he was also represented by Mr Shettima.
His critics also noted that he has not granted any newspaper an interview or appeared on a live television programme like some of his major opponents. Is the APC candidate avoiding speaking with the Nigerian public and electorate?
Aides said Mr Tinubu will return to Nigeria on Monday ahead of the inauguration of his campaign council and the kick off of his first presidential campaign. The next few weeks on the hustings will answer some of the questions around his person and candidature.
Atiku’s PDP baggage
Atiku faces perhaps bigger problems than Mr Tinubu in his own party. The PDP candidate has inaugurated his own over 600-member campaign council and has made strategic appearances in Enugu and Gombe even while he is yet to formally begin his third campaign as a presidential candidate.
However, since his nomination at the end of May, the PDP flag bearer has been enmeshed in a well-documented rift with the runner-up in the party’s primary, Nyesom Wike. The Rivers governor has since escalated that into a conflict between the southern and northern sections of the party.
Some leaders of the party, including at least four other state governors and many former governors joined Mr Wike in pulling out of the presidential campaign council in protest against the rejection of their demand for the sack of Iyorchia Ayu as the national chairman of the party. They want Mr Ayu to make way for a southern substitute so as to correct a regional imbalance they cited in the party. But Mr Ayu has vowed not to resign and has the backing of the national executive committee of the party which has passed a vote of confidence on him.
The dispute has confronted Atiku with the dire prospect of going to the election without the support of the powerful Rivers governor and his colleagues who have stood on his side. But the clouds darkened considerably more last week for Atiku and the PDP when a financial scandal in the party blew open.ⓘ
Suggesting that Mr Ayu had attempted to bribe them, four members of the national working committee returned sums ranging from N28 million to N36 million paid into their bank accounts by the party. They said they noticed the payment after the media accused them of taking bribes.
Those who returned the money are the the Deputy National Chairman (South) Taofeek Arapaja; National Vice Chairman (South-West) Olasoji Adagunodo, National Vice Chairman (South-south), Dan Orbih, and the National Women Leader, Stella Affah-Attoe. Not surprising, all of them are associates of Mr Wike.
The scandal exposed the PDP to ridicule over its history of alleged corruption by its officials when it ran the federal government for 16 years until its displacement by the APC in 2015.
In spite of being rebuffed several times, the candidate has persisted in his efforts to appease Mr Wike. Both men met again in Abuja on Friday but Daily Trust reported that no truce was reached. The Rivers governor has since that meeting held another one with Mr Obi of the Labour Party. As things stand, PDP may be heading into the campaigns and the elections as a broken party. That, and the blues Mr Tinubu is facing over his decisions in and outside his party, must be sweet music for the Obidients.