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Who is Peter Obi, the candidate disrupting Nigeria’s presidential election?

Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi talks to reporters at his house in Amatutu in the southeastern Nigerian state of Anambra on Saturday before polls opened for the general election. (Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty Images)
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Since the end of military rule in Nigeria in 1999, the presidential election has been a two-horse race. This year, that has changed, thanks to Peter Obi.

Even at 61, he’s the youngest candidate among the three front-runners, and he is riding an energetic youth wave, promising reform to Nigeria’s disaffected young population as that group propels him to the top of many polls.

A wealthy businessman and former governor of Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria, Obi, has galvanized social media and is championed by fans who term themselves “Obidients.” If he wins, he will become the first president of Ibo ethnicity to take the role since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. But the political disrupter still has a long way to go to oust the two mainstream political parties and clinch the highest office in Africa’s most populous nation as millions head to the polls Saturday.

Here’s what to know.

Nigerians get ready to vote in a historic presidential election on Feb. 25, as the country tackles a currency crisis, soaring inflation and high poverty rates. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Who is Peter Obi?

Obi is a millionaire businessman who started as a drinks trader at the outdoor market in his hometown of Onitsha, in southern Nigeria. He went on to become the chairman of Fidelity Bank before a successful bid for the office of state governor.

As crises spiral, Nigerians are voting in tight presidential election

Bespectacled and reserved, Obi is campaigning as a reformer, promising to mend broken systems and run a government that is more accountable to citizens. Despite the vast oil riches of Africa’s largest economy, more than 60 percent of Nigerians live in poverty. Obi, who is popular on social media, has received praise from the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, former president Olusegun Obasanjo and other prominent figures.

Many young people who back Obi became politically engaged during protests in 2020 against the brutality of a branch of the police known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The nationwide #EndSARS protests, which garnered global attention, led to police opening fire on peaceful protesters and killing at least 15 people at Lagos’s Lekki tollgate.

Some international observers have likened Obi to French President Emmanuel Macron for breaking away from the two traditional political parties to forge a third path. However, as a southern Ibo Christian, Obi draws support largely in the south, in a country where religion and ethnicity play a role. He has chosen as his running mate Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, a northern Muslim.

Obi has also been entangled in the Pandora Papers investigation, which exposed global political leaders who used vast, secretive offshore systems to hide billions of dollars from tax authorities and creditors. He has denied breaking any laws and said the accounts were part of legitimate asset management.

What political experience does he have?

As governor of the southeastern state of Anambra between 2006 and 2014, Obi built a reputation for fiscal prudence. He left office with a rare budget surplus in the state government, and many of his supporters hope he will remedy Nigeria’s ailing national economy. He also invested substantially in health care and education while governor and lambasted corruption. He has promised, if he wins the presidency, to appoint a special counsel to prosecute corruption cases.

Despite being painted as a political outsider, he has been involved with national politics for some years. He was the running mate of presidential hopeful Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party in the 2019 presidential election. However, he left that party and is running with the tiny Labour Party, which his detractors say shows him as a political opportunist keen to get into office.

Why is Obi popular with young Nigerians?

As with many countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria’s youth population is massive, with 70 percent under age 30. More than 40 percent of young people are unemployed or underemployed.

Election officials have said that 8.5 million young people have registered to vote for the first time in this election, with polls showing that many support Obi.

Young Nigerians told The Washington Post they are fed up with soaring prices, joblessness, police brutality and a cash shortage. Frustrated with the old guard in Nigerian politics, young people said they see Obi as a potential force for change.

Whom does he have to beat at the polls?

President Muhammadu Buhari is leaving office after eight years. Eighteen candidates are vying to take his place, including one female candidate, Chichi Ojei, representing the Allied People’s Movement.

However, there are two front-runners alongside Obi. One is his onetime running Abubakar, a former vice president making his sixth and likely final bid for the presidency. The other is Bola Ahmed Tinubu, known as the “Godfather of Lagos,” a former governor who is supported by Buhari and has played kingmaker in Nigerian politics for decades. He is running on the slogan “It’s my turn.”

What you need to know about Nigeria’s historic presidential election

About 93.4 million Nigerians are registered voters, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission, which has harnessed digital tools for the first time to reduce the risk of electoral fraud.

The vote is expected to be tight, with results coming in the next three to five days.

A winning candidate needs to gain a plurality of votes and secure 25 percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. Analysts say the race is so close that Nigeria could have its first runoff since the resumption of democracy.

On what issues has Obi campaigned?

Obi has promised to introduce tougher measures to eradicate corruption and strengthen the rule of law. “What you have seen is a cumulative effect of leadership failure over the years which would be solved by good governance,” he said in a recent speech in London. He is also vowing to reduce government costs and tackle soaring inflation and the crisis created by a currency redesign, which has caused a nationwide cash shortage and led to protests. About 63 percent of the Nigerian population, 133 million people, is classed as “multidimensionally poor” by the government.

He also has pledged to shift Nigeria’s economy from consumption- to production-based and wean it off its high dependence on oil revenue, while boosting clean energy and the agricultural sector. Obi also said he would boost military spending in a nation grappling with security crises, including insurgency in the north and banditry and kidnappings.

Rachel Chason contributed to this report.