The line to see Peter Obi snaked long outside the Hilton Airport Hotel & Suites in Mississauga. Nigerians of all ages from Canadian cities as far as Alberta, and even from outside the country, gathered to see the presidential candidate.
On paper, the organisers recorded only a few hundred attendees but they knew that the number only scratched the surface. In the event hall, dozens of people who could not find seats stood, mothers carried babies on their shoulders or in strollers, and when Obi attempted to walk into the room inconspicuously, the loud chants of “Obi, Obi, Obi” sounded like the collective voice of thousands.
I had heard about the frenetic energy of people who were “Obidient,” but experiencing it in person surpassed my expectations. Peter Obi was not just a political candidate, he had a star power that appealed to everyone from surly teenagers to a man nearing his hundredth year.
What Obi’s candidacy represents can be summed up by a part of the speech delivered by Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, a major city in the Greater Toronto Area. “I’ve heard from the community again and again that you bring a level of vision, optimism and decency that’s going to be wonderful to see for Nigeria,” says Brown. I would be more concise in my observation. What emanated in the room was a feeling of hope. Hope that Obi could restore the country to one ready to receive its people. “We want to go home,” said one attendee as Obi spoke early in the night.
The feeling of hope is something Obi is consciously cultivating because he knows it is powerful, and as recent news articles indicate, so do his opponents. On the banner that hung across the stage where Obi fielded questions from attendees was a quote from former US President, Barack Obama.
The quote, which was paraphrased, read “change will not come if we wait for some other time.” The sentence was from a speech Obama gave in 2008, before he was elected the 44th president of the United States.
At the time. Obama was cultivating a loyal following of people inspired by his charisma and promise of change. More important, his promise was his invitation to people to be a part of this change. In his speech, Obama continued, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” In his tour of the diaspora, Obi is hoping to champion that hope into action too.
While citizens are looking to him as the answer to Nigeria’s problems, he is not expecting them to be passive participants. All across his tour, he has asked citizens to expect more of our leaders so they don’t fall into the trap of voting governments that don’t keep their promises.
He solicited feedback because he said that he wanted to hear what people really thought about Nigeria’s future. And in the large room, he tried not to simply sell himself as a leader but as a trusted partner in bettering the country. “Let us sit down and interact about our country, and the pain we all feel for what is happening there. Because if Nigeria was what it should be, 70 percent of you wouldn’t be here.”
Even when attendees questioned the independence of INEC, and whether or not the election could be rigged, Obi said the voices of the people would prevail. He also knows his audience. At the town hall, attendees sang the Nigerian national anthem with as much vigour as they did the Canadian.
Although it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, while many of the attendees were Nigerians yearning for home, they are also Canadians in many ways and have become used to living in a country where for the most part small things like power and transportation are easily available.
So, for them to buy into the promise of a Nigeria that works for them, they are expecting changes at both a macro and micro level. And Obi knows this.
In Toronto, like he did in other cities in North America, he talked about how other countries not mired in corruption like Nigeria have been able to provide sustainable power and feed their citizens with a successful agricultural industry. Fixes that are attainable for a country of Nigeria’s size and economic capital.
Generally, the questions geared towards education, the economy and Obi was sure not to make any explicit campaign promises. But the issue of diaspora voting was posed very early in the night. In response he said, if he won the election, this would be the last time Nigeria’s thriving diaspora would not be able to cast their votes for the country’s future.
Okwuosa is a research scholar at Brown Institute for Media Innovation