Two developments that happened last week seemed disparate but were interconnected. First, it was the Bola Tinubu administration’s 100th day in office. That timeline used to be for an administration to glance back and celebrate its bold and decisive decisions that potentially set the country on track, but this one was rather muted. Several op-eds appraised how the (in)actions of the government foreshadow what is yet to come, but the atmosphere fell short of what one would expect from an administration that exaggerates its own worth. The second came during the Presidential Electoral Petition Tribunal when one of the judges, Mistura Bolaji-Yusuf, alluded to social media discussions bordering the election petitions. Since the petitioners could not have been the ones intimidating her on social media, her snide comment must have been referring to supporters of the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi.
Here is how I view both incidents: We are at a time when organised political opposition and activism have seriously waned, and filling the lacuna is this diffuse band of disaffected citizens on social media called the Obi-dients.
In the wake of the PEPT judgment, I must have read a dozen articles putting down Obi (and his supporters) for daring to contest the election results. Interestingly—and maybe curiously too—the opprobrium at dragging the election was mostly reserved for Obi. It was almost as if the other petitioner, Atiku Abubakar, did not exist. Commenters, of course, have a right to their reflections, but then, it is always easier to attack what you do not like than to acknowledge its significance.
Pesky irritants they might be, if there is anything still called political opposition and activism in Nigeria now, it is the Obi-dients.
Political opposition in Nigeria takes more than a principled stand against the establishment; it is all shades of risks. Largely because Nigeria runs a mono-economy where all economic power is reposed within the single centralising authority of the presidency, occupation of the post sets you up for invincibility. We can argue that some checks and balances are built into democracy to counterbalance this overwhelming power, but they hardly function as envisaged where the president mostly controls resources. Without economic power, there is no political power, but there can also be no political power without economic power.
What allowed the All Progressives Congress and their band of so-called political activists to survive this impasse while they were the political opposition was that they had Lagos State right from the start. With the immense resources of the state, they set the place up as the organisational centre of political opposition. They could also commandeer the intelligentsia to endow an industry of self-interests with the sheen of principled oppositional activities. From academics to the commentariat, their foot soldiers nurtured regional disaffection while maintaining a superficially ideological stance against the Federal Government.
Whatever you might have against the APC, you cannot but acknowledge their skills at organising political opposition. Most of their so-called “best of the best,” the talents supposedly fished out by their godfather, authenticated their public profile by pretending they stand for progressiveness. What was redacted in the whole farce was the lush state resources that bought the intellectual agenda and moral vision of the APC. It was why they fought tooth and nail to retain Lagos in the last general elections. If the opposition had dislodged the Lagos APC, it would have exposed the rot in their governance system and ended a key source of their power.
Since 2015 when the APC finally achieved its goal of making it to the federal, opposition politics has not been the same. The first problem is that the APC was engineered to be a vehicle for oppositional politics, and they struggled with their change of status. They serially found themselves in this weird place where they concurrently maintained an establishment and anti-establishment attitude. Second, Abuja exposed the ideological vacuity at the base of their opposition politics. Everything they previously stood against while they were the opposing party, they reproduced.
Unfortunately for all of us, there is no equivalent of the APC at either the regional or federal level to stand up to them and enforce a measure of accountability. Nobody can afford to create another organised opposition vehicle like the APC did primarily because nobody has similar access to a steady stream of money. The PDP that should naturally have slid into the space that the APC occupied until 2015 has been found wanting in that respect.
If there is one charge everyone lays against the PDP, which did not help their cause during the 2023 presidential election, it is the poor quality of their opposition politics. The loss of federal power weakened them considerably, hauling them from their powerful position—where they arrogantly boasted they would be in power for 60-100 years—to a state of perpetual perplexity. The party cannot determine how they should function without the federal political power that organised them and has been mostly lethargic. They have yielded significant moments where they could have held their opponents accountable and even scored some political goals. These days, it is hard to remember that that party once housed some of the most powerful politicians in the country. Power changed hands, and chaos ensued.
Not only are they still demoralised from the 2015 aftermath, but the political ambition of their recent presidential candidate, Atiku—who will likely recontest in 2027— demobilises them. Atiku is to the PDP what Donald Trump is to the Republican Party in the United States. His path to the presidency is uncertain, but his followership base is wide enough to keep the flame of his ambitions burning. The hope that he can still make it to the presidency effectively paralyses the party from discovering new talents. Consequently, the party is consigned to serving one man’s political ambition.
Worse for the PDP is that Rivers, the state that could have served as the equivalent of APC’s Lagos, is not quite within their grasp. By appointing a vulgarian who has many axes to grind with the PDP into power, Nyesom Wike, the APC effectively stymied any radical opposition that might come from that direction. Wike is no longer the governor, but he retains a considerable hold on local politics to ensure that Rivers does not become an organising centre for political opposition. He will not leave the PDP, but he will petrify them, so they do not threaten his political future. Even worse, his style of being a member of one political party while serving the party in power will be the model other ideological cross-dressers like him will copy in the coming years.
Judging by the PDP bogged down on one side by Atiku’s ambitions and on the other by Wike’s vindictiveness, the fate of political opposition in the country is doomed.
You can despise the Obi-dients all you like, but they are what subsists as opposition politics in the country for now. They have been resilient. They stood up to some of the APC’s best foot soldiers who dipped their pens in toxic ink jars to denounce the Obi-dients until those ones fell on their own dictionaries and thesauruses.
Their greatest strength so far has been the dispersed nature of its authority—without a leader or an arrowhead, there is nobody to be summoned to Abuja and compromised. For those paying attention to trends, that diffusion is the shape of things to come. Political opposition organising and activism has changed forever universally due to the advancement in technology. For Nigeria, this evolution also coincided with the recession of viable organised political opposition.
You do not like the Obi-dients? That is understandable, but that will also not make them disappear. Your dislike for a phenomenon might even be the reason it will thrive.