I believe that the frenzied quest by disaffected Igbo youth for Biafra represents, above all, an indictment of the kind of leaders who for close to twenty years have run the affairs of the southeastern states. Those agitating for Biafra often make a case that the Igbo are marginalised in the affairs of Nigeria. That may well be true, especially when the criterion is the presence and quality of federal projects in the five southeast states. For me, however, a more critical factor has to do with the lack of imagination by the zone’s political and entrepreneurial elite.
Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State has emerged as a particularly interesting political figure, embodying and epitomising the crisis of leadership in Igboland. Part of the governor’s mystique lies in what appears to be his insatiable desire to be in the limelight, whether for good or negative cause.
Let’s get a quick sample of the governor’s attention-grabbing moves.
Shortly after his first term inauguration, Mr. Okorocha announced that he would cut his security vote from N6.5 billion to N2.5 billion. The difference, he said, would be used to grant scholarships to state students. The populist move earned him (well deserved) applause.
In August 2015, Governor Okorocha announced that his Foundation would build a model secondary school in Yola, the capital of Adamawa State, for the education of students displaced by incessant attacks by the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. “I will request Governor Jibrilla Bindo of Adamawa to provide land within two weeks for Rochas Foundation to build a secondary school for you,” said the Imo State governor. His gesture, though noble, was far from universally popular. Some pointed to the decrepit state of some of the state-run secondary schools in Imo State.
Last August, Mr. Okorocha – who was behind in paying state employees and pensioners – directed that public workers would work Monday to Wednesday, reserving Thursday and Friday for farmwork. He said, “Everybody must go back to agriculture. Every political appointee must own a farm. The youths would also be encouraged to take to agriculture. Schools including universities, polytechnics and secondary schools in the state must own farms. The Community Government Council (CGC) must be strengthened for the sake of this agricultural program.” The novelty of the policy guaranteed wide publicity for Governor Okorocha. But if the governor expected praise for foresight, he was mistaken. State workers defied the policy. And critics, including lawyers and labor union leaders, questioned the legality of the policy.
In December, Mr. Okorocha – speaking through Deputy Speaker of the Imo State Assembly, Ugonna Ozurigbo – said Igbo leaders were to blame for failing to attract “democratic dividends” to the South-east zone. According to a news report, the governor’s assertion was a response to “complaints by stakeholders in Ebonyi that they were being schemed out of [the] Federal Government’s employment and empowerment programmes.” Governor Okorocha said the responsibility for their exclusion lay with Igbo appointees in President Buhari’s administration. Without question, some of those appointees must have wondered why the governor would turn accuser, at once portraying them as laggards and (implicitly, at least) absolving himself of any blame.
Ever unpredictable, the Imo governor seemed to sing a different tune on February 14, 2017 when Acting President Yemi Osinbajo paid a courtesy visit to his state. The caption of a report in the Daily Post was instructive: “Marginalisation: Nothing to show Igboland is part of Nigeria – Okorocha tells Osinbajo”. The reporter, Seun Opejobi, wrote: “The Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, on Tuesday raised alarm over the alleged marginalisation of the South-east, saying there is nothing to show that the region is part of the Nigerian project.
“Speaking during the visit of the Acting President, Yemi Osibanjo, the governor stressed that the region had been short-changed, especially in the areas of appointments and allocation of federal projects.
“According to the Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Governors Forum, ‘No other group in Nigeria that had invested as much into our nationhood can sing the song of marginalisation as much as Ndigbo has been made to sing it.
‘We have nothing to show that we are part of the Nigerian project; neither do we have any sense of belonging in the present government at the national level.
‘We have been marginalised both in terms of projects and appointments. In Imo State, for instance, all we have is a Minister of State to show for all the efforts and extreme sacrifices we made to ensure that the All Progressives Congress (APC) had a good outing in the last general elections.
‘I know you are the acting president and [have] the ears of the president. So, there is no better person to tell our painful story than you. You need to take a second look at what is happening in the South-east. No serious political appointment, no visible federal infrastructure so far, to show the presence of Federal Government in the South-east in general.
‘I beg that as the government gives subsequent appointments, let the qualified sons and daughters of the state and region be considered. Those in business should be considered for federal patronage.’ Governor Okorocha went as far as describing himself as ‘a sacrificial lamb in the South-east during the  elections.’ He remarked that there was ‘no Federal Government presence in the oil-producing areas, and none of our youths benefited from the Federal Government’s Amnesty Programme.’ Then he urged Mr. Osinbajo to facilitate the ‘quick refund of the money spent by the state on Imo International Cargo Airport and on some federal roads in the state.’”
The acting president’s retort was a classic of subtle rebuke. “If there is any governor in this country that has the ear of Mr. President, I will say that it is Governor Okorocha. As such, it cannot be said that the state is marginalised by the APC-led Federal Government,” Mr. Osinbajo reportedly told Governor Okorocha.
In effect, the visitor was giving to the governor a dose of the bitter pill the governor had dished to his fellow Igbo players in the current political dispensation. The South-east of Nigeria is indeed a laboratory of willful neglect by the Nigerian state. But the zone’s deeper crisis, I suggest, is the wretched leadership acumen exhibited by most of its leaders, with the loquacious Okorocha exemplifying that malaise.
At about the same time Governor Okorocha was hosting Mr. Osinbajo, the governors of the South-western zone met in Ekiti, the capital of Ekiti State, to design a plan for regional economic integration. The six Southwest governors do not belong to the same political camp, but they recognise something vital about their shared fate. Governor Okorocha and other South-east governors would do well to borrow the example of their South-west counterparts. They ought to pool their resources and invest in developing critical transport, power and agricultural sectors. That way, they would ameliorate the forlorn condition that fuels our youth’s mistaken faith in Biafra as the answer to the disaster of Nigeria.
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