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2023: Peter Obi Woos Northern Voters [MUST READ]

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A few months ago, few people would have given Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party, a fighting chance in the Muslim north, even if it was already established that he’s positioned to secure reasonable amount of votes in the largely Christian North Central, now generally regarded as the Middle Belt.

But Obi, whose entire power bid has been odd defying, is gradually warming up to the core northern bloc, and could very well stand a chance in the region.

“Although there is still a lot of indifference to—and, in some cases, resentment at—Peter Obi in the Muslim north, I am sensing a progressive acceptance of his candidacy,” observed Farooq Kperogi, a professor of journalism.

“A person I spoke with from Kano who says he is now warming up to Obi told me several people he knows and interacts with in the Northwest are giving Obi a chance both because of the growing intensity of the hurt Buhari has inflicted on people in the region and the fact that the alternatives to Obi seem like Buhari.”

The Muslim north had been penciled down as broadly a battleground region for Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the (PDP), who is seeking to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, a fellow Muslim, and indeed, a fellow ethnic Fulani from the North – though Atiku is from Adamawa in the Northeast, while Buhari is from Katsina in the Northwest – and Bola Tinubu, presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who himself is a Muslim from the Southwest.

The two septuagenarians who boast of deep pockets and well established political structures, are still the favourites to win the region, even as Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) who turned 66 on Friday, is certain to pull numbers, particularly in Kano, his base which has about 7 million registered voters, and is known to turn out large numbers during elections. But from being widely regarded as inconsequential as far as the core northern bloc vote is concerned, Obi has pushed himself into the mix.

On Monday, October 17, the former Anambra State governor, was presented with an opportunity to sell himself to the North, at the Arewa Joint Committee Interactive Session in Kaduna, and he made sufficient use it, putting on a commendable show.

Speaking at the session, Obi who used the occasion to dispel allegations of him being anti north, assured his hosts that as president, he will offer “immediate and decisive long-lasting and permanent-effect resolution of all security challenges in the North.

“Ensure that farmers return to all farmlands for the 2023 farming Season. We will make Nigeria’s arable land in the North her new oil and gold;

“As part of our Marshall Plan for Education, we will foster Federal intervention in education at all levels in the North and partnership with State Governments and international organizations in order to improve access to affordable and quality education at all levels.”

He added that his administration will “ensure very adequate representation in government, equitable appointments especially in the Security and Economic Sectors.”

Mr Obi noted that he will also work on reviving the “moribund cotton and textile industries” and “ensure very generous deployment and allocation of economic and social projects and infrastructure in the North.”

He observed that the region remained where the “biggest and sustainable wealth of this great Nation lies.”

Obi’s performance at the session is widely acclaimed, and by contrast, those of both Atiku and Tinubu were largely insipid, remembered mostly for the controversies stirred and gaffes made. While he cannot still be considered a match for both candidates, and indeed, Kwankwaso in the region, his presentation won him some converts.

“It is still too early to give Obi much of a chance in the north, but I can say he’s becoming more popular,” said Hussaini Mohammed in Kano. “Many people I know who watched his outing at the Arewa session were impressed, and I can count two people who have already told me that their votes are for Obi.”

Broadly speaking, Nigeria has five voting blocs spread across the six geopolitical zones, namely: the Northern Muslim bloc, the northern Christian bloc, the Southwest or the Yoruba bloc; the Southeast or the Igbo bloc and the South South or southern ethnic minority bloc.

Of the five, the Northern Muslim bloc is the most populous as it comprises people of different ethnic groups spread across three geopolitical zones, united by religion. Ideally, a candidate who is able to win the bloc needs two more of the remaining four blocs to win the presidential election.

In 1979, a less fancied Shehu Shagari won most of the Muslim north, the Christian north, and the southern minority votes to defeat both Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe, becoming Nigeria’s first elected executive president in the event.

With the return of democracy in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo edged his challenger, Olu Falae in four of the five blocs to become president, losing only his native Southwest to Falae in the event. And although the emergence of Muhammadu Buhari, the current president, into the equation in 2003, meant that Obasanjo and subsequent presidential candidates of the PDP lost most of the core northern states to Buhari, they secured the four remaining voting blocs to keep Buhari at bare. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007 and Goodluck Jonathan in 2013.

