By Ike Okonta
Peter Obi’s burgeoning popularity has led Chuks Iloegbunam, the author and journalist, to write a semi-biography of the politician and presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the 2023 elections. I use the word ‘semi-biography’ advisedly. The book is not a full-fledged biography because it does not follow Peter Obi’s life from childhood to adulthood. Rather, it sketches out relevant details of the 61-year old politician’s life to the extent that it bears on his present trajectory as a presidential candidate and then doubles down on the social and political malaise that is present day Nigeria and what Obi plans to do to clean up the Augean stable if he is elected president next February.
According to Iloegbunam, the prompting to write the book ‘The Promise Of A New Era,’ published by the Awka-based Eminent Biographies, came from Odia Ofeimun, the famous poet and essayist. Ofeimun was anxious that Peter Obi’s life story be documented by a Nigerian author before Europeans swooped down on the prize. Iloegbunam was at first reluctant to take on the project but after mulling over it for a while, saw reason with Odia Ofeimun. This was after the presidential primaries of the main political parties had been concluded in June 2022 and it was clear that Nigerians were going to be served by the same old, tired and self-serving presidential candidates who had thrown the country into the pit of perdition in the first place.
The book traces Peter Obi’s present surging popularity in the Nigerian political firmament, particularly among the youth who constitute the bulk of the voting public, to the presidential candidate’s sudden decision in May to leave the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a few days before its presidential primary when it became obvious to him that considerations other than merit and competence, were going to play a key role in determining who emerged the party’s flag bearer. Insisting that he would not be part of a process where ill-gotten wealth was leveraged for votes from party delegates, Peter Obi turned his back on the charade and joined the lesser-known Labour Party whose members promptly made him their presidential candidate.
When news of Obi’s unusual action filtered out to the Nigerian public, youths began to rally round the Labour Party’s presidential candidate. Instantly, Nigerian youth saw Peter Obi as the embodiment of the kind of politician they had been waiting for for years – a credible, honest and hardworking public figure who was disgusted with the regime of corruption and cynicism that has marked political life in the country since the return of democratic rule in May 1999. Their enthusiasm was boundless. They took to social media to announce the advent of their new hero. They spread his name by word of mouth. They began to organize neighbourhood by neighbourhood, town by town. Soon, the Obi fever took on a life of its own. The youth and their not-so-young compatriots began to call themselves ‘Obi-dients.’ A new term in Nigeria’s political lexicon was born.
Chuks Iloegbunam captures this unusual development in the book thus: ‘The people rose with one voice, swearing that they were not followers of Peter Obi but advocates for a better Nigeria who see Mr Obi’s candidacy as an instrument for actualizing their political objective. Soon posters appeared, bearing the message that “Peter Obi is not contesting for President of Nigeria. It is Nigerians that are contesting through Peter Obi.”’ So, who actually is this unusual politician that has so captured the imagination and devotion of Nigerian youth? Peter Obi’s life story is pretty simple and straightforward. He was born in the commercial city of Onitsha by dotting parents in 1961. He attended the famous Christ the King College, Onitsha, (CKC) and then moved on to University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he studied philosophy, graduating with honours in 1984. He then began his public career as a businessman.
Peter Obi has always proudly identified himself as an ‘Onitsha-based trader.’ However, the truth of the matter is that he is actually a savvy businessman with interests spanning banking, wholesale and retail, emerging as the youngest chairman of a publicly-quoted bank when he took charge of Fidelity Bank. Obi cut his teeth as an entrepreneur as a teenager in Christ the King College when he began to sell goods to his classmates. And he has not looked back since. However, as Chuks Iloegbunam has argued in this eminently-readable book, Peter Obi’s real heart lay in public service, not business. Thus he entered the political fray as governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Anambra State in the 2003 election. Chris Ngige of the PDP rigged himself into office as governor instead, but Peter Obi would have none of it. He fought all the way through the courts and reclaimed his mandate in 2006. But hardly had he settled down to govern when the state House of Assembly, following directions from Abuja, illegally impeached him. Again Obi fought back, and eventually returned to office and governed for his full term of eight years.
The book concludes with a set of essays, each taking a peek at the unusual Peter Obi political phenomenon, by such leading intellectuals as Festus Adedayo, Okey Ndibe, Farooq Kperogi and Obi Nwakanma. All these authors agree with Chuks Iloegbunam’s main thesis that Peter Obi emerged as a shining star in the Nigerian political firmament because previous politicians had pushed the country into the gutter of poverty, corruption and bad governance and that at long last ordinary Nigerians are standing up and saying that enough is enough. Festus Adedayo even compares Peter Obi to Rosa Parks, the quiet and demure African American lady who embraced immortality by triggering the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s.
You can feel the author’s outrage that such personalities as Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu are offering themselves to be elected president even when they are challenged morally and intellectually. As Iloegbunam states in his book, Bloomberg, the New York-based news service, has pointed out that these two presidential candidates have been investigated for corruptly enriching themselves. It is clear that in the 2023 presidential election the Nigerian people will be called upon to make a choice between the old politics of plunder and corruption, and the new regime of honesty and public service that Peter Obi represents.
Chuks Iloegbunaam’s passionately-argued book, ‘The Promise Of A New Era’, leaves no one in doubt as to who Nigerians should vote for.
*Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.