Nigeria 2023: Peter Obi wants a slice of Diaspora’s $20bn to fund campaign

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Friday, 2 September 2022 12:47, updated on Monday, 5 September 2022 16:30

Peter Obi, Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, is pictured during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Lagos
Peter Obi, Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, at his residence in Lagos, Nigeria August 18, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

The presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, seeks to win the election that comes up in February next year, but this will not come cheap. In a bid to defeat established and wealthy rivals like Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, he has embarked on a tour of seven cities in the US, as well as Canada and Germany, to garner support. The snag: Nigerian law forbids international campaign financing.

“He no dey give shishi!” The slogan is popular among the young supporters of Peter Obi who see him as the only candidate capable of delivering the dividends of democracy, and clearing the systemic rot in Africa’s largest economy.

The phrase, in pidgin English, loosely translates to “Obi does not give out money to buy votes”.

It cropped up a few months ago when controversial and fiery Catholic Priest, Ejike Mbaka, accused Obi of being too stingy and prophesied that the gap-toothed ex-governor, who rose to prominence for his frugality and simplicity, would lose the election if he did not change his ways.

Ahead of the presidential primary of the Peoples Democratic Party in May, when it was reported that aspirants could part with as high as $20,000 to bribe each delegate, Obi again said he was unwilling to play “cash and carry” politics.

Obi then decided to defect from the PDP to the Labour Party. Again, this increased his popularity and grew his reputation as a man of integrity.

However, elections do not come cheap. It is estimated that winning a presidential poll in Africa’s most populous country could cost about $2bn. The money would go to transportation, mobilisation, voter education, advertisement, payment for polling agents and other unforeseen eventualities.

The stakes are higher in the 2023 election because unlike previous polls where parties were permitted to campaign for only three months, this one allows candidates to hold rallies for five months. In addition, the number of polling units has increased from approximately 120,000 to 176, 846, meaning more needs to be spent on party polling agents to monitor voting.

Obi goes abroad

Due to the high cost of elections in the country, candidates often get funding from corrupt public office holders who siphon public funds to private accounts.

A Federal Government report stated that about $2bn was diverted from the public till to fund the campaign of former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015.  Several of such public officials, including former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, are facing corruption charges in court.

Today, the two biggest political parties – the ruling All Progressives Congress and the main opposition PDP – hold over 90% of elective offices in the country and funding will be expected to come in part from the public treasury.

Running as an underdog and with no partner in government, Obi will now have to raise funds in a country that lacks a fundraising culture and has a large population of poor people who can’t afford to make donations.

The presidential hopeful has travelled out of the country on a two-week tour of countries and cities that have a huge Diaspora population.

Obi is speaking on the role of Nigerian Diaspora in the development and growth of Nigeria at events organised by the same target group.

These events are taking place in Dallas, Charlotte, Washington DC, Atlanta, New York; London UK; Toronto in Canada; and Frankfurt in Germany. Official posters show that participants of some of these events are required to pay between $200 and $10,000 for registration and dinner, depending on one’s sitting arrangement.

In these events, which were also streamed on Youtube, Obi tells Nigerians in the Diaspora how he plans to deliver the Nigerian dream.

“We will have zero tolerance for corruption; lock leakages and cut the cost of governance. Our total commitment to transparency and accountability in government business is the only credible way to achieve limited to zero corruption,” he said in Houston.

It’s a win-win situation for him each time he comes here, because he builds partnerships … in terms of friends, in terms of goodwill

In a bid to boost Obi’s campaign, the Labour Party has set up an 11-member committee, which is charged with the responsibility of raising funds from supporters in the Diaspora and setting up foreign chapters.

According to the National Chairman of the Labour Party, Mr Julius Abure, the committee will recommend creation of Diaspora chapters; monitor the activities of Diaspora chapters and “organise fundraising activities and donations to the party”.

A $20bn-strong Diaspora

Nigerians are the largest African diaspora group in many countries.

In the US, for instance, Nigerians account for 327,000 out of 2.02 million Africa-born immigrants, as of 2018, according to the US Census Bureau. Counting their US-born children, Nigerian-Americans add up to about 500,000.

