Eastern Nigerian Premier Nnamdi Azikiwe wearing agbada and cap, standing at head of banquet table speaking to group of men, including P. L. Prattis, Earl Hord, Beverly Carter, and Bill Nunn Sr. seated on right, in Press Club, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 1955. Image: Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art Via Getty Images
NIGERIA (THE NATION) -- By some general and unexplainable consensus, the Igbo have begun to campaign for the presidency of Nigeria to be vouchsafed to them in 2023. In furtherance of this great scheme, many of their leading political lights suggest that support for President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term could help the cause. Those whose natural politics predispose them to oppose the president, perhaps on account of his seeming animosity to the Southeast, are already being pressured to drop their reservations against him. Both the Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze, and the eternally imprudent but self-assured Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha, have seemed to make their peace with a Buhari second term. There is some logic to their new preferences, even if there is no morality to the options they now sell as indispensable.
Any southerner who wishes to run for the presidency in 2023 is unlikely to embrace the candidacy of a northerner who is running for the first time in 2019 and could seek a second term should the political environment in 2023 prove amenable. A Buhari candidature may gall the Southeast, especially considering his unremitting pursuit of Igbo separatist groups and his unyielding alienation of their kinsmen from his inner circle and the security and paramilitary organisations, but they serve notice of their willingness to swallow hard and embrace him, knowing full well which side their bread is buttered. It is not obvious that such a new political conviction is unanimous among the Igbo, or whether they will not hedge their bets by turning over their states to either the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in state and local elections, but whenever the mist clears and the Igbo are discovered to have forked left in the presidential poll, no mystery must be accorded their expediency.
The argument for Igbo presidency in 2023 is, however, built on shaky foundations. It is indisputable that both the North or the Hausa/Fulani and the Southwest or the Yoruba have each produced a president since the start of the Fourth Republic. The Southeast is yet to produce one. In a country erected on an ungainly ethnic tripod, the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo arrogate to themselves a presidential relay race they must run, win and dominate. This dismal dogma is at the bottom of the perversion of Nigerian politics and society where, instead of competence, other factors such as ethnicity and religion predominate. Even then, a close look at the election or selection of all Fourth Republic presidents indicates that zoning or ethnicity played only a peripheral role.
Both the nomination and election of ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo cannot be divorced from the electoral victory and unfortunate death of MKO Abiola in 1993 and 1998 respectively. Chief Abiola had won the nomination of his Social Democratic Party (SDP) in competition with Hausa/Fulani and Kanuri aspirants, among others. And when he won the presidency, it was in a straight and fierce electoral combat with Bashir Tofa, a Kano State indigene whose Kanawa people spurned his candidacy. Had Chief Abiola not died in very controversial circumstances in military detention after his victory was annulled by the Ibrahim Babangida military government, it is unlikely anyone would have thought to compensate the Yoruba. What were involved in the emergence of Chief Obasanjo as president, and the countervailing candidature of Olu Falae, a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, in the other major party were the principle of replacing the dead with the living, and the matter of placating or subduing the pangs of conscience.
It is simplistic to deduce that the nomination of ex-president Umaru Yar’Adua as PDP candidate for the 2007 presidential election followed a North-South zoning arrangement. Not only was the nomination essentially a brusque, personal and aggrandizing policy of the departing Chief Obasanjo, it was not even the official policy of the PDP, considering the number and calibre of southerners who indicated interest in the position that year. More crucially, when in 2003 Chief Obasanjo intrigued for a second term, the opposition he faced transcended the North-South divide. In 2007, he also schemed desperately for a third term, regardless of the PDP’s so-called zoning arrangement. The Southeast must critically engage the zoning logic to find out whether it is consistent and reliable, and whether they can rest their ambitions on that superficial and tenuous arrangement. As the Goodluck Jonathan candidacy suggested, any zoning and rotational arrangement for the presidency was really unrealistic, inconsistent and undependable. The Southeast must find some other arguments and arrangements to justify their legitimate interest in producing a president for Nigeria. They must recall that President Buhari shunned all rotational and zoning arrangements and made nonsense of conventional wisdom to run in 2003, 2007, 2011 and then finally 2015.
In fact, a study of Nigeria’s political culture suggests that beyond the first term, and only barely, no one, let alone a political party, respects rotational presidency. Ex-vice president Abubakar Atiku did not respect the arrangement, and needed not; President Buhari simply ignored it, and can’t now argue for it if any politician should choose to contemptuously dismiss that needless conventional wisdom; and a host of other aspirants from other parties have simply and sensibly played politics as if no arrangement of any kind exists. The Southeast must play their politics irrespective of whatever arrangements and rotations are thought to exist. The fallacies peddled by Governor Okorocha to justify his constant flip-flops, which fallacies are now strangely and unfortunately redacted by the more balanced and reflective Ohanaeze leaders, must not be allowed to stifle and distort the Southeast’s political ambitions.
The Igbo must proceed from the standpoint of two immutable truths. First, if any rotational arrangement exists at all, it does not exist beyond a president’s first term. Political history illustrates and underpins this. Second, and more importantly, the Southeast must not allow itself to be seduced into the false orthodoxy of putting more emphasis on political arrangements rather than producing a candidate of immense gifts, charisma and crossover appeal. The Southeast may find this self-evident truth to be repulsive, but there will not come a time, at least not soon, when the country and all political parties will unanimously agree to an Igbo candidate and a Southeast presidency. Chief Obasanjo mooted the idea during a visit to Enugu not too long ago, but the former president is not known for his philosophical depth or overarching appreciation of history.
