2027 presidency: Has Peter Obi missed the boat? By Olu Fasan

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LAST week, the Labour Party held its controversial national convention during which its beleaguered chairman, Julius Abure, was re-elected. This was against the wishes of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, which founded the party, and veteran trade union leaders like Hassan Sunmonu and Ali Chiroma, who urged Abure to resign. But the party took another perverse decision. It reserved its ticket for the 2027 presidential election for Peter Obi, the party’s candidate in last year’s presidential poll. Why is that wrong?

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First, it is presumptuous to name someone as the presidential candidate of any political party three years ahead of a presidential election. Second, the decision undermines Labour Party’s democratic credentials. It is only in communist China or autocratic Russia that the position of presidential candidate is foreclosed in favour of one person and against others. For instance, although Joe Biden and Donald Trump are shoo-ins for the candidacy of their respective parties in the US presidential election this year, neither was declared a sole candidate. A party that wants to govern a country must respect democratic norms, and not behave like a communist politburo.

Of course, Obi would easily win any future Labour Party presidential primary. Here’s someone who transformed a fringe party almost into a national election-winning machine. Indeed, it’s a plausible proposition that Obi won last year’s presidential election or pushed it into a runoff. According to INEC, Obi won 6,101,533 votes, or 25.4 per cent; that’s despite his party having no state governor and no federal or state legislator – basically, no structure! While APC had agents in 176,223 of the country’s 176,848 polling units, achieving 99.7 per cent coverage, and PDP had agents in 176,588 polling units, with 99.9 per cent coverage, Labour Party had agents in 134,874 polling units, managing a 76 per cent coverage.

The British playwright Tom Stoppard famously said that “it is not the voting that makes a democracy; it is the counting”. Given the propensity of state governors and other elected politicians to use their incumbencies to manipulate election results, it’s arguable that Obi’s votes were altered in APC and PDP controlled states, and that if the short-changed votes were added to his official 6.1m tally, Obi probably beat Bola Tinubu or pushed the election into a runoff, with him being one of the two run-off candidates. That postulation would annoy some people, but it’s a reasonable inference. That said, the Supreme Court has spoken, and the matter is closed. Obi, too, has moved on from the 2023 polls.

Well, not from presidential politics. Since last year’s presidential election, Obi has maintained heightened visibility through high-profile appearances and interventions. He has positioned himself as the main opposition leader, acting, as someone put it, as “Shadow President”. What’s more, he talks about the “OBIdient movement” as if he’s saying: Get ready for 2027! But can Obi surpass his 2023 performance and breast the tape in 2027?  Truth be told, the landscape will be different in 2027, and Obi must be realistic and manage his expectations and those of his supporters.

First, a general point. Obi is displaying political naivety. Recently, he said: “We promised to build Nigeria; we did not promise to build a New Labour Party.” What a preposterous statement! Nigeria runs a party-based democracy and doesn’t allow for independent candidacy. The Constitution states in section 131: “A person shall be qualified for election to the office of the President if – (c) he is a member of a political party and is sponsored by that political party.” How can any politician build a nation if he can’t build a political party. Serious politicians build viable political parties. Emannuel Macron had a movement but also built a strong party, En Marche, that won him power in France in 2017. But Obi puts his faith in a “movement”, not a party. That’s not how democracy and the party system work.

Apparently, Obi is considering dumping the Labour Party. He hinted at this when he said: “If we can’t change the Labour Party, we will leave them.” He will join Atiku Abubakar as Nigeria’s foremost serial defectors. From APGA to PDP; from PDP to Labour; from Labour to where next? But political nomadism is not a new kind of politics, and political nomads are rarely trusted with national leadership. It’s sheer opportunism to see political parties as mere special purpose vehicles for power. Serious politics requires stickability, not fluidity of party loyalty, and requires investing in strong political parties.

But beyond the general point, there are challenges ahead. First, many of those who supported Obi in 2023 were not Obidients. They included those who hated Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket; those who rejected Atiku because they didn’t want another Northerner to succeed President Buhari; and those who believed the next president should, based on fairness, be of Igbo extraction. Can Obi sustain that coalition in 2027 when the issues may not have the same salience as they did in 2023? The jury is out!

Second, anyone who thinks Tinubu would be like Goodluck Jonathan and allow himself to be kicked out of power is living in cloud cuckoo land. Tinubu will fight tooth and nail and use his power of incumbency to the fullest, including through settlements and co-options, to retain power. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did a great disservice to Nigeria’s democracy by making it impossible to challenge a presidential election result.

Finally, there’s the geopolitics. It’s a settled convention that if power stays in the North for eight years, it must return to the South, and vice versa. In 2019, Southern leaders decided to support Atiku against Buhari, but gave him a condition: he must only do one term to complete the North’s two terms. They would not countenance a three-term Northern presidency. Indeed, in 2019, Atiku campaigned to run for one term.

Similarly, the North will not countenance a three-term Southern presidency. So, even if Obi wins in 2027, he will only do one term. But then, some may wonder why they should elect a president for only one term. They may be torn between sticking with the devil they know (Tinubu) and electing the angel they did not know (Obi). That’s a landscape configurator.

Yet, nothing is inevitable. But Tinubu’s presidency has created a dangerous new normal. Obi can’t ignore that reality. “Obidients” alone won’t make him president. A smart politician needs a movement and a viable party. He must invest in the latter.


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