By Rotimi Fasan
IN the last few years since he left office as two-term governor of Anambra State, the Labour Party, LP, candidate in next year’s presidential election, Peter Gregory Obi, has postured as an advocate of youth leadership and political empowerment. This is in addition to calling for probity and fiscal frugality in governance. His apparent vote for the youth of this country and campaign for leadership change is being rewarded by the enthusiasm his campaign has enjoyed among this particularly vocal and mostly urban-based demography of the Nigerian population.
The actual depth and spread of the support of this group is by no means clear and even more dubious is the extent to which it could and would percolate to less animated section of the Nigerian public when campaign actually starts in about three weeks from now. While a lot remains in the region of doubt about the probable outcome of the support Obi enjoys among the #EndSARS Generation, the so-called Obi-dients, there is not a shadow of doubt that many of his media-voluble, often abrasive, if not outright discourteous acolytes, have taken upon themselves the task of selling Obi’s candidature to the rest of Nigeria.
Obi on his part has spent as many years out of government, which he left in 2014 as governor of Anambra State, as he had as governor, beginning from March 2006. This is discounting his brief dalliance with the Goodluck Jonathan administration in a semi-official capacity as the chair of the Nigerian Security and Exchange Commission in 2015. The very circumstances of his ouster as governor, perhaps, left him no better option than to be a youth advocate of sorts, taking up the gauntlet of functioning as an outsider in the realm of politics in which he has had a chequered career.
He first contested for the governorship seat in Anambra in 2003 under the banner of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, what one might call an Igbo-led party (just as the Alliance for Democracy, a Yoruba-led party, was in the South-West at a time) that has dominated the political landscape of the entire South-East aside PDP. But his main rival in that contest and current Minister of Labour in the Buhari administration, Chris Ngige, then of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, was declared winner. Ngige was in the last year of his four-year term as governor when he was sacked by a judicial ruling that returned Obi as the winner of the 2003 election. Obi was hardly a year in office, indeed he was in office for just over six months, when he was impeached.
He went to court and was reinstated by the Enugu division of the Court of Appeal. He had spent only 15 months in office before his four-year tenure was voided by an election that brought in Andy Uba as winner of the 2007 election in the state. Peter Obi’s mandate as governor was later restored in 2007 by the Supreme Court which said his purloined mandate from 2003 only became effective from when it was restored in 2006. A man like Peter Obi should in this context have nothing but faith in the will of God, the dictates of fate and undiluted confidence in the Nigerian judicial system. There must be very few politicians who have had more remarkable experience than him in a political career that is less than two decades.
It would, therefore, be understandable the faith more than realpolitik that appears to drive the zeal he has brought to his campaign for the 2023 elections despite obvious disadvantages that should, in the everyday logic of Nigeran politics, define him as the clear underdog of the three main contenders in the presidential race. This race promises, in the wake of Muhammadu Buhari’s mismanagement of Nigeria’s plural identities, to be no less amenable to ethno-religious considerations than any election prior to the general election of 1964 that heralded the crises that culminated in the Civil War. His campaign, I repeat, has been buoyed more by a stubborn combination of faith and an idealist disposition both on his side and on the side of his supporters.
In terms of the rhetorical construction of governance and what it takes to manage Nigeria in the post-Buhari years, Peter Obi walks the talk. Between 2014 and 2022 he has made the round of many speaking venues to share his idea of governance and especially the economic transformation of Nigeria from a consumptive to a productive economy. He started the ground work for this in the immediate aftermath of his terms as governor of Anambra State where he was noted for his careful, cost-saving management of the state’s purse, his penny-pinching or what Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka of the Adoration Ministry called his stinginess. The bit that has emerged from third party accounts concerning his management style as governor of Anambra shows he was not a cut from the same cloth as the average Nigerian politician.
A friend of mine who worked with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN, and covered the Government House in Anambra when Obi was governor once responded to my enquiry about how life was in the state, especially as he was on what some might consider a “lucrative” beat, by saying Obi did not allow them to eat (all emphasis in the full sense of what that meant in common Nigeran parlance- ala Sunday Afolabi and Bola Ige)- or words to that effect. His frugality which some of his critics have derided as a form of idle storage of funds that could be put to better use but left dormant in banks has been attested by other people. As was his tendency to dispense with the perks often associated with public office.
Peter Obi was impeached for his disagreement with Anambra State’s legislators over mostly financial matters, including his refusal to inflate the budget. His offence was that stark, but space will not permit an elaborate exploration of that point here. For the legislators, he violated laid down procedure.
A man ofPeter Obi’s economic and political background is, however, what Nigeria needs at this moment, if any politician could be taken at their own word and if past experience could serve as evidence. Yet there are a few reasons why his candidacy, should he succeed, may turn out as disappointing if not more calamitous than that of Buhari for whom some of us chose to suspend our disbelief of his abilities following the PDP debacle of the Goodluck Jonathan years.
Buhari’s failure was only accentuated by what now looks like a combination of a congenitally parochial outlook combined with a shiftlessness worsened by old age. But the real reasonswhich will confront any other leader are far more fundamental.