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Can Obi make Labour a governing party in Nigeria as it is worldwide?

Labour Party is a recognisable brand name for social democratic parties all over the world. Since the British Labour Party was founded in 1900, forming its first government in 1924, Labour parties have been established political parties across the world, becoming the governing party in several countries.

For instance, today, Labour is the governing party in Australia and New Zealand. Here, in Nigeria, the Labour Party produced a state governor when Dr Olusegun Mimiko, its candidate, was elected Governor of Ondo State in 2007. Yet, something potentially transformational is happening. Or, so it seems.

In May this year, former Governor Peter Obi joined the Labour Party and later became its presidential candidate. Since then, with the emergence of the mass based “Obidient” movement, the party’s profile has risen stratospherically. This has prompted views that the Labour Party could win next year’s presidential election or cause a significant upset to trigger a rerun. But can Obi make Labour a governing party in Nigeria?

Well, thanks to Mimiko’s popularity, he turned the inchoate Labour Party into an election-winning machine in Ondo State and became a two-term governor under the party

Well, first, we must highlight a critical distinction between Labour Party in Nigeria and Labour parties around the world. Elsewhere, Labour parties only attract politicians, and field candidates in elections, who believe strongly in their ideology and values; in Nigeria, the Labour Party is seen and used as a mere vehicle to gain power by politicians who are disillusioned with the established parties and who desperately need a platform to pursue their political ambitions.

Take Dr Mimiko. Before he ran for governor as a Labour Party candidate in 2007, he was a minister in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government, led by the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. Mimiko wanted to run against the then PDP governor of Ondo State, Dr Olusegun Agagu. But the PDP thwarted his attempt to run against Agagu. So, Mimiko resigned from Obasanjo’s government and also from the PDP, and then joined the Labour Party, established five years earlier in 2002. Well, thanks to Mimiko’s popularity, he turned the inchoate Labour Party into an election-winning machine in Ondo State and became a two-term governor under the party.

Obi’s journey to the Labour Party followed a similar trajectory. Disenchanted with the internal politics of the PDP, Obi dropped out of the party’s presidential primary, which he wasn’t going to win anyway, and resigned from the PDP. He then joined the Labour Party on May 27 and, barely three days later, on May 30, clinched the party’s presidential ticket after other aspirants, including Professor Pat Utomi, stepped down for him.

Read also: Peter Obi and the power of hope

Surely, given those circumstances, no one can describe Obi as a Labourite, a term used for an adherent of a Labour party. What one can say is that the Labour Party gave Obi its platform to actualise his presidential ambition, although a true symbiosis can emerge between them.

But, let’s face it, Labour Party’s origins are so ideologically grounded and so values-based that the party should not be a mere vehicle for disgruntled politicians to gain power. In his seminal book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi described how the social devastation of the 19th century, caused by laissez-faire capitalism, led to the emergence of trade unions, the labour movement and, ultimately, the first Labour party, the British Labour Party, established in 1900 to represent the interests and needs of the working class. Put simply, Labour party has its origins in the countermove to resist the exploitation of workers by the landed and trading classes.

Ironically, as a billionaire trader, Obi belongs to the trading and liberal classes that traditionally have little in common with the interventionist ethos of the leftist Labour Party. For instance, as a trader, Obi should instinctively believe in free trade and globalisation, and the primacy of private enterprise. Yet, the Labour Party says it “shall ensure activist developmental role of the state in the economy by being a major player in the strategic sectors of the economy” and that it would adopt “a cautious and step approach” to globalisation and liberalisation. These vision and ideology, it says, “shall form the basis of the Party’s programme as elections.”

Does Obi believe in the Labour Party’s vision and ideology? So far, he has not published his manifesto as the Labour Party’s presidential candidate. However, it be surprising if he campaigns on an interventionist or protectionist agenda. I suspect the relationship between Obi and the Labour Party would be similar to that between Tony Blair and the British Labour Party. It was Blair who transformed the Labour Party from a statist, interventionist party into a market-friendly and pro-middle class party that became electable after nearly two decades of consecutive electoral defeats. So, we must wait and see the manifesto Obi and the Labour Party agree to campaign on for next year’s presidential election.

That said, Obi and the Labour Party should not be that far apart from each other in their world views. For instance, Obi’s “consumption to production” mantra should appeal to everyone and resonate with the Labour Party. First, producing nations always accumulate wealth at the expense of consuming nations; so, Nigeria must be a producing nation to be wealthy. Second, production is the main source of economic growth; so, incentivising greater production will grow the economy and create jobs. Thus, for workers’ sake, every Labour party should support the productive sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, because they are the routes to economic growth and high employment.

But production is not enough. You can have economic growth and still have huge poverty and inequality. This can happen 1) because there’s a concentration of wealth in few hands and 2) because labour’s share of the national income is small due to low productivity. This is the main theme of Thomas Piketty’s famous book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which highlights the dangers of wealth and income inequalities.

Sadly, the truth is that both excessive accumulation and concentration of wealth, including unexplained and illicit wealth, as well as income inequality due to poor wages, are prevalent in Nigeria. Yet, both are incompatible with the principles of social justice, fundamental to modern democratic societies, and which are major concerns of all social democratic parties.

So, as Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Obi can’t just talk about production in aggregate terms. He must also address social justice issues, particularly wealth and incomes inequalities. Fighting corruption, tackling unexplained wealth and, generally, transforming the process of accumulation and concentration of private capital in Nigeria, for instance, by discouraging rent-seeking activities, are the ways to reduce wealth inequality.

But income inequality is largely caused by low productivity and the solution lies in the diffusion of knowledge and skills. Surely, Obi and his educationist running-mate, Datti Baba-Ahmed, need robust educational, training and skills-acquisition policies to support their pro-production agenda. With a robust economic and social agenda, coupled with a credible commitment to restructure Nigeria and tackle insecurity, the Labour Party under Obi and Baba-Ahmed would look like a party of government.

Yet, that won’t be enough to make Obi president. The structure of party competition in Nigeria, shaped by ethnicity, religion, unexplained wealth and vote-buying, makes it difficult for a third force to dislodge either of the two main parties. Yet, APC and PDP are such irredeemable parties of vested interests that any other party that sets out a credible agenda that serves the general interest, the national interest, deserves to win next year.

So, what must Obi do? Two things. First, he must craft a robust and credible programme of government. Second, he must actively canvass for votes across the nooks and crannies of Nigeria, wooing women and youth, critical voting demographics, and ensuring that his “Obidient” supporters actually go out and vote. That way, he could achieve something seismic: make Labour Nigeria’s next governing party!

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