Jason Burke Africa Correspondent
Polls in Nigeria have placed outsider candidate Peter Obi in the lead before presidential elections next weekend, heralding potentially sweeping change in Africa’s most populous nation.
A win for Obi, a 61-year-old businessman turned politician, would overturn politics in Nigeria, ending decades of dominance by the two main establishment parties.
Analysts and commentators describe the election as a key “inflection point” for the country 24 years after the end of military rule. The vast country, which has Africa’s biggest economy, is seen as a bellwether for democracy on the continent but is suffering multiple economic, political and social crises.
“All elections are important, but there really is a lot riding on this one. It is really important that this election is credible, is free and perceived as fair,” said Leena Koni Hoffmann-Atar, an expert at London’s Chatham House foreign affairs thinktank.
Though some pollsters have gushed that Obi “has captivated the country”, others are cautious about the his chances of securing power.
Recent surveys have suggested Obi has between a 10% and 40% lead over his rivals, but many experts warn this could fast disappear if turnout is low, meaning a probable victory for the ruling party candidate, 70-year-old veteran powerbroker Bola Tinubu, whose slogan is: “It’s my turn.” More than 90 million Nigerians are eligible to vote, but less than half may actually cast a ballot.
Obi has sought to offset the advantage enjoyed by the vast political machines of the ruling All Progressives Congress and its main opposition, the People’s Democratic party (PDP), through the use of social media and efforts to reach out to all communities rather than mobilise an existing loyal base.
This has led to a surge of support among young urban voters. “This is a very young electorate … truly a Nigerian democratic generation – and the last eight years [of Muhammadu Buhari’s rule] have been quite brutal for them,” said Hoffmann-Atar.
A former state governor, Obi ran as the vice-presidential candidate for the PDP in 2019 but switched to the tiny Labour party last year, launching a grassroots campaign touting his experience as an administrator and outsider status that swiftly gained momentum.
Obi, a Catholic, has projected an image of a competent reformer who will tackle the country’s huge problems without fear or favour. He has been helped by the evident age of other candidates and corruption allegations against several rivals. High-profile efforts to bridge Nigeria’s deep ethnic and religious divides have also won support among some voters.
“Obi is viewed as a mould-breaking politician, talking about reform and doing things differently … But it remains to be seen if he could follow through on that if he became president,” said Matthew Page, a Nigeria expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Washington-based thinktank.
Few doubt the scale of the challenges facing the eventual victor. Inflation is running at record levels, Nigeria’s currency has plummeted in value and there have been riots in recent days after the central bank botched an attempt to introduce new banknotes.
Thousand died in attacks by bandits, criminals and extremists across the country in 2022. A wave of kidnapping for ransom has reached into previously safe towns and cities, while the police and armed forces are widely viewed as inefficient, corrupt and brutal.
Obi’s campaign pledge to apologise to victims of police brutality – a key mobilising cause for young people in recent years – has resonated widely with the youthful demographic.Though jihadists associated with the Boko Haramorganisation and the Islamic State’s regional branch are embroiled in a bitter internal conflict, they could still attempt to disrupt the election or its aftermath, said Vincent Foucher, an expert in extremism in west Africa with the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
One possibility is that Obi will take enough votes to prevent his rivals winning in the first round, which requires a simple majority of all votes and 25% of votes in at least two-thirds of the country’s 36 states. A second-round run-off would be a first in Nigerian electoral history and might risk further instability.
“Nigeria is an incredibly resilient country, but the question is: when do these multiplying crises just get too much,” said Page. Nigerians are choosing the person who may have one of the last opportunities to change the trajectory of the country.”
Guardian News & Media Limited