No matter how one chooses to look at it, selling the Igbo presidency for 2023 is beginning to appear like a tall order. By Igbo presidency, we mean having a major political party sponsor a candidate of Igbo extraction who contests and wins the 2023 presidential election.
It is not because there are no saleable candidates from the Igbo political class, nor is it because there are no competent technocrats who can offer charismatic and efficient leadership. And certainly not because it is not yet the turn of Nd’Igbo to ascend the throne; after all, don’t we live in a country where leadership by major ethnic groups has almost been enthroned as a national social contract?
I see three major hurdles that constrain the selling of an Igbo as President. These are image, disunity, and lack of preparation. Of the three, image has remained the most potent weapon successfully and successively deployed to shoot down the aspirations of the Igbo to the presidency of Nigeria.
This negative image is socially constructed. Over a period of more than 60 years, negative feelings, assumptions and judgements about the Igbo have crystalized into fear and stereotypes in other ethnic hearts. The images lay dormant, ready to be regurgitated and vomited into the public sphere by political rivals of Igbo politicians at crucial moments. Other stereotypes exist in the world of commerce, in the public service and in social relationships. However, nowhere else is this negative sentiment more pronounced and prevalent than it is in politics.
Out there in contested political spaces, the Igbo are burdened with “greedy,” “mercenary,” “unreliable” and “disorganized” images. The stereotypes fail when matched against prior leadership contributed by the group to the development of Nigeria. They are also at variance with the performance of Igbo actors who have occupied positions of trust at federal and regional government levels, from Independence to date.
Have we not seen governance in action with the likes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Anambra), Chief Dennis Osadebey (Delta), Dr. Michael I. Okpara (Abia), Dr. Akanu Ibiam (Ebonyi), Chief Sam Mbakwe, PhD (Imo), and Dr. Alex Ekwueme (Anambra)? During the extended military interregnum, Nigerians saw and experienced Major-Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Ukpabi Asika, and Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe.
In the world of what could have been, “greedy,” “mercenary” and “unreliable” are hardly the sort of adjectives that one could deploy to accurately describe the Igbo that Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar selected as their running-mates in their various unsuccessful quests to rule Nigeria. If hardliners such as Awolowo and Buhari could see something good in the Igbo, what other proof do we need to show that the stereotypes remain what they are: stereotypes?
At any rate, is it not gratuitous to insinuate that a visionary and effective leader cannot be found among a group of 42 million people who live, work and do business in Nigeria of today?
Why do these prejudices persist, and can they be finally laid to rest any time soon? We need to draw from psychologists to borrow the term that explains this persistence: negativity bias.
The origin of this bias can be traced to the people, events and issues that shaped the struggle to make Nigeria an independent nation, as well as the people, events and issues that attended the subsequent struggle for leadership and control of the emergent post-Independence nation.
Our history is well known in every heart, even if not well told in contested political spaces. I will summarize by saying that, in the beginning, our fathers in politics did not trust enough to agree to become blind to each other’s ethnic backgrounds. Thus, the parochial dissensions they injected into the war of Independence stunted the growth of the nascent seeds of nationalism that Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe sought to plant for the emergent independent nation.
The cradle of this distrust was the Western Region, beginning from the controversial 1951 cross-carpeting episode and leading up to the full-scale violence that was known as Operation Wetie. Cross-carpeting was a war against the Igbo, as represented by Azikiwe, while Wetie was a war against the Hausa-Fulani, represented by the Sardauna and the stooges they planted to destabilize and displace Chief Awolowo.
To be sure, there were other skirmishes in the country, such as Kano talakawa resistance, Tiv riots, and displacement of Eastern minorities from power following the western rejection of Azikiwe’s leadership. While a monolithic North managed to contain its troubles, it was impossible to cap in the West.
Suffice it to say that these conflicts sustain today’s prickly relationships among the ethnic groups of Southern Nigeria. As a consequence, southern leaders are never in a hurry to form a united front against those who lord it over other ethnic groups of the North.
The scars of Nigeria’s conflicts run deep. They remain in the subconscious, ready to be whipped out and brandished by old warhorses as weapons of political gamesmanship.
These sad memories of our past have their roots in three major events: the January 1966 military coup d’état, the revenge coup of July 1966, and the resulting civil war that wiped out over two million Nigerians within three years. The first military intervention riled northerners who then charged at southerners in general and Mid-West and Eastern Igbo in particular. Politically-motivated revenge killings followed, and a civil war that was anything but civil erupted.
Apart from soldiers killing themselves in the battlefield over a war that many of them did not fully understand, military fighters engaged in ground massacres of civilians and aerial strafing of refugee camps and markets.
The discords of our past have transformed our country into a huge landscape of mistrust and hurt. Political leaders consistently plant and nurture seeds of discord that germinate and grow to be harvested in tears and blood nationwide.
Today, there could be any number of good things that make us feel good as citizens of Nigeria, but psychologists always remind us that it is easier to remember traumatic experiences more than positive ones. All it requires, therefore, is a little provocation from those who feed poisoned history to the generations.
Tired warhorses, always with an eye on power than about making Nigeria an achieving nation, continue with their incompetent leadership that has activated kidnapping, highway robbery, and invasion of farmlands to plunder crops, rape and kill.
For as long as we do not intentionally grow an army of clean, educated, and urbane Nigerian youth, who understand that they actually hold political power through their numbers, tired warhorses will continue to use the past to tar and debar political rivals from other ethnic groups that are not “born to rule.”
And the Igbo will remain their number one target.