Ahead of 2023 general election, the echoes of a president of Igbo extraction have continued to reverberate in the country. Among people of the zone, the quest for the plum position is gathering momentum even as the campaign is increasingly winning converts from other geo-political zones of the country.
However, amid the frenzy, one recurring message is that the presidency project requires a lot of hard work as power cannot be served a la carte. The argument by those in that school of thought is that winning the presidency of Nigeria requires lots and lots of political alignments, realignments, persuasion, lobbying and sometimes emotional blackmail.
While some believe that the Igbo have not shown enough enthusiasm and commitment to the project, others insist that people of the geo-political zone appear willing to go to any length to make that happen including changing the zone’s known political position since the emergence of the current democratic experiment in 1999.
The South East zone is traditionally known to be the stronghold of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). At least, within the first four years of the current fourth republic, all the five South East states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo were controlled by the PDP.
It is believed that the influence of the former vice president, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who was a foundation member and pioneer national chairman of the party, was largely responsible for the Igbo attachment to the party. The Igbo looked up to Ekwueme as an experienced and astute political leader that should be consulted for direction.
However, that posturing changed a bit when late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu founded the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), ahead of the 2003 general election. The party went ahead to produce Dr. Peter Obi as the Anambra State governor. This was after Dr. Chris Ngige of the PDP who was earlier declared winner of the election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and sworn in, was removed by the Supreme Court.
With that watershed judgment of the apex court, one South East state slipped off the hands of the PDP. However, the party maintained a firm grip on the remaining four states until 2007 when Dr Orji Uzor Kalu fell out with the party’s leadership and formed the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), which upstaged the PDP in Imo and Abia states with T. A Orji and Ikedi Ohakim emerging victorious in the two states. But, their victory was largely attributed to the PDP supporters and influence of the PPA founder, Orji Kalu. But both governors did not waist time in the party before they returned to the PDP.
The PDP’s dominance of the South East was again threatened when Owelle Rochas Okorocha emerged from APGA to challenge an incumbent governor, Ikedi Ohakim, and went ahead to defeat him. Okorocha’s victory in 2007 saw APGA controlling two states in the zone, leaving the remaining three states under the firm control of the PDP.
However, ahead of the 2015 general elections, Okorocha and some APGA members from Imo State joined forces with the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Congress for Progressives Change (CPC) and All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), which eventually defeated the PDP in the presidential election to become the ruling party.
Even with the APC dislodging the PDP and becoming the ruling party, the people of South East have remained steadfast in their commitment to the ideals of the opposition party. They have consistently demonstrated in words and action that they would remain in the PDP, no matter what happens. In the 2015 election, with their votes, they made it clear that they would never align with the APC. They repeated their stance in the 2019 general election. But for the Supreme Court judgment that removed Emeka Ihedioha of the PDP and replaced him with Hope Uzodimma of the APC, the situation in the zone would still have remained what it was since 2003 when APGA snatched Anambra State from the PDP.
However, the agitation for the president of Igbo extraction appears to be putting a wedge in the people’s commitment to PDP. Some political leaders in the zone are beginning to align with the stance of the former governor of Imo State and serving senator, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, the former governor of Abia State and Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, and the former governor of Anambra State and Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige. Both men, as staunch APC members, have consistently maintained that until the Igbo joined the APC, their dream of becoming president in 2023 would remain a mirage.
Some people have argued that the PDP has not been fair to the Igbo since 1999 despite the unflinching support the party has enjoyed from the zone. It is such belief that has given credence to the position by the Ebonyi State governor who officially announced his defection to the APC on Tuesday citing unfair treatment of the Igbo by the party as his reason. Umahi had told Nigerians that he was abandoning the PDP for the ruling APC because the opposition party has been unfair to the Igbo. He stated that since 1999 when the Fourth republic started, the PDP has not deemed it proper to zone its presidential ticket to the South East, despite the people’s total, unconditional support for the party. On that score, the governor announced that he was no longer comfortable with the party.
There are others who argued that Dr. Ekwueme who actually formed the G34, which eventually metamorphosed into PDP, was unfairly treated by the party. They stressed that upon all his sacrifices to the party, he never got a better deal as outsiders hijacked the party and frustrated him out of it.
However, since Gov Umahi made public reasons for his defection, reactions have continued to trail his action.
The Ebonyi State PDP-caucus in the National Assembly, which includes three senators and five House of Representatives members, has clearly distanced itself from the governor’s action. The spokesman of the caucus and former governor of Ebonyi State, Senator Sam Egwu said Umahi’s action was self serving and never represented the wishes of the good people of Ebonyi State or the Igbo in general.
