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Why This Year’s Independence Day Celebration Was Different -By Azuka Onwuka

There is renewed hope in the power of the ballot. There is also a strong belief that the 2023 election will be a defining moment for Nigeria. The belief is that if the vote of the people counts, they will begin to wield power over the leaders by holding them accountable. The masses will also be able to decide the direction the country will take, unlike in the past when godfathers and power brokers took those decisions.

Every honest observer would confirm that the 2022 Independence Day celebration of Nigeria was different. In recent years, it was usually marked with a lack of warmth and excitement. In fact, many people would use it to express their anger and frustration against Nigeria, stating that there was nothing to celebrate about October 1 and warning that nobody should wish them “Happy Independence Day!” October 1 was always the day to recount the woes of Nigeria.

However, this year something different happened. Nigeria did not become better. In fact, Nigeria became worse in most developmental indices. The naira depreciated speedily to 700 per dollar for the first time in history. The amount of money needed to service Nigeria’s debt surpassed Nigeria’s earnings. Bandits attacked a Nigerian train and abducted some people. All six zones of Nigeria were witnessing insecurity. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, the umbrella body for university lecturers, has been on a strike since February, with the public universities closed for almost eight months.

However, thousands of Nigerians marched across different cities of Nigeria as well as a few cities outside Nigeria. Even though they did not primarily set out to march in celebration of Nigeria’s 62nd independence anniversary, many still had either the Nigerian flag or items that contained the Nigerian colours of green and white.

The rallies were organised by members of an amorphous group called the #OBIdient Movement. Members are Nigerians who support the presidential aspiration of Peter Obi, the candidate of the Labour Party. Members are mainly young Nigerians who are under 40 years old and operate on the social media Twitter and Facebook.

They have been ridiculed as having only an online presence with no physical presence that will create votes for Obi. They have been ridiculed as pursuing a pipe dream of supporting the candidacy of Obi whose party controls no single state out of the 36 states of Nigeria. They have been described by Adams Oshiomhole, former governor of Edo State and former president of the Nigerian Labour Congress, as “four people in a room tweeting.” Their preferred candidate and party have been ridiculed as having no structure that will make him win the forthcoming presidential election against the two established parties in Nigeria—the ruling All Progressives Congress and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party.

In response to all the cynicism against this group, they began to organise rallies in different cities of Nigeria over the past three months, to show that they have the necessary structure and the numbers. Their rallies have produced large crowds. And the interesting part of the rallies is that they are not planned by any official body. Individuals fix a date in each state and start spreading the message through social media. Individuals print branded T-shirts, caps, and banners, and provide music, snacks and drinks for refreshment. And unlike the usual political campaign rallies, participants are not given any money to attend or provided with vehicles to take them to the venue. Each participant takes ownership of the rally and participates as a stakeholder, not as a hireling.

As these rallies held in different states, producing large crowds from one location to another, the nature of comments of those who dismissed them began to change. From the initial argument that Peter Obi would not even win his own Anambra State, the comment had continued to be adjusted and scaled up. It moved up to his winning only his state. Then it was moved up to his winning only his South-East zone. It was then expanded to his winning the South-East and parts of the South-South. Then it moved to the latest one from both the APC and the PDP, that he will only eat into the other party’s base. The APC claimed that Obi will take the traditional states that the PDP used to win in the South-East and South-South and some parts of the North-Central, while the PDP had said that he will only take some parts of the votes that the APC should have won Lagos.

That was not all. Some permutations made earlier concerning the #OBIdient Movement and the candidacy of Obi have fallen through. One was that given the short attention span of the youths, they would lose interest in the political issue in a matter of weeks. On the contrary, since the beginning of this year, Peter Obi has consistently been the most talked about topic in Nigeria. An important issue like the world record set by Tobi Amusan or the Bianca Ojukwu slap may temporarily displace him, but he would return to the top immediately the issue subsides. In July, Google ranked him the most searched personality in Nigeria in the first half of the year.

Secondly, it was predicted that the commencement of the Big Brother Naija reality show on TV in July would take the attention of the youths off politics.

In recent years, BBN has been Nigeria’s most watched show. Every year, for the three months it is aired, it occupies the social media discourse. People would organise road marches for their favourite housemates. Celebrities would buy airtime for thousands of people to vote for their favourite candidates. However, this year, the youths shocked those who underrated them. The show took backstage. Other years, a day before its end, there was a kind of social media frenzy over who would win. But this year, that was the day many were marching in different parts of the country. Most people did not even know that the show would end on Sunday.

One thing that caused this turnaround in the youths of Nigeria was the new electoral bill which was eventually signed into law by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). The high point of that law is that results will be electronically transmitted from polling units to the server of the Independent National Electoral Commission. This contrasts with the manual transmission that took place in the past. Altering of results used to take place during the period of physically moving the results from the polling units to the collation centre.

The recent elections conducted in Edo State, Anambra State, Ekiti State and Osun State were transparent to a large extent. All this helped to convince the youths, most of whom had not bothered to register to vote in past elections, to do so this year. From May/June this year when the parties chose their presidential candidates, INEC voter registration witnessed the crowds it had never witnessed before. By the end of the extension of registration in July, millions of people still could not register because of the surge in turnout.

There is renewed hope in the power of the ballot. There is also a strong belief that the 2023 election will be a defining moment for Nigeria. The belief is that if the vote of the people counts, they will begin to wield power over the leaders by holding them accountable. The masses will also be able to decide the direction the country will take, unlike in the past when godfathers and power brokers took those decisions.

In 2023, the people will have the opportunity to choose among Bola Tinubu of the APC, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP and Peter Obi of the LP who will be their president. They see this decision as one which they don’t want to toy with and one which they don’t want to be distracted from.

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