ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi Amuta. Politics as usual has run into trouble. Decades of political bad behaviour have birthed a new and subversive urgent counter force, a movement with a momentum of its own. An unusual man in black with a husky voice and a shy mien has mounted the soap box with a message of fearsome urgency and unanimous appeal.
Perennially clad in the anonymity of black outfits, Mr. Peter Obi, a modest man with a message bigger than himself is at the front door. Perhaps more for good than for ill, the movement in the making variously called “Obidients” or “Obi-Datti” after its main political drivers, will likely alter the political landscape of Nigeria for a long time.
What is unfolding before our eyes is mostly unintended. But it is coming at a most auspicious moment. A crucial general election offers our democracy an opportunity to renew itself peacefully through the electoral process.
But this election season is like no other one in the history of our country. The challenges that await urgent political action are unprecedented. The Nigerian state is tottering with institutional incapacity. Fierce armed gangs of sundry identities have besieged the nation from nearly every corner.
The theory of absolute sovereign control of the monopoly of force as a definition of the nation state is in today’s Nigeria untenable. The death toll from violent insecurity surpasses that in a formally declared war.
Hardship and poverty are taking casualties and enrolling millions into an army of desperate survivalists. The multitudes that rowdily throng to Peter Obi’s sporadic outings are hungry for an unusual leadership with a different politics to surmount our countless woes. The note of urgency is palpable.
gentle guest that somehow makes a rowdy entrance each time he comes calling. He can hardly be ignored.
Peter Obi and the omnipresent movement building around him are everywhere and gathering momentum by the day.
Rewind to two months back. By the time the presidential conventions ended in late June/early July, no one anticipated that anything different from the predictable two- party albatross would change. By the outcome of that largely transactional process, it was going to be either the All Progressives Congress or the Peoples Democratic Party, a choice between two rather familiar houses of mammon. Nigerians were once condemned in a binary choice between a lame and a cripple.
Suddenly, Mr. Peter Obi shows up in a gentle rebellion against his former party, the PDP. He quickly emerged as the presidential candidate of a hitherto non-descript and lacklustre Labour Party.
There was nothing new about either the Labour Party or even Mr. Obi himself for that matter. Both could conveniently be ignored as neither spectacular nor unusual. The last time Nigerians heard of Mr. Obi, he was Mr. Atiku Abubakar’s running mate in the 2019 contest. He made a few notable noises then that merely brought the perspectives of an Onitsha market trader into timid national focus. He highlighted the consequences of economic recklessness and leadership prodigality whenever he found an opportunity. But he was not the main masquerade.
It was someone else’s show and dance. He was merely the support cast of Mr. Atiku, an all so familiar mascot of an ancient cult to whom the dance belonged.
But now as his own man, Mr. Obi has quickly transformed into something else. He has lent his hoarse raspy voice to the expression of something that no one in the past dared name. He has spent the last few weeks stomping the nation, naming the many things that have troubled Nigerians for decades. He has shed his personal mask and assumed the mantle and face of spokesperson of every troubled Nigerian.
It is not Obi but his message that has ignited an unfamiliar flame among Nigerians. Conversations in market places, buses, churches , mosques, board rooms, barber’s shops and campuses are no longer complete without discussions about the man in black as the embodiment of what every sensible Nigerian wants in the next leadership of the country.
He has defied animosity and any form of bitterness. He refused to embrace the usual divisions that have made our politics episodes of vicious warfare. For Obi and his followers, this hour is not the turn of any nationality, creed, section or person. It is Nigeria’s turn to become great by removing the shame of generations of its citizens.
His message belongs to this time and this place. It also belongs to all times and all places where the politics of elite distance and greed has laid nations waste and rendered peoples destitute.
It is an urgent message carrying an idea whose time has now arrived. It is the idea of Nigeria as a land of hope and possibility. It is about the urgency of a rescue mission to free Nigeria from the vice grip of what the French would call the sins of the ancien regime, the old order and its defining politics.
