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Peter Obi: Nigeria's new hope as vice president?

Saturday February 9 2019

 People's Democratic Party

Motorists drive past a campaign billboard for Nigeria's presidential candidate of the opposition People's Democratic Party Atiku Abubakar and his running mate Peter Obi at Ojota in Lagos, ahead of Nigeria's general elections of Ferbuary 16, 2019. PHOTO | PIUS UTOMI EKPEI | AFP 

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LAGOS

One of the most delicate balancing acts in Nigerian politics is to be seen as a representative of the many ethnic groups and disparate regions that make up Africa's most populous nation.

With the two main presidential candidates for Nigeria's elections both northern Muslims, their running mates were always going to come from the Christian majority south.

But Atiku Abubakar's choice of Peter Obi has been viewed as a canny move to cement political power in the marginalised southeast and also to snuff out secessionist sentiment.

FORMER GOVERNOR

Obi's reputation at the same time gives the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party an anti-corruption champion to challenge President Muhammadu Buhari.

On the face of it, Obi, 57, fits the mould of a prominent Nigerian politician, with interests in banking, brewing and the stock market.

The devout Roman Catholic was governor of the southeastern state of Anambra until 2014 and has remained a leading figure in the country's politics ever since.

His time in Anambra was not without difficulty though: he was impeached, then reinstated by a court and later won re-election.

At the time, Obi blamed his removal on lawmakers who opposed his fight against endemic graft -- and the fact that he had refurbished the governor's office well under budget.

The PDP -- often seen as the party of southern Christians -- is dominant in the southeast and controls three of the region's five states: Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu.

The majority Igbo ethnic group has complained that successive military and civilian governments have marginalised them since the end of the civil war in 1970.

The conflict began after Igbo separatists declared an independent republic of Biafra in 1967. More than one million people died as a result of the fighting that followed.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in pro-Biafran sentiment, stoked by the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, Nnamdi Kanu.

Kanu, who was arrested and put on trial for treason but has since fled to Israel, has urged his supporters to boycott the vote as part of his call for a referendum on independence.

But with Obi on the ballot, pro-Biafran voters face a conundrum.

Should they heed Kanu's call for non-cooperation and risk a win for Buhari and his All Progressives Congress or vote in an Igbo politician to high office?

No Igbo has been either president or vice-president since Alex Ekwueme was deputy to Shehu Shagari, who was ousted in December 1983 in a military coup led by then-general Buhari.

Nigerian newspaper columnist Muyiwa Adetiba said that as state governor, Obi forged a reputation for managing state funds carefully.

"In the days when his colleagues went about in chartered flights and private jets, Obi was known to fly commercial," he said.

"He was also known to shun political hangers-on. The result was that not only did he not owe salaries, he reportedly left a tidy sum for his successor."

Nigerian politics has long been seen as a way for public office holders to make money but Obi has said that is not what drives him.

He once claimed to have owned the same wristwatch for 17 years and wore shoes from British high street retailer Marks & Spencer costing less than £50 ($65, 57 euros).

"For me, all I want is for us to have a better society, caring for the poor and the people," he told the Vanguard newspaper in 2017.

Obi, who is married with two children, is a devout Roman Catholic. His elder sister is a nun and younger brother is a priest.

Abubakar, 72, has said he chose Obi because of his age and "vast knowledge" of economics, indicating he will play a key role in that area if the PDP wins.

But Dapo Thomas, a history and politics lecturer at Lagos State University said given his finance background, Obi lacks a political structure, which could work against him.

Nigerian politics works on patronage, and those in power have a grassroots network they can use to campaign and mobilise support.

The APC have being paying increasing attention to the southeast as the election approaches, and Obi's successor in Anambra, Willie Obiano, has backed Buhari for a second term.

"Obi is a man of integrity whose personality is not in doubt," he said, adding it remained to be seen whether that would translate into votes.