June 13, 2024

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Peter Obi as the New Face of Opposition Politics

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Obi

CEM OPPINION, GOVERNANCE | Watch out! Peter Obi is steadily emerging as the main opposition figure, delivering alternative viewpoints on important national conversations and criticizing the government in selected fronts. It is a departure from the past when also-rans in presidential races would recoil into their shells in shock and shame, only to return in four years to participate in another election. But Obi is not going away, as he promised in his press conference after the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the 2023 presidential election petition. So far, he has issued no fewer than three strong and cogent attacks on government’s policies. Early in November, he lampooned President Tinubu’s N2.17 trillion supplementary budget as ‘’uncaring’’ and ‘’insensitive’’, lamenting that the appropriation had failed to capture ‘’urgent items of national welfare’’. Some of its controversial provisions that have attracted wide critical reviews include N4 billion for the renovation of the President’s residence; N2.5 billion for the renovation of the Vice President’s residence; N5 billion for acquisitions of new vehicles for the President and his wife and operational vehicles for the Villa.

The storm over the supplementary budget had barely subsided when President Bola Tinubu presented a N65.2 billion budget proposal for FCTA before the National Assembly, of which N15 billion would be spent on completing the official residence of the Vice President which has been under construction for about 13 years. Again, Obi fired his missiles, describing the N15 billion provision as ‘’shocking and disheartening, considering the many important challenges facing our nation’’. He wondered why a new residence was needed when the supplementary budget had provided for N2.5 billion for the renovation of the VP’s residence, ‘’which means that the VP already has a residence’’. Indeed, the VP’s official residence located inside the expansive Aso Rock complex is a befitting address that had served as a home to many dignitaries even before Abuja became the official capital 32 years ago. there is absolutely no reason for another one, especially now.

‘’Our health facilities have collapsed and unemployment is skyrocketing. I am convinced that 99.9% of Nigerians can only dream of living in the current residence of the Vice President. This is the finance needed to develop the much-needed human capital. The budget of N5 billion for students’ loans, which is yet to be disbursed, is just a tiny per centage of the VP’s new home. I am sure the major teaching hospitals in Nsukka; Lagos, Ibadan and Zaria did not receive this much capital vote in the budget this year’’, Obi wrote, in what is clearly his most trenchant disparagement so far.

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Undoubtedly, Peter Obi has impressed many Nigerians for his forthright and unsparing commentaries on some official decisions. He is gradually emerging as the symbol of opposition in this dispensation, reminding us of the vigor of the Second Republic (October 1979 – December 1983) politics when Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Waziri Ibrahim, Tunji Braithwaite and Aminu Kano teamed up to give President Shehu Shagari the biggest headache of his political career. They were presidential candidates in the 1999 and 1983 elections, and among these five, Chief Awolowo led in his trenchant attacks. He was merciless in his constant depiction of Shagari as a weakling; an inexperienced, clueless and naïve leader. Awo’s language was condescending, deprecating and disdainful of the NPN (National Party of Nigeria), the ruling party, and Shagari. Astonishingly, the party and its politicians did not do much to help its sinking reputation. Nigerians viewed them as corrupt, uncaring and recklessly hedonistic set of politicians who were disconnected from the people. Adisa Akinloye (the party’s national chairman), Uba Ahmed (national secretary), Joseph Wayas (Senate President) and Umaru Dikko (transport minister) symbolized the excesses of the era.

Oil prices had plummeted to about $10 per barrel and government’s revenues had fallen drastically. There were widespread scarcities of groceries and basic items as inflation ran high and workers’ salaries remained unpaid. There was massive corruption in the issuance of import licenses – a progenitor of what we now know as FX roundtripping. As we say today, there was hunger in the land! In response, President Shagari launched a series of belt-tightening measures referred to as ‘’Austerity Measures’’ to cutdown government spending and reduce inflation. The administration kept calling on the people to continue to make sacrifices, while the politicians continued to live ostentatiously (Does this sound familiar?).

Sometime in 1983, Chief Awolowo issued a statement accusing the Shagari administration of mismanaging the economy while corruption was rife. He listed the wastes and recklessness of the ruling class and concluded that the ‘’ship of state was heading for the rocks’’. Even as a young undergraduate student, I could sense that this was an ominous warning. The Shagari administration, alarmed and embarrassed, issued a biting denunciation, labelling Chief Awolowo as a ‘’Prophet of Doom’’. NPN stalwarts took turn to denigrate the old sage, calling him all sorts of names, without addressing the salient points he raised. A few months after, the military struck and Shagari was toppled. A debate soon ensued as to whether Awolowo was privy to the impending putsch or he was just being prescient. I miss the old man. Years later in a memoire titled, ‘’Born to Serve’’, Shagari blamed the overzealousness of the military for his ouster. He did not take responsibility for anything.

So far, the Tinubu administration has not labelled Peter Obi a prophet, but its official responses to the Labour Party leader have been either uninspiring or convoluted, at best. Take the recent one as an example. Last week, Obi joined many others to complain about the unwieldy large Nigerian delegation to COP 28 in Dubai. Practically every commentator, including those who have been supportive of the government, had agreed that for a country that is so broke that its budgets had been funded with loans, there is a strong need to cut down the cost of governance. But in responding to Obi, Stanley Nkwocha, the spokesman for Vice President Kashim Shettima issued a long, verbose statement entitled ‘’Peter Obi and the Limits of Self-Aggrandizement’’. In the first sentence of the second paragraph, he wrote, ‘’for good 24 hours, Obi danced naked in the public square…’’. Gosh! The rest of the release was just a boring drivel. I will like to suggest that Mr. Nkwocha should relearn the basic rudiments of public communication. That press statement was an embarrassment to the VP, whom I know has a gift of the gab. Barr. Felix Morka, the National Publicity Secretary of APC, should also refine his skills in writing rejoinders. I am tired of his overused expression: ‘’Peter Obi is suffering from the trauma of losing election’’. Hackneyed phrases render a text impotent and corny.

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Opposition is an important element of any liberal democracy all over the world. It provides constructive criticisms and alternative views to official actions and policies. In some countries like the UK, opposition is regarded as the ‘alternate government’ and its role is to closely examine the work of the government and offer alternative positions on all issues. Opposition should criticize constructively, check the arbitrariness of the ruling party and help to safeguard the liberties and the right of the citizens. I must emphasize that, contrary to what some people within the government or the ruling party may believe, opposition politicians are not the enemies of the state and they are not in the business of bringing down the government. I therefore hope that Obi will not be labelled as ‘’a detractor’’ by all these excited spokespersons who want to show that they are working.

On his part, Obi should be courteous, respectful and stay on the message all the time. He should also provide alternative plans in whatever he criticizes.

I commend Peter Obi for standing firm for Nigeria and our democracy. This is what the PDP should have been doing since 2015. Instead, the party simply melted away and offered little or no alternative viewpoints after it was defeated, only to resurface during elections. I am glad that Atiku Abubakar is also sticking around to add his voice to the conversation. In previous occasions, he had relocated to Dubai soon after the elections. Our democracy is the better for it. I enjoin officials of government to respond to Obi and Atiku Abubarkar with maturity and decency. The ruling party and the government should take a cue from what happens in other democracies where dissent is tolerated and respected. Obi, and indeed, any other citizen, should not be treated as an enemy or a rebel just because they express alternative views. Good enough, President Tinubu himself was a leader of an opposition party for a long spell of time

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