Of all the cards that I carry around with me, none is a political party membership card. I have never and do not belong to any political party in Nigeria. Nor have I ever belonged to one or aspired to belong to any. My attitude to political party membership is pretty much the same as that towards organized religion. I am a Christian of the Anglican variety by birth and baptism. I however respect and admire those who go to either mosque or church every week. My liberal attitude to organized everything has nothing to do with either my estimation of those who join and lead political parties or subscribe to organized religion. My option is more a product of education and general humanistic orientation. I was trained to think freely and roam the forest of global culture and history for ideas and currents that can enhance my humanity and help me contribute to the society in which I live. By instinct therefore, I have come to respect the choices that different people make for themselves in the context of a free society. My friends and associates around the world therefore range from devout Moslems to committed Christians, Hindus, atheists and Himalayan Budhist monks. From each of the belief systems of those I interact with, I find something of benefit through a compulsively liberal attitude and mindset. In the current Nigerian post election climate, something unfortunate has happened. A group of citizens are being branded, vilified, spat upon by all manner of tyrannical political spokespersons.
They have been joined by public opinion autocrats and disguised entrepreneurs. Suddenly, it is now fashionable to abuse, condemn and generally vitiate the Obidients. All it has taken to initiate this shift in attitude is for INEC to announce the result of the last presidential elections in favour of Mr. Tinubu of the All Progressive Congress. Both APC official jackals and those who want to ingratiate themselves with the winning squad have since been falling over each other to win the trophy of ‘Obidient bashers or killers’. Tragically, even otherwise respectable citizens with previous records of sanity and respectability have joined the fray of frying the Obidients. Someone has described them as the most despicable group ever to come to earth. Another has described them as a mob of miscreants. Yet more desperate people have quickly said that the Obidients are the political arm of IPOB while Mr. Peter Obi is a patron of and sponsor rolled into one. An informed source told me that one of the more conspicuous latter day Obidient bashers had actually written two different congratulatory messages while waiting for the outcome of the presidential elections of 25th February. One letter profusely congratulated Peter Obi for upturn in the long standing political behemoth of old Nigeria and ushering in a new world led by the youth. The other letter was a subdued congratulation to Bola Tinubu, his tribesman, for a victory much deserved and a pledge to do whatever is necessary to ensure that his imminent reign was successful and free from distractions. Rewind to the just ended campaign season. Literally out of the political blues, Mr. Peter Obi emerged onto the political scene.
In the campaign season that followed, he laid out his vision for a new Nigeria free from the familiar blights of what has come to be accepted as normal Nigerian politics. His message, largely addressed to the youth and all those left behind and locked out by the old order, caught on like wild fire. Obi’s adherents voluntarily and informally assumed the broad name of “Obidients”. Trust the creativity of Nigerians in all such situations. The name caught on in the public imagination. It tallied with the broad perspective of Mr. Obi as the carrier of an unusual third force message in an ossified bipartisan political architecture. The name became the mantra of a movement that grew first in the social media and became a reflection of the lived experience and conviction of many. At first, Obi’s growing mass followership was dismissed as a creation of the social media. Someone in the APC insisted that the viral following g of the Obidients was merely the work of less than six social media hands locked up in some basement and spreading the news on all available social media platforms. Undeterred, Mr. Obi and the Obidient movement surged ahead. In city after city where Obi went with his message, throngs of followers and believers in the new message followed through street matches and spontaneous gatherings. Spontaneity was the secret of the new movement. Advocates grew into armies of adherents. Believers grew into a mass movement. A lone man in black attire with a different message delivered in a hoarse shy voice became a pop star figure in every public space. Mass gatherings became a political force. It latched onto the political platform of a minority Labour Party. The rest is history as they say. The strengths and weaknesses of the Obidient movement can only be understood by those who understand the difference between a movement and a party. A party has a prescribe structure. A movement is amorphous, held together by the beliefs around which people gather spontaneously. It is an invisible meeting of minds, at once spontaneous and organic.
It develops its own code of conduct from its loose understanding of the emission of its inspiration figure. A movement is in a hurry to capture power and overturn the status quo which as locked so many people out of the power nexus. Therefore, those who were expecting the Labour Party and Obidients to come forward with a structure as in conventional parties were disappointed. It is therefore unfair for any sensible commentator after the even to expect that Peter Obi as the inspiration of the Obidient movement could have also been a head master figure, handing down a code of behaviour for a movement of spontaneous citizen followership. The throngs of Obidients out there defied order in the conventional sense. They were incensed with the idea of ‘taking back our country’. They saw themselves as the alternative government and Peter Obi as the next president. They would settle for nothing less. No one could blame them. They only needed the electorate to prove them right or wrong. Even after the elections, the conviction has lingered among them that their party won but was edged out by the gangster state and its stranglehold on all agencies of state including INEC. It now remains for the judiciary to prove them either right or wrong. Even at that, their deep suspicion of the state extends to the judiciary. The present and triumphalist critics of the Obidient movement need to go to school on the dynamics of recent popular uprisings and mass movements either in support of popular causes or the conservative backlash. They are driven by the social media. They are largely uncontrollable.
