The age of the Obidients

Peter Obi, one of the three main candidates for Nigerian president, is neither a savior nor a socialist, but his candidacy and his supporters have enlivened Nigerian elections.

Image credit Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Nigeria’s presidential election, due to be held on February 25, appears set for a surprising outcome. Several opinion polls rank Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of Nigeria’s previously marginal Labour Party, ahead of politicians from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition force, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Obi’s popularity rests at least in part on the young voters who have rallied behind him. These supporters, known as “Obidients,” are an important and social-media savvy segment of the layer aged between 18 and 35 that constitute 42 percent of registered voters, with a strong base in the urban middle classes.

At 61 years of age, Obi himself may not be young, but he appears youthful in contrast to the other leading candidates who slur and stagger. Bola Tinubu of the APC is 70, the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar is 76, while the outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari is 80.

Obi is no novice on the Nigerian political scene, having stood as Atiku’s vice-presidential running-mate in 2019 and served as governor of Anambra state from 2007 to 2014. Yet many of his supporters still perceive him as an alternative to the establishment. The other two candidates are Establishment figures with a capital E.

While Obi is neither a savior or a socialist, the Labour candidate and his Obidents have enlivened the election campaign. They have rekindled optimism about the possibility of change and opened a discussion about the revival of a working-class political alternative. Such optimism has been in short supply over the past decade as social conditions have worsened in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s social crisis

Nigeria is by far the most populous country in Africa today. Its 220 million people face multiple crises with which the new president will have to grapple. Insecurity and violence pose a threat across the country in various forms, from the undefeated Boko Haram insurgent movement to everyday crimes and much in between. Inequality and poverty are rising.

Inflation has reached 21 percent, with unemployment at over 33.3 percent, while the minimum salary of 30,000 naira (about US$65) per month has not increased since 2018, fueling a cost-of-living crisis. 4 out of 10 people live below the poverty line, while the Nigerian elites continue to enrich themselves from the country’s vast natural resources, unable or unwilling to translate those resources into popular welfare.

Today, a country that is both petroleum-rich and petroleum-dependent is not even able to meet its OPEC production quota, and there is a local fuel shortage. For a long time, Nigeria has been a net importer of refined petroleum, with the refineries neglected and working below capacity. These problems are closely related to the extreme corruption in the country.

While the Nigerian economy grew steadily during a period of high global oil prices between 2002 and 2014, inequality and poverty also spiraled at the same time. These conditions have only worsened during the period of stagnation and serial recessions that has characterized the past decade.

Among Nigeria’s citizens, there is strong support for democracy  but deep distrust of politicians, political parties, and state institutions. The increasing prevalence of networks circulating fake news adds to popular frustration about the genuine failures of Nigerian institutions.

Breaking the mold

The 2023 election constitutes a departure from the established pattern in Nigeria’s presidential elections over the last decade in two key respects. We are seeing a break with the hegemony of the two main parties, and what seems like a surge in youth engagement.
Between 1999 and 2015, the PDP dominated national politics, winning four consecutive presidential elections, and consistently holding a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, Nigeria’s lower house. The party was a coalition of civilian elites and retired military generals that took power following Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999.

From 2003 onwards, the main challenge to PDP presidential candidates came from Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general who served as head of state in a military government from 1983 to 1985. Buhari ran as the candidate for several different parties: he finally succeeded in 2015 with the endorsement of the recently formed APC.

It was the first time an opposition party had won the election in Nigerian history. The APC also secured a majority in the House of Representatives that year. Buhari won re-election in 2019, but was not eligible to run this time, having served two terms in office. In his stead, the APC selected Bola Tinubu, a Muslim former governor of Lagos state in the Christian-dominated south and an extremely rich political kingmaker.
For its part, the PDP has undergone an internal crisis threatening its position as the main opposition party. It chose the former vice-president Atiku Abubakar as its standard-bearer. Like Tinubu, Abubukar is a veteran Muslim politician and a very wealthy man, although he hails from the country’s north.

PDP dissenters saw his selection as a violation of “zoning”—the power-sharing arrangement whereby the party is meant to pick a southern Christian candidate following two terms served by a northern Muslim, and vice versa. The disagreement over zoning was partly what inspired Atiku’s 2019 running mate Peter Obi, a Christian from the South, to walk out of the PDP with a group of supporters and join the Labour Party (LP).

Obi quickly attracted an unlikely coalition, garnering support and praise from the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and activists in the #EndSARS campaign against police violence as well as international business publications such as the Financial Times and the Economist. The latter have complimented Obi for his business acumen and commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy.

The apparent upswing of youth interest in the election comes after a steady decline in levels of participation. Voter turnouts in presidential elections fell from 53.6 percent in 2011 to 43.7 percent in 2015 and less than 35 percent four years later. And young people have been even less likely to vote than their older counterparts.

