NLC Supports Peter Obi: But What Does Obi Stand For?

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With barely three days until  the 2023 general elections, the Nigeria Labour Congress reaffirmed its support for Peter Obi’s candidacy of the Labour Party. The trade union federation had declared its support for Obi, at least twice earlier, over the last eight months. 

This was ostensibly because he was running on the platform of LP, a party which NLC formed as the Party for Social Democracy in 2002.The difference this time around is that the support was issued with a directive to “workers and indeed all Nigerians to come out en masse” with the aim to “ensure massive turnout of votes for the success of the Labour Party.” 

There are however a few issues that must be of concern to working-class people who genuinely seek to liberate themselves from exploitation and build a better, more just Nigeria. 

What does Peter Obi stand for? How does the support for Peter Obi fit into the NLC’s earlier declared commitment to support only candidates that commit to implement its Workers’ Charter of Demands?

What does Peter Obi stand for?

There are  two key ways to determine what a political candidate stands for, particularly one that has been in public office before. These, which need to be taken together, are past records (in and out of office)t and the programme such person and/or her/his party puts forward as their manifesto. On both counts, Peter Obi demonstrates that he does not have the interest of workers, and the working masses in general, at heart.

Obi is a  banker and businessman, worth about N100 billion. The NEXT international (department store chain) which he owns is probably the largest importer of retail goods for sale in Nigeria. He also became the majority shareholder in Fidelity bank twenty-nine years ago, serving as the bank’s chair until 2002 when he joined the Anambra gubernatorial race. He is no doubt a successful capitalist, which tells us that he has a great talent for the successful exploitation of workers.

Unscrupulous privateer

And like most successful capitalists, he is unscrupulous. One of the most graphic demonstrations of this was revealed in the leaked “Pandora Papers.” This showed that “beyond the facade of priggish speeches and appearances…Mr Obi is not entirely transparent in his affairs as he likes Nigerians to believe.”

He did not only break the law, by setting up secret businesses and failing to declare these to the Code of Conduct Bureau, he also denied the Nigerian state resources that would have accrued from taxation of these businesses.  

Obi dismissed this exposé, claiming it was the handiwork of his enemies, even though he could not deny that the revelations were factual. In addition, he gave an excuse that has become customary with him: the businesses belongs to not just him, but to his family (which of course includes him). 

As governor of Anambra state, he had equally invested $30 million of the state’s funds in a brewery where he (ehmm, his family) had interest. Kadaria Ahmed asked him about this in 2019, when he was running as the vice presidential candidate of the PDP. His response then as well, was that the company belonged to his family and not him. And as usual, he said this without batting an eyelash at what was, at the very least, an obvious case of conflict of interest.

While Obi’s economic designs as governor resulted in self (or do we say family?) enrichment, “poverty more than doubled” for the working people, resulting in more than half of Anambrarians living in poverty under his watch, according to Prof Chukwuma Soludo, a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who is now governor of the state. Soludo added that the much hyped roads constructed in Obi’s tenure were of poor quality and most of them have been washed away, while those constructed by his predecessor are still usable.

Achievements; falsification & exaggeration

A lot of claims have also been made about his achievements in improving access to healthcare and quality of education in the state. But these either fail to contextualise those achievements or are quite embellished with exaggerations. 

For example, a Daily Trust and the Centre for Development and Democracy fact check of his health sector achievements claims, showed these to be largely false. He did promise the people to build ten hospitals/maternity centres. This, he said, would be with the $1 million grant from the philanthrocapitalist Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a counterpart funding of N120 million by the state government. But there is absolutely no evidence of his committing such counterpart funding or building the said hospitals This, like much of his discourse, was yet another con artist’s use of the gift of the garb.

In fact, if there was anything he did to the public health system, it was to almost grind it to a halt. Medical doctors were on strike for 13 months and he refused to heed their demands for improvements in working conditions. And instead of strengthening the public health system, he handed over public hospitals to churches. 

A similar thing was done with schools. Between 2009 and 2011, he handed over 1,040 public primary schools to the churches, with N6 billion to maintain them, and a commitment to keep paying the salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff.

As if that were not enough, he continued with commodification of tertiary education. Students at the state-owned university who were all paying N36,000 as fees per annum, were made to pay N86,000, while for medical students this was jacked up to N120,000.

Anti-worker & allegations of torture

But probably the greatest irony of Obi becoming a candidate of what is supposed to be a party of labour, and securing the trade unions support to boot, is that few governors have ever held the trade union movement in as much contempt as he did, when he was governor. 

He refused to negotiate demands of workers leading to long-drawn strikes in the education and health sectors, amongst others. He even refused to implement the 2011 National Minimum Wage Act, or negotiate with the NLC and TUC state councils, and arbitrarily fixed a much lower minimum wage for the state. 

This was after he earlier promised to implement the national minimum wage to the letter, in his characteristic double-speak. Public sector workers went on strike to demand a reasonable minimum wage, and organised a series of protests, describing Obi as “419”, and a “well-trained thief.” He then invoked the “no work, no pay” policy.

It was not only workers that faced his ire, as governor. There are allegations of his using the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to hound and torture opponents. In 2013, the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), which represents 46 civil society organisations spread across the country wrote an open letter to Governor Peter Obi over “the continued unlawful detention of Bonaventure Mokwe at SARS Awkuzu” on the orders of the governor, “despite irrefutable evidence that the allegation over which he was arrested and being indefinitely detained is clearly fabricated and malicious.”

