Nigeria: The Silence of the Obidients

With the Tinubu government’s IMF-prescribed shock therapy convulsing the economy almost a year after the botched presidential election they believe cost Peter Obi victory, what happened to the once-boisterous protest movement that threatened to disrupt Nigerian politics?

On October 26, the Nigerian Supreme Court dealt a final blow to Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate Peter Obi’s attempts to appeal the results of the February 2023 presidential election. The court’s rejection of the petitions ended the months’ long efforts of the LP to attain what it believes is a stolen victory in this year’s election. To better understand what this means, and the future of the movement, it is imperative to dissect the party’s history, performance, and future.

#ENDSARS and a Rapid Ascent

The LP in Nigeria has been in existence since 2002, but did not become a political force until Peter Obi defected to the party in 2022. Obi, the former Governor of Anambra State, arguably joined the party out of spite: at the time, he was slated to lose the PDP’s presidential primary to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who had by then unsuccessfully contested for the presidency five times. Obi’s move to the LP and nomination as its presidential candidate reshaped the electoral environment.

Obi’s support had more to do with the candidates nominated by Nigeria’s main two parties – long-standing members of the establishment both of whom are over 70 years old. Both have been accused of serious corruption . Both largely obstructed the primary campaigns of younger candidates. Candidates decades older than Nigeria’s average age of 17 is not new, but in the aftermath of the largest popular mobilization of Nigerian youth in a generation, this struck a certain tone.

That movement is #ENDSARS. It began in 2016, calling to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit, and grew massively in October 2020. The demands of the protests expanded to discussions about how the social contract between Nigerians and their government was fundamentally flawed.

The response of the political elite to the movement was contemptuous, with demands dismissed and brutality deployed. Its reach only expanded. Arguably, the most consequential result of the #ENDSARS movement was to mobilize a segment of the population that had long shown high levels of political apathy: young people. This is particularly notable in Lagos, where previously apolitical executives in the city’s massive tech and entertainment sectors supported the movement. This unprecedented mobilisation played a critical role in laying the groundwork for greater civic involvement in the 2023 elections.

By presenting himself as an alternative to the political status quo, Obi was able to mobilise the #ENDSARS movement around his candidacy. Supporters, referring to themselves as the “Obidient” movement, saw massive mobilisation in-person and digitally. Their influence quickly grew beyond urban youths and gained popularity with the Igbo, the smallest of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups. (Notably, an Igbo has not occupied the presidency since the country’s civil war ended in 1970).

A Tale of Two Elections

Although support for Obi grew rapidly, many were skeptical that his support would lead to any tangible electoral results in either the presidential, legislative or gubernatorial elections. This was primarily due to the lack of political machinery within the party and its inability to engage in patronage politics at the same level as more established parties. Taking into account an unprecedented cash crisis that prevented many Nigerians from getting their hands on bank notes, it is understandable why many concluded that Obi’s rise would turn out to be nothing more than an urban-Nigeria internet craze with no tangible impact at the ballot box.

Obi indeed did not win the presidential election, come in second, or change the distribution of votes enough to create a run off. That being said, he did accomplish what a year earlier many believed to be impossible. He won a total of 11 states including the FCT, and over a quarter of all votes cast – just four percent behind the PDP and less than ten percent behind the winning APC. In the coinciding legislative elections, the party won a total of 8 and 35 seats in the Senate and House of Representatives respectively. By comparison, in 2019 a third-party candidate did not achieve one percent of the vote, and collectively won one Senate seat and nine seats in the House of Representatives. This is despite widespread electoral irregularities that likely dampened turnout in areas friendly to Obi, and may have skewed some of the results.

Obi was able to win far beyond the Igbo heartlands. The most impressive is its victory in Lagos state, which it won despite massive efforts to suppress its key constituencies. Moreover, the incumbent party’s candidate and eventual presidential election victor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is the state’s former governor and has near universal control of its affairs. In essence, while Obi did not win the presidential election, the achievements of the party resulting from it are remarkable.

What makes last year’s results of even more perplexing is its dismal performance on the March 18 gubernatorial and state legislative elections. The party only managed to win one governorship and state majority. It did not even mount a sizable showing in states that it had won by large margins only weeks prior, including in Delta state where the party won the presidential election with its nearest competitor coming thirty points behind; during the gubernatorial election Labour polled a distant third. This was the general trend nationwide.

