Be Obi-dient?

Peter Obi, a candidate for Nigeria’s Presidential election, is by no definition a radical. Bernie Sanders, who was a candidate for the United States Presidency, was only a radical by his own definition. The issue I always had with Bernie was that he wasn’t radical enough (what does this even mean?) but more so that he never tried to win and therefore was not a relevant force in politics.

There is an argument that American politics are higher stakes than Nigerian politics. Marxists have attempted to make the argument that socialism must start in the most developed bourgeois democracies. But there are a couple of problems for the United States. The US is what I call the last second-world country. It has unchecked access to markets and can spend without consequence thanks to the supremacy of its military and therefore its currency. However it has no functioning government and any crisis whether that be toxic trains, guns, police murder, drug prices, college prices or polluted water, cannot and will not be solved by the government. The solution is to buy and work more and turn away from politics because there is no left represented.

The United States is not a group of people in a geographical space but rather a series of individuals who make things that are used to control the rest of the world. The working class consciousness is lacking in the United States because of nationalism. The conclusion of Bernie Sanders was not international socialism but rather democratic socialism where what workers get in workers should get out. The problem is this is only a politics of mutual exploitation and it is this sort of politics of equity that dominates the mind of the bitter American who aims to achieve the American Dream rather than become a serious political person.

Peter Obi comes from a third party, but only recently. The tired debate on the US left is whether or not to form a third party. The answer is obvious. Both sides are wrong. Kazy of Marxist Alternative in Nigeria notes: “The primary role of Obi in these historical events is to act as a brake on the movement. His task is to moderate the anger of the youth and the masses generally and divert this anger to safer and more accommodating channels. This explains why a minority section of the ruling class fully supports him. Whether he has enough authority to achieve this objective or not remains to be seen in the near future. But nevertheless, there is now the prospect of a fight to win the workers and youth who are looking to the Labour Party, wrestling them away from the influence of the bourgeois gangsters who lead it today, and turn these forces into a genuine mass vehicle of the working class.”

Obi sounds a lot like Sanders. An establishment guy who nonetheless can inspire young people into genuine political action. Obi, like Sanders, has the role of sheepdogging this energy back into capitalist politics. The moment comes not before this intervention into politics where we are all nihilistic or after when we are cynical but during this moment when we all have hope and organization and momentum.

Sanders failed to seize this moment but Obi, in challenging the results of the Presidential victory of Bola Tinubu, a figure as bumbling as Joe Biden, is proving to be far less “obedient” than Sanders. Obi’s movement dubbed Obidient has a lot more backbone than the Sandernistas. The state of American hopelessness and mediocrity is especially strong at the moment. At least under Trump, there was hyper-politics, a traumatized liberalism that while ultimately reactionary, was admitting a certain type of crisis, even if it was misnamed fascism or authoritarianism rather than capitalism or climate catastrophe.

For a note on the state of American culture, it is worth quoting from Jeffrey St. Clair’s most recent column: “Ed Sheeran says his new record, Subtract, is informed by “fear, depression and anxiety.” Whatever became of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll?”

Indeed most of the left feels sorry for itself and remains naive about the true stakes of politics and the brutality of modern life. Nigerians on the other hand believe in something. I am not saying this something has to be a god, in fact, it would be better if it wasn’t. But American idealism is ultimately cynical. The things American dream for is not to win the struggle of life but rather to deny and ignore it entirely. The goal of being happy or feeling better is the primary goal of Americans, even in a political context.

Nigerians already have this good-natured attitude. They are a kind and enthusiastic people and the state of their country gives some people the impression that they roll over. But even a bourgeois politician like Peter Obi is proving this isn’t the case. Obi is astute to recognize the timing of a political crisis in Nigeria and is attempting to seize the opportunity.

Obi, like current President Muhammadu Buhari before him, has the reputation of being less personally corrupt than others and this is near the top of most Nigerian’s list of demands in a country where as Michael Roberts notes corruption hinders government spending: “General government revenue in Nigeria was 7.3% of GDP for 2021—less than half of the average in countries belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and nearly a third of the average of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)—and ranked as 191st out of 193 countries in the world! Almost all government revenues are swallowed up by debt service and payment of government salaries.”

The dying Jimmy Carter represents the limits of a neoliberal President who isn’t personally corrupt but it is a basic step that needs to be accomplished. Buhari’s restriction on bank notes was a supposed attempt to limit the bribing from politicians but it resulted in poor people who only had access to cash being hurt the most, causing riots at banks and ultimately voter suppression as many young people who supported Obi could not travel to vote in the place they were registered to.

This is far from the only crisis in Nigeria. Inflation, lack of electricity, terrorism, lack of fuel, floods, drought, and hunger have all picked up recently and been in the international news cycle. This is the moment for a country with a worse life expectancy than Afghanistan.

Nigeria, set to pass the population number in the United States in the near future, represents the limits of peacetime capitalism. For one the supposed peace of capitalism presents an obstacle for those seeking refugee status. Horror stories pop up of people’s desperation. I read about a Nigerian going to fight for Ukraine because he has a better chance than in his own country. I read about this same endless supply of US weapons meant for Ukraine going into the hands of Nigerian terrorists.

Nigerians must live on under two dollars a day. 35% of children are stunted from lack of food. And yet they are doing well in the eyes of the US because there is capitalism. However, it is bit of a backward exercise in capitalist relations. The oil cannot be used in international markets because it is stolen and the only good jobs are in government. The private sector’s practice of selling labor is a pointless exercise. Own your own business or get into government or terrorism or rely on your family. These are the non-capitalist relations possible in capitalist hell.

However, this also presents an opportunity. While the United States still has the majority of its people loyal to capitalist desire, Nigerians have clarity about the brutality, joy, and randomness of life. Americans think good things are earned and this is the ideology of the ruling class which Americans identify through nationalism. The coveted identity of being an American, even if it guarantees you nothing when you fail, is something we believe in because of the things it gets us when we succeed. And we all believe we will succeed because we don’t believe in anything but ourselves.

In Nigeria the global crisis of putting militarism and capitalism before environmentalism and food security is presenting an opportunity and a tragedy. America’s dream of being radical is almost always a posture, a substitution for the gritty work of politics and the decency of ordinary life. Americans think big and grasp for a magical world beyond our own. Americans detest reality because it is too radical for us.

The violence at the center of the means of production is punching us in the face with environmental catastrophe upon environmental catastrophe. We ignore Nigerians because we don’t recognize them. We say who are strange people dancing and laughing and being free? Who are these odd ones? Don’t they know that freedom comes from a political orientation and capitalist relations not from interactions with others?

We say who are these strange people making political demands? Will this not hurt the market and the ability to compete? After all of this we are still waiting for our capitalist God to drop something to us from the sky. We are obedient to Him and Him alone. The joke of Peter Obi, to be Obi-dient, rather than obedient, is lost on American people who like the Scooby Doo cartoon, run fast, go nowhere, and are about to fall flat on their face.

The radical alternative culture of America is a retreat from the production in everyday life. We do not even talk to each other about anything serious or real. We do not ask each other how we are selling our souls and bodies to the reproduction of capitalism. We ask each other about our anxiety and how to fix it. We then pretend we are doing great.

We refuse to examine the life and even worse we refuse to live it. Our obedience is to capitalism and we pretend to be rebels by refusing to be obedient to anything else. We thus all have individual identities, that will mercifully be forgotten, because they are too mediocre to recall.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at