How the US, Europe media created and Peter Obi Myth
Desperate to will a preferred candidate to victory, Western journalists fell into a tunnel vision on Nigerian politics.
Across the Western media, the outcome of Nigeria’s just concluded general election has been both shocking and disappointing. While the shock owes to the triumph of candidate Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC)—a contender the Western press had given next to no chance of winning—disillusionment at the outcome is attributable to the conviction that, being an icon of the old guard, a Tinubu presidency suggests a continuation of politics as usual at a moment when many Nigerians strongly desire everything but.
That a cross section of Nigerians also share this disappointment goes without saying, and it remains to be seen what policy options the president elect will pursue (provided he survives the legal challenge to the election by the Labour Party’s (LP) Peter Obi and the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) Atiku Abubakar respectively) to win over his doubters, particularly young Nigerians who justifiably perceive that their country is headed in the wrong direction.
Beyond the shock and disappointment, however, it is important to reflect on why the Western media got it wrong on the outcome of the election, and why Western journalists, in many instances using more or less the same language, persisted in presenting Peter Obi as the election’s front runner when there was simply no evidence to support the assertion.
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As an increasing number of young Nigerians—the “Obi-dient”—gravitated towards the 61-year-old Obi, raising the tantalizing prospect of a breakup of the duopoly which has monopolized power since Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999, Western media sympathy for Obi (allied with fawning portrayal of his platform) rose in tandem.
This was understandable. In Nigerian politics, Obi was the closest thing to a unicorn—an energetic candidate who spoke the language of transparency and good governance and appeared to mean it—and perhaps for the first time in a long while, Nigerians of a certain generation had real hope that governance could be set on a new pedestal. Obi’s political rallies testified to this newfangled buoyancy and bullishness about the country’s prospects, and disillusionment at his failure at the polls has to be set against this specific affective backdrop.
But if sympathy for Obi was understandable, that he came up short, a heartbreaking outcome from the perspective of his supporters, was also not unexpected. As a matter of fact, I predicted it. In the first place, the passion of the Obi-dient, pivoting on the cultural influence of the urban educated, entertainers, influencers, celebrities, and assorted agents mobilizing a nascent digital power, could only radiate so far. Structurally, as the Nigerian media goes, so goes its social media. The political map the morning after the election confirms this.
Furthermore, and for all his undeniable bond with young people, Obi faced a practically insurmountable challenge to achieving his presidential ambition precisely because of his failure (his part in this is a matter of debate) to forge a coalition with power brokers in the predominantly Muslim north. The choice of Kaduna State-born Datti Baba-Ahmed as his running mate was clearly meant to obviate the disadvantage of not having an agreement with the core north in place, but the founder of the Abuja-based Baze University is more technocrat than pugilist, and his political footprint even at the best of times was always light. Obi’s abysmal numbers across the northern region, where the presidential contest was more or less a two-horse race between Tinubu and Abubakar puts his failure to connect in the region in bold relief.
If all this was obvious to the average student of Nigerian politics, that it continued to elude Western journalists is one of the more puzzling aspects of their coverage of the election. Their first error was to characterize as a “political outsider” a savvy veteran who only four years ago ran as running mate to Abubakar on the platform of the PDP, and in May 2022 was still gearing up to pick up the same party’s presidential ticket until he was outmaneuvered by Abubakar. By the same illogic, Obi would soon be anointed as the “front-runner” in the election even when it was abundantly clear that Tinubu and Abubakar, for political and structural reasons sketched above, were the two candidates to beat. That these reasons might have been unpalatable if one were favorably disposed to Obi’s candidacy does nothing to change their status as brute facts.
There were other mistakes. Pressured as to the reason for their confidence in Obi as a front-runner in the election, Western journalists regularly cited surveys, many of which, by omission or design, seem to have been armored against evidence. Persistent warnings about the limitations of polling in light of Nigeria’s sociological and ethnoregional particulars went unheeded. Nor did many Western journalists seem willing to make the simple admission that the voice of young Nigerians as encapsulated in the Obi-dient movement, while legitimate, did not necessarily aggregate the voice of every young Nigerian. No allowance was made for the country’s obvious political and cultural heterogeneity, nor was there any curiosity about parts of the country where comparatively low levels of literacy and technological diffusion have historically signaled a contrary sensibility.
Perhaps Western journalists might have seen things differently if only they bothered to look, but such was their hurry to report a feelgood story of youth resurgence and political revitalization about an African country where such tends to be scarce; such, in addition was the umbilical connection between the same journalists and the Obi-dient, that the only “facts” available to them were those afforded by the bubble into which they had sealed themselves. Hence the spectacle of an echo chamber in which both the Western and Obi-dient media glibly cross-referenced each other, impervious to the kind of contrary information or perspective that might have forced them to adjust their lens.
That the Western press meant well is not in question. Obi was a breath of fresh air in a country where political criminality is a tautology more or less, and he ran against two representatives of the establishment deeply loathed by many. While that may be understandable, there is simply no excuse for its mischaracterization of Obi, never mind its scandalous negligence of the basic realities of Nigerian politics.
By recklessly propping up Obi, hence giving the impression that he was on his way to the presidency, they have contributed to the public’s loss of confidence in the integrity of the Nigerian election.
From Africa in Transition, Africa Program, and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy