Cultural Comment

The Perils of a Potential Fork in the Road

Peter Obi is not—and will not be—the messiah many want him to be, and if that doesn't matter to them now, when should it?

An image of four actors in the Nigerian 2023 general election: Peter Obi, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar, and Muhammadu Buhari
As the Nigerian general elections comes to a head, many have gazed into the abyss, would it gaze back at them? Illustration by Enoch Jr Chinweuba

In the 2011 presidential election when Buhari ran under the now-defunct Congress for Progressive Change, I was a sixteen-year-old with his first staunch involvement in a presidential campaign. I didn’t know who Mr. Buhari was but the people around me did, and they swore that he was the man for the job.

In the weeks leading to the election, we adorned the blue shirt and face cap that bear the party’s logo, and roamed the street, sharing flyers, information, and our goodwill to those who wished to have it. We wielded the sword of our democratic choices ruthlessly as we were entitled to. Under the circumstances and from the ashes of Nigeria’s dire disintegration, we believed a phoenix had risen and we needed to spread his gospel, one of progressive change.

In those afternoons of our rally, there were those who believed like we did and there were others in stark contrast. In between were those who would give you a puzzling look of disbelief, that if you paid enough attention, caused a crack in the walls of your beliefs. But whenever I got one of those long cold stares that damaged some of my unfounded beliefs, I repositioned my face cap, remembered the emblem sewn into it, and went with the crowd, chanting and dancing heedlessly.

On April 14, two days before the presidential elections, Mr. Buhari gave a sympathetic address on “Creating Hope for the Future”, at the International Conference Centre (ICC), Abuja, in what was his final presidential campaign. There and then, he was consumed, without reservation, by the nasty state of the country that he wept. Two days after, on April 16, 2011, Mr. Buhari lost the presidential election to Mr. Goodluck Jonathan by a margin of more than 25%. Three days after that and a day after the presidential election, on April 17, Game of Thrones premiered.

But unlike everything else in April of 2011, Mr. Buhari’s aspirations wouldn’t be history. He might have lost that presidential election, but he would bide his time and reorganize. He was deeply entrenched in his dedication to the cause of Nigerians and compassion for their sufferings, so much so that “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.”

Four years later, in 2015, Mr. Buhari ran for and became the president of Nigeria under the All Progressives Congress (APC). Since then, Mr. Buhari has been the gift that keeps on giving.

It has been twelve years since Mr. Buhari wept at the ICC and almost eight years since he was sworn in his first term as the president. As he comes close to the end of his second term in office, Nigerians are primarily left with the decision of who to elect as the next president. Their basis for supporting their preferred candidates is as diverse as the number of languages (500) in the country.

Yet, there are those who, out of volition, would simply not vote. They are either pessimistic, cynical, or downright indecisive. While some believe voting would only help put any one of the candidates in a position of autocracy, some are playing both ends to the middle: the mistrust for their candidate of choice is high enough that they won’t vote for him, but not high enough to make them vote for anyone else. And some have become (or always been) mindless and have lost all integrity (if they had one, to begin with) as they have been swinging from one bad boyfriend to another. There are also the double thinkers who can't seem to be bothered because they believe their prosperity is despite the nation's progressive jurisdiction and so whoever wins or loses is OK, they forget they are part of a societal order with a pre-signed societal contract.

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to, been spoken to, overhead, and heard people—Bolt drivers, lecturers, neighbors, family, friends…—talk about their choice of candidates and their reason(s) behind it, or lack thereof. Without any prior intent on collecting, appraising, or analyzing people’s sentiments and reasoning, it has nonetheless shaped itself into an echo that is worth journalling.

In the echoes that swirl around me, I have heard most people talk about voting for Mr. Bola Ahmed Tinubu (BAT) or Mr. Peter Obi (PO). Sometimes, people talk about Mr. Abubakar Atiku (AA), and no one spoke about Mr. Rabiu Kwankwaso. Collectively, the reasons are sometimes amusing, ludicrous, or untenable.

