Nigeria’s surprise presidential hopeful promises bold change on climate

As Nigeria prepares for February polls, a fresh political face wants to break the country’s oil and gas dependence and deliver a ‘green epoch’
<p>Peter Obi, one of three main presidential hopefuls in this month’s election, has promised “a solar power revolution”, among other policies, to shift Nigeria away from oil and gas (Image: Temilade Adelaja / Alamy)</p>

Peter Obi, one of three main presidential hopefuls in this month’s election, has promised “a solar power revolution”, among other policies, to shift Nigeria away from oil and gas (Image: Temilade Adelaja / Alamy)

Last October, Nigeria was ravaged by flooding that killed more than 600 people and displaced 1.3 million. It was the deadliest flood since at least 2012 for Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. The heavy rainfall that sparked the flooding was made twice as likely by human-caused climate change, according to a study by World Weather Attribution.

But experts have also cited Nigeria’s long history of unregulated urban expansion and inadequate drainage systems, prone to blockage by unmanaged solid waste. Many Nigerians criticised the government’s lacklustre response. Meanwhile, one presidential candidate suspended his campaign to visit flooded areas and call on the government to do more to address the issue.

Peter Obi, a former governor of Anambra state in south-east Nigeria, was not expected to be a prominent contender in the presidential election taking place on Saturday 25 February. Twelve months ago, he was a member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). But after decamping to the relatively unknown Labour Party in May 2022, he has gained massive support from young people in many parts of Nigeria. Among the three leading candidates, he is seen as the least corrupt and most fiscally responsible. “I believe his record as governor stands him out,” said John Makinde, a product manager who lives in Lagos.

Nigeria’s leadership problem

Apart from Obi’s apparent credibility, people’s frustration with APC and PDP corruption and mismanagement over the past two decades has forced many to seek an alternative.

The poor governance has contributed to Nigeria being one of the countries least prepared for the adverse effects of climate change. Aside from the annual floods that threaten the livelihoods of millions, the country also experiences heatwaves and droughts. Lake Chad, which used to nourish millions of Nigerians, has shrunk over recent decades, sparking widespread hunger and fuelling conflict such as farmer–herder clashes and the Boko Haram insurgency. The country also faces an energy crisis despite being one of the world’s largest producers of crude oil and natural gas. Fuel queues and power cuts are common even in major cities such as Lagos and Abuja

Amid a global conversation about ending the use oil as a fuel source, the Nigerian government continues to display a strong interest in fossil fuel investments. In 2021, the national oil company took a US$2.7 billion stake in Dangote refinery, billed to be Africa’s biggest and slated to be operational this year. Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed off oil exploration in the country’s northern region. “It is… to the credit of this administration that at a time when there is near zero appetite for investment in fossil energy, coupled with the location challenges, we are able to attract investment of over $3 billion to this project,” Buhari said at the time.

Steps towards a green future

Despite its continuing interest in fossil fuels, Nigeria has also taken steps to invest in renewables. The country is signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change and at COP26 in 2021, President Buhari committed Nigeria to achieving net zero by 2060. The president has also signed into law the Climate Change Act, which seeks to provide a framework for the energy transition. In August 2022, the country launched its energy transition plan, requiring about $10 billion, or close to one-quarter of the country’s 2023 budget, every year until 2060. Much of the funding is expected to come from the private sector and multilateral partners such as the World Bank. But government mismanagement remains an obstacle.

Obi’s promise

In his campaign Obi has highlighted Nigeria’s perennial struggles with insecurity and poverty and called for a transition to the “green epoch”. In his manifesto he states: “Nigeria is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, which poses the greatest economic, physical, financial, security, and developmental risks.”

He promises to “aggressively prioritise the mechanisation” of arable land in the country in order “to make agriculture the new oil of a prosperous Nigerian economy.” At the same time, he would leapfrog Nigeria into the “4th industrial revolution” and shift it from “fossil fuel dependency to climate and eco-friendly energy use”. He plans to establish a “Green Army” to help the country benefit from international climate finance.

man looking at solar panel held in hand
A technician from PowerChina – China’s state-owned energy and construction giant – installs a donated solar lighting system in Bunkere, north Nigeria (Image: Guo Jun / Alamy)

Obi pledges to launch “a solar power revolution” across Nigeria, particularly in the north, where there is an abundance of sunlight. He plans to invest in wind, including offshore wind farms in Lagos, Warri, and Port Harcourt, with the aim to launch commercial operations by December 2025. He also promised to support the current efforts of the nation’s nuclear agency, which has received technical support and backing from China since the mid-1990s.

“We will ensure that the federal government offers meaningful incentives to corporate entities and industries that make discernible efforts to transit to clean and alternative energy, not only for local consumption but also for export,” says Obi’s manifesto.

We may have gas, but when it is not acceptable around the world, you drop it
Yunusa Tanko, the chief spokesperson for the Obi campaign

Meanwhile, Bola Tinubu of the ruling APC is short on details about his renewables plan for Nigeria’s energy sector and bullish on oil and gas, noting that it “must play the lead role in generating the foreign currency revenues needed to help fund the nation’s twin industrialisation and infrastructural drives.“ The other major candidate, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, acknowledges the need for a transition to renewable energy but falls short on specifics on how his administration would go about the process.

“Obi‘s manifesto is not big on oil,” Kelechukwu Ogu, an energy analyst at SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian think tank, told China Dialogue. But he is not convinced by the transition plans. What, for example, is the meaning of green army in the manifesto?

The Green Army will “ensure that there are trees being planted all over the nation, especially in the desert areas,” Yunusa Tanko, the chief spokesperson for the Obi campaign, told China Dialogue. He added that an Obi presidency will follow global best practices in utilising fossil fuels. “We may have gas, but when it is not acceptable around the world, you drop it,” he said.

Beyond his campaign promises, Obi promises to inject new life into governance in Nigeria. He is the only one of the three major candidates who has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing, and his campaign is imbued with the same energy that drove young Nigerians in 2020 to organise the country’s largest protests against police brutality since the return of democracy 24 years ago.

However, Obi’s path to victory remains rocky, despite leading in at least two presidential polls conducted by independent pollsters. There are also fears that the elections will be riddled with vote buying and violence. But for now, the Nigerian air is bursting with hope for a greener future and a break from the country’s corrupt past.