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Peter Obi Could Be Nigeria’s Next President (Do You Agree?)

Peter Obi, a long-shot contender who has unexpectedly claimed the lead in the race to become president of Africa’s most populous country, claims that this is a case of Goliath and David. The big guys are present, but let this little guy handle things. I’m confident I can pull it off.

As public campaigning was about to begin in late September, Nigeria was rocked by the release of three polls showing Mr Obi well ahead of the two candidates for the main parties that have misruled Nigeria since the restoration of its democracy in 1999.

In two of the polls Mr Obi has a lead of more than 15 percentage points over Bola Tinubu of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition.

What makes this even more extraordinary is that Mr Obi is standing for the Labour Party, whose candidate at the previous presidential election in 2019 won just 5,074 votes out of 28m cast.

Mr Obi’s sudden ascent represents a rare chance for Nigeria. The country ought to be rich: it has huge reserves of oil, gas and other minerals, plenty of fertile land and a young population of go-getters. Yet Nigerians are poorer today than they were ten years ago and 40% of them survive on less than $1.90 a day.

Nigeria is poor because of rotten politics and bad governance. Its politicians have long stirred up ethnic and religious divisions by promising to direct state resources to members of their own group. Once in power they have pursued contorted economic policies such as a fixed exchange rate and massive fuel subsidies. Some policies seem to make sense only as a way of allowing cronies to siphon off cash.

Nigeria is poor because of rotten politics and bad governance. Its politicians have long stirred up ethnic and religious divisions by promising to direct state resources to members of their own group. Once in power they have pursued contorted economic policies such as a fixed exchange rate and massive fuel subsidies. Some policies seem to make sense only as a way of allowing cronies to siphon off cash.

Neither of the two main candidates in the presidential election scheduled for February offers much hope for change. Mr Abubakar, a former customs official turned tycoon, was accused alongside his wife in 2010 by a us Senate committee report of being linked to the transfer of $40m in “suspect funds” to America.

(He denies wrongdoing.) Mr Tinubu, an ex-governor of Lagos state, had his assets frozen in the 1990s by the American government, which said it had probable cause to believe the money was linked to drugs. Mr Tinubu, who has also denied wrongdoing, reached a settlement with the Americans whereby he agreed to forfeit $460,000.

There are, of course, no guarantees that Mr Obi would break the kleptocracy that is throttling Nigeria: the country’s political system has a habit of corrupting even those who start out with the best of intentions. But if he were to sustain his lead until the election in February, he would be the first politician in decades to show that a new sort of politics is possible in Nigeria.

If he is able to keep energising young, urban voters across the country’s main divisions of religion, geography and ethnicity, he may well redraw Nigeria’s electoral map.

And by making this election about competence, character and perhaps even ideas, Mr Obi promises to upset the old electoral calculus, which was based on horse-trading to form majorities between politicians who gathered votes mainly among their coreligionists or ethnic groups.

Mr Obi seems an unlikely revolutionary. He is rich, like many of Nigeria’s political elite. (Unlike many other wealthy Nigerian politicians, Mr Obi seems to have made his money before taking office.) He is also no political outsider, having served two terms as governor of Anambra state until 2014. He then stood as Mr Abubakar’s vice-presidential candidate in 2019.

Here the similarities end. As an energetic 61-year-old, Mr Obi stands in sharp contrast to the 75-year-old Mr Abubakar and to Mr Tinubu, who though only 70 was recently forced to respond to widespread rumours of ill health by posting a video on Twitter of himself pedalling an exercise bicycle.

“Many have said I have died,” he posted. “Others claim I have withdrawn from the presidential campaign. Well… Nope.” Mr Obi has a vigorous social-media operation with a vast, passionate following, and is strikingly open to interviews.

His surging popularity is due, above all, to perceptions of his character. In a country cursed by politicians of extraordinary ego and entourage, his supporters marvel that as governor Mr Obi queued at airports holding his own luggage.

He also slashed the size of his motorcade when he found that 13 of the cars were empty, he says.

This not only plays well with young voters, but also annoys his rivals. Kashim Shettima, Mr Tinubu’s running-mate, grumbles that Mr Obi “tends to glamorise poverty” by claiming to own only one watch.

Frugality is relative in Nigerian politics. The Economist interviewed Mr Obi in his suite in the plushest hotel in Abuja, the capital. (It is also one of the most secure.) Mr Obi was, however, free of the hordes of hangers-on who typically surround Nigerian bigwigs. His running-mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, is also far from poor.

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