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2023: How Igbo Can Break Presidency Jinx

igbo caricature

September 05, (THEWILL) – The dominant issue in political circles in the country today is how to manage the demand of the Igbo for the presidency in 2023.

Except for the short-lived ceremonial presidency of one of the nation’s founding fathers, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, in the First Republic through an alliance of his National Congress of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) with the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) and the equally brief Second Republic Vice-Presidency of late Dr Alexander Ekwueme on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria, the nation’s plum job has eluded the Igbo, one of the three big political tripods, amid a rainbow of minorities holding Nigeria aloft.

But all that appears to be nearing an end as major stakeholders of the Nigerian project, interest groups within and outside the country, as well as the leaders of the two main political parties – the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – are showing interest in a president of Igbo extraction in 2023.  In their words and body language, key players in both parties have thrown the proverbial olive branch to the Igbo as a soothing balm to calm their perceived marginalisation since the end of the civil war in 1970.

THEWILL has learned that the APC and the PDP, which have set their machinery in motion for the conduct of congresses for the emergence of officials and possible candidates for the 2023 presidential election, have not ruled out the ‘Igbo candidacy’ in their calculations and permutations.

The PDP, APC Game Plan 

To this end, three interest groups have emerged in the PDP since its leaders fixed October 30, 2021 for the conduct of the national convention after an exhaustive fence-mending meeting to resolve the recent leadership crisis in the party. One of the three groups is linked to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the other to former Vice President and the party’s presidential candidate in the 2019 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar, while the third is relying on the Governor Bala Mohammed-led committee’s recommendation that the presidency be thrown open.

For this group, the North-Central geo-political zone should pick the post of National Chairman. The Obasanjo and Atiku group, on the other hand, want the chairmanship position zoned to the South-West for which they intend to sponsor candidates. The candidates are former Osun governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, former governorship candidate in Lagos State, Olujimi Agbaje and the governorship candidate in the recent governorship election in Ondo State, Eyitayo Jegede, SAN.

Although this permutation favours the interests of both groups as Abubakar intends to run again with former Anambra State Governor and businessman, Peter Obi as VP and Obasanjo favours an ex-Governor Sule Lamido presidential ticket, there is a scenario that puts the Igbo at the top of the ticket if they “play the desired inclusion game”, as a party source puts it, meaning agreeing to drop “the agitation for Biafra, rally round a choice candidate that has a pan-Nigerian credential with a combination of political and technocratic experience.” If the Igbo from Delta State through Enugu to Rivers State can rally around one or two cerebral aspirants with a network of contacts across the country and in the Diaspora then an Igbo presidential ticket will be a deal.

For the governing APC, the decision by the rival PDP to move back its national convention from December to October presented another chance to strategise as it was being heated up by the pressure from within the party to zone the presidency to the South so that the Igbo can compete fairly.

Although the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, flew that “Igbo for President in 2023” kite in 2019 during a visit to the South-East, shortly before preparations for presidential campaigns that year and the Chairman of the Governors Forum, Bagudu Atiku, rekindled that hope when he led some state governors on a congratulatory visit to the new President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Prof George Obiozor, some key figures in the party are pressing for an Igbo Presidency in 2023.

THEWILL learnt that the reason for the APC’s demand of inclusive politics from the region, like its rival PDP, rests on the region’s recent political past when the then ruling PDP zoned the senate presidency to the South-East. Disunited by “political aggrandisement,” aspirants from the zone crawled over the other to vie for the position as dictated by the then President Obasanjo, who was determined to cow the senior lawmakers into doing his bidding.

Then the Senate Presidency witnessed the highest turnover of leadership in Nigeria’s political history as a tenured position at the pleasure of members in eight years saw the emergency four Presidents of the Senate, namely, Evans Ewerem, Chuba Okadigbo, Anyim Pius Anyim and Kenneth Nnamani until the party, dissatisfied by the resulting instability, zoned the position to the North-Central, leading to the emergence of David Mark, who reigned for three terms. The ongoing hostility traceable to the members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Eastern Security Network (ESN) has compounded the matter.

These challenges have created feelings of mistrust across many groups and stakeholders in the Nigerian project, leading to the demand for reassurance from their compatriots in the South-East.

Late Isa Funtua, a political associate of President Buhari summarised this thinking that the Igbo must play inclusive politics if they are serious about producing the next President of Nigeria.

Speaking as a guest on Arise Television last year, he said the Igbo could only break the presidency jinx by belonging.

“They should belong. They should join the party. They want to do things on their own and because they are Igbo, we should dash them the presidency? That was the reason I asked if it is turn by turn Nigeria limited.

“You are talking about politics, which is an issue of votes. My very good friend of blessed memory, MKO Abiola defeated Bashir Tofa in Kano. Was MKO Abiola from Kano? But he defeated Bashir in his town, Kano. Why? Because the man played politics, He embraced everybody.

