Nigeria 2023: Peter Obi’s campaign suffers setbacks up north amid defections

By Dammy Matthew

Posted on Wednesday, 15 February 2023 17:27
Presidential candidate of Labour Party Peter Obi looks on during the party campaign rally in Lagos, on February 11, 2023. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

With less than two weeks to Nigeria’s presidential election, the campaign of one of the country’s leading presidential candidates, Peter Obi of the Labour Party, has suffered several setbacks, especially in the Muslim northern part of the country, which has the highest voting population. Will he be able to beat the odds?

Several polls conducted by independent organisations have consistently projected Peter Obi as the likely winner of the 25 February presidential election in Africa’s largest country. However, the reality on the ground continues to suggest otherwise.

Obi, who is seen by many as an alternative to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), had seen his popularity rise in the south as well as the Christian and urban areas of the north. Even so, his popularity in the core rural and urban Muslim North has remained in doubt.

Eager to change this, he has in recent weeks visited some core northern states in search of votes. Nevertheless, a recent slate of defections by leaders of his party in the region has further pushed back his chances of getting the constitutional requirements that will see him victorious in the February 25 election.

Defection galore

Earlier in the month, members of Obi’s Presidential Campaign Council (PCC), and other party stakeholders in the six north-eastern states, announced their defection to the PDP alongside “millions of registered voters in the six states of Taraba, Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Borno and Yobe”, Mohammad Pantami, their spokesperson said.

According to Pantami, their reason was informed by poor information sharing in the scheme of the party’s hierarchy. He claimed that southerners in the party had been sidelining northerners despite the northerners having numerical advantage.

Two weeks before the setback for Obi hit in the northeast, the gubernatorial candidate of the Labour Party had also defected to the ruling APC along with other party leaders in the north-western state of Jigawa.

In Zamfara State, the Labour Party deputy governorship candidate, three senatorial candidates and seven candidates of the House of Representatives have also announced their defection to the APC while the party chairman in Sokoto state was reported to have threatened to boycott Obi’s presidential campaign, alleging that he was not being carried along.

In Kano, the state with the highest voting population in the north and second only to Lagos state in the country, Obi’s presidential ambition has also suffered major setbacks.

  • First, when Obi visited the state in January, the governorship candidate for the state, Bashir I. Bashir led other party leaders to boycott the campaign rally, also citing not being carried along as a reason.
  • Bashir would later meet with the presidential candidate of the APC, Bola Tinubu, and his running mate, Senator Kashim Shettima, on 12 February to finalise his defection to the ruling party.

Speaking to The Africa Report a few hours before his meeting with the APC candidate, Bashir said he had made up his mind not to work for Obi’s presidential ambition because of unresolved issues.

He added that lack of preparation was a major snag for Obi’s inroad to the north and that “the people around him do not have what it takes to organise a proper presidential campaign and they have not included people who matter; politicians who are on ground and in touch with the people”.

Even with the challenges that have greeted his push in the north, Obi and his handlers are not seen to be making any effort to placate the aggrieved party stakeholders. Bashir says despite the boycott in Kano, no one has reached out to him to address the issues he raised even before the boycott.

“Politics is about people, it is about consensus. There are no consultations or discussions,” he said.

Sectional campaign?

One allegation that has continued to undermine Obi’s campaign in the north is that he has failed to run an inclusive campaign. In some states in the north, Obi’s campaign is being run by Christian Igbos, a move that is considered an anathema in the deeply religious region.

Bashir, who also believes in this argument, said lack of consultation is what led Obi to holding a rally in the Sabongari area of Kano, a settlement for non-indigenes majorly from the southern part of the country and mainly of the Christian faith.

Even if what they are accusing you of is not true, by this singular act, you have sent a very wrong signal which is politically suicidal

“Peter Obi has been labelled as a sectional candidate representing either the Igbos or the Christian community and when he came to Kano, he should have been able to hold his rally where the majority of the people are situated. 

“Atiku Abubakar didn’t go to Sabongari; Bola Tinubu didn’t go to Sabongari; why go to Sabongari if not to send the wrong signals? Even if what they are accusing you of is not true, by this singular act, you have sent a very wrong signal which is politically suicidal,” he said.

In a similar vein, Kamilu Fage, a political analyst and political science professor, believes Obi may have just sunk his campaign in the north by failing to shed the toga of an ethnic jingoist.

He says the kind of politics that Obi’s kinsmen have been playing has also contributed to his unacceptability among the northerners, coupled with the history of how northerners were reportedly treated when Obi was governor of Anambra State.

“The north-south divide has always been a very strong issue in Nigeria, but the southwest was able to build bridges with the APC in 2014 and that is why the candidate of the southwest [Tinubu] is relatively accepted in the north going into this election,” Fage, a lecturer in Bayero University, Kano tells The Africa Report.

Fage says aside from the ethnic card, the belief in the core north is that Obi is also “mistakenly playing the religious card”, which is also another divisive issue in Nigeria.

Beyond these twin challenges that have made it difficult for him to penetrate the Muslim north, Fage believes that Obi could have been a very promising candidate. 

Fage opines that the mistakes made by Obi would be fatal to his ambition on 25 February.

‘Sectional campaign’?

However, Ndi Kato, a spokesperson for Obi’s campaign, tells The Africa Report that this election is a battle between the people and the political class and that is why some politicians are leaving Obi for selfish reasons.

She says allegations of Obi running a sectional campaign are nothing but hogwash.

“Peter Obi is not running a sectional campaign. This is a non-issue. People who want to defect will do so for various reasons and try to blame it on other issues. Right now, what we are focused on is saving Nigeria from the quagmire it is in right now and all hands are on deck to make this happen,” she says.

Kato, who is also from the north, adds that the defection of these politicians will not in any way undermine Obi’s chances in the region.

“Our foot soldiers are the people of Nigeria. They are volunteering. I reiterate that this election is between the people and the political class,” says Kato.

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