Former governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife also described Umahi’s defection as self serving, saying he has always been with the APC. “It is just that he was a card carrying member of the PDP but somehow, he has shown sympathy for the leader of government in APC and everybody knows that. However, he has the right to belong to the political party of his choice but this swinging from one place to the other is always an indication of people who go into politics for self interest only,” he noted.
He stressed that the defection was not a wise move, especially considering the fact that he is the chairman of the South East governors. More so, he lamented that in spite of the clear efforts of the APC government at the centre to pull down the Igbo, Umahi still went ahead to join the group that is killing his people.
He believes that Umahi’s defection would not affect the South East quest to produce the next president in 2023 because even if he is presented by the APC, the Igbo would look at the candidates of other political parties and pick the best.
On South East support for the PDP, Ezeife said the party has enjoyed enormous support in the past which leaves it with no choice this time around but to present an Igbo candidate or kill the enthusiasm the people have for the party permanently in the zone.
Foremost Niger Delta activist and Coordinator, Ijaw Monitoring Group, Comrade Joseph Eva disagreed with the reason adduced by Gov Umahi for defecting to the APC, saying the governor was only trying his luck to see if he could get the APC’s presidential ticket in 2023.
He described Umahi as a political neophyte that is not fit to be a senate president, stressing that his defection was a calculated attempt to worsen the demand for president of Igbo extraction. “He will go and be causing confusion when he doesn’t even have the charisma. He is one of the people who want to betray the Igbo in their bid to present a presidential candidate in 2023. He is being sponsored to weaken and worsen the chances of Igbo in 2023. None of the senators, House of Representatives members from the state is following him because they know he doesn’t have the leadership quality. He is going to use the Ebonyi State money to cause confusion. If you look at the line up of Igbo political leaders and politicians, Umahi cannot get the 120th position to be a presidential candidate. Nobody will even make him a senate president because he is not qualified,” he said.
He argued that just as the Igbo have supported the PDP since 1999, they have also benefited immensely from the party.
Former presidential candidate of Citizens Popular Party (CPP), Chief Maxi Okwu also agreed that Umahi’s defection is self-serving; stressing that his reasons for defection were akin to giving a dog a bad name to hang it. He warned others who may follow his footsteps to think twice as it would only end in disaster and tears. He equally agreed that the returns on investment by Ndigbo in PDP have been very poor because the Igbo have not played the right politics.
President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, also believes that Gov Umahi already wanted to leave the PDP. “He was only looking for an excuse because it was a predetermined action. He would still have gone even if the PDP had zoned the presidency to the South East. When a woman wants to cheat on her husband, she must always find a reason; it is either the man didn’t come back from work or he didn’t bring money for food,” he said.
He warned the Igbo to guard against resorting to threat to achieve their aim in 2023, saying, “I support that the South East produces the next president but it cannot be by threat. It must be gotten through logic and persuasion of our fellow country people who love justice, fairness and equity.”
National Publicity Secretary of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Uche Okpaga also came hard on Umahi for his decision even though he agreed it was within his fundamental rights to belong to any party of his choice. What he frowned at was Umahi’s reason. He agreed that PDP has not been fair to the South East despite the people’s support but wondered what gave Umahi the impression that the APC would zone its presidential ticket to the Igbo. “It is time for PDP to concede the presidency to the South East but that is not even the most important thing to the Igbo. The most important thing to the Igbo is to restructure Nigeria because without restructuring, a president of Igbo extraction will still not achieve much,” he submitted.
For the National President, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), Yerima Shettima, Umahi’s reason for defecting to the APC is as unjustified as it is unsubstantiated. He saw the governor’s action as one laced with selfishness. “A lot of us are not surprised because he has always been two-faced. Has the APC told him that they are zoning the presidency to the South East? Let him go with what he feels because he is not speaking for the South East. I know that the South East does not believe in what he has done. He has never been a PDP man, even though he flew the party’s flag to get to where he is today,” he said.
On zoning, he said: “We have drawn the battle line and we will not accept any party, ruling or opposition, which presents any candidate in the name of zoning. We will fight it and ensure that zoning does not fly because it is unconstitutional. Competency is what we require. But if PDP and APC go for zoning, we will look for a party that does not believe in zoning but in Nigeria, and put all our tentacles there,” he said.
In all, Umahi’s defection has set the political music of 2023 on course. But, one takeaway from his action by a cross section of Nigerians is that selfish gains rather than the South East interest is at play; a development capable of truncating the 2023 dreams of the Igbo. But will Umahi’s defection actually alter the South East political posturing in 2023? Will the PDP respond to the alleged fair treatment of the South East by conceding the presidential ticket to the zone? The answer, as the saying goes, lies in the belly of time.