When the late Ted Kennedy, the influential Democratic US Senator from Massachusetts endorsed the relatively unknown and young Barack Obama over a superior name brand – Hillary Clinton, he changed the course of the 2008 US presidential election. In his fiery speech that late January, 2008 at the American University, Kennedy said “…there is one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history. He understands what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the fierce urgency of now.”
Although the political environment in the United States and Nigeria is vastly different, there appears to be a parallel in the momentum that propelled Obama to the White House and the current energy among Nigerians as the country decides on President Mohammadu Buhari’s successor in Aso Rock presidential villa Abuja. Faced with unprecedented challenges of poverty, predatory behavior of the elite, and sectarian differences, a plurality of Nigerians agrees that their next president must be a person who understands the “fierce urgency of now.” But the difficult task is how to choose that person? Is the Nigeria electorate able to eschew the bitterness of the past? Can the Nigerian people refuse to be trapped in the patterns of the past?
As a curious observer of Nigerian politics and especially the 2023 presidential election campaigns, one can see that the emergence of the three candidates of the major political parties reflects the political tripod in which the country’s politics rested for too long. It resembles the second republic (1979-1983) in many ways. Shehu Shagari of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) could be compared with today’s Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – both from Northern Nigeria. Similarly, the Obafemi Awolowo of the erstwhile Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and Bola Tinubu of All Progressives Congress (APC) share a common ethnic base – South West Nigeria. Tinubu even wears a similar trademark framed eyeglasses like Awolowo did in his days. The next major candidate – Peter Obi of the Labor Party shares the same ethnic base with the late Nnamdi Azikiwe of the defunct Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP). With the present configuration the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo axis of politics in Nigeria is at play once again – a repeat of history and the contraption that has held Nigeria down for too long.
Old habits die hard
While old habits persisted especially among the older segments of the population, the majority of Americans rose beyond the intractable and protracted racism in the country to elect the first black man to the highest office in the United States. The 2008 election of Obama was the clearest evidence that the world is changing. So it is with Nigeria. There is a spark of hope amid the fierce urgency of now. A wave of change is moving across Nigeria and emerging signs point to the readiness of Nigerians to go beyond the divisions of the past to build the Nigeria of the future.
One of those signs is the full-throated endorsement of former President Olusegun Obasanjo of the Labor candidate – Peter Obi both from Yoruba and Igbo ethnic base respectively. In the past, Obasanjo would be expected to throw his support to his kinsman Bola Tinubu. Like Ted Kenndey’s endorsement of Obama in 2008, Obasanjo’s approval of Peter Obi is evidence of remarkable progress in Nigeria that shuns tribalism or racism. In what could be described as a seminal message to Nigerian youths, Obasanjo while endorsing Obi recognized that that country’s barrier to progress lay in unbridled ethnic loyalty. In his words: “can we let the past go? I appeal to the young Nigerians to stop inheriting other people’s prejudices and enemies. Make your own friends and stop inheriting your father’s enemies. Let’s stop criminalizing and demonizing one another on the basis of the civil war on which we are all wrong.”
In yet another high profile endorsement, one of Nigeria’s best legal luminaries, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) described the presidential candidate of the Labor Party, (LP), Mr Peter Obi as the most qualified person to succeed the outgoing President, Muhammadu Buhari. Babalola who was called to the Nigerian bar 60 years ago, emphasized that “unless you are part of the old system that has brought us to where we are, there is no way you will oppose a young man like Mr Peter Obi, an untainted, young, educated man with ideas from being the president of Nigeria.” Besides Obi’s endorements, Atiku Abuabakar of PDP also picked an endorsement that eerily revisits the country’s nemesis: ethnicity. The endorsement by the northern Christian – Muslim politicians led by a former House of Representatives Speaker, Yakubu Dogara attracted criticism by Bola Tibubu and Peter Obi – both southern politicians.
But in reality, does endorsements matter? It is merely symbolic and may hardly move the electorate in a certain direction. Like Obama’s electrifying 2008 presidential campaign that transcended racial and economic divisions in America, Peter Obi is racking up endorsements across the stubbornly ethnic and religious divides in Nigeria. With the aid of social media and a burgeoning youth population, Obi appears to be pushing the boundaries. Obi’s opponents often ridicule his newness into national politics and the fact that the Labor Party “lacks political structures” to win a national election. By structures they mean that the Labor Party does not have any member serving in the Senate or House of Representatives who are expected to mobilize voters down to their districts. Clearly, this is the old mindset of using political figures to manipulate the electoral system.
Interestingly, Femi Falana (SAN) – one of the brightest legal minds in Nigeria provided an antidote to the widely panned criticism of lack of political structures. Addressing the Labor Party’s national retreat, Falana insisted Obi should not be distracted by many politicians who say the Labor Party has no structure because power lies with the Nigerian people. In his opinion, all the trade unions in Nigeria, women and youth organizations constitute a more formidable political structure than professional politicians who have successfully weaponized poverty to be able to bribe voters.
“With the present configuration the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo axis of politics in Nigeria is at play once again – a repeat of history and the contraption that has held Nigeria down for too long.”
It is time for Nigeria to cross a new frontier. The world is changing. The old ways will not do anymore. It is time for a new generation of leadership. The new president has to have an uncommon capacity to appeal to the better angels of Nigeria’s nature. That leader must see the world clearly without being cynical and cares passionately about the causes he believes in, without demonizing those who hold a different view. It is common knowledge that many Nigerians are captives to America’s soft power – embracing US culture, dressing, migration, style of government (in theory), and many more. Emulating or copying others is not bad, especially the good things. But, can Nigeria replicate Obama’s improbable journey to the presidency? After all, Obi shares common similarities with Obama: both are young, intelligent, data-driven, and from marginalized populations.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo writes from New York. Follow him on twitter @UcheEkwo