James Nwafor, commander of SARS at Awkuzu, was a righthand man of Peter Obi. Lawyers and human rights defenders issued several petitions “detailing his involvement in torture and extrajudicial executions,” to no avail. He was also indicted in an Amnesty International report. Both Nwafor and Obi were invited to the Anambra state Judicial Panel of Inquiry in the wake of the EndSARS Rebellion. Obi chose not to appear, with his lawyer arguing that the case being raised was already in court.

But in what can at best be considered a Freudian slip, Peter Obi announced that Maj Gen John Enenche (RTD) would be the spokesperson of his campaign when he set up the “Obidient” campaign committee last year. This appointment was withdrawn after a loud outcry from the ranks of the “Obidient” movement. Enenche, as spokesperson of the Nigerian Army during the massacre of EndSARS protesters dismissed the killings as nothing but photoshopped figments of people’s imagination.

Charter & manifesto: squaring the circle

Haven looked extensively at what he has actually done, and how he is a master of spin, a close look at what he has actually committed to doing as president shows grave danger for the working class.

Some of the LP spokespersons argue that integration of some of the contents of the NLC Workers’ Charter into the LP manifesto is akin to Obi’s acceptance of the Charter’s demands. But that is being clever by half. 

First, Obi dismissed the need for, or significance of a manifesto, several times during his campaign. Second, it is significant that he never formally endorsed the Charter. Third, the main thrust of the manifesto, its key pillars, and some of the pronouncements Obi himself has made, point at the likelihood of any uptake of the Charter on his part being merely farcical, and if one might add, opportunistic, towards winning the support of the working-class without any genuine commitment to upholding.

He has made it clear that he would be increasing fuel pump prices, which runs against the formal stance of the NLC for decades now, and which time and again resulted in confrontation with the state.

And there is a phrase which runs through almost every key section of the “Obidient” manifesto, that working-class people and the trade unions need to pay attention to. This is “entrepreneurial public sector governance” (alongside “public-private partnership” i.e., an euphemism for privatisation). This, like the “New Public Management” model of “new labour” under Blair in Britain, will re-mould the essence of public services delivery in the image of capital. The essence of citizenship will be replaced with the being of customers. 

Show me your friend…

Peter Obi is a smart neoliberal fundamentalist, and to borrow from the Anambra state civil servants, we could add that he is a “well-trained thief.” He has not only managed to pull off, probably the most successful political heist in the history of Nigeria, with entrenchment of a false consciousness of what he is, he has also found favour in the eyes of imperialism, whom with clearer eyes than the “Obidients” appreciate the feather of capital they share.

It is not accidental that the Economist endorsed him a week to the election and without any reservation, unlike its conditional endorsement of Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (RTD) eight years ago. Obi has also, very Uncle Tom-like, met top British officials several times, before joining the Labour Party (whilst he was hoping to get the ticket on the platform of one of the more openly bourgeois parties) and more recently in January. He equally scurried to the United States a couple of times, including to be conferred with the honorary citizenship of Dallas.

Obi’s imperialist friends realise that it will be easier for them to force the bitter pills of austerity measures down our throats, with a near-magically venerated politician as president. if Peter Obi wins the presidential elections, they might get away with this calculation in the first instance. We saw a similar situation with the emergence of Muhammadu Buhari, who got away with a sharp increase in fuel pump price in 2016.

For the first time in decades, a government successfully hiked PMS prices, without being forced to effect any reduction, even if not to the initial price. This was largely because the honeymoon was still on with the Buhari regime of APC. After sixteen years of unbroken rule of the equally bankrupt PDP, from the reinstatement of the Republic, the “Change!” mantra of Buhari and the APC echoed in the hearts of millions. And with this he soared to victory, and an honeymoon period.

The stakes are higher now, with a deeper and more generalised crisis of the system, covering economic hardships, heightened insecurity, political instability and massive disillusionment in the system. The more enlightened members of the ruling class and their imperialist overlords realise this. And they have found their knight for the moment in Obi, an officer on the chessboard of power, that can jump over and indeed lump up many pieces in an ideological netherworld.

In lieu of a conclusion

In an ironic manner, the candidacy of Peter Obi who held the reins of one of the most brutal commands of the SARS, has been buoyed by significant sections of the EndSARS movement. And the winds behind his neo-populist sails, driving a steady neoliberal ship further, has the unction of organised labour which he brutally repressed when he ruled over one of the thirty six states of the federation he now seeks to lead as president.

It is almost a case of deja vu. General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB) transformed into “President Muhammadu Buhari” (PMB), on the sails of the OccupyNigeria massquake of January 2012, just as “PO” as some call him, is riding high on post-EndSARS THC. This has even led some on the left to the conclusion of the need to support “Obidiency” (some add “critical” to the support for effects). Afterall, he is running on the platform of a labour party.

But moments of mass intoxication like this are precisely the most important times for us to stand up against the dissolution of radical and revolutionary forces into the tempting arms of reformism’s sirens. We must make bold, right from this side of the night to point out what lies in the morning after, and deepen the building of revolutionary forces for the people’s fight in the storm to come.

Just as we said of APC in 2015, an Obi “government might temporarily pursue some pseudo-progressive policies to justify” the radicalised mass base of youths and labour support that is opening the heavens of power to it, “but this will not last long.” The struggle that will unfold well before 2027, will be in our workplaces, communities and on the streets, as much, or even much more than on the ballot. There are two parties in alliance that hold out hope for providing leadership for this struggle for total liberation; the African Action Congress (AAC) and People’s Redemption Party-Vanguard (PRP-V).

by Baba AYE

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