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Nigeria’s presidential ray of hope – too good to be true?

By MADELINE GUEST



Oppressive policies, tampered voting, and failing economies have plagued Nigeria for decades. Despite reinstating a democracy in 1999, it has demised from its position of Africa’s strongest economy as a result of corrupt leaders, especially with the All Progressive Congress (APC). However, for the first time in over twenty years, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) is offering a glimpse of egalitarian hope for Nigerians, with significant poll leads.


On 25 February 2023, a presidential election will occur, with the guarantee of a new leader and over 12 million new voters participating. That could hopefully pave the way for a more opportune and reforming government to arise. Yet with the deeply rooted failings of Nigerian politics, is it too optimistic to be buying into a liberal state?


Obi, the past state governor and vice president candidate, has risen to power with his appeal to those who have suffered under economic decline and political misrepresentation for decades. Painted as the humble man of the people, known for carrying his own airport luggage, he believes he “can do it better” than previous rich and corrupt politicians focused only on their own gain.


Following years of jihadist terrorism and rising crime rates, Obi sees improving national security as his “number one priority”, hence his aims of creating a better equipped security forces. Furthermore, he warns of the depth of Nigerian economic misconduct: “I tell people every day, the money people are sharing is just stolen money, it is not their money”. He is subsequently looking to give the central bank more independence with fewer trading restrictions, in hope of fostering economic success and recognising the ‘rich’ potential of Nigerian natural resources. These reforms appear a grand phenomenon when comparing his policies to that of his more conservative opponents.

In light of this manifesto, against all predictions, Obi has taken an early claim in the presidential race, taking a poll lead of over 15% of points from his supporters (“Obi-dients”). His public appeal to the newly voting youth population has proved a highly calculated yet successful tactic. However, he is not without his flaws. Ebenezer Obadare of the Council on Foreign Relations illustrated how “relative to the field […] he is a saint, more or less”, but his relatability can only translate so far into meaningful policies.


Looking at his competition, opposition candidates Bola Tinubu of the APC and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have been equally responsible within their parties for the misrule of Nigeria. Abubakar has received strong accusations from the US Senate of transferring $40m worth of “suspect funds” into America. Similarly, America froze Tinubu’s assets, linking them to drug fundings. This rightfully disadvantages both candidates, minimising international support and validation.


Both have made dramatic claims to decentralised economic reforms, promising contributions to social prosperity, yet both also hold histories of segregation against non-elites. In the past, Tinbubu has labelled himself as a progressive leader, but mirrored attitudes upheld by Abubakar’s previous government. Furthermore, Abubakar claims he was the first to identify Nigeria’s developing debt but showed no move towards reparation. Here, it is evident that Obi would be the best fit to facilitate a just Nigeria, with the cleanest past of the available candidates.


Historically, however, Nigerian politicians, like Abubakar, have often changed their promised course of improved economic policies once gaining power. Instead, they have directed state resources to benefit themselves, like with fixed exchange rates. Frustratingly, there is no evidence that Obi would not follow this same trajectory when in office, particularly in light of his selective frugality and past allegations of undeclared assets. In addition, the LP does not have the member capacity to win the Senate or House of Representatives, nor to fund campaigning or, as is common in Nigerian elections, bribery. This leaves the LP to only work towards Obi’s presidency, forced to function under a different elected government body. Obi should have the strongest following in this election, but these institutional barriers overpower his goodwill.


Obi has influenced young, urban voters on social media and intimate interviews in such a way that he currently has an unexpected lead against his opponents. But, in a state so enshrined in tradition and political corruption, his optimism simply seems too good to be true. Obi himself has described this presidential race as “a case of David and Goliath” and, if Nigerian history is anything to go by, it may just be too great a battle to win.


Image: Flickr/ LSE Africa Summit



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