Briefing

What third-party candidate Peter Obi would mean for Nigeria

The Labor Party candidate is unexpectedly leading in the polls for the upcoming 2023 election. What does he envision for Nigeria?

Nigeria's presidential election, taking place in 2023, has taken an interesting turn. Peter Obi of the Labor Party, an outsider in Nigeria's political sphere, is currently leading in the polls. Here's everything you need to know:

What's happening in the Nigerian election?

Sitting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is set to leave office in May 2023 at the completion of his second term. He has promised free and fair elections and even opened the race to succeed him earlier than previous presidents, giving the candidates the longest campaign period since 1999, Reuters reports. Nigerians will hit the polls in Feb. 2023. The election has been called "a battle for the soul" of Nigeria, with the nation's economy, security, and governance emerging as major talking points in the campaigns, reports The Washington Post

All presidential candidates signed a pact ensuring a peaceful campaign, a tradition that started in 2015 and has continued ever since. This is to combat the violence that has often occurred during Nigerian general elections. For example, at least 58 people died in election-related incidents in 2019, the Post continues. 

Nigeria, like the U.S., has had a two-party system since its democracy was restored in 1999: the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP). Among the 18 candidates running for the presidency are candidates Bola Tinubu, 70, of the incumbent APC, and Atiku Abubakar, 75, of the main opposition, PDP, reports The Economist

However, in a surprising twist, a third candidate has emerged as a contender for the presidency. Peter Obi, 61, a member of the Labor Party (whose 2019 candidate won just 5,074 votes out of 28 million votes) is leading by more than 15 percentage points against the other candidates. 

Who is Peter Obi?

Peter Obi has the world wondering whether the upcoming election will be a major upset. Much of his support is coming from Nigerian youth who are disillusioned by current Nigerian leadership, BBC reports. There have been multiple rallies led by youth across the country in support of Obi. 

Obi previously served as the governor of Nigeria's Anambra State between 2006 and 2014. He was also the vice presidential candidate for Atiku Abubakar in 2019, who is once again running for the PDP. Before the election primaries, Obi switched from the PDP to the Labor Party (LP), popularizing it and garnering support, This Day Live reports. 

Nigeria is facing a myriad of economic problems that much of the youth attributes to a stagnant political system. Nigerians are poorer than they were ten years ago and despite being the most populated African country, a large percentage live on under $1.90 a day, reports the Economist. The pandemic also sparked a recession in 2020 and the country has been unable to keep up with the rising oil prices. Income inequality is also high, World Bank explains. 

Obi prides himself on being something new, a step away from the traditional system. In an interview with BBC, he called the election "old against the new." However, Obi has been criticized for failing to really say much about concrete plans and for not giving details as to how he envisions solving the country's problems. 

Even so, Obi's supporters, known as "obi-dients," point to his investment in education during his governorship as well as how he left large amounts of state savings at the end of his term. Obi-dients believe that Obi can fix what previous presidents have been unable to like police brutality, industrial oil theft, and corruption, Reuters explains. "The system they've operated over the years, it has brought us to where we are," Obi told Reuters.

Critics claim that Obi is a political imposter who is also not free of corruption and mishandling. His name appeared in the leaked Pandora Papers, a cache of files that exposed the hidden wealth of the rich and powerful in 2021, and was accused of not declaring offshore accounts. While he was governor, he was accused of investing state funds into a company he was working with, a claim which he has denied, BBC continues.

What does this mean for Nigeria?

The rise in Obi's popularity signals just how tired Nigerians are of government officials not following through on promises. Sitting President Buhari had promised to eradicate widespread corruption, which did not come to fruition. Also, according to the Economist, Nigeria should be wealthier given its huge oil, gas, and mineral reserves, and its availability of fertile land. However, bad politics and corruption have seemingly prevented any progress from being made. Jihadist terrorism and gang violence have also been huge problems, which Obi has claimed will be his "number one priority."

Meanwhile, Tinubu and Abubakar are leaning into their backgrounds in the Nigerian political system to earn voters' support.

Tinubu previously served as Lagos state governor and is banking on his experience to win him the election, despite the state's infrastructure being left in disarray. He has also faced corruption allegations with accusations of money laundering, fraud, and tax evasion, which he denies.

Abubakar is running his sixth campaign after five previous failures. He served as vice president between 1999 and 2007 when he was accused of appointing acquaintances to positions of power despite their lack of qualifications. Abubakar has also faced investigations regarding state funds being funneled into personal business ventures, BBC continues. 

While it remains unknown whether electing Obi would be any different, a win for him would be the first in decades to show that the country isn't necessarily tied to its current system, analysts say. He is a decade younger than the two other frontrunners, and is very active on social media and in interviews making him the most popular among youth, a major advantage given that the average age in the country is 18, Reuters reports. 

On the other hand, the Christian Obi is unpopular in the mainly Muslim north and there is a huge portion of undecided voters still in the mix. 

"This is a case of Goliath and David," said Obi, "The big people are there, but allow this small person to do it."

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