“With due respect to the Igbo, they fail to understand that when the South-West chose to remain on their own as opposition, they did not go near power. To a large extent, the North, in terms of religion and culture, are closer to the South-West than to the South-East.

Potential Picks On the List

Even so, both political parties are still pressing ahead with their calculations, just as the names of potential candidates of Igbo origin have been mentioned in political circles, according to this newspaper’s findings. These names are Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba; former Anambra governor, Peter Obi; Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele; Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi; Prof Kingsley Moghalu, Senate Majority Chief Whip, Orji Uzor Kalu; Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State; Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, Prof Pat Utomi and Sam Ohuabunwa, the National President of Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria.

Breaking the Jinx

How should the Igbos take up the challenge and respond in a mutually beneficial way that would be a win-win for everybody? How can they meet the major political parties’ demand for inclusive politics?

“If the South-East can produce one or two candidates, that would make their position strong,” Prof Uzodinma Nwala said in response to those questions. The founding Director of Strategy of the PDP and now President of Alaigbo Development Foundation told THEWILL that strategy would also depend on credible support from a strong backer. He painted a picture of how Ekwueme almost emerged candidate of the PDP in 1998 with massive support from northern politicians, mostly of the NPN days, until former military president, General Ibrahim Badangida (retd.) and his military supporters turned the tide against him by mobilising support for Obasanjo, who went on to win the party’s ticket and eventually won the presidential election in 1999 comfortably.

He, however, added, “The candidate that will emerge from the South-East must be one with a sound political pedigree and not a stooge,” when reminded that the same IBB recently said that he had found the ideal president in a person in his sixties, widely travelled and pan-Nigerian.

In his contribution, APC Chieftain and Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria, and member of the party’s Anambra Governorship Campaign Council, Mr Osita Okechukwu, said the demand for politics of inclusion from the region was unfair.

“My over 40 years in politics has taught me the lesson that if you want to deny a child his packet of sweets, you fly the bogey that his shirt is dirty and he will only have the sweet after washing it. That’s a bogey to deny him his sweet. It is kind of like giving a dog a bad name to hang it. Otherwise, which group was inclusive before they won the position of prime minister or president in our political history?” he told this newspaper in an interview.

He added, “Were the Hausa/Fulani or the Yoruba inclusive before Shagari or Obasanjo was elected? The truth is that going by the rotation of the president between the North and South, it is the turn of the South-East, as our brothers in the South-West and South-South geopolitical zones had presided over the country since the Fourth Republic. Ndigbo are the only major ethnic group from the southern belt that has not presided over our dear country.”

Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, a revered politician and currently Chairman, Ohanaeze Ndigbo Council of Elders, supports this viewpoint. Announcing his retirement from politics in a press conference held to herald his 79th birthday anniversary in Owerri on Thursday, the former member of the PDP Board of Trustees, said, “It is our view that the presidency should now be rotational and zoning of the presidency should now be enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“Implementation of the federal character principle in all other political positions at the national level and in all appointments and employment would then further give every Nigerian a sense of belonging in the Nigerian project.

“I ventured into politics and actually aspired for the office of the President of Nigeria thrice with the hope of fixing Nigeria one day. Unfortunately, providence was not on my side to be President of Nigeria.”

The President-General of the apex Igbo socio-political organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Prof George Obiozor, said the fact that opinions are different on the issue does not mean the Igbo cannot get the presidency in 2023.

Addressing journalists in Abuja after his electoral victory in April, he had said, “Our differences and divergent views will not rob us of the presidency in 2023. Politics is a matter of choice. For the Igbo, having different opinions should not be a concern.

“For your information, no section of the polity has just one opinion. The Igbo have different opinions and the opinions converge on the presidency for the South-East in 2023.”

When THEWILL pressed him for further explanation last week, he said the group was holding discussions and meetings on the issue and he would unveil the outcome in due course, giving the assurance that the Igbo will not be found wanting in sinking their differences and working for the common good of the zone.

Writing on the subject in a published recent article, Dr Chidi Amuta, university teacher, author and former CEO of Post Express Newspaper, said, among other things, “The Igbo political elite has to reduce the habitual fears and nervousness of the competing political elite of other factions in the country. They need to assure the rest of Nigeria that entrusting them with presidential power will enhance the prospects of better governance and more productive leadership. Internally the Igbo political elite must strike a consensus to avoid presenting Nigeria with multiple candidates. In a region where the political landscape is now dominated by all manner of scoundrels, the matter of a fit and proper candidate for a responsible, modern and informed national leadership becomes paramount.”

Amuta also noted that the most important ingredient for the Igbo to embark on this journey is be willing to negotiate with competing national elites and factions.

“Negotiating for the Nigerian presidency will require a mixture of self- assurance and pragmatic flexibility. To move from subordination to pre-eminence, a sense of realism is required.

