I have been following the economic and political developments in Nigeria from Singapore. It may be difficult to fully grasp the excitement surrounding the general elections of Africa’s most populous country sitting so far away, but the significance of the moment is not lost.
For the first time in decades the 93.4 million Nigerians who go to the polls on Saturday will have a chance to elect someone who is not from the two parties that have traditionally dominated politics.
Even if he comes close to winning, Peter Obi will change the face of Nigerian politics in a way that Imran Khan has done in Pakistan.
Now, why am I comparing Nigeria with (of all the places) Pakistan? On the face of it, the two are very different.
But look closely and there are some curious parallels. Both are of comparable geographic size and demography. 65% of Pakistan is under 35 years of age – nearly the same proportion as that of Nigeria.
Even the size of their economies is not too far apart – Nigeria’s GDP is only US$65 billion more than that of Pakistan. The two nations were born in the crucible of the same colonial experiment. Neither would have come into existence as independent republics had it not been for the machinations of a receding empire.
Both have endured years of cack-handed military rule and bouts of ethnic violence. Jihadist insurrection remains a potent threat and insecurity is a lived reality for millions of ordinary citizens in both countries.
Much like Nigeria climate change has had a devastating impact on Pakistan. At about the time when Nigeria suffered one of the worst floods in living memory last year, Pakistan saw a third of its land inundated with water.
Record monsoon rains in August affected more than 33 million, killed more than 1700 people and pushed nine million into poverty. In Nigeria it was the southern state of Anambara that suffered the worst impact of the floods last year.
In Pakistan it was the southern province of Sindh that bore the worst impact of the same disaster. Even the state of the economies is in a similar perilous condition. Inflation has eroded personal incomes in Pakistan as well.
Its foreign exchange reserves, like that of Nigeria’s, are running thin. So thin, in fact, that Islamabad has had to go to the IMF for a bailout.
The value of the Pakistan Rupee has crashed and in scenes reminiscent of Lagos, motorists in Lahore have stood in long queues at petrol stations as fuel runs dry.Joining the Nigerians in their ordeal suffering hours of electricity blackouts are millions of Pakistanis who have had to turn to diesel generators to power their homes and shops.
As the economy tanks and jobs become scarce young Pakistanis are desperate to emigrate. More than 800,000 left the country last year to take up jobs overseas. Many are joining the ranks of illegal migrants in the West. Yes, Japa is happening in Pakistan too.
Fed up with rampant corruption, lack of opportunities and years of broken promises voters picked Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party in 2018 to lead the country as Prime Minister.
He ran on a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment promising to end corruption and the rule of political dynasties. Like Peter Obi, he presented himself as a man of the masses.
He set up a modern cancer hospital in honour of his mother. It was a way of projecting himself different from rest of the political class. He drew enthusiastic crowds during campaigns and his most vocal supporters were the young.
Although a political lightweight himself Imran Khan enjoyed nationwide popularity as a charming, well-meaning charismatic leader who had led Pakistan to World Cup victory as cricket captain in the past.
His record against arch-rival India on the pitch has been particularly stellar – no small achievement for this cricket-mad nation. Pitted against him were two powerful political families – the Sharifs of the Pakistan Muslim League and the Bhuttos of the Pakistan People’s Party – who not only had years of experience governing provinces (Punjab and Sindh, respectively) but also taken turns leading the federal government too.
They also had a veritable war chest of wealth which is always handy when fighting elections. But years of wielding power through patronage and comfortable backroom wheeling and dealing had put the incumbents out of touch with voters.
They were seen as corrupt, self-serving, and feudal. That provided an opening for an upstart like Imran Khan to come into office. Of course, nothing has gone according to script.
He failed to make most of his promises good and was removed from office last year in a parliamentary vote orchestrated by the very same political rivals who joined hands in what many describe as a cynical move to return themselves to power.
Now, it would be silly for me to conclude by saying that just because Imran Khan managed to wrest power from incumbents in Pakistan, Peter Obi will be able to do the samein Nigeria. No two democracies are the same.
But the similarities with Pakistan here are so remarkable that I would not be surprised that, at the very least, he manages to rearrange the pawns on the political chessboard of Nigeria in a way that Imran Khan has done in Pakistan.
(Amit Jain is the Director of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at the Nanyang Business School in Singapore)