Nigeria 2023: ‘I will drastically reduce corruption’ says Peter Obi

By Eniola Akinkuotu, in Lagos
Posted on Thursday, 24 November 2022 12:12

Peter Obi, Nigeria's Labour Party candidate for the 2023 election.
Peter Obi, Nigeria's Labour Party candidate for the 2023 election. (Photo: Taiwo Aina for The Africa Report)

Peter Obi, the Labour Party candidate in Nigeria’s February 2023 presidential elections, sits down with The Africa Report to talk about economic reforms, the security crisis, his plans to shake up the political competition, and whether he would prosecute anyone from Buhari's administration if he got into power.

Peter Obi’s campaign for the presidency has been taking Nigeria by storm – from market squares in Kano and Kaduna to lines of young people queueing for their voter cards in Lagos and Port Harcourt.

Hugely boosted by his astute use of social media, he styles himself as the insurgent candidate taking on the country’s political dynasties and vested interests that many see as responsible for its failing economy and security chaos.

The big test is how far his popularity on social media platforms will translate into getting people to vote for him in a country where the overwhelming majority of people lack reliable access to the internet.

Some Obi supporters say the electoral success of William Ruto in Kenya and Emmanuel Macron in France shows how insurgent candidates can beat the political establishment.

But unlike Macron and Ruto, Obi has never held high office in the central government. And veteran activists warn that Obi’s candidacy has a mountain to climb without the national political organisation of his two main rivals, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars (from sources unknown and undeclared) that they are throwing into their election campaigns.

A new order

At 61, Obi is young for a Nigerian presidential contender. As governor of Anambra State, he was praised for cutting corruption, improving services and building roads.

Part of his appeal is that he appears so different from the two leading contenders in the mainstream parties: former governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu for the All Progressives Congress and ex-vice-president Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party.

Both Tinubu and Abubakar are septuagenarians and in poor health, despite their lavish expenditure on private medical treatment overseas.

They both preside over parties deeply divided on regional and religious lines. And as dollar billionaires, with opaque records of tax payments and declarations of assets, they have both been plagued by allegations of grand corruption dating back to their time in government.

Both are widely said to have secured their parties’ presidential nominations by paying off their rivals.

That helps explain the lack of popular enthusiasm for either of them outside party loyalists. Of course, Nigeria’s legendary patronage politics can change some of that.

One clear advantage for Obi is the enthusiastic support of younger voters.

The #EndSARS protest against police brutality in October 2020 showed the strength of Nigerian youths when organised as a political force. The latest data from the electoral commission show that under 30s make up more than 71% of new voters.

Obi has the support of young ‘Obidient’ voters (Photo: Kola Sulaimon/AFP)

Standing on the platform of trade unions and their political arm, the Labour Party, Obi is running as the anti-establishment candidate, pledging to establish a new order that would guarantee economic prosperity and national unity.

Obi promises to tackle insecurity which has affected the economy and forced the closure of schools, through negotiations and dialogue on one hand and job creation on the other.

He wants to end the opaque petrol subsidy that gulps $43m daily, saying it has become a racket benefiting fuel traders.

He says he will channel the money saved from the removal of subsidies to education, training and manufacturing to boost economic growth.

But to win the presidency, Obi would have to defeat 17 other candidates including two plutocratic political heavyweights. Atiku and Tinubu, and their backers, are spending heavily on their campaigns, with tens of thousands of party workers behind them.

Obi has thousands of volunteers working on his campaign, but its war chest is a fraction of his rivals.

Identity politics

Obi’s other challenge is identity politics. Obi is an Igbo from the southeast, a region that has not produced a national leader since it tried to secede during the civil war that ended in 1970.

Obi’s candidacy is getting huge support from the southeast and the south-south regions as well as Christians in the Middle Belt.

The biggest numbers of voters are in the northwest and the northeast, where most people are Muslim and have favoured northern candidates.

For now, this is where Abubakar and Tinubu, who have worked hard to ingratiate themselves with northern potentates, have a clear advantage over Obi.

The chances of Obi winning substantial votes in the north will depend greatly on the efforts of his running mate, Yusuf Baba-Ahmed, a technocratic businessman and former senator from Kaduna State.

Unless he makes headway in Atiku’s northern Nigeria home turf and in Tinubu’s southwest, Obi will still struggle to get the keys to Aso Rock.

The Africa Report: You are flying the Labour Party flag, a small party. None of the 36 state governors are campaigning for you. How can you win when money and grassroots support are so critical?