“The Igbo now have a unique demographic limitation. The majority of the Igbo population does not live in the homeland. They form part of the voter population of the rest of the country. Being the single most dispersed ethnic group in the country, Igbo vote wherever they live in accordance with their economic and other interests.

“Diaspora voting is in Igbo interest. There may be more Igbo professionals based in Houston, Texas than in Lagos! The registered voter population in the five southeastern states put together could be less than that of any two states in other less mobile parts of the country.

“The current political strategies among the South-East political elite remain somewhat unwise. The sustained weaponisation of Biafra may be strategically convenient. But using it to gain political concessions is a serious tactical blunder. You cannot frighten Nigeria with the force of mobs armed only with nostalgia except your preference is for mass suicide. It has led the Nigerian state to do the predictable: brand the Biafran agitation a terrorist movement and proceed to shoot, teargas and arrest innocent young men and women of Igbo political ascendancy,” he concluded.

A Lost Opportunity

Prof Uzodinma Nwala narrated how easy it was in 1998 for Ekwueme to become President of Nigeria. But the chance was missed, perhaps, because of lack of strategic thinking. He said, “That day was August 13, 1998 at a meeting of the G-34 in Abuja, the group that had successfully campaigned against General Sani Abach’s self-succession plan.”

The main agenda of the meeting, according to Nwala, was the manifesto of the emergent new political party, the Peoples Democratic Party, especially with respect to power-sharing and rotation of the presidency.

“These were some of the most contentious issues at the 1994-5 Abuja Constitutional Conference. Although the conference decided in favour of zoning and rotation, the decision was based on a vote in which the southern delegates and their northern allies had won.

“As soon as the issue of zoning and rotation came up, the Chairman of the Contact and Mobilisation Committee, Alhaji Lawal Kaita, stood up and said, ‘Gentlemen, we shall adopt the policy of zoning and rotation. To begin with, we shall zone the presidency to the South, and not only to the South, but personally to Chief Ekwueme.

“Everybody at the meeting seconded Keita’s position. But the Chairman, Chief Ekwueme, interrupted the discussion and said, ‘Gentlemen, we can decide that the presidency should be zoned to the South, but it is not a personal matter. It cannot be zoned to anyone.’

“As soon as the Chairman ruled, I was one of those who rolled their eyes and even shook their heads. For us it was the loss of a great historical opportunity for the right man in our midst to be invested with the awesome power to lead the emergence of the civilian democracy in Nigeria and the emergence of a new era in the political history of the country,” Nwala said.

A professor of political philosophy, Nwala thinks Ekwueme’s action was that of a “gentleman and a democrat, so to say, a man anxious to hold the fragile post-military society together.”

He contended that someone else in Chief Ekwueme’s position at that moment, guided by the realities of raw political struggle as has always been the case in Nigeria, “would have allowed the debate ignited by Alhaji Lawal Kaita’s proposition to run its full course. At the end he would have simply called for a formal motion and then a vote.”

The outcome of the vote, he added, would have been unanimously in his favour. The political environment at that point in time, he pointed out, was that the civilian politicians in control of the G-34 had become only the singular political power. In fact, there was no alternative to them. Every member of the G-34 was anxious for a transition that would have handed political power to them.

The main power brokers, the military hierarchy, were bruised and dazed by the turn of events, following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and the majority of their members were anxious to leave the political scene. Abacha was gone, Abiola was gone.

No one would have accused Ekwueme and those rooting for him as leader of the G-34 of any political misstep. After all, the G-34 and Ekwueme had called for the release of Abiola and to have him installed as President, having convincingly won the presidential election of June 12, 1993. Once that opportunity was lost, the ailing military power-brokers were politically revived immediately. They quickly sprang into action, shopped for their candidate, rallied round their local agents, sent their foot soldiers to reach out to the Emirs and other political forces in the North. And finally they reached out to their international political and business partners, who helped them to reach out to the international community.

Nwala said the then sitting military Head of State, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who was beholden to the G-34 and preparing to hand it over to them, was immediately wised up to the fact that the political equation had changed. Shortly at a meeting he held with the leadership of the G-34, he now mockingly asked the leaders of the group, “Do you have a leader who will take over if we have to go?” The answer was obvious. The answer was utter silence! They had taken the rug out of the feet of the G-34, the democratic process! It was a coup against the G-34. They now proceeded to anoint their candidate.

“Ekwueme’s chance of becoming the post-military civilian President of Nigeria was lost on August 13, 1998. And that was because he was a gentleman and an idealist in politics,” Prof Nwala said.

Perhaps. But his example fits the quest for politics of inclusiveness because he was a seasoned politician with national acceptability and sound pedigree. That is the realism that should dawn on the region. The political elite is seeking politics of inclusion to forge ahead of the 2023 general election. Political events in the days ahead will show how this issue is resolved.