It is a little over a month now since presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar chose Peter Obi as his running mate to a near universal applause. That is, outside the circles of the All Progressives Congress. Among the phrases that have been used to describe the choice are apt, deft and master stroke. I couldn’t agree more.
Yet, reading all the accolades only made me wonder about the option of flipping the roles and having Obi as the presidential candidate and Atiku as his running mate. This is not intended to slight Atiku, but to explore Obi’s potential.
Given the point of this column two Sundays ago about Nigeria’s politics of entitlement, flipping the ticket is, of course, an improbable proposition. Moreover, it would violate the rotational principle that cedes this electoral cycle to the North. Yet, there is ample reason for this flight of fancy.
The Atiku/Obi ticket reminds me of the pairing of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the 2008 US presidential election. The only difference is that in that case the presidential candidate was a young newcomer and his running mate was an older political veteran. That election was driven by the dynamic of this non-traditional pairing. The trailblazing Obama lit the fuse of excitement while the veteran Biden anchored the candidacy in the political traditions. It was an even greater masterstroke.
Obama won the election against the odds by energizing electoral bases that were usually blasé about voting: racial minorities, young women and university students. Minorities and students in particular saw Obama as someone who truly represented them, a cut away from the usual.
Moreover, Obama’s vision of a country that could transcend its historical and contemporary ills was inspiring and galvanising. It made those who had been on the margins feel they had at last become a part of the centre. And so, they turned out in droves to vote for him.
Obi has much the same attributes as Obama and could have readily reprised the political magic. To begin with, they are both the same age, 57, though Obama was just 47, when he won the US presidency in 2008. They are both intelligent and articulate. And despite their social status, they retain the common touch.
They are also comparable in political experience, both having limited or no experience in federal government. Before seeking the presidency, Obama served as an Illinois state senator for about seven years and then as a federal senator for just two. Obi served eight years as the governor of Anambra State and briefly as an informal adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan.
Obama garnered national attention in 2004, when he gave a riveting keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. It was the resulting exposure that gave him the audacity — if you will — to venture into the presidential race after a mere two years as aU.S. senator.
Even on all this, there is also an Obi parallel. His political stock rose in no little measure by a widely distributed speech at The Platform in Lagos in 2016. It was a seriously bemusing primer on frugal governance and self-reliance. Drawing from his experience as Anambra’s governor, he gave a point-by-point illustration of how to cut government waste and invest the money in human and infrastructural development. He led by example by denying himself the superfluous perks that bloat state government budgets and turning to local supplies rather than foreign products.
Were Obi running as the PDP’s flagbearer, he would have readily made believers of a large portion of Nigerians—regardless of region—by simply recounting this experience and how it would transfer from Awka to Abuja.
An Obi/Atiku ticket would probably lose some votes in the North among hardcore political traditionalists. But the loss should be more than made-up for by the votes of northern youth and educated women, who would recognize the possibilities of an Obi presidency.
An Obi/Atiku ticket would galvanize interest even more so in the South. The South-West might be the most lukewarm here, given that its son is on the APC ticket. The South-South, where some militants have expressed solidarity with IPOB, will probably be more excited about an Obi/Atiku ticket than an Atiku/Obi ticket.
As for the South-East, what needs to be said? An Obi/Atiku ticket would deal a decided blow to the Igbo perception that they are marginalized in Nigeria. It would be an antidote to President Muhammadu Buhari’s incredibly insensitive treatment of that geopolitical zone. And it would most likely suck out the air from what is left of IPOB and its secessionist activism.
But why dwell on what could have been? The reality is actually not too bad at all. Obi will still take his leadership credentials and values to the presidency. That is provided that a President Atiku finds substantive responsibilities for his vice president and not feel threatened by his verve. In fact, Atiku would be better off not choosing Obi than to choose and then marginalize him. It would subvert the very strengths that Obi brings to the pairing.
Those strengths are well summed up by Victor Ogene, a former member of the National Assembly from Anambra State.“The name, Peter Obi, has over the last decade come to represent frugality in public finance, sobriety, and probity in spending, and excellence in public office,” Ogene told the Vanguard in an interview. “His choice, therefore, as vice presidential candidate of the PDP, beyond representing a positive move towards integrating the Igbo into the top leadership strata of the nation, is apt.”
Moreover, Ogene added, “As a successful two-time governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi comes fully ready for the top position he has been chosen for.”
The Atiku Presidential Campaign Organisation has, of course, been effusive about the choice as well. As paraphrased by The Punch, “Obi’s choice was largely influenced by his youthfulness, vast knowledge of global and local economics as well as being a financial expert … experiences Nigeria (is) in great need of.”
Chief Gbenga Daniel, the director-general of the Atiku campaign, is quoted by The Punch as saying: “Peter Obi is an astute professional who has laid his footprints across the corporate world…. This ticket will be able to steer our nation back on the path of progress, economic prosperity and unity.”
All campaigns are effusive about their choices. The claim here just happens to have what social scientists call face validity. And that’s why I just can’t stop thinking of the potential of a flipped ticket.