The conversation surrounding Mr. Atiku, the seventy-six-year-old candidate, who was vice president from 1999 to 2007, is that he is being wrongly underrated and shoved aside as a shadow candidate despite his experience on the federal stage. None of the people I spoke to thought of him as a potential winner, instead, they see his candidacy as Dracula-like: he can suck up a sizable chunk of votes without anything real to show for it. They struggle to understand his nagging beliefs and incessant motives and are unwilling to give him a chance citing Mr. Buhari’s pre-presidential conducts as a cautionary tale.

Mr. Bola Ahmed Tinubu is also an experienced politician who was the governor of Lagos in the same years Mr. Atiku was vice president. In the past year of his presidential campaign, he has been an endless source of memes because of many of his tragicomedy performances and antics. And while this might make a certain group of supporters emotionally incandescent and reproachable of Mr. Tinubu’s supporters, they would not be deterred.

Some of Mr. Tinubu's professed supporters talk about the dual cliche of religion and ethnicity, and they subconsciously submit that their vote is for Mr. Tinubu, based on those grounds rather than him being a symbol of righteousness that can steer the country forward through a new path. They admit to his current state of health, historical scandals, and criticisms of his own party, APC, then wave it off as a natural order of life. After all, they’d say, everyone has their challenges in life.

Some have a sinister feeling of indebtedness to cast their votes for Mr. Tinubu either through their own will or through a forced obligation, for the fear of retribution or simply because they are thoughtlessly stuck. They admit that being loyal—for better or worse—trumps being mindlessly obliged. After all, they’ve always voted for APC. Why should they stop now?

Several others of Mr. Tinubu's supporters think, and this is amusing, rather crudely, and sometimes impartial, that Mr. Tinubu deserves to be president, as many in the football world thought Messi deserved a world cup (obviously before he won one.) If the country was a trophy, they'd simply hand it over to him.

A lot of things are obscure in Mr. Tinubu's camp and circle. As he criticizes and accuses the government of the day, every now and then, in his campaigns, you can see the people in his circle or close to him (on stage) sometimes laugh at him, or even wince in their transient disapproval. Watching those tapes, one begins to ponder the authenticity of that circle.

Hearing anything different from that side is very rare and almost non-existent, but in the rubble, are several people that genuinely—regardless of religion or ethnicity—think Mr. Tinubu is one of the more experienced candidates and politicians who would be able to navigate his way through Nigerian politics to an unforeseeable utopia. And some simply want to vote for him because they’re not buying what the other candidates are selling, that is if they’re selling anything at all.

However, if you’ve been paying attention and ingesting the [social] media and publicity of it all, then you can tell Mr. Peter Obi has something to sell and is the most interesting prospect, at least, on air. His candidacy is a refreshing and courageous take on the status quo and the people in his camp (AKA Obidients) are often a diverse and mixed set of religions, ethnicity, and age (mostly, youths). And their thoughts, reasons, and rationale siphon into one coherent message of “change."

Religion and ethnicity, the twin touchpoints that stoke the embers of Nigerian politics are also diseases Mr. Obi himself isn't immune to. Some Obidients, if not many, are also voting for Mr. Obi because of religious and tribal affiliations, that's a given.

It is not surprising to see many youths rally around Mr. Peter Obi. Many, like him, enjoy a challenge, and Mr. Peter Obi has shown throughout his campaign that he is approachable, welcoming, and receptive, although if you are going to be president, history shows, those qualities can only get you so far, before and during your presidency.

Despite Mr. Obi's continuous rhetoric, there are several of his people (again, religion and ethnicity) who know [of] him and don't believe in him. Also, do not take the razzmatazz of Obidents at face value. A sizable number of them have driven people away from Mr. Obi's side, prevented transitional conversions, and slowly, but surely, caused a strained belief in him, merely because of the sinister acts and zero-sum game that they have played over the past few months.

