Africa’s most populous nation goes to the polls on Saturday (25 February) to elect a new president. One candidate, Peter Obi, who appears to have become the front runner, has captured the imagination of the western media.
Obi, 61, the leader of the Nigerian Labour Party, has pitched himself as a fresh-faced progressive and outsider who will clean up the muck of Nigerian politics and build a fairer, more just nation. The country’s youth – a powerful voting bloc in a country where around two-thirds of the population of 213 million is under the age of 30 – appear to be on Obi’s side and, if you read election coverage in the international press, you might get the impression that Nigeria is on the verge of a bright new era. But is Obi really Nigeria’s saviour, or is this simply a media mirage?
The challenges facing Nigeria’s next president are immense. Security has deteriorated drastically over the last few years, the country is in the midst of a cash crisis caused by a disastrous attempt to replace old naira bills with redesigned ones, inflation is soaring, and corruption is so widespread that the state barely functions. For many Nigerians, things can barely get worse and Obi – who is running against two well-established and well-funded candidates in their seventies – is promising to deliver prudence and accountability to a failing political system.
It feels like we’ve been here before. From Syriza in Greece to Barack Obama via Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, recent history is full of examples of fawning journalists turning progressive political leaders and movements into deities that inevitably fail to live up to the hopes projected onto them.
Syriza came to power on an anti-austerity platform and then promptly proceeded to ignore the results of the 2015 Greek bailout referendum and accepted an austerity programme imposed by the EU and International Monetary Fund. Far from delivering hope, Obama’s underwhelming presidency laid the ground for the profound cynicism of Donald Trump’s administration. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, refused to acknowledge the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in her country.
This trend is often far more pronounced in the developing world, which is largely ignored in between election cycles by the international media. Nigeria has profound and complicated political fault lines. Analysis of these divides is rare until election time and even then global audiences receive little more than a superficial overview.
Passing readers demand a narrative that is easy to comprehend and basic information on who to back so that they can feel invested in the race. And nothing is more engaging than an underdog story about a candidate who preaches western values, like Peter Obi. Often this turns flawed politicians into messianic revolutionaries who are arguably set up for failure. No wonder faith in journalists and politicians is so low when both are so guilty of overinflating the expectations of the public.
Recent coverage of Obi is evidence of this. He is presented as an anti-establishment outsider coming up against the two dominant forces in Nigerian politics, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This picture doesn’t fit the reality. Obi has been involved in politics for nearly 20 years. He was the PDP’s vice-presidential candidate at the last election in 2019, running alongside Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president, who, now 76, is once again the party’s nominee.
Like Atiku, Obi has been accused of corruption. His financial affairs were reported in the 2021 Pandora Papers leaks and Obi has admitted to owning several shell companies based in offshore tax havens and maintaining foreign bank accounts while holding political office, both of which violate anti-corruption laws in Nigeria.
Obi, who was governor of Anambra state in south-east Nigeria between 2006 and 2014, has publicly defended the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), a secessionist group that is officially listed as a terrorist organisation by the Nigerian government (though the UK has not listed the group as such). Nigerian officials say that IPOB bombings have killed dozens of civilians in the south-east, though the organisation denies involvement.
Security was also a significant blight on Obi’s period of governor. The local unit of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a notorious branch of the Nigerian police that was dissolved in 2020 for engaging in widespread criminality – in the Anambra town of Awkuzu became known for detaining civilians on bogus charges, torturing and often murdering detainees. An Amnesty International report singled out Awkuzu SARS as one of the most brutal after it dumped the bodies of 35 victims in the Ezu river. Though the report was published after Obi left office, in an election where security is the number one issue, there is little in the politician’s track record to suggest that he is equipped to make the country safer. Or, for that matter, resolve any of the deep-rooted dysfunctions that plague the Nigerian state. His intentions may be genuine, but his ability to deliver on his promises is unclear.
A common criticism of the media is that it only reports bad news, but unrealistic optimism can also undermine faith in journalism. Because when the great new hope eventually fails to deliver the change that voters expect, people become even more jaded. Fatalism then sets in and the electorate grows ever more contemptuous of politicians. It would be uniquely troubling if this were to happen to Nigeria, because, with a median age of just 18 years, it is one of the world’s youngest nations and one of the fastest growing – by 2050, Nigeria is projected to overtake the US to become the third most-populous country after India and China.
If a “youthquake” does bring Obi to power on Saturday, we should all hope that he’s capable of living up to the glowing coverage that he has received from western journalists. If Nigerian readers do succumb to this hype and he fails to deliver on his promise, Africa’s largest democracy risks sinking into disillusion for generations to come. If it does, be certain that there are plenty of malign forces in Nigeria ready to exploit that.