EXCLUSIVE: Peter Obi, in last-minute push for votes, begs Bishop Oyedepo to help win 2023 ‘religious war’
As Nigerians prepared to head to the polls and tension peaked among politicians, Peter Gregory Obi, a major presidential candidate, mustered Christian leaders to ramp up a sectarian appeal to push him over the line, Peoples Gazette heard from a leaked conversation.
Mr Obi, the Labour Party’s standard-bearer, saw the February 25, 2023, exercise as a battle to assert the place of Christians in the country, bootstrapping his candidacy out of a polarised cycle set off by Bola Tinubu’s religiously-tinged Muslim-Muslim nomination. The election was largely a three-way race between Messrs Obi, Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president who ran again on the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party line.
Mr Obi, 61, called Bishop David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church (Winners’ Chapel) on the eve of the election and implored him to pass messages to Christians across the South-West — and also to those in central states like Kwara, Kogi and Niger.
“Daddy, I need you to speak to your people in the South-West and Kwara, the Christians in the South-West and Kwara,” Mr Obi said in the audio obtained by The Gazette. “This is a religious war.”
“I believe that, I believe that, I believe that,” Mr Oyedepo said.
“Like I keep saying: if this works, you people will never regret the support,” Mr Obi said with candour, adding that Christians in places like Kogi, Kwara and Niger have been difficult to penetrate.
“We look forward to God’s intervention,” Mr Oyedepo said, promising to circulate more messages to Christians on Mr Obi’s behalf.
For two days, Mr Obi did not attend to The Gazette’s calls and messages to his two available telephone lines. His media aides and allies, including Akin Osuntokun, Valentine Obienyem and Mike Ifedi, all declined comments when The Gazette sent an enquiry to them with the full audio.
Mr Ifedi said he was trying to discuss the audio with Mr Obi for a measured response, but his message did not come in before a final decision was taken to run this story.
Mr Oyedepo asked The Gazette to forward an enquiry to him by WhatsApp, but he declined comments for more than a day after messages and the audio were sent to him.
‘United and Indivisble Nigeria’
While religion has always been a dominant feature of Nigerian politics, the conversation, which lasted over four minutes, undercut Mr Obi’s public statements that his campaign was devoid of any religious undertones.
He took part in several dialogues to maintain peace and stability in the country, and was seen as a formidable path to the first Nigerian president of Igbo origin since the Civil War.
“No one should ascribe ethnic or religious colouration to the OBIdient Movement. Nigeria is one and my ambition is to become the President of a United and Indivisible Nigeria,” Mr Obi said in a statement signed by him on March 26, a month after the election, as he continued his legal push to reclaim what he described as a stolen mandate.
Mr Obi, whose aspiration spurred a historic participation of Nigerian youths in the last election, was inundated with partisan attacks about alleged ethno-religious colouration of his movement.
Aminu Tambuwal, the governor of Sokoto from the Muslim-dominated northwestern flank, was among those who attacked Mr Obi’s campaign as lacking plural representation.
Mr Obi said his campaign was aimed at rescuing Nigerians from the grip of Mr Tinubu’s APC, which has ruled the country since 2015 amid widespread poverty and underdevelopment.
The 2023 presidential election to replace Muhammadu Buhari was seen by analysts as the first to have three major candidates with near-equal short at victory since the country returned to civil rule in 1999.
But the season did not open with the same elements. Mr Obi himself was seeking office under the PDP until it became clear to him in May 2022 that he would not be able to secure. theparty’s ticket. He then joined the Labour and was summarily given the party’s ticket.
Even then, an analyst said, Mr Obi’s candidacy was not entirely appealing to political observers, who saw Labour as too fringe and unviable for national campaign. Labour had only produced a governor in its near two-decade history prior to Mr Obi’s membership.
“No political heavyweights followed Peter Obi to Labour,” political analyst Omodele Odunfa said. “That was why many people, including myself admittedly, did not take him seriously at first.”
Mr Odunfa said it was after Mr Tinubu tapped Kashim Shettima, a fellow Muslim, as his running mate that Mr Obi’s ambition became appealing to Christians.
“Christians rightly saw Bola Tinubu’s action as a holy war against their faith and decided to rally behind a ticket they could relate with ideologically,” he added.
Although the PDP ticket had Mr Abubakar, a Muslim, and Ifeanyi Okowa, a Christian, some Christians still believed Mr Obi would better represent their interest as president because it would address the clamour for the southern Christian president to succeed a northern Muslim leader.
Mr Obi, a Catholic, promptly unite all Christian denominations against the Muslim-Muslim ticket, which Mr Tinubu had justified as politically expedient and administratively prudent.
“Tinubu said he picked because Shettima because of competence,” Mr Odunfa said. “But we all knew it was simply because he knew it would be his surest path to victory.”
Mr Odunfa said it was Mr Tinubu who started the 2023 election along religious lines.
“But for Bola Tinubu’s divisive move, the way Christians were fired up for Peter Obi might have been somewhat neutralised,” he added.
Following his declaration as president-elect, Mr Tinubu promised to run a government of inclusion, saying Nigerians will be treated equally as encouraged by the nation’s Constitution.
Mr Oyedepo, in his support for Mr Obi during the pre-election call, said the Labour’s candidate had better appeal than his challengers, whom he insinuated had poor health and ill-gotten wealth.
“A sickening nation like Nigeria will require a strong and healthy personality,” Mr Obi said. “Anyone whose source of wealth cannot be verified should not have access to governance, particularly in a dying economy like Nigeria.”
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