If the general election holds in February next year, one of three people will be declared president: APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu, PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, or Labor Party’s Peter Obi. Only a natural disaster, such as death, can change that reality.
There is no foretoken of indications at the moment that can reveal with certainty which presidential candidate will prevail next year. Opinion polls in Nigeria are often no more than preposterously unscientific partisan delusions. Campaign crowds are misleading gauges of acceptance, can be bought, and can be mere signs of the level of curiosity that a candidate excites.
Money may not be as decisive in determining the outcome of next year’s election as it did in previous years. And no candidate can bank on the assurances of primordial loyalties alone to coast to victory since that alone won’t be enough in a three-way race. So, more likely than not, no candidate will win an outright majority of the vote.
What seems fairly certain, however, is the shape of the governments that will emerge from the three leading presidential candidates. None of it, from my sober introspection, is pretty. Of course, as always, I hope and pray that I am completely wrong. Let’s start with Peter Obi.
Obi will be stymied by two lumbering burdens should he become president. The first is what sociologists call the crisis of rising expectations. Like Buhari before 2015, Obi has presented himself—and has been touted by his supporters—as “different,” as the “savior” that Nigeria needs to take it to the Promised Land. That’s a dangerous expectation to create for a politician, any politician.
Obi is just like every Nigerian politician who, like Buhari, is being estimated beyond his paygrade. The overly optimistic expectations built around him will ensure that he is closely marked. Being overrated is always a disadvantage because it makes the bar to impress almost impossible to attain. Underrated people have an easier opportunity to impress because the bar isn’t raised high for them in the first place.
Nonetheless, the wildly farcical religious fervor among Obi supporters in the belief that Obi is Nigeria’s last opportunity for redemption is in such sharp contrast with Obi’s own earlier position about the impossibility of changing Nigeria through changes to who becomes president.
In one of his most watched videos, he described Nigeria as a motionless car with a dead engine. Instead of fitting the immobile car with a new engine, he said, we keep changing the drivers in a forlorn effort to get the car to move. In a March 25, 2022, article titled “Peter Obi: Applying to Be Driver of a Knocked-Out Car,” I described his characterization of Nigeria as “the profoundest metaphor anyone has ever conjured up to explain Nigeria’s problems.”
“It’s interesting that Obi is now putting himself up as another prospective driver to move a motionless car with a knocked-out engine. Perhaps, he wants to be the driver who’ll tell us that we need to change the engine,” I wrote. And that’s where his second problem lies.
If Obi becomes president, it’s almost certain that the National Assembly will be dominated by the APC and the PDP both because the Labor Party hasn’t fielded candidates in all National Assembly positions across the nation and because most of the people it has fielded are weak candidates with weak chances of victory.
Although he himself was a PDP member, which makes him a political kindred of the APC/PDP political family, his upset victory might cause him to be treated as a pariah, which would frustrate his legislative agenda. He could, in fact, be impeached and removed from office. Although he survived a similar fate when he was governor of Anambra, Nigeria isn’t Anambra State. So, as a driver, he won’t be able to change the engine of our motionless car.
Should Atiku Abubakar become president, his most immediate burden would be dealing with a deeply divided nation. It’s obvious that the prevailing sentiment in the South is that a southerner (and, for some, a Christian) should succeed Muhammadu Buhari. And that’s not an unreasonable sentiment in the light of the power of symbolic representation in a complex, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious country like Nigeria.
Atiku’s election after Buhari would be made worse by the fact that they both share the same ethnicity. Although Buhari doesn’t speak Fulfulde (the language of the Fulani), is culturally and linguistically Hausa, and can only imagine what it means to be culturally Fulani, he nonetheless self-identifies as Fulani and is phenotypically Fulani. Atiku is culturally and linguistically Fulani. And they are both Muslims.
The sense of righteous indignation that the emergence of Atiku as president would provoke in the South might convulse the foundations of Nigeria. It would also deepen the alienation of the Igbo and probably push Biafra agitation to the mainstream in the Southeast.
The Southwest might also partake in calling attention to “northern domination” and recoil to its “Yoruba Nation” shell, which would embolden other subnationalist fissiparities. This would be ironic because, with all his faults, Atiku is probably the most cosmopolitan politician to ever emerge from northern Nigeria. But the likely revolt of the South against his presidency won’t be against him as a person but against the idea of one northern Muslim succeeding another northern Muslim.
A Bola Tinubu presidency would be hamstrung by multiple burdens. The first is a moral one. His U.S. drug forfeiture in the 1990s, which is now more public knowledge than it has ever been, would perpetually undermine his moral authority as a president. He is also clearly physically and mentally unwell and would have a surrogate presidency that would be worse than Buhari’s.
But it would be a factious surrogate presidency. Remi Tinubu, his wife, would head one faction. Seyi Tinubu (whom I learned isn’t the son of Remi) would head another. In other words, it would be another Buhari presidency, except that it would be on steroids. It would become clear that the fears about a Muslim-Muslim presidency were groundless since both Remi and Seyi are Christians.
I also foresee an open confrontation between Kashim Shettima and Tinubu’s inner circle, and the confrontation would assume a regional coloration. Shettima is a studious, strong-willed, and self-assured personality who would revolt against his exclusion—unlike Osinbajo. It won’t take long for the North to sour on Tinubu and for regional animosities to ensue.
Of course, a Tinubu win, like an Atiku win, would most likely add fuel to the flames of Biafra agitation and mainstream it. It isn’t just because people in the Southeast rightly feel that this is the time for a president from their region but also because Tinubu doesn’t seem to show any warmth toward them. His election, like Atiku’s, would exacerbate the sensation of alienation in the Southeast.
What is obvious to me is that whoever emerges president in 2023 would have a more difficult country to govern than any president since at least 1999. That means the formation of a government of national unity, which some people already advocate, is inevitable.
But a government of national unity is merely elite appeasement. To have a chance to succeed even minimally, the next government has to be more attuned to the pulse of the people in more ways than any government we have had in recent time.