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Peter Gregory Obi was only six years old on July 6, 1967, when a devastating civil war between the government of Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state which had declared its independence from Nigeria that same year exploded. Biafra represented the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo ethnic group, whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the federal government dominated by the interests of the Muslim Hausa-Fulanis of northern Nigeria. Nigeria was led by General Yakubu Gowon, while Biafra was led by Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Public account says the conflict resulted from political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions which preceded Britain’s formal decolonization of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963, while the immediate causes of the war in 1966 included ethno-religious violence and anti-Igbo pogroms in Northern Nigeria, a military coup, a counter-coup and persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria. Control over the lucrative oil production in the Niger Delta also played a vital strategic role.
At the beginning of the war, things moved very quickly against the Igbo. Within a year, Nigerian government troops surrounded Biafra, captured coastal oil facilities and the city of Port Harcourt and imposed a devastating blockade which led to a stalemate and mass starvation. During the two and half years of the war, there were about 100,000 overall military casualties, while between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died of starvation.
In the year 1968, images of malnourished and starving Biafran children saturated the mass media of Western countries. The plight of the starving Biafrans became a cause célèbre in foreign countries, enabling a significant rise in the funding and prominence of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were the main supporters of the Nigerian government, while France, Israel (after 1968) and some other countries supported Biafra. The United States’ official position was one of neutrality, considering Nigeria as ‘a responsibility of Britain’, but some interpreted the refusal to recognize Biafra as favouring the Nigerian government.
When I arrived at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, western Nigeria, in 2003, about 33 years after the civil war ended on January 15, 1970, I was repeatedly told that an Igbo man can never become President of Nigeria because they attempted to break away.
It was in that country where Igbo were disliked and even hated by other Nigerians who deeply resented the fact that the Igbo had attempted to break away that Peter Gregory Obi, simply known as Peter Obi, who was born in Onitsa, the state of Anambra in Eastern Nigeria in 1961, grew up in. Although he was only 9 years old when the war ended, like most other Igbo people in Nigeria, he will suffer the consequences of that war for decades.
As a child, he grappled with terrifying images of people being killed and buried, entire households going without food and people starving to death. Rather than allowing the events of the time to traumatize or discourage him, Mr. Obi focused on his studies. He attended Christ the King College in Onitsha, where he completed his secondary school education, was admitted to the University of Nigeria, in 1980, and graduated with a B.A. (Honors) in philosophy in 1984.
Peter Obi attended Lagos Business School, where he completed the Chief Executive Program, Harvard Business School, where he completed two major programs, the London School of Economics, Columbia Business School, and the International Institute for Management Development where he received certificates in the Senior Executive Program and the Chief Executive Officer Program. He also attended the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, Saïd Business School of Oxford University and the Judge Business School of Cambridge University.
Armed with all that practical knowledge and social intelligence, Peter Obi will go on to become a successful Nigerian businessman and politician who served as Governor of Anambra from March to November 2006, February to May 2007, and from June 2007 to March 2014. And in May of this year, Mr. Obi became the Labour Party nominee for President of Nigeria in the 2023 presidential election. Right now, Peter Obi has created what appears to be a real movement from within Nigeria, Africa and the world.
The task ahead is often described as herculean but not impossible. He is going head to head against the former governor of Lagos, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a political force in western Nigeria who will be representing the ruling All Progressives Congress, the party of the outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari. The former Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, who is the candidate of the country’s main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party, is also very big obstacle that Obi will have to climb to become President of Nigeria.
But Mr. Obi is known for overcoming impossible challenges. After he graduated from the University of Nigeria in 1984, Mr. Obi entered business and banking, eventually rising to hold several high-ranking executive positions at banks. According to himself, Obi started his life as a trader, being born into trading family before venturing into the corporate world. He held leadership positions in some private establishments. Some of the companies he served includes: Next International Nigeria Ltd, Chairman and Director of Guardian Express Mortgage Bank Ltd, Guardian Express Bank Plc, Future View Securities Ltd, Paymaster Nigeria Ltd, Chams Nigeria Ltd, Data Corp Ltd and Card Centre Ltd. He was the youngest chairman of Fidelity Bank Plc.
By the early 2000s, Obi was the chairman of Fidelity Bank before leaving the position to enter politics. In politics, he faced bigger challenges. Obi ran for governor in 2003, as a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance but his main opponent was unlawfully declared victor. After three years of legal battles, Obi was declared winner in 2006 and assumed office in March, 2006. He was then impeached that November before the impeachment was overturned and he returned to office in February 2007. Again, Obi was removed when a new election was held in April 2007 but the judiciary intervened again and ruled that he should be allowed to complete a full four-year term. In 2010, he won re-election to a second term. Despite his tumultuous days in power as the governor of Anambra State, Obi’s terms were marked by improvements in state finances, education, and healthcare.
After leaving office in 2014, Obi gained new status as an advocate for good governance and national political figure after decamping to the Peoples Democratic Party in 2014. In 2019, he was selected as the vice presidential nominee in the presidential election running alongside Atiku Abubakar but lost to incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari and vice president Yemi Osinbajo.
In May 2022, Obi became the presidential candidate of the Labor Party after defecting from the PDP. Obi’s presidential campaign has been described as populist and has been noted for its support among many young Nigerians, who have been nicknamed “Obi-dients.”
Many believe that if the elections were free and fair and held today, Obi could win up to 14 of the 36 Nigerian states, and may even win more as his popularity grows and his movement expands.
His immediate challenge is not to present a perfect campaign manifesto, but to convince millions of skeptical Nigerians in the north and southwest that an Igbo man just like any other Nigerian can successfully lead the country to economic prosperity and development.
He will have to defeat the false argument that an Igbo man may be too risky lead Nigeria after the Biafra war, a war which ended more than 50 years ago and affected mainly the Igbo ethnic group. Obi may also need to defeat the false argument that an Igbo man may seek revenge for the millions of Igbo who have been treated as second class citizens in Africa’s most populous nation.
Nationally, Obi will have to expand his appeal beyond the eastern part of Nigeria and the middle belt and present himself as a national leader, man of peace and unity, and a successful former business man and politician who can turn things around in a country where millions of people continue to live without electricity, drinking water or good and safe roads.
Internationally, Obi may need to show that he can effectively work with the United States and all other nations in the world that have maintained economic, security, cultural and political ties with Nigeria, one of the most important countries in the world. If Obi decides to visit the United States for instance before the election, he will need to be ready to face a ruthless international media where total transparency is often the standard.
This first article on Nigerian presidential elections was written by Simon Ateba in Washington DC. Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.