Obi’s electoral surge has changed the stakes of the campaign. But in order to understand the rise of Obi and evaluate the wider prospects for a pro-worker political alternative, we need to take a step back and look at the recent history of protest and social movements in Nigeria.

In parallel to the increase in voter apathy over the past decade, there have been significant episodes of social mobilization in Nigeria. Two notable examples were the January 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests and the 2020 #EndSARS movement. Both had a tangible impact on the election campaigns that followed, in 2015 and 2023 respectively.

Occupy Nigeria and Buhari’s victory

Occupy Nigeria was a nationwide protest movement and general strike in January 2012 against the removal of fuel subsidies by the government of the PDP’s Goodluck Jonathan. The so-called January uprising was the biggest wave of protests since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. The trigger came from increased fuel prices, which had an immediate impact on the cost of transport, medicine, and food. But the protest also expressed wider feelings of disappointment and mistrust in Nigeria’s experience of liberal democracy.

Trade unions had led an earlier series of fuel subsidy protests. Five took place between 2000 and 2007, and there had also been several such movements during the 1980s and ’90s. In 2012, on the other hand, a new generation of Nigerian youth using social media filled the country’s streets.

This episode did not lead to renewed ties of solidarity between the traditional labor movement and new currents in civil society. In the wake of Occupy Nigeria, civil society groups appeared to be fragmented and mutually distrustful. Unions described the activists as unorganized, disconnected, and lacking formal leadership or representation.

For their part, supporters of Occupy Nigeria accused the unions of capturing the protests and unilaterally striking a compromise deal with the government for partial reinstatement of the subsidy. They saw the unions as being more and more associated with the Nigerian elites in the capital Abuja.

Yet opposition politicians were still able to capitalize on the frustrations, energies, and demands for change that emerged from the street. Three opposition parties came together to form the APC in 2013. In addition to its “progressive” self-designation, the APC ran its 2015 campaign on the slogan “change,” with support from some key union leaders, established civil society groups, and Occupy Nigeria activists alike. The 2012 protests alone cannot explain the APC victory, but they certainly contributed to its legitimacy and success.

Tech-savvy young people, inspired by the sense of agency they had drawn from 2012, also contributed to the work of campaigning and election monitoring. Many threw their weight behind Buhari, the former dictator and “born again” democrat, in a way that resembles the current phenomenon of “Obidience.” Much like Obi today, Buhari was portrayed as a pious anti-establishment figure whose rise was based on merit and who could be trusted to take action against corruption.

In addition, Buhari was more willing to use the state in some domains of economic policy—some even called him a social democrat, albeit mistakenly—and supporters considered him more likely to improve the security situation. As a Muslim with a military background, he was expected to combat Boko Haram effectively.

This sense of hope at Buhari’s election soon gave way to anguish. His terms in office have been a massive disappointment in most areas, although some of the APC’s youth and labor supporters are still backing the incumbent party in this year’s election.

From #EndSARS to Obi

The #EndSARS protests of 2020 came just after the NLC union federation accepted the removal of fuel subsidies by the government in return for promises to revive the refineries and repeal taxes on the minimum wage. The NLC called off a planned strike against the removal of subsidies in September of that year.

The NLC later reverted to its previous position on fuel subsidies. In the short term, however, the move was widely considered a betrayal. The absence of labor mobilization left a vacuum that was soon filled by other forms of action.

A week later, there was a large-scale mobilization of urban youth who were protesting against police violence under the hashtag #EndSARS. “SARS” was the acronym for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which had become notorious for its violence against young people. The protest movement also took up the demand for fuel prices to be kept low and articulated a wider desire for political change.

The NLC leadership only supported the protests after coming under outside pressure, although they did not call for a strike. Whereas the 2012 strike had ended after a negotiated settlement with the government, the #EndSARS activists refused to meet public representatives. They defined themselves as a leaderless movement. With a distrustful view of institutions and politicians—and recalling what they saw as the compromised and co-opted role the unions had played in 2012—they insisted that their demands were non-negotiable.

The SARS unit was dissolved, but the protests continued and escalated. On October 20, in what Amnesty called a “brutal crackdown by security forces on peaceful #EndSARS protesters,” at least 12 people were killed in what became known as the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, further damaging the legitimacy of the APC regime.

Coming from a movement that declared itself leaderless, anti-institutional, and anti-establishment in 2020, some key #EndSARS activists have now embraced Peter Obi. There is a striking resemblance between the informal coalition of “Obidients” and the bloc of APC supporters that emerged in the wake of the 2012 fuel subsidy protest.

This should remind us that these mobilizations absorbed and articulated a range of disenchantments from across the ideological spectrum. Those sentiments could be revolutionary and opposed to neoliberalism, or based on a liberal, anti-corruption, “good governance” framework.

