A few weeks ago, I had a long telephone conversation with Professor Pat Utomi concerning the 2023 presidential election. Prof, as I call him, wanted to intimate me as to some of his ideas for sparking a youth-led electoral tsunami that would change the political status quo. APC, PDP – he was not interested. “Two fingers on the same hand,” he said dismissively.
I was theoretically on-board, but also sceptical about the idea of pushing forward on one of the so-called “3rd Force” political platforms. I was the one after all, who wrote in this very column a few months back, that I considered 3rd Force platforms and unknown candidates to be at best, political spoilers and otherwise utterly delusional people. That column, incidentally, was inspired by an offer I received to work as a communications director on a campaign for an obscure APC candidate who apparently heard from God in a dream that they would be president in 2023. They never made it to the primaries. I digress.
Over the weeks that unfolded after my conversation with Prof, I witnessed the emergence of something nearly unprecedented in my lifetime within Nigeria’s political space. The exit of Peter Obi from the PDP presidential nomination battle heralded the end of my practical interest in the current election cycle, or so I thought. It was time to write off 2023 and start looking for solutions ahead of 2027 and 2031. But then –
Voter apathy in 2023 – A potential tragedy
Since 2007 or so, INEC statistics state that the actual numerical winner in every presidential election in Nigeria has been that mega political party called “Non-voting Adult Citizen or Registered But Did Not Vote.” Where INEC’s voter register has roughly 80 million names on it, fewer than 30 million votes have consistently decided every election in Nigeria for the past decade and a half.
40-something percent turnout, at the best of times, is dismal in a functioning democracy. 40-something percent turnout in an existentially threatened country with an extremely fragile democracy at a key juncture year like 2023 would be nothing short of a disaster in its own right, regardless of who wins. Given that an election inevitably is a referendum on the performance of the party in power, voter apathy in 2023 would effectively reward the incumbents for the stellar job they have done for eight years.
Those eight years have included such unforgettable highlights as a double recession, border closure on a land trade surplus, military massacres of unarmed civilian protesters in Lagos, Abuja and Obigbo, banning of Twitter, and repeatedly attempting to pass unconstitutional legislation. Clearly, the stables need to be cleaned out, but who can do the job of taking on the dreaded “federal might” in a Nigerian presidential election? Who is the person who can do the job of sweeping away Muhammadu Buhari’s dreadful legacy in Aso Rock, while keeping an indicted heroin trafficker-turned-ethnic warlord politician away from the seat of power?
“Kick out APC” is not enough
That person is not Atiku Abubakar. It’s not that I have anything against the man whom I openly and proudly backed in 2019. For every criticism to be made of Atiku, the obvious counterpoint is that compared to Bola Ahmed Tinubu, he has practically no baggage at all. If problematic politicians were aerial vehicles, Atiku would be at best a 737, while he of the infinity-symbol-embossed cap would be the International Space Station. One is merely questionable. The other is a truly abominable operator with the morality of a skunk.
Atiku has merely contested in presidential elections repeatedly since 1993, losing each time. Bola Tinubu has in the same period racked up a drug trafficking indictment in the USA, converted the coffers of Nigeria’s wealthiest state into his personal war chest, and sacrificed the hopes, dreams and health of millions of Lagosians for his singular personal benefit. He has created a private army of criminal enforcers and thugs used for everything from tax collection to intimidating rivals, and on at least one notable occasion in 2007, an opposition politician who stood a real chance of defeating his anointed candidate turned up strangled to death inside his house a few weeks to the election. The murder of Funso Williams remains unsolved.
Atiku has none of this baggage, but the thing is – that is exactly the problem with Atiku’s 2023 candidacy. His entire campaign appears to be built on the fact of merely not being Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and not being from APC. “I am not one of them” makes for a great political poster or Twitter meme, but it unfortunately is a terrible tactic for motivating people to come out and register and/or actually vote on election day.
As I mentioned in a Twitter thread a few weeks ago, absolutely no one in Nigeria is getting fired up to register or vote by the prospect of having a President Atiku Abubakar. If the fellow ran as the sole candidate in an election, he would diligently find a way to lose. That inevitable voter apathy is what will reward the incumbents with a crushing electoral victory next year if it is allowed to happen.
A few political commentators appear annoyed at the meteoric rise in online and offline popularity of Peter Obi since his decision to run on the Labour Party platform. To them, Obi will function as a 3rd Force spoiler in 2023, splitting Atiku’s share of the anti-APC vote and thus making it easier for a heroin dealer to become President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This analysis is profoundly wrong for one simple reason – a large majority of the votes Peter Obi will get next year would never have gone to Atiku or anyone else. The thousands of young Nigerians who are braving INEC’s intentionally difficult vote registration process are not doing so because they passionately look forward to voting for Atiku Abubakar next year.
If the reality that Peter Obi has an uncomfortable degree of popularity and is now a real dark horse contender for 2024 is unpleasant to some in the opposition, they should be reminded that they had the opportunity to do something brave ahead of the PDP national convention, and they chose the lazy, mediocre, easy way out as usual. That is not Peter Obi’s fault. That is not the fault of the millions of young Nigerians who have taken to his candidacy. That is the fault of the PDP itself – a party that now stands a real chance of making it 20 straight years since it last won a presidential election.
When Prof reads this article, he might have a light smile on his face. His decision to step down for Peter Obi to take hold of the Labour Party’s presidential platform may turn out to be one of the inspiring stories Nigerian children will hear at bedtime in decades to come.
And if it doesn’t, it remains to his credit and Nigeria’s loss.