Will Obi Reinvigorate the Nigerian Labor Movement?
from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Will Obi Reinvigorate the Nigerian Labor Movement?

The alliance between Peter Obi and the Labour Party in Nigeria disguises a fundamental conflict in their political and economic outlook.
Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party, gestures during an interview with Reuters at his home in Lagos, Nigeria on August 18, 2022.
Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party, gestures during an interview with Reuters at his home in Lagos, Nigeria on August 18, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Of the various elements that make the political ascendance of former Governor of Anambra State Peter Obi compelling to watch, the chemistry of his relationship with the Labour Party is particularly intriguing. Perhaps due to the rise of the “Obi-dient,” the assemblage of disaffected youth whose propulsive energy has bolstered Obi’s claims as a legitimate presidential contender, the contradictions of Obi’s relationship with the party—whose ideology he notionally embodies—have received scant attention. Yet, a closer examination throws a light on both Labour and Obi’s pedigrees, as well as simmering ideological tensions between the standard bearer and his adopted party.

Until Obi’s defection to the Labour Party following his unexpected exit from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) less than three days to the latter’s presidential primary, the Labour Party was, not to put too fine a point on it, a marginal factor in the race for the Nigerian presidency. Pre-Obi, its most prominent figure had been Pat Utomi, a political economist and management expert. Like Obi, Utomi too was an exile from one of the two major political parties, having failed in his attempt to secure the All Progressives Congress (APC) gubernatorial ticket for Delta State in the 2019 general election. Utomi was instrumental in the Labour Party’s successful courtship of Obi and would eventually step down for the former PDP front runner to emerge unopposed as Labour’s presidential candidate.

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The Obi-Labour Party liaison is the textbook marriage of convenience. Having quit the PDP in a huff, citing “recent developments” which made it “impossible for me to continue participating and making constructive contributions,” Obi needed a party where he and his supporters would immediately head to the front of the line. For its part, the Labour Party needed a standard bearer with national name recognition. Utomi and the party may have been in accord on the need to challenge the PDP-APC duopoly, but Utomi, although a one-time presidential aspirant and well-known political commentator, has never held political office, and his chances of becoming president were next to nil.

As things stand, both Obi and the Labour Party will feel that they have brought commensurate equity to the union. Labour can feel justified in thinking that, but for the party, Obi, having lost out in the high-stakes contest within the PDP, might have wound up politically homeless. In addition to giving him a political refuge, Labour has furnished Obi with a ready-made platform from which he could launch his ambition.

While this is more or less true, Obi will, in turn, feel that without him, the Labour Party would be nowhere today. A spin-off of the Party for Social Democracy (PSD), the Labour Party in the Nigerian Fourth Republic (1999-) has been little more than a political afterthought, a platform of convenience for aggrieved candidates from the PDP and the APC who quickly move on as soon as their immediate purpose has been served. This was certainly the case with Olusegun Mimiko, who ran successfully as governor of Ondo State under the banner of the Labour Party for a period of two terms (2009- 2017), only to return to the PDP in 2021. While defections are par for the course in Nigeria’s ideology-free politics (the PDP flag bearer Atiku Abubakar has previously run for the country’s highest office on both sides of the political divide), the point remains that the Labour Party is largely regarded as the last option for those in desperate need of a party platform.

As a matter of fact, Mimiko’s success remains the apex of the Labour Party’s overall showing in the Fourth Republic. The party currently has no elected representatives in the lower and upper legislative chambers. Amid unconfirmed rumors that Usman Zaki, its presidential candidate in the 2019 presidential election had stepped down for the APC’s Muhammadu Buhari, Labour won a meager 0.019 percent of the total votes cast.

The latter is one reason for many analysts’ continued pessimism about the party’s chances in the 2023 election, the passion of the Obi-dient for its standard bearer notwithstanding. Can a party that won less than one percent of the vote just three years ago suddenly catapult its candidate to the peak of political power? Will the fervor of the Obi-dient suffice to transform Peter Obi from a formidable third force to a realistic election winner?   

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Other grounds for pessimism inhere within the antecedents of the labor movement, especially when viewed in the wider context of the changing (or rather declining) fortunes of Nigerian civil society. While military rule unwittingly brought out the best in the labor movement by enabling an alliance between trade unions and pro-democracy forces, the military’s malign machinations also saw to it that the labor movement was stripped of its old ardor. Few Nigerian institutions have survived the military’s wholesale attack on civil society intact; labor, together with the intelligentsia and the student union movement, came off worst. Its travails are replicated in other African countries, most poignantly in places where, at the peak of its power, the labor movement was the vanguard of social movements and a veritable laboratory of democratization.

The enervation of the Labour Party mirrors the devitalization of the labor movement in general. Short-handed and starved of resources, the party can least afford the luxury of scrutinizing the records of those who have come to it in desperation, lest it finds them morally indigestible. Ironically, Obi, and to a lesser degree Utomi, are precisely the kind of establishment figures the old labor movement would probably have distanced itself from. Not only was Obi the PDP vice presidential candidate in the 2019 presidential election (when he addressed the Nigerian Bar Association Annual General Conference last month, he could still be heard referring to Atiku as “my leader”), he, as recently as May, sought the nomination of the same party he now reflexively disavows at every turn. Reacting last month to criticism that the Labour Party lacks the structure to carry their presidential nominee to success, Obi accused both the PDP and APC of “sharing Nigeria’s patrimony to (sic) vested interests and influence peddlers.”        

The discordance between Obi and the Labour Party appears most clearly in the latter’s economic program. According to its manifesto, Labour’s core principles are “humanistic, patriotic, pan-African and socialist…” Accordingly, the party shall ensure an “activist developmental role of the state in the economy by being a major player in the strategic sectors of the economy…” Will Obi, a successful businessman with a big footprint in the banking sector, endorse his party’s socialist agenda?

The question begs larger ones: what does Obi actually believe? What are his economic and political fundaments? These questions matter because, at the moment, what he is willing to sign on (beyond a vague championing of “good governance”) is anybody’s guess. His extemporaneous public speaking offers little by way of clues, and when offered the opportunity (his interview last week with CNN is a case in point), he has come across as tentative and unprepared. In this respect, he is very much like his PDP and APC counterparts.      

Obi’s inability to check the traditional Laborite boxes may not count for much in the short term. He needs the party as much as it needs him, and both seem willing to overlook the other’s faults while the political wind remains favorable.

The tenor of their partnership is bound to change as the election draws closer and Obi is forced to show his ideological hand.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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