They are disillusioned, perhaps by the overtures of their endorsed candidate, brittle about the prospect of a nemesis, self-righteous, and point-blank arrogant to anyone who dares have a different opinion, perspective, or choice, never mind that some of them voted for Mr. Buhari—at least once—in the last two general elections.

With those kinds of acts, if they can forget (that is if they knew to begin with) that without diverse opinions and competition, the need for their own very opinion wouldn’t exist in the first place, one is forced to question their sensibilities and moral high ground. If one was to be unnecessarily futuristic, one could even begin to imagine what Mr. Obi's presidency will be like with these kinds of people behind him. Ultimately, their collective attitudes were attacks on the freedom of speech and choice of their adversaries, the very objects they themselves will need to hold Mr. Obi accountable should he become president.

They have essentially become “stans” and are willing to even bully any of their own for having any reservations against Mr. Obi. They perceive their candidate of choice, as a groupthink, as the one, forgetting that one is a lonely number. They believe him like many have done to several candidates before them, to be the absolute liberator. But it doesn't take much to see through some of Mr. Obi’s claims and persuasions that just might be what Nigerians want to hear. Sometimes, listening to him, one ponders the potential of his emphasized reception and multitasking prowess, especially when on a grand scale as the federal level where he would be obligated to manage Nigerians.

The online attacks on some of Mr. Tinubu’s supporters have persisted over time. With them, you can immediately feel the skulk in their words when they tell you they are basically going to vote for Mr. Tinubu because the Obidients have been abusive, bad, and disrespectful to them and their unequivocal right to choose. To avoid being reprimanded, these people tend to carefully probe you about your position in a dialogue before unleashing their perspective and rationale on you. Objectively, it is not hard to empathize with them.

Among Obidients, while some may not want to give the devil they know a chance, some are completely wary of the angel they do not know. They re-iterate the need for caution because of the rampant incoherence, impracticalities of set expectations, and a heightened and incorrect sense of “change" as it relates to the process and challenges of nation-building. Just think about this video from Vice on how New Zealand fell out of love with Jacinda Ardern, or how Hasan Minhaj on Patriot Act scrutinizes Justin Trudeau’s—Canada's prime minister—reputation as a champion of progressive policies.

It is true that Nigeria is not New Zealand or Canada but the foundational elements apply: if Mr. Obi wins the presidential elections and becomes the president of Nigeria, he would not always get things right, intentionally or unintentionally so. And with the false sense of change from many of his supporters, set expectations, and swift demand for change, how much patience will many of his pre-presidential supporters be willing to have?

This isn’t a claim or call that expectations be set low, it is that they are set accordingly because regardless of who wins the presidential election, it is going to be a hard and long walk to freedom. Just ask China.

But unlike Mr. Atiku, the quiet strategist, and political veteran, it seems that Mr. Obi has begun that walk if you have been paying enough attention to the online hype. Over the months, his likeness has grown organically. He has energized Nigeria’s young voters, but will they turn out for him?

It is hard to see Mr. Tinubu embark (now or later, if ever) on that long walk but he has been one of the political veterans in this campaign so far and I do not doubt that he and his supporters have plans to win this election, however crude, unimaginable, or passionate his opponents might feel about that. Mr. Peter Obi will do well to respect his opponents, something many of his supporters have particularly failed at.

Changing the minds of Nigerians on a grand scale is already a feat for Mr. Peter Obi. He has made people feel incentivized to support and vote for him, not compelled or threatened to, and he has sparked a national consciousness (where a lot of Nigerians are not making the ethnic or religious excuse) that will last well into the foreseeable future. He might not be the messiah they seek but he has created a fork in the road and a path carved out of the ruins of shared pain, mistrust, and betrayal, of those who have mostly put this country on the map for all the wrong reasons. If he wins this election, in four years, we will know what he is made of; if not, then, maybe the gods are not to blame.

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