Nigeria 2023: Can support from mega churches boost Peter Obi’s chances?

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Thursday, 1 December 2022 14:44

Labour Party's Presidential candidate Peter Obi arrives at a campaign rally at Adamasingba Stadium in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria, on November 23, 2022 (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

With less than three months to Nigeria’s Presidential election, it has become obvious that among the frontline candidates, Peter Obi is the only Christian on the ballot with a realistic chance of winning the poll. Can this help him secure the bulk of the Christian vote?

Addressing a mammoth crowd at the 14th National Conference and Jubilee Celebration of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Ubulu Uku, Delta State, Peter Obi said: “I am asking you to vote for me because I have shown and I am showing you on this holy ground that I will turn around Nigeria.” This immediately elicited a roaring applause from the congregation. 

This would not be the first time Obi, a staunch Roman Catholic, would be treated as a rock star in a church.

At the Methodist Church Conference 2022 back in August, the frenzy that greeted Obi’s presence was so massive that the church security had to be moved to strategic sections of the auditorium to restore order. 

Man of integrity?

The Presidential hopeful was introduced as a great Nigerian with integrity par excellence and noble character.

Obi, who was sitting with members of the church, was brought to the altar, while the instrumentalist played Right Said Fred’s ‘Stand up (for the champion)’ song. 

The outgoing Prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria, Samuel Chukwuemeka Uche, all but endorsed him while praying for the presidential hopeful. 

At the Dominion City Church in Lagos, the congregation burst into rapturous applause after Pastor David Ogbueli acknowledged Obi who had attended the special church service titled, ‘Night of Glory’. 

On 20 November 2022, Obi was at The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) which is one of Nigeria’s largest Pentecostal churches.

At the special convention tagged the Kingdom Life World Conference which attracted revered clerics from across the country, the Labour Party candidate was again acknowledged by the presiding bishop, Mike Okonkwo, eliciting an ovation from the congregation. 

I am asking you to vote for me because I have shown and I am showing you on this holy ground that I will turn around Nigeria.

After being invited to the podium to say a few words, Obi again seized the opportunity to campaign: “This is a great country. All of us must come together and rescue it. It is important for our future, for the future of our children.”

At the Salvation Ministries in Port Harcourt – another mega-church – excitement reached fever pitch after influential Pastor, David Ibiyeomie, announced the presence of the former governor of Anambra State.

Ibiyeomie, who also acknowledged governorship aspirant, Magnus Abe, seized the opportunity to call on the church to get their voters’ cards and vote on election day. 

“You are free to vote whoever you want, but make sure you vote for a visionary leader so that you don’t start to regret tomorrow. Make sure you look ahead,” the cleric said. 

Some other churches where Obi has received a hero’s welcome are Dunamis International Gospel Centre – which is Abuja’s largest church – the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Movement. 

INEC’s warning 

Nigeria’s electoral law prohibits campaigning in places of worship. Specifically, Section 92(3) of the Electoral Act 2022 says: “Places designated for religious worship, police stations, and public offices shall not be used for political campaigns, rallies and processions.” 

The law prescribes a fine of N1m ($2,272) or 12 months in prison for any candidate that contravenes the law.  

However, like many other aspects of the Electoral Act, this particular provision has been flouted many times by politicians without consequence. 

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) issued a warning recently to all political parties, reminding them of the need to obey the law. 

You are free to vote whoever you want, but make sure you vote for a visionary leader so that you don’t start to regret tomorrow. Make sure you look ahead.

Earlier, Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, who is the Vice-Presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), accused Obi of exploiting churches and attending random services all in a bid to get endorsements from influential clerics. 

“Now you begin to look at what is going on; the Peter Obi factor is trying to go through the church and make it look as if he is driving the Christians into politics. I do not believe that the church should actively go into politics because that is not their calling,” said Okowa who is also a Christian. 

Obi quickly responded by saying that he had been attending special programmes in many churches long before he decided to run for office. He, therefore, argued that his visits were not political

Obi’s pathway to victory  

Associates of Peter Obi tell The Africa Report that although his visit to several churches may seem opportunistic, this remains one of his smartest strategies given the fact that he is banking on mainly the Christian vote to secure victory.

This is not unexpected in a country where people vote based on ethnoreligious sentiments, money and party affiliation more than on the credibility of a candidate. 

In the southeast and the south-south region, all 11 states are majority Christian ditto for Ondo and Ekiti states in the southwest.

Lagos has a balanced mix of Christians and Muslims but it is also peculiar because it is where almost all the mega-churches in the country are headquartered. 

But northern Nigeria is where things get a bit tricky. The Christians are based mainly in the Middle Belt region which cuts across seven of the 19 northern states.

These are: Kaduna, Adamawa, Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, Bauchi, Taraba and the federal capital, Abuja. However, only four of these states have a clear Christian majority. 

Should Obi win a substantial number of votes in the Christian-dominated states and then receive a considerable number of votes in other Muslim states, the Labour Party candidate stands a chance of victory more so than the other frontline candidates – Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu – are Muslims and will be splitting the Muslim northern votes along with Rabiu Kwankwaso who enjoys a cult following in Kano State. 

Obi’s pathway to victory is very much similar to that of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s in the 2011 election wherein he cleared the votes in the Middle Belt, the southeast, the south-south and the southwest but lost in the Muslim areas of the north which General Muhammadu Buhari won. 

In the run-up to that poll, Jonathan as President publicly knelt before Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God who prayed for him at the most attended church programme in the country.

Constitutional requirement 

Perhaps Obi’s biggest obstacle would be the constitutional requirement of spread.

The Nigerian constitution says to be elected in the first round of elections a candidate must receive a majority of the vote and over 25% of the vote in at least 24 of the 36 states.  

If no candidate passes this threshold, a second round will be held between the top candidate and the next candidate to have received a plurality of votes in the highest number of states. 

This implies that if Obi clears the votes in the Christian majority states which are about 18, he will still need to make inroads into the Muslim northern states before he can win.

… the Peter Obi factor is trying to go through the church and make it look as if he is driving the Christians into politics. I do not believe that the church should actively go into politics because that is not their calling.

And with Tinubu, a southwest leader, on the ballot, it is unlikely Obi will win the region as Jonathan did in 2011, hence his path is narrower. 

But Babachir Lawal, a former secretary to President Buhari, says Obi will get the Christian vote in most parts of the country especially since Tinubu, the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), is running on a Muslim/Muslim ticket

Lawal, who was a staunch ally of Tinubu but has since abandoned him for running on a same-faith ticket, said every Christian town in the north will vote for Obi. 

 “Peter Obi will get the five southeast votes. He will get 25% in the six south-south states. He will get 25% in the north-central and part of the northeast. Southern Gombe will vote only for Obi. The Christians in Adamawa will vote for Peter Obi even though it is Atiku territory,” Lawal says. 

He adds that Tinubu will not win the southwest by a wide margin because most of the mega churches which are opposed to the Muslim/Muslim ticket are headquartered in the southwest and this will work in Obi’s favour

But the southwest coordinator of Obi’s campaign, Akin Osuntokun, says Obi is not just targeting the Christian vote but the votes of all Nigerians hence his decision to pick a northern Muslim, Yusuf Datti, as his running mate. 

“We will not run a divisive campaign. We are appealing to all Nigerians hence the decision to run on a balanced ticket because we also need the votes of the Muslims,” he says. 

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