By Ehichioya Ezomon
From the look of it, the poster wasn’t embossed, but the mere pasting of the campaign item of the presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP), Peter Obi, on Muslims’ prayer mats was enough to set off a firestorm.
The mats, whose pictorial was splashed on various social media outlets and platforms, were reportedly donated by promoters of “Obi for President” in the 2023 elections.
Reactions were quick from adherents of the Islamic and Christian faiths, majorly in criticism of the insensitivity by the donors of the mats to Muslims for prayers.
The obviously uninformed donors meant no mischief, but to advance Obi’s candidacy that’s shaken the political arena of 2023 with his message of a “New Nigeria.”
The negative reactions are indicative of a bitterly-divided country on religious lines, such that “small matters” are interpreted as impugning on religious beliefs.
This division is the handiwork of politicians, to gain power and influence, and control over their followers who, sadly, copycat them in the misuse of religion during elections.
By all standards, Obi is a gentleman, who hasn’t overtly pandered to religion in his presidential attempts: as running mate to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar in the 2019 polls under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and in 2023 flying the flag of the Labour Party.
But this can’t be said of his supporters, who’ve literally hijacked his campaign into a “movement” primed for a revolutionary change of the status quo in the opposition PDP and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
The movement is peopled mainly by the youths that propelled the famous 2020 #EndSARS protests that took Nigeria by storm, and those in power by surprise.
Described in hyperboles, and parading as a “tsunami” that will sweep away the old order, and the rot in the system, the movement may be Obi’s Achilles’ heel in 2023.
In its frenzy to enhance his chances, the disparately agglomerated group has exhibited sectional and religious biases antithetical to Obi’s positioning and posturing.
The movement dares every segment and section of the polity into a political dwell, and doubles down on negative responses to comments querying Obi’s poll prospects.
Prompting Obi to tweet to his supporters on July 3, to be “tolerant of other people’s views, dissent, divergent opinions and possibly learn from them.”
“While the frustration and anger in the country is understandable, we must strive to channel that energy positively in ways that will earn the support and collaboration of others,” Obi said.
There’s no harm in challenging the orthodoxy that serves the interests of the powerful few, and emasculates the majority. That’s the thrust of Obi’s campaign ab initio.
But members of the movement leave nothing to chance, not even the sensitive and “forbidden” areas that touch the raw nerves of the society, like the Muslims’ prayer mats.
The Obi campaign poster on the mats, according to a tweep (someone who uses Twitter) on June 1, “is just a poster and not a paint on the mat; the receiver can easily remove it if they want to use it for prayers.”
But critics thought it’s a ploy to malign the Muslim faithful, who, a rejoinder says, “don’t even wear dresses with human image, talk less on the mats, when praying.”
The vexed prayer mats left Obi fending off a collateral damage via a disclaimer on July 1, iterating his respect for various religions catering to millions of Nigerians.
Obi’s tweet: “The inclusion of my picture on the praying mat by a support group was misguided, even with the best of intentions. It didn’t emanate from my campaign team.
“I have deep respect for the Muslim faith and indeed, for every other religion. We will never mock any faith, ethnicity, or gender. We are one Nigeria.”
Did Obi react likewise to the portrayal of his rivals in the 2023 contest – Atiku and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu – when his supporters compared them to the Biblical thieves nailed, and flanked Jesus Christ on the cross?
That picture of Obi, flanked by Atiku and Tinubu, literally compared Obi to Christ, a blasphemy that could generate untold reactions were alleged Christian “thieves” photoshopped to flank the Holy Prophet Muhammad.
The image trended for weeks on social media, with the Obi support groups defending its retweets and repostings as being deployed to de-market his political rivals.
In this era of fake news that parades little or no evidenced allegations of criminal nature, Obi’s supporters can damage his brand if rivals start to throw dirts at him.
Make no mistake about it: Obi isn’t a saint, not if he’s a politician, and was in power to the level of governing Anambra State in Nigeria’s corruption-infested system.
He’s managed to escape searing searchlights because, since leaving political office in 2014, he’s mastered the art of controlling his messaging, which his other two main rivals – Atiku and Tinubu – haven’t been able to learn.
Yet, how many fires – and how quickly – can Obi quench, as the movement that evolves from his ambition takes on a life of its own, and hardly reverts, if at all, to the campaign that’s the clearing house for his messaging?
Consider how the “ObIdients” – with fuel from the rhetorics of mouthpieces of the Nigerian Christendom on the 2023 polls – saturate the social media with negativities in regard to the APC/Tinubu Muslim-Muslim ticket!
Obi distancing his campaign from misrepresentations is a first step to taming the monster of unsolicited messaging that can blunt his vision and mission for the presidency.
His campaign should wield the big stick, by divorcing any identified group(s) out of sync with Obi’s messaging, all in the guise of canvassing for memberships or votes for him.
Besides calling his supporters to order, and issuing to them a code of conduct that conforms with his stellar behaviour in the political arena; it’s time to rein in the seemingly derring-do, non-conformists in their midst.
The general election is riding on the back of a traumatised citizenry in all fronts of human existence, and Obi has thrown himself up as capable of reversing the locust years, and ushering in a new paradigm for Nigeria.
This self-imposed assignment that’s gathered a novel momentum, and following shouldn’t be slowed down or derailed by the actions of overzealous supporters.
Too many hands shouldn’t spoil the aromatic broth Obi has promised, and looks set to prepare and serve the millions of hungry and starving Nigerians. He should take heed while it’s still daytime in the journey to 2023!
- Mr Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.