By Segun Ayobolu
Given the strong feelings evoked in the South East by the perceived imperative of a President of Igbo extraction succeeding President Muhmmadu Buhari in 2023, it is understandable that the presidential aspiration of Mr Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) has gained considerable traction, particularly among youths in the region.
But then, the demand in some quarters that the presidency ought by right to be conceded to the South East in 2023 is of little practical import in a multi-party liberal democratic system like ours, which provides that stipulated political offices including the presidency be competed for and winners emerge on the basis of numerical electoral majorities and in compliance with required territorial spread of substantial support.
Obi is often eloquent, although his statistics are often inaccurate. He can be entertaining in his presentations even when his policy enunciations lack concreteness. In my view, there is nothing remarkable about his eight-year tenure as Governor of Anambra State beyond his claims as regards the humongous amounts he left in the state’s coffers for his predecessor; claims vigorously disputed by the latter, to inspire any great excitement about the developmental prospects of his presidency.
But the most serious burden of his aspiration in my view is the way that the Igbo have appropriated his candidacy and the often contemptuous and virulently abusive and insulting disposition of his essentially Igbo ethnic support base on social media towards other candidates and anyone who exercises his or her fundamental right to oppose Obi.
Yet, he ought to do more in my view to help control and productively channel the emotions and actions of his supporters on social media especially if the young people in question truly believe in his leadership. Those who see nothing wrong in routinely deriding other candidates as Thiefnubu, Jagabandit or Atikulooter, for example, suddenly erupt in anger when a writer takes legitimate literary licence with Obi’s name.
For instance, last Thursday, The Guardian online published a threat by an Igbo youth group, the Coalition of South East Youth Leaders, that Tinubu’s campaign posters, billboards or other election materials must not be sighted anywhere in the South East and that a task force had been set up to enforce the order and punish violators. It is not impossible that these are the antics of mischief makers but they must not also be dismissed lightly. In addition to the security agencies demonstrating seriously that such threats will be decisively dealt with as they could cause widespread breakdown of law and order that could prove fatal to democracy if supporters of other candidates behave the same way, political leaders must take the lead in showing their followers the example of political decorum and decency. In an electoral system where no ethnic group or region can singlehandedly produce a president without support from others, any candidate who creates the impression that he is out to pursue a sectional agenda and thus cannot be trusted by people outside his ethnic enclave is doomed to electoral disaster.
Another example is a poster that has gone viral on social media featuring pictures of Obi and his vice presidential candidate, Yusuf Baba-Ahmed, who are purportedly billed to address the supposed anniversary rally of the #endSARS protests at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, on 1 October. If such a plan indeed exists, it is a recipe for predictable violence and bloodshed given the current ethnically-charged political atmosphere created by the exuberance of the Obidient crowd notably in Lagos. The #endSARS protests were organised as a nationwide activity against human rights abuses by the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad but in Lagos took a particularly destructive partisan and ethnic turn with loss of lives and property worth over N2 trillion destroyed. To attempt to link Obi’s LP in this way with the #endSARS incident in Lagos will reinforce the impression that the massive destruction in the state and the reckless allegations of massacre at the toll plaza without credible proof till date were motivated by cynical ethnic and political calculations that are now coming to light.
Obi’s presidential quest will be hurt by Kanu Nnamdi and his Indigenous People of Biafra’s reckless and anarchic prosecution of their separatist Biafra agenda especially after the exit of the Dr Goodluck Jonathan’s federal administration in 2015. It must be noted that the Jonathan administration was one in which the Igbo were greatly favoured over other ethnic groups along with the Ijaw. Indeed, in an address to the World Igbo Congress in Washington in 2014, President Jonathan pointedly declared that, “in our dogged determination to develop our country, the Igbo are well represented and in some of these appointments, the Igbo are having them for the first time. Some have said that this government has done more in appointments than any other in our history for the Igbo, but that is a matter for the pundits and historians. Let me state that appointments by this administration across the country, will continue to be based on equity, fairness and competence”.
The most powerful political appointee in that administration was the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The expansive nature of her nomenclature brought virtually every other Ministry, Department and Agency under her supervisory purview making the undoubtedly cerebral Okonjo-Iweala the de facto Vice President in the government. But did she handle this enormous responsibility, power and influence with the necessary wisdom, caution and tact? I don’t think so.
During Okonjo-Iweala’s tenure as Minister, Igbos were appointed as head of virtually all agencies under the ministry. These included the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Inland Revenue Service, Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, Sovereign Wealth Fund and National Pension Commission. Most annoyingly, when asked in an interview why this was so despite the federal character principle in the Constitution, Okonjo-Iweala insensitively responded that the positions were filled through competitive processes and it was not her fault if her people were good at competing. As media strategist and public relations practitioner, Yushau Shuaib noted in an article in Premium Times on 6 March 2013, “people are wondering at the coincidence of only Igbo beating every other person at competitive interviews conducted by her nominated international consulting groups”. Unfortunately, this kind of brazen Igbo bias in appointments and promotions was also widely perceived as going on under Senator Anyim Pius Anyim as Secretary to the Government of the Federation in the same administration.