In three weeks, the party lost over 60 million voters, much greater than the overall decline in turn-out seen in the gubernatorial and state assembly elections. Beyond being a bad-showing, the failure to win more than a single governorship led to the party missing out on an opportunity to prove its agenda in government. This is all the more stark taking into consideration Nigeria’s federal system of governance that gives governors sizable authority – and that the LP won states that serve as economic hubs and that are rich in natural resources. In failing to replicate its performance, the Labour Party missed an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate that it truly was what it claimed: a break from traditional Nigerian belly politics.

Implications and Unanswered Questions

The dichotomy between the two polls poses several key questions about the Obidient movement and the party it rallied behind. The first being its bullishness, which in the end may have been a net-negative. With the bulk of Obi’s supporters believing that they could fundamentally change Nigerian politics – a system rife with mismanagement and cronyism – achieving anything less proved difficult. While targeted efforts including election violence and tabulation irregularities did directly target Obi’s constituencies at a high rate, others such as delayed polling station openings were widespread and not different from previous elections. Their impact is real, but did not solely contribute to the party’s defeat as it has claimed.

In focusing on electoral irregularities in the aftermath of the presidential poll – the party’s known weaknesses manifested. The inability to conduct patronage politics at a national scale meant that the Labour Party was more reliant on the motivation of its supporters – support that largely dissipated in the aftermath of a disappointing presidential election result. The usual tactics were employed to frustrate the opposition. With the disappearance of tens of millions of voters somewhere between the registration process and the polling booth – or perhaps more accurately, lost in the shuffle of the shambolic tallying process – Obi’s supporters can continue to claim that they were cheated of victory, despite the courts upholding the Electoral Commission’s result.

The lack of a functioning party machinery, however, makes it unable for Obi’s supporters simultaneously to denounce electoral irregularities and mobilise voters, which the main opposition party the PDP largely was able to do. Further, it highlights a key question: is the party viable without the galvanising force of Peter Obi? Given its promises of generational change, that it likely is not offers up yet another contradiction in the Movement’s idealistic claims.

Other more subtle questions have emerged, which, although uncomfortable are imperative to understanding the Obedient phenomenon. The primary one being the question of ethnicity, and what an Igbo president would mean in present-day Nigeria. The trope that Obi was simply a candidate of the Igbo – and was both an opportunist and beneficiary of widespread discontent for the political establishment in Nigeria – is one that was employed in the lead-up to the elections by his opponents, oftentimes in the form of hate speech and ethnically-targeted violence. Obi denounced such accusations, his performance in the presidential election largely vindicating him.

However, with the party being unable to achieve any noteworthy share of the vote outside the Igbo heartlands in the March 18 guberantorial and state elections, questions about the party’s ability to perform at a national scale will linger.

In the months since the inauguration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the APC as Nigeria’s president, a reality cemented by the October 2023 court decision, the country has continued to face immense challenges. Controversial decisions taken by the new government have only compounded economic suffering. While there are no overt signs of citizen discontent, the economic upheaval will only strengthen the potential appeal of the Labour Party. The question is if the party is able to leverage its mobilising power and legislative seats to provide much-needed oversight and accountability to the government, or if it will continue to dwell on the shortcomings of an undeniably flawed election in which it performed impressively.

The real question now is whether Obi and the LP are able to move beyond a protest movement and establish themselves as a durable political force in Nigeria. It is undeniable that the party opened up a political fissure, but this has been done before, albeit at a much smaller scale. Recent results of gubernatorial elections in which the LP again lost states it won in the presidential election, seem to argue that it cannot. Indeed, Nigeria has in many ways been ruled by an oligarchical political establishment, one that Obi himself was once a part. Many will argue that the failure of the LP in all elections but the presidential polls show that it is a one-off occurrence in a manner similar to former Governor of Ekiti Kayode Fayemi who joined with #ENDSARS protestors in 2020 then all but disappeared. The Obidient movement demonstrated that despite all the obstacles thrown at it, concrete youth participation in Nigerian politics should have an impact. What is not known, however, if this was simply a one-off occurrence prior to a return to politics as usual in Nigeria. The future of the party, a once-in-a-generation social movement and by extension, Nigeria, depends on it.

Maxwell Bone is the senior program associate for West Africa at the International Republican Institute.

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