Peter Obi: I joined the Labour Party for a number of reasons.

The mantra of my campaign is to move Nigeria from consumption to production, and this is what the Labour Party represents. You cannot talk about production without talking about labour.

We don’t have to particularly hold on to party loyalties but look at who can solve Nigeria’s problems. I believe this election will be more about character, competence, capacity, and commitment.

It is no longer about the party, ethnicity, religion, or anything other than the need to save this country.

Would you consider a government of national unity?

As long as it will foster progress, I will do that. Remember that after the elections, you become president of all Nigerians, no longer your party.

Apart from tackling insecurity, which affects everybody, you have to deal with issues of unity and cohesion. So, I am not worried about party affiliations. A party is just a vehicle that we use in becoming members of the government.

And if you look at the Labour Party manifesto, which encompasses pursuing the [United Nations’] Sustainable Development Goals – with the inclusion of the labour charter – it will be a win-win for everybody.

We are seeing unprecedented oil theft in the Niger Delta. Do you approve of the government awarding security contracts to ex-militants and will you continue it?

We must do everything possible to stop oil theft, just as we must do whatever is possible to stop all forms of criminality. It is affecting investments both local and foreign in the oil and gas infrastructure while giving us a bad name globally.

I will do whatever is necessary to reverse that situation and make it a win-win for the community, for the local government, for the state, for the nation, and put in place what will start attracting investments in our oil and gas sector.

Next May, Nigeria is due to end the fuel subsidy which gulps about $43m every day. Your party has protested against the removal of this subsidy. Will you end it?

Labour is not against the removal of subsidies. Labour says if you must remove it, show us a workable plan to manage the impact and how the resources you save will benefit the people.

I have said before that 50% of the subsidy we pay today is corruption. So, that will go as quickly as possible. The remaining 50% we will remove, but we will show that we will use available resources to support the private sector that wants to invest in refineries.

Whatever we are going to do will mitigate the increase in pricing to an acceptable level. But will the subsidy go? Yes. If you remove subsidy today, it will go a long way to turn around the economy.

Nigeria still ranks very low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. What will you do about that?

We need to understand why we are not doing well on the corruption perception index. It is measured by the management of public resources. It includes corruption and monetary issues but also appointments based on nepotism.

If you start doing things the right way, ensuring appointments are made based on the constitution, ensuring that public finances are transparent and that all expenditure is accounted for, you reduce it by 70%.

I will be in charge, and I want Nigerians to hold me responsible. I will drastically reduce corruption. We will do everything possible to improve that perception. I have been involved in the private sector in public quoted companies and government agencies and as the governor of a state. Ask how their finances were managed. Was there any abuse in appointments? Nobody related to me was a commissioner or heading any agency.

Would you probe the government of President Muhammadu Buhari?

I don’t think I will shut down Nigeria and be looking at yesterday. You cannot close your shop and chase thieves because by the time you come back the goods would have expired, and you’ve lost customers. I will do whatever is possible to ensure corruption stops. If there is evidence that someone did something wrong yesterday, we will look at it in a quiet manner that will allow us to recover what we can and move on.

I will focus on tomorrow because those who think about yesterday and today will miss tomorrow. There is a lot we can do about tomorrow and Nigerians want evidence that we are doing the right thing. Anambra State [under my governorship] was the first to start future development savings. When I left office, they were worth about half a billion dollars in investments and in cash.

How do you respond to your opponents who say you were saving money when you should have been spending on infrastructure?

So, when they say infrastructure, I wonder what they are talking about. I won the prize as the state with the best road network from the federal ministry of works. All the roads were opened up while I was governor.

I built the first government secretariat in Anambra State. I built it from scratch. In education, the infrastructure was not there. There were no generators, computers and internet connections. I provided over 500 school buses. [In the national rankings], we moved from 26th or 27th to number one. Education is the most critical investment.

In health, there was no single school of nursing or midwifery, or health technology that was accredited when I started. When I had finished, I had about 10. […] We were doing this while we were saving for the future because a component of our earnings was for the future.

Nigeria’s tax revenues are running about 6% of GDP, compared to the average in Africa of 16% and over 30% in Asia. As president would you increase taxes?

The tax is not low. It only appears low because you have millions of people not working. Can we tax people in the villages? No. Can we tax people that are not doing anything? Will they pay tax? People only pay taxes when they are working. You will pay tax because you are working. So, first of all, you pull people out of poverty, give them jobs and then you can tax them.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options