While some Obi supporters are avowed socialists, they come across as a fragmented group of individuals, more or less coordinated, but primarily rallying behind an individual candidate rather than representing a form of cross-societal solidarity. Obi may be credited with improving health and education in Anambra during his time as governor, but he is not a social democrat with a positive view of state intervention in the economy. His neoliberal politics and desire to extend privatizations and cut state spending conflict with the Labour Party’s own program.

Trade unions and the Labour Party

The NLC established the Labour Party in 2002. It was originally known as the Party for Social Democracy, adopting its current name the year after its foundations. It built upon a series of attempts by Nigerian labor to establish a party and translate the historical popularity of the country’s trade unions into electoral power, dating back to the days of British colonial rule.

However, a divide quickly opened between the NLC and LP leadership teams. While there have been irregular debates within the NLC about reviving the Labour Party as a working-class party, in practice it has served as an occasional platform for politicians who did not secure a place on the tickets of the larger parties.

The most successful of these politicians was Olusegun Mimiko. Mimiko left the PDP and served two terms as the LP governor of Ondo state between 2009 and 2017, only to return later to the PDP. In practice, the LP has been a marginal party: in the 2019 presidential election, its candidate received just 5,074 out of 28 million votes cast.

When the former NLC president Adams Oshiomhole ran successfully to become governor of Edo State, it was as the candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) party rather than his own Labour Party. The ACN later joined Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, and Oshiomhole was the APC’s national chairman between 2018 and 2020.

Neither the NLC nor the other main union federation, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, has previously given overt support to the LP (or any other party for that matter). This year’s election is an exception, although the support for Obi’s campaign has been somewhat half-hearted, with several local NLC chapters and individual union activists continuing to support the APC. Unions affiliated to the NLC had an estimated membership of seven million in 2018.

There have been factional struggles within the LP as well as between the party and the NLC. The union federation has developed its own platform of demands on behalf of Nigerian workers. The demands include a reasonable and annually negotiated minimum wage, free education from primary to tertiary level and free public health care services, an end to the privatization of public enterprises and assets, the construction of “world-class public infrastructure” such as roads and railways, and the revival of the refineries.

While the LP leadership celebrated the demands, Obi has avoided publicly endorsing them. His own program promises to transform Nigeria from a “consuming nation” to a “producing” one.

His chosen means for doing so include support for private-sector investment, “vigorously” pursuing policies of economic liberalization, and further privatizations, especially of the energy sector and the refineries. Obi’s plan to drastically reduce government spending entails public-sector job losses.

After the election

Nigeria’s left and labor movement are divided in their attitude to Obi and the LP. The smaller eco-socialist African Action Congress (AAC) party, for instance, argues that the Obi campaign is a trojan horse. So far in its history, the LP has not been capable of mobilizing union members into the party and building organizational structures beyond a narrow focus on election campaigns.

While the LP may lack those structures, the NLC does possess real organizational weight. However, its unions have been severely weakened by decades of neoliberalism and attacks on labor rights, and the congress does not have a strong network of social alliances.

Will the NLC be able to build on the historic base and structures of Nigerian trade unionism and turn the LP into an effective working-class party? And will the federation be willing and able to hold Obi accountable if he becomes Nigeria’s president?

The NLC held its national delegates’ conference on February 7 and 8 this year. Obi was present, along with the other presidential candidates, and the delegates elected a new leadership team.

While the outgoing NLC leaders had been associated with the APC, the new president Joe Ajero has a more left-wing background, and he affirmed the federation’s commitment to build a worker-centred LP. Ajero has also threatened strike action by the unions if the federal government does not immediately deliver relief to Nigeria’s citizens on price increases and the limited availability of fuel and banknotes.

As with the previous campaign of Buhari in 2015, the optimism that surrounds Obi rests more on faith in his image as a seemingly honest “outsider” than on the emergence of coherent and democratic institutions that could hold leaders accountable to the popular movements that give them strength. A victorious Obi would likely seek to reinvigorate the fight against corruption and embrace a more liberal economic direction in a departure from the unsuccessful statist experiments pursued by the Buhari administration.

However, even if Obi wins the election, he will face opposition from a parliament that will probably still be dominated by the established parties and politicians. And should he nonetheless succeed in pushing through his desired return to a more market-oriented path, this would only deepen Nigeria’s lingering crisis driven by poverty and inequality.

In this respect, an Obi administration would not differ much from one run by  Tinubu or Atiku. Indeed, the three leading candidates have all declared their intentions to again attempt to remove the fuel subsidies. The NLC has attacked these proposals and demanded concrete plans to revive the country’s refineries and provide Nigerian workers with decent jobs. If fuel subsidies are removed amid the wider economic crisis, we could see another dramatic upsurge of popular protests. The outcome, though, will depend on whether Nigerian youth and trade unions are ready to finally take charge of their own political future—within or outside of the LP—rather than continually serve to elevate the next ruling-class messiah.

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