That was to change in 2015 when Buhari won the plurality of votes in both the North Central and the Southwest to become president.

Ahead of 2023, it’s a lot more complex, particularly given that it’s the first time since 1999 that there are more than two credible contenders for the coveted office. And as it stands, there is no candidate who is guaranteed to win three of the five blocs, and many opine that there might be a run-off.

Obi notably inspires youths across the south and parts of the north, but his core base remains the southeast and to slightly lesser degree, the South South, both of which had traditionally been the stronghold of the PDP.

The former Anambra governor is also strong in the Christian north where the ruling APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket has put many off, and the idea of another Muslim in Atiku succeeding Buhari does not sit well with many. However, to stand a good chance, he needs to cut into the Muslim north and the Southwest, the latter being the core constituency of Tinubu.

Tinubu, former governor Lagos State, has not particularly inspired the sort of following he may have anticipated in his native Southwest. The seven years of economic hardship inflicted on the country by the Buhari administration which he played a huge role in bringing into place, and has supported all the way, has not spared any zone. And for many in the Southwest, 2023 is the year to elect a competent candidate.

Regardless, Tinubu is expected to win the zone by good margin, especially as campaigns may become increasingly ethnic, and being in the ruling party that has solid structure across the North, stands a good chance of taking a huge chunk of votes in the region, particularly the Northwest and the Northeast.

Buhari, who has street popularity in the region, has since promised to lead his campaign, which is big plus for him, but the president won’t be on the ballot, and Tinubu cannot expect to get the sort of numbers the president has pulled over the years, particularly given that Atiku, the PDP candidate is from the region, and so is Kwankwaso.

Atiku, former vice president, and Tinubu will battle it out in the Muslim North, but available feedback suggests that Atiku has an edge, even as Kwankwaso cannot be counted out.

Supporters of the former vice president promote him as the pan Nigerian candidate with support base spread across the country. That is largely true. Both Southeast and South-South are traditional PDP zones, and by 2023, the main opposition party would have had two states in the Southwest. Thus, in terms of national spread, Atiku has it more than the other candidates. However, the 2023 polls present a different scenario from what has been witnessed since 1999.

The emergence of Obi means that the Southeast, the South South, and the Middle Belt are no longer guaranteed for the PDP, while the core north promises to be a battleground. Thus, while Atiku can boast of having a more national spread support base, it remains unlikely that this would translate to substantial number of votes.

Still, while his being a Muslim northerner puts him at an advantage over Tinubu and evidently, Obi, in the region, Atiku’s challenge is that he has always been liberal, cosmopolitan, and not delimited by religion. As a result, he doesn’t excite northern Muslims who define their identities in religious terms.

This is particularly why he used to be more popular in the South and in the Christian North than in the Muslim North. But Peter Obi has taken this base, largely.

Regardless, being a Northern Muslim, no matter how liberal, the former vice president is still more favoured than Tinubu, a Southerner, in the region, but will have to contend with Kwankwaso who is popular in Kano and a number of other northern states, and Obi, who was initially considered not to be a factor in the north, but is increasingly throwing himself into the mix.

Last week, Obi who had scheduled the kick off his campaign in Nasarawa, a mixed state in the North Central, but called it off to be able to visit victims of ravaging floods in the country, was in Benue were he made a donation of N5m to some of the affected victims, from where he proceeded to Bayelsa, and then to Anambra where he also made donations.

Obi’s major handicap is that he is running on the platform of a small party. It would be a major upset if a candidate from a small party won, given the strength of the PDP and the APC, but the former Anambra governor, as the Financial Times (FT) wrote last week, has excited parts of a disillusioned electorate, topping three recent polls, leading by eight points in a poll by NOI, a leading local pollster.

“People like his frugal attitude and his message about cutting the cost of governance,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development think-tank, told FT last week.

“But beyond that, young people are using him as a vehicle to channel their frustration with the Nigerian system. He’s not running just for himself, if you check online sentiment, you’ll see he’s running on behalf of young people,” Hassan said. Two political parties dominate Nigerian politics and Obi is the first credible “third-force” candidate since the return to democracy in 1999.

Obinna Ezugwu can be reached via his email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.

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