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NIGERIA 2023: Can Peter Obi get the vote spread required for victory?

His popularity continues to soar by the day. From the marketplace in southeast Nigeria to the Internally Displaced Persons camps of the Christian-dominated Benue State in the north-central, chants of Obi! Obi! Continue to get louder as the election nears. In a report, The Africa Report asks, can he get the needed plurality of votes needed for victory? 

Inspired by the mammoth crowd that attended his rally in Enugu State, southeast Nigeria, Peter Obi who is the candidate of the Labour Party in next month’s election, enthused: “We are one step closer to victory.” 

After leaving the venue, he headed for the University of Nigeria Nsukka, his alma mater, where his presence grounded academic activities as excited students all struggled to take pictures with him. His message was the same: “Get your voter cards and vote for me.” 

Earlier in the week, Obi visited his hometown in Onitsha, Anambra State, in the southeast where he was also welcomed by yet another massive crowd of supporters.  

However, the Obi fever in some key urban cities in southern Nigeria has yet to be felt in rural areas of the southwest as well as the Muslim-majority states of the north. 

In Nasarawa State in the north-central where he officially launched his campaign, the crowd that welcomed him could not fill up the venue even though it was the smallest of all venues in the state capital. The Labour Party campaign council accused the state government of imposing a curfew ahead of the rally in order to scuttle the event hence the not-so-impressive turnout. 

The rally that took place at the Lokoja Confluence Stadium in Kogi also in the north-central witnessed an abysmal turnout which caused the opposition to mock them on social media. 

“Less than 300 people turned up at Peter Obi’s Kogi rally. To put this in perspective, note that Kogi shares borders with Anambra and Obi governed Anambra for eight years,” tweeted Reno Omokri, a media strategist for Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). 

Rule of Spread 

Winning Nigeria’s election is not just about getting the majority of votes but plurality as well. The country has 36 states and a federal capital territory. Nigerian law says for anyone to win a Presidential election, the candidate must get the majority of votes and at least 25% of the votes cast in 24 out of the 36 states. 

Southern Nigeria has 17 states and is divided into three sub-regions – the southwest, the southeast and the south-south. The southeast and the south-south are Christian-majority states and they have five and six states respectively. Historically, these 11 states in the south-south and the southeast have been voting for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Presidential elections since 1999. Obi now seeks to disrupt this trend and will be expected to get a sizeable number of votes in these states and meet the 25% requirement. 

The southwest, which is dominated by the Yoruba ethnic group, however, will prove a bit trickier for Obi who is Igbo. Apart from the fact that the Igbo and Yoruba never agree when it comes to politics, the presence of the acclaimed political leader of the southwest, Bola Tinubu, on the ballot, will make it difficult for Obi to get any votes outside of the educated urban areas, analysts say. 

The story is not too different in northern Nigeria which has 19 states out of which 15 have a clear Muslim majority. Among the 15 states, 11 of them practice Sharia law and traditionally vote based on religion and ethnicity. Incidentally, these states determine the winner of elections more than any other states because of their sheer voter size and turnout on election day. 

In order to appeal to these states, Tinubu picked fellow Muslim, Kashim Shettima, as his running mate to the chagrin of Christian conservatives. The PDP also picked a Muslim northerner, Atiku, in order to boost its chances and appeal to northern Muslim voters. 

Obi had hoped to run alongside northern grassroots politician, Rabiu Kwankwaso, who enjoys a cult following in Kano State. However, talks soon broke down between the two and he settled for Yusuf Baba-Ahmed, a former lawmaker who is hardly known in the north. 

Pathway to victory   

With Obi running against Muslims, he has focused mainly on the Christian parts of the south and the north. The Labour Party candidate has been visiting mega-churches which critics say are being done in a bid to corner the Christian vote. 

In a tweet, Obi’s former campaign manager, Doyin Okupe, said the Labour Party candidate will receive votes from Igbo voters in the north and will get 25% of the votes in the southwest as well as 70% in the southeast and the south-south. 

“Peter Obi will win and lead massively in the southeast on average with 70%, including the south-south states. In the southwest, Obi will score a minimum of 40% in Lagos, 25% in Ogun, Oyo, Ekiti, Ondo and Osun. He will win 15% in the northwest and no less than 10% of all other six states mainly because of Igbo residents,” Okupe stated. 

In a chat with The Africa Report, Ndi Kato, a spokesperson for Obi’s campaign stated that she was confident that he would do better in the north than is being projected. 

“The mistake is that people forget that the north is very diverse and is not monolithic,” Kato says, adding that Obi will soon take his rallies to the core northern states. 

Poor structure 

But analysts say one of the issues plaguing Obi’s campaign is a lack of a grassroots base maintained by money, a system colloquially referred to as structure. Obi, who has a reputation for being frugal, does not play the sort of machine politics that could match Tinubu and Atiku. 

Besides, his party, the Labour Party, is still largely unknown across the country. Obi himself only joined the party back in May to contest the Presidential election. 

The party has no governors and has less than 20 elected officials across the country. With the absence of wealthy lieutenants, he now relies on volunteers as foot soldiers. 

Labour Party also has no senatorial or House of Representatives candidates in Lagos, Ekiti, Borno, Katsina and Kebbi. In many other states, the party lacks the required number of candidates that will serve as foot soldiers for Obi on election day. 

In the 2019 election where Obi contested alongside Atiku as his running mate, they failed to get the required 25% vote spread in Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Yobe and Zamfara states. With Obi now contesting alongside a less popular northern politician and with a party not as popular as the PDP, it remains to be seen how he will get the required spread. 

Speaking with The Africa Report, Alada Muhammad, a Political Scientist at the University of Ilorin, says Obi will not be able to get the spread in 24 states required for victory. 

“… most of the campaign activities have been concentrated in the south and this may work against him in the north,” Muhammad says. 

Jafaar Jafaar, a journalist and public commentator with deep knowledge of northern politics told our correspondent that Obi and his party remain largely unknown in the core Muslim north, including Kano. 

“It is too late for Peter Obi to make inroads into states like Kano because Labour Party is weak and only became known last year. A political party is a vehicle and if the vehicle is weak, you will not be able to make inroads. He is not known at all in the north and that is where the bulk of the votes are,” he says. 

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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