The country is always ripe for a president from any part of Nigeria, if that part can produce a man of immense talents, perhaps of soaring oratory, or perhaps of solid intuition and character. The Ohaneze is much better led than all the Southeast states combined, certainly much more profound than the meretricious Mr Okorocha whose histrionics stupefies even his friends as much as it animates his opponents into virulent enmity. It will be sad for the eminent Igbo socio-cultural group, despite its profundity and depth, to now begin to ape the political and soapbox flummery of Mr Okorocha in the argument and suppositions about Igbo presidency.
No one can of course rule out an Igbo man winning the presidency in 2023. But the candidature and victory of that Igbo man must not be predicated on either support for President Buhari’s second term or any other silly ratiocination and political calculation dishonestly peddled by those who wish to herd the Igbo into one unprincipled and intellectually motionless whole. If Chief Abiola won fair and square in 1993, even beating his opponent in his backyard and supposed place of strength, it was not because he was a Yoruba man. It was because he had crossover appeal, an appeal carefully sculpted through decades of philanthropy, secularist deportment, love of the good life, and genuine affection for fellow human beings. He was dismissed as frivolous and carefree, but those who voted for him saw a human being much more engaging and human than his boring and ineffectual opponent.
It is sensible for the Igbo to rule themselves out of the 2019 calculations. There is nothing to show that they or anyone from among them has built himself into a formidable politician worthy of the presidency. It is not because their sons and daughters lack the intellectual wherewithal; it is simply because they have focused on the wrong calculations, waiting, it seems, for a time when the whole country would rise as one man and gift them the ultimate prize. That time won’t come. The Igbo people must instead begin the arduous task of seeking out a few from among them who combine the oratory of the great Nnamdi Azikwe, the administrative acumen of the incomparable Obafemi Awolowo, and the raw charisma of Gamji, Sir Ahmadu Bello. At least let that Igbo man come a little close to this intoxicating hybrid.
It is puzzling that John Nnia Nwodo, the 65-year-old Ohanaeze president-general, has chosen to lead the more constrictive socio-cultural Igbo group rather than offer himself for something more national, uplifting and inspiring. His honesty, lawyerly intellect, calmness, and firmness during the uproarious months in which the Indigenous People of Biafra’s Nnamdi Kanu overwhelmed the Southeast with his Niagara of insane outbursts and laid the country to waste with puerile idiocies, are quite remarkable and noteworthy. He refused to succumb to the easy temptation to deny and denounce his people simply in order to conform to conventional wisdom; and yet managed not to come across as implacable, extremist and irrational. Why such a man of few words, great speeches, and gentle but firm disposition would appear to rule himself out of contention is hard to fathom.
Of all the Igbo politicians that have fascinated this column, Chris Ngige comes across as probably the most colourful. Though a product of the misbegotten electoral machine run by the vacuous Chris Uba, the petite politician with a defiant mien and penetrating gaze has the mind of a giant. His talents may be altogether misapplied by President Buhari, who has tucked him away in the nondescript corner of the unchallenging Labour ministry, and his political morality may even come across as offensively realpolitik, Dr Ngige was nonetheless a suave and charismatic state administrator with an uncommon and absolutely endearing populist inclination. In addition, he is a risk-taker and iconoclast, despite the constant vulgarisation and debauchery of the two terms. But whether he has the depth, largeness of heart, and breathtaking vision to move the country to the 22nd century is not clear.
Between Pat Utomi and Charles Soludo, two Igbo intellectuals and professors that run rampant on newspaper pages, the Southeast must encourage one of them to reach for the stars and claim the high ground. Prof Utomi has more friends and admirers across the country, and, as a political economist, possesses the copious knowledge and background needed to re-engineer the country. But Prof Soludo appears to be the highest risk-taker in that region, a fastidious economist not mystified by any of the prevailing economic theories and even dogmas of the age, a man so completely at home with praxis as he is brimful of ideas that raised and positioned great countries. And he is probably the most eloquent, guttural speaker around. His political accomplishments may be piddling, but if he can immerse himself in the backgrounds and cultures of Nigeria’s great politicians and learn the ropes smartly and quickly, he might yet amount to something far beyond his own private expectations, especially in a country famished for great presidents.
It is of course not the place of this column to appoint a top politician for the Southeast to present for the presidency. Nor is it really the place of the Igbo to indicate that choice almost as if he would represent them rather than represent and aggregate the values and virtues the country years for, values and virtues no Nigerian leader since independence has managed to project. The onus is, therefore, on that man of destiny from the Southeast to reconcile himself with his Igboness, but disable that cultural restraint from constricting his worldview, and prepare himself consciously, deliberately and with considerable aplomb for the position of national leadership with a vision that is both continental and transcendental.
If the Igbo can’t find that miracle worker soon, they will be disappointed again in 2023, even if they can coax the rest of the country and one or two political parties into ceding the plum presidential candidature to the region. Since the constitution does not recognise rotational presidency, and the parties will not meet to develop a consensus on that subject, nor will the electorate unite simply to massage the ego of any ethnic group, the Igbo must quit their false rationalisations, take their fate in their hands, and assist one of their own to develop the needed crossover appeal without which a winning coalition could not coalesce. Next year, let an Igbo man test the waters by running for the presidency and by ignoring the piffle about rotation and zoning. Let him see how a presidential race is run; and let him project himself sensibly, elegantly and professorially into the race a second time in 2023, with enough verve, ideas and charisma to make the country swoon over him. Let the Igbo do anything but recede into plaintive and self-pitying complaints and defeatism.