It is a rejection of the politics of anything goes, of ‘Ghana Must Go’ bales of cash ferried around at night to purchase the conscience of those, who decide the fate of many. of our land have found a rallying cry, someone to carry the blood stained banner rescued from Lekki Toll Gate.
It is something that had been simmering under the surface, ready to erupt. It briefly peeped in during the brief EndSARS surge. It is the clear message from those we have been waiting for, the youth of Nigeria united by a rejection of the old order and its politics.
It is the voice of those impatient to wait another day for the sweetness that was long promised and long denied. The message is something that defies a label or a name. It defies geography or ethnic identity. Those who have tried to pigeonhole either the message of its carrier have come against a barrage of incendiary anger from every corner of Nigeria and the world where Nigerians live.
And yet the message has become a tectonic force, a moving locomotive of history that no one in their right senses can ignore. It is something beyond the cheap blackmail of ethnicity, religion, and geographical permutations.
It means politics to the power of infinity. Yet it is not politics as usual. It is the politics of No! An open rejection of stasis, the power to say No! ‘Even in thunder’ as the late poet Christopher Okigbo wrote. It is a resounding No! in the united voice of those long denied a voice.
That voice has broken out and become a force. That force is growing into a movement. The force they call ‘Obidients’ is not a party. It is not a personality cult. It is the message of a movement that has found a suitable voice and convincing mascot to carry it to the arena of national attention.
In a sense, then, we all, the common folk of long betrayed Nigerians, created the Obidients. They are not party faithful. They are not devotees of a cult. They are not worshippers of any hero or subscribers to any known myth. They are Nigerians eager to reclaim a decent nation from too long a political captivity. Above all, they seem poised to retake their nation as their entitlement.
Mr. Obi has only just emerged to reduce the aspiration of most Nigerians into a simple message: It is time to take back our country! The new movement is a gathering storm; hard to ignore and tempting to embrace.
It has identified the prevailing ruling class and its politics as usual as the enemy. This coincides with the common perception on the streets that the trouble with Nigeria is embedded in a political tradition that sidelines the people and consigns them to eternal poverty. In the logic of this messaging, there is no need for a detailed apportionment of blame or guilt.
We are all victims of bad politics and deplorable leadership by the rulers of politics as usual. Even the elite of the established parties have acknowledged the logic of the new Obidients movement as a force. Those who want to keep their party affiliations want to use their PVCS for a different purpose this time around.
The rhetoric of the movement coincides with the popular consensus on the streets. That consensus is simply this: it is time to say No! It is a No to the old parties. No to the old style politics and politicians. No to business and politics as usual. It is a no to the rule of aliens, a clan that rules for itself and alienates the rest. A new inclusiveness has been defined. Nigeria belongs to us all.
But in the euphoric welcoming of this new thing, no one has asked what would replace the old order. Even Mr. Obi has only defined his alternative vision mostly by negative signage. He has said what is wrong. He has said what we do not want. But he has been too busy to articulate what follows the day after the fall of Babylon. That is the urgent burden of the new song.
Sometimes Peter Obi has denied his personal ambition and stake, insisting that he is not running for President but is running an errand for the popular sovereign.
He has said that his understanding of his emerging mandate is that the masses want him to rescue and retake the government on their behalf. That is classic populist rhetoric. The rabble and the mob do not rule a country; only the power elite do.
Mr. Obi may not have seen this coming. An ordinary man, a self- effacing trader turned politician without any ideological pretensions or megaphone could never have imagined himself a candidate for national heroism of such volcanic proportions. But that is where the logic of national history and the depressing reality of this anxious moment have placed Peter Obi.
The personal pull of the Man in Black as a messenger of change is that he is one of us. He proudly describes himself as a trader. He is rich by most standards. He is rich because he worked hard to make an impressive amount of money. He was rich before he became governor. He did not take advantage of his privileged office to get hopelessly richer. He is not claiming messianic innocence or some immaculate conception.