They obey only their major drivers and inspiration figures. These movements take on a life of their own. Those who have tried to quell them by force have either failed or been thrown out of power or remained there tenuously with neither legitimacy nor credibility except by sheer force of arms. The confrontation between popular movements and unpopular states has mostly bred instability or authoritarianism and endless instability. The most that the authoritarian state has achieved in recent times has been to usurp the spirit of the popular movement and convert it to their own to foster further autocracy. Examples: Jaiye Bolsanario in Brazil, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Victor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jaroslaw Kazynzki in Poland. In the places where autocrats have failed to usurp the power of the mass movement, they have triumphed and brought down autocratic regimes. The Arab Spring led to a serial collapse of Middle East dictatorships including those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In the post election climate in Nigeria, a president-elect duly returned by INEC and so declared is still locked in a credibility war with a man and a movement that came a distant third in the contest. This raises so many questions. There is an instant puzzle. How come the Obidients suddenly became a Fascist force after the election and Tinubu’s declaration? Yet questions abound for those who understand the geo-architecture of the Nigerian power conspiracy. How come Mr. Atiku and his PDP who scored second position in INEC’s ranking have suddenly become so docile and quiet? How come Obi suddenly became part of IPOB and a sponsor of ESN only after a successful election outing? The truth is that the emergence of Obi and the Obidients is the first credible threat to the power base of Nigeria’s long standing decrepit gangster state and its support cast of open and disguised defenders and trumpeters.
If the threat were Obi alone, it would be easy for the gangster state to isolate and eliminate him. But in the massive crowd of the Obidients movement, many Peter Obis have germinated. They are the unemployed youth, the teenagers leaving school with no hope or prospects but armed only with their PVCs. They are the artisans long without a voice, the many Nigerians in the diaspora hungry for a country they will be proud to call home. It used to be easy for the state to wipe off and eliminate individual threats and adversaries. Not anymore. The adversaries are our own citizens in multitudes with an awakened consciousness. They wrote their prologue in the #ENDSARS protests and now have shown their power in the 2023 elections. Peter Obi merely activated this latent force. They have seen themselves as the owners of a new Nigeria. In their quest for hope, they met a simple man in black speaking a new political language free from tribe, religion and elite arrogance. They saw a genuine window of opportunity to take back their country. They saw the prospect of a new kind of leadership shorn of the pompous ceremony of state, freed of the massive corruption of the deep state and entitlement syndrome of power hegemonists. These are the real threats of the Obidients. The outcome of the 2023 elections ignited a fright in the system.
Power was going to slip from the bloody claws of the criminal network of politicians, moguls and their noisy apologists. That is the real threat that is powering the present climate of harassment of Peter Obi and the Obidients. The election revealed the vulnerability of the criminal state. They had thought the OBIdients were a mere social media hoax. But they ended up winning real votes, real legislative seats and real states. They did not just win real votes in strategic places, they penetrated the fortresses of gangster chieftains, smashed the myths of tribe, faith, geography and violent thuggery. Twelve states for each of the INEC winner candidates, 12 states for the Obidients and their Labour Party! A real seat at the table of power. That is the real threat of the moment. For the advocates of Fascism and other name calling schemes, a few home questions: what name do we give to the criminal gangs of Lagos? What should we call those who have used touts and dangerous thugs to convert our democracy into ‘Agberocracy’? What name do we give to the entrepreneurs of organized political crime who used ethnic blackmail to suppress votes in Lagos during the governorship elections? What do we call those who have industrialized ethnic bigotry and now seek to reduce the cosmopolitan beauty of our Lagos to the autocracy of tribal hamlets and their chieftains? Once so threatened, the gangster state will try to find a way to neutralize the adversary: bribe, cajole, incorporate or destroy. That is the present stage of the battle for the political soul of Nigeria. All the name calling, blackmail, fake arrests in London, campaigns of revisionist lies etc, are all part of the same recalcitrant and crude retaliatory assault. It may intensify after the 29th May swearing in and the formal handover of power to Mr. Tinubu. The road against the Obidients as the only credible opposition for the future will lead in one of two either directions. It could be time after the inauguration to begin genuine national reconciliation through populist programmes. At the other extreme, the new administration could begin a clampdown on Obi and the Obidients thereby inaugurating a season of authoritarianism by an elected government.
• Chidi Amuta is a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic.