What is the value of Obasanjo’s endorsement?

13th January 2023

Eyebrows were raised recently when Nigeria’s former civilian president and military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, publicly declared his support for the Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi. There have been arguments about the value or lack thereof of Obasanjo’s public backing of the former Anambra State governor. Representatives of the other political parties have predictably tried to downplay the endorsement. In contrast, Labour Party spokespersons have understandably played up the action and insisted that it shows their growing acceptance by Nigerians.

The truth is the power of endorsements relies on the strength and loyalty of the endorser’s following. Endorsements are potent when they are tribal signals given by tribal leaders. The tribes in question could be ethnic, racial, religious, or even professional, but their strength and capacity for loyalty make an endorsement weighty or frothy.

So the question is answered by asking what group Obasanjo leads, how strong and loyal that group is, and how likely the group is to follow the signal given by his public declaration for a candidate.

Well, Mr Obasanjo is an accomplished Nigerian, but his path and patterns have left him positioned as someone who belongs to everyone and no one in particular. He is not a tribal leader despite being a two-time head of state and has little influence on voting decisions in his native Ogun State. He is not a religious leader either and has not invested in politics in a way that would give him the capacity to influence the political choices of Nigerians in other regions.

In Nigerian politics, the most powerful leaderships are rooted in either ethnicity or religion. They are especially more intense when both religion and ethnicity are paired, which is why Northern Emirs are influential in northern politics in a way that Southern traditional rulers aren’t.

Even when Mr Obasanjo vied for president, he lost locally as his votes came from elsewhere. In the 1999 presidential election, he was defeated in Ogun State by an Alliance for Democracy candidate from Ondo State. Olu Falae got 332,340 votes, while Mr Obasanjo got 143,564 votes. The reality is that Mr Obasanjo is respected but not so influential for his signals to command obedience. His support definitely does no harm to the Labour Party ticket, but it doesn’t move any impactful needles.