A radical shift in an important political narrative occurred this month of October 2021 in Southeast Nigeria. Leadership of the various subgroups emerged to turn their attention away from the perennial Igbo challenge to the matter of IPOB and its leadership. The timing was the issue. South-East political leaders met with sociocultural leadership on October 5 to fire the first salvo. They were followed by the clergy on October 11, and by the region’s traditional rulers on October 19.
The meetings had both good and worrisome outcomes. The good was that the meetings and their published outcomes, taken together, helped douse social tension as Mazi Nnamdi Kanu was brought to trial. Unfortunately, they signposted a major shift from substance to distractions at a critical time when their gaze should have been firmly focused on a strategic objective.
The objective has always been how to resolve Nigeria’s Igbo question. Internally, this question regularly instigates an ideological battle in the region as radicals and conservatives clash over how best to resolve it. While the radical school favours a relationship rupture, the conservatives insist that, when imaginatively harnessed and implemented, the Igbo stand to reap bountiful harvests in Nigeria’s table of policymaking.
On this question, a deeper interrogation of the current travails of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and the socio-economic disruptions in the regions constitute mere symptoms, or distractions if you will, at a crucial juncture when the Igbo have the best chance of changing the narrative since the Civil War. In the month of October 2021, the distractions rose like a phoenix and seized popular imagination, tragically diverting the conservative leadership into a political cul-de-sac.
This is not totally unexpected. Before now, efforts to resolve the substance have traditionally pitted the radical, centrifugal forces against the traditional, conservative class on how best to resolve Igbo marginalization in Nigeria. This tension today reflects the ideological clash between separatists and nationalists. There are two things to note about this clash. First, it is not peculiarly Igbo. And, second, an astute political leader effectively managed it in the past. The October meetings indicate not only the absence of a leader but that the conservatives may be losing their bearing. The best way to illustrate it is to examine what is happening on the western flank of the Great River.
Until the 2015 marriage of convenience between Lagos and Katsina, the Yoruba conservative class had effortlessly accommodated this tension in all its forms, tolerating each emerging tendency as a useful addition to the group’s inclusive, natural and significant tools of political gamesmanship. Each emerging radical tendency gained the group’s imprimatur on the basis of its spearhead’s recognition of, and submission to, the common goal. Between the Igbo and Yoruba, the latter can be considered as latecomers in the game. However, since they staked a claim at the table of decision-making in 1983, the Yoruba have had more staying power. Staying with a common vision of their future has enabled the group to, for examples, tactically displace the Igbo in the Nigerian bureaucracy (1967), knock them off from the commanding heights of the economy (1972), and prevail in the field of political gamesmanship (from 1999). The Igbo held the diadem on all three advantages for a decade (1957 to 1967) and dramatically reclaimed it for the four years of the Second Republic, less than a decade after a devastating Civil War.
It has become apparent that what marks a difference in the management of the internal ideological tensions is a matter of leadership. No leader ever presumes to have been able to enjoy unquestioned group allegiance, not even in the First Republic. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe managed K.O. Mbadiwe as his Achilles heel, Chief Obafemi Awolowo grappled with an S.L. Akintola alter ego. Even the northern colossus, Ahmadu Bello, had an equally formidable Aminu Kano as a nemesis.
Awo was the only leader that temporarily lost grip of this enduring regional tension, and this was what set off a chain of events that culminated in a tragic Civil War. Today, however, there is no question that the West learnt the lesson on how to manage the centrifugal forces. The East, sadly, gives the impression that it has not.
With the passage of Azikiwe, the difference in strategic approach between East and West has never been as starkly evident as it is today. Just one example will suffice, based on the rhetorical paradigm shift that occurred in Igboland this October 2021. In this month of October, rather than continue to split hairs over the travails of their detained Sunday Igboho, the politically astute West appear to have, once again, focused their attention on seeking first the kingdom of political power and how to justify its rightness, in the sure knowledge that all other national decision-making benefits will be added unto them. The Igbo leadership, on the other hand, succumbed to a subtle propaganda that invited them to solely focus on the incarceration of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and manufactured insurrections in their region.
My concern is the substantial diversion from the region’s focus on taking a seat at the head of the decision-making table on May 29, 2023. The reason this has happened is because the petulant radical tendency has continued to exist as if the overarching goal, to create equity spaces for the Igbo to thrive in their natural habitats, is dissimilar to the conservative philosophy or indeed mutually exclusive. This was the exact same position that Ndigbo found themselves in 1968 when a rupture occurred between the conservative political class and the radical military-intellectual wing that was in power during the war. The Civil War scenario is playing out again as the gap between the conservative political leadership and radical separatists widens to expose the soft underbelly of the region for another decisive sucker punch.
The surprise is that in their October meetings, none of the subgroups considered the pathway of political power as the easiest solution to restoring calm in their region. The ideological differences need not be mutually exclusive in practice. There is nothing to suggest that while the conservatives advance the case for full accommodation of the Igbo in the mainstream (through Igbo presidency project, for instance), radicals should not pursue a different, non-violent agenda for emancipation of Ndigbo or indeed their separation from Nigeria. It is the constitutional and legal right of both groups to pursue their convictions.
This is why I consider the October statements from the conservative school as quite dreadful, demoralizing and dangerous. The primary objective of this school should continue to be to seek political leadership for Ndigbo within Nigeria; their members must re-commit to delivering equity and socioeconomic benefits to the Igbo in the Nigerian setting. This quest is so strategic and defining that it does not warrant abandoning it to worry about rodents escaping from the fire they inadvertently started in a house! Why not focus instead on the journey to commandeer a nearby firetruck that has the required tools to sustainably quench the conflagration?
Let the radical kite and the conservative eagle perch. If the impetuous kite does not see collaboration with the eagle as an overarching survival tactic in the political jungle, it should stay in its lane and face its self-concept battle. The kite should not abandon its “enemy” and turn to harass and intimidate the eagle to join in its self-concept battles or seek to force the eagle to abandon its course to defend or act like the kite, especially when it has not shown that it has the humility to respect an alternative eagle viewpoint.
This may sound a bit harsh, but the truth is that no one knows for sure that this October focus on the fate of the radicals is not an instigated pursuit of a red herring. To date, no one knows the exact cause of the violence and anarchy that is being visited on the South-East region. IPOB henchmen, for instance, issue belligerent statements, threatening violence on people who disobey their sit-in orders. They turn around to cry and absolve IPOB from complicity whenever killings and arson follow their threats. This leaves people confused as to whether they are telling the truth or are being clever by half. The confusion that this creates in the region threatens the national political quest, which has already been fully activated in both North and West.
One does not need to be a soothsayer to predict that the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the South-East region will continue after May 29, 2023, should the conservative class fail to put its act together and bid for the ultimate crown without looking back at a possible red herring that the region’s manufactured security distractions appear to be promoting.