At that time under Jonathan, as the Igbo savored their favoured time in the sun, there were hardly any Biafra separatist agitation and Nigeria was not routinely labelled as a zoo among other derisive names by Igbo irredentist movements. Indeed, in reference to the perceived excessively Igbo-centric character of the Jonathan administration, the Northern Senators Forum publicly lamented what it called gaping marginalisation against the North over appointments and promotions in the military and lopsidedness in favour of Igbo officers in the Army. It is not unlikely that the perceived sectional imbalance in the constitution of the security high command under Buhari is partly a reaction to the excesses of the influential Igbo appointees under Jonathan in this regard.
But for the late Chief (Mrs) Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo and the retired Bishop of Akure, Rt. Rev. Bolanle Gbonigi who, after a meeting of the Yoruba Unity Forum in Ikenne, accused the Jonathan administration of systematic discrimination against the Yoruba nationality in federal appointive positions and ethnic cleansing against the Yoruba in the federal bureaucracy, the Yoruba calmly accepted their fate under Jonathan and kept their peace. But then with the way the Obi presidential aspiration is being driven as an essentially Igbo project, is there no reason to fear that were the LP candidate to realise his ambition, an Obi presidency would be readily ‘captured’ by his Igbo kinsmen and the Okonjo-Iweala and Anyim Pius Anyim-type ethnic biases would be experienced on an even more expansive scale? There is surely some good reason to be, and there is a precedent to cite.
In January, 1966, the Major Kaduna Nzeogwu-led coup that dislodged democratic rule in the First Republic had been initially widely applauded and well received as a patriotic and nationalist endeavor despite the masterminds being mainly Igbo officers as well as the ethno-regionally lopsided character of killings of political leaders and military officers in the execution of the coup. A few months into the regime of military Head of State, General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi of Igbo origin, however, strong suspicions began to grow in many quarters that there might have indeed been sectional motivations behind the coup.
As the renowned political scientist, Professor Billy Dudley, an Itsekiri scholar, stated in his classic, Instability and Political Order: Politics and Crisis in Nigeria, “By May 1966 there was, it seems, a widespread belief in the North (this was also true of the West) that the Aguiyi-Ironsi regime was essentially aimed at the advancement of the Igbo, possibly with the intention of establishing an Igbo hegemony in the Federation. The dismissal of some Air Force cadets of Northern origin in April, the uncritical acceptance by Aguiyi-Ironsi of (Francis) Nwokedi’s proposals for the unification of segments of the civil services, and the close association between members of the Aguiyi-Ironsi administration and Igbo members of the intelligentsia (which did not pass unnoticed), these were all seen as part of some calculated plan directed at displacing non-Igbo from status positions in the Federation. In the North itself the incautious behavior of individual Igbo men did little to detract from this belief”.
Dudley, who was teaching at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, at the time, cites one example of the Igbo lack of sensitivity in the North. In his words: “Outside the university, the practice of Igbo men holding up Northerners to ridicule had become a common enough experience. Pictures of (military officer Chukwuma) Nzeogu with one foot over the corpse of the slain Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, symbolic of the downfall of the North and the ascendancy of the East and the Igbo, were to be found on sale in the markets in the North. These and other petty humiliations were reported to the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Gabriel Onyuike, but thinking they were ‘harmless practical jokes’, he dismissed them, refusing to take any action”.
Today in cosmopolitan Lagos, for instance, some Igbo residents are routinely known to say in public that Lagos is no man’s land and they have an equal stake in the state given their extensive economic activities there. Not even the Yoruba from other South West states in Lagos are that provocative and brazen in their relationship with the Lagos indigenes. The Hausa community, which has a history of existence in Lagos that spans the last 200 years, is not known to make such claims. Is it not natural to wonder then if the actualisation of an Obi presidency will not afford Igbo the opportunity to seek to realise their ill-disguised imperial, expansionist ambitions in Lagos and possibly other urban agglomerations outside the South East where they reside in substantial numbers? It is legitimate apprehension.
I find it astonishing that there is so far no single Igbo columnist or journalist and hardly any Igbo intellectual who has publicly written in opposition to Obi’s aspiration even though the Igbo political establishment is either outrightly cold or lukewarmly indifferent to his politics. On the other hand, there are scores of the Yoruba intelligentsia who are vehemently opposed to Tinubu’s candidacy just as many members of the Northern intelligentsia have been severely critical of (Abubakar) Atiku as is quite normal. For practically all Igbo public intellectuals, however, Obi is a saint and the other major candidates are irredeemable devils who are roundly demonised. This is abnormal. It looks more like a conspiratorial attempt at an ethnic power grab than democratic forces at play.
This Igbo ethnic albatross is, in my view, one big hurdle that Obi and his LP must cross is he is to attract the necessary cross-national support without which it is impossible to win a presidential election in Nigeria.
Ayobobu, former Chief Press Secretary to Lagos State Governor, is a renowned media professional and opinion writer. He maintains a weekly column, Illuminations in The Nation on Saturday.