They’re one of the most successful immigrant groups in the US, with far greater rates of achieving university and advanced degrees than native-born Americans. Nigerians in the US sent some $6.2bn in remittances back home in 2017, more than any other African group, according to the World Bank. 

According to official Nigerian government statistics, Nigerians in the Diaspora remitted about $20bn home in 2021. This was over four times FDI within the same period which amounted to about $4.8bn.

The Nigerian government says the Diaspora remittances account for about 6.1% of Nigeria’s annual GDP and with more Nigerian professionals emigrating daily in search of greener pastures, the remittances are expected to increase substantially thereby boosting their influence.

Should Peter Obi raise funds from these Nigerians living abroad, he just might be able to rival super wealthy Tinubu and Atiku who are still seen as the two frontline candidates.

Remittances from overseas are prohibited by [the] Electoral Act.

Olufemi Soneye, the US-based CEO of Nigerian online information site Per Second News, tells The Africa Report that Obi’s visit is expected to involve raising funds from the Diaspora.

Soneye, who hired a Washington-based lobbying firm in August to help organise meetings with government officials and private sector leaders for Nigerian presidential candidates, says foreign trips are a prime opportunity for Obi – and his rivals – to connect with a Diaspora community that carries outsize political and financial clout back home as a result of its success.

“The money I’m sending to my family is so my family can take care of themselves,” Soneye tells The Africa Report.  “But because I wield that much influence in their lives, it is easier for me to tell them: ‘Please vote for Peter Obi’ and they will listen to me.”

Soneye says the Obi campaign is likely raising money from them, especially since he’s running against billionaire candidates Tinubu and Atiku, but he says that’s not the primary goal.

“It’s a win-win situation for him each time he comes here, because he builds partnerships … in terms of friends, in terms of goodwill,” he says.

Legal hurdles

Despite the huge role that Nigerians in the Diaspora play at home, the law does not allow them to vote. Additionally, the law does not permit political parties to receive funding from abroad. Section 225 of Nigeria’s constitution says: “No political party shall hold or possess any funds or other assets outside Nigeria or be entitled to retain any funds or assets remitted or sent to it from outside Nigeria.”

Section 85 of the Electoral Act adds that any party that contravenes this provision shall upon conviction, forfeit the funds or assets purchased with such funds to the commission and in addition may be liable to a fine of at least N5,000,000 ($11, 627).

Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, a former head of the legal department at the Independent National Electoral Commission, tells The Africa Report that it remains illegal for any party to raise campaign funds from abroad.

Osaze-Uzzi adds that even political parties that have chapters in London or New York cannot get funds from those chapters.

“Even the APC chapter in the UK cannot send funds home to APC Nigeria. That is what Nigerian law says,” he says.

[Therefore], he must be ingenious if he wants to get such money.

Jide Ojo, a public commentator and columnist, tells The Africa Report that since Nigerian law prohibits foreign remittances for the purpose of election, it means Obi may have to forfeit such funds if he is found wanting.

“Remittances from overseas are prohibited by [the] Electoral Act. If he is not careful and runs afoul of the law, and it is established that his funding can be linked from abroad, he may face forfeiture. It is in the constitution as well.

“[Therefore], he must be ingenious if he wants to get such money. This law is deliberate because we don’t want people to use politics to launder funds. Internet scammers and drug dealers could want to use politics to launder funds,” Ojo says.

However, it remains to be seen how the Nigerian government could monitor transnational remittances that come in through avenues like Gofundme.

Attempts to get a response from Obi’s campaign manager, Doyin Okupe, proved abortive as he did not respond to repeated calls or a text message, ditto for his spokesman Valentine Obienyem.

However, Auwal Rafsanjani, who heads the local chapter of Transparency International, says the failure of the Nigerian government to tackle corruption has encouraged political parties to disobey the law and it would not be strange to see politicians like Obi receive campaign funds from abroad. He says the law prohibiting foreign donations to campaigns must be enforced.

Additional reporting from Julian Pecquet and ‘Tofe Ayeni

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