He is saying that Nigeria is rich and can be a happier place if its resources are managed better by a more honest leadership that understands the rules of economic management. He has demonstrable anecdotes to back his aspiration.
His moral credentials are reasonably credible in a nation traditionally ruled by successive pageants of crooks and gangsters in costumes of decency.
Unlike the personae of old politics, Obi’s political rhetoric is a language of facts, laced with statistics and animated by common sense. Most of all, it is rhetoric backed by a record of demonstrable transparency.
The trader’s modesty and thrift are its bedrock. Onitsha market thrift and a certain Catholic simplicity and modesty are the major background inspirations of the Peter Obi Phenomenon. But Mr. Obi understands that a nation is neither a mercantile enclave nor a monastery.
Great Questions have arisen. Can a street movement defeat the hegemony of established parties? Can the mere force of incensed mobs trounce traditional party faithful? Can a minority party with neither a state governorship nor hardly any recognisable national legislative presence overwhelm long standing parties that dominate the political space? Can the Labour Party defeat the dominant organised syndicates? Can an individual armed only with a popular message and depressing statistics overturn the entrenched fortresses of vested interest and vicious power?
In short, can Mr. Peter Obi win the 2023 presidential election?
Possibilities abound. First, if the popular movement around Mr. Obi assumes a clear demographic majority among voters in the majority of states, then the man in black could become president with a precarious hold on power. He will have neither a legislative majority in parliament to back him nor the financial heft of some state governors to stand strong.
This could breed instant instability as the entrenched parties could quickly become an opposition coalition with immense political muscle. The newly elected president could be instantly impeached and the country could dive into an instant constitutional crisis.
Second, Obi’s movement by dint of its demographic quantum could score a majority of the popular vote but for some reasons fail to achieve the requisite 25% spread in two thirds of the states. That means there will be a run off between Mr. Obi and the second runner up. A run -off will be determined by a simple majority. So, here again, Mr. Obi and his Labour Party could win with the same constraints. The only survival kit Obi will have is an offer to set up a government of national unity with representation that reflects the voter performance of the various parties. In that event, everybody becomes an ‘Obidient’ by default.
The movement becomes a national movement that kills off the two big parties and eventually also dilutes itself into anonymity. If the Peter Obi movement continues to get stronger as the elections approach, the 2023 presidential election could become more of a referendum on the old political order. Nigerians will troop out to choose between the new movement and the old order and its politicians. In that event, the outcome would be predictable.
There is also a possibility that the Obidients movement loses steam over the next six months. In that case, politics as usual will prevail and the Obidients movement could fizzle out. In that case, either Mr. Atiku Abubakar or Bola Tinubu will step forward to be sworn in as president. My. Obi returns to his shop in Onitsha and slowly peters out as a lonely political totem.
At best, either old party victor could incorporate elements of the new movement into a national unity government designed to kill the new youth surge and stifle the opposition towards a single party hegemony. This scenario is not historically viable. Political forces unleashed by economic and social realities are not easily wiped out.
Whichever of these possibilities prevails, one thing is clear. Peter Obi has rattled the venomous rattle snake of Nigeria’s dangerous power structure. Whether or not he intends it, he and his movement have emerged as a credible threat to the existing power structure of the Nigerian state. Big money is at stake. A long standing geo political hegemony is at stake. Tremendous influence and huge power is threatened. The deep state of entrenched bureaucracy and technocracy s is threatened.
It would be naive of Mr. Obi and his followers to assume that they can uproot this monstrous contraption without a fight. The power establishment is likely to combat the threat with everything at its disposal. A threat to the political establishment is likely to be branded a threat to the nation itself. What began as a partisan political contest could become a battle over the forces of order and those of perceived anarchy. Mr. Obi has set out on a journey whose logic we do not know.
He must view himself as something beyond a pop star. When you step out to contest the power of entrenched power, you must not go in your Sunday best. Maybe, Mr. Obi knows this, hence his wise choice of a simple black outfit. His followers must then follow suit and become an army of warriors in black, Ninjas of the new Nigeria