In the last two decades of Nigeria’s democracy, a recurring issue in the polity has been how best to integrate the South East geo-political region into Nigeria’s political alchemy. The din hit an all-high in the defeat of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015 by the All Progressives Congress (APC). The PDP had struggled to hit the fig leaves of the issue by ceding the Senate presidency to the zone in its first eight years tenure and the ripples of the attendant musical chairs that swept through still resonates deep and far and challenged by the most cursory analysis.
The debate fueled and sustained by the bloviating class of self-serving politicians was that the South East (inhabited by the Igbo ethnic group) is perpetually gripped by internal life-and-death politics, where the over-arching mantra is the pull-him-down syndrome. And so it was that, in a galloping space of eight years, the zone harvested a hemorrhage fever of five Senate Presidents. It was an obviously maniacal change of batons from the late Evan Enwerem (June 1999 – October 1999), Chuba Okadigbo (October 1999 – November 2000); Anyim Pius Anyim (November 2000 – June 2003); Adolphus Wabara (June 2003 – April 2005) and Ken Nnamani (June 2005 – 2007). Regardless, the yearning for increased political relevance of the zone hit the emotional lever when, between 2007 and 2015, the then ruling PDP altered the course it followed from 1999 by quietly sidelining the zone in its allotment of four critical office slots, President, Vice President, Senate President and Speaker of the House. It was consigned to the under-charging role of party chairmanship for a brief period of two years before it was retrieved. Hopes that the historical defeat of the party in 2015 and the ascension of the APC to power would serve as an elixir to their existential frustrations and deprivations were spooked as the party in a wrong-headed manner even deepened the scars.
A spectre of despair and disillusionment blossomed. The irrepressible Chukwuemeka Ezeife, former governor of Anambra State, seized the momentum and in an outburst in September 2015 described the evolving situation as an “interesting epic of a sordid living experience of a people.” He elaborately bemoaned the fate of the South East in Nigeria, adding that the agitations of the multiple secessionist groups in the zone were in the main orchestrated by the spiraling exclusion of the zone from critical levers of power.
“If we react, our reaction is where are we going, and we must go if things continue the way they are. But not all of us believe that things will continue like this. Why do we believe that things must change when every day we are confronted with more reasons why our stay here is injurious,” he said in a bitter tone and testy moment of frustration. He was not alone. Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, at a public presentation of a book, “The Audacity of Power and the Nigeria Project: Exclusion of the South East In Nigeria’s Power Politics and the Spectre of Biafra,” said, “the cross of Ndigbo in the Nigerian state is heavy; Igbo marginalisation is real; and as the authors argue, it now borders on deliberate exclusion.” This is the anvil on which restructuring magnetism and skillful nuances by leaders of the party to tame the surging tide of restiveness was built and it resulted in the above-par performance of the party in the just-concluded presidential and National Assembly elections in the zone and the emergence of two senators.
The apparent improvement of the APC in the zone in the just-concluded National Assembly elections obviates the argument in 2015 that the zone would have reaped the seat of Senate President if a senator had emerged victorious on the ticket of the party.
Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, the Minister of Science and Technology, succinctly captured the rising profile of the party in the zone when he observed that “we took bold step as a zone in 2017 to endorse the president for re-election before other zones followed suit.”
To sink the pervading argument of exclusion deeper, he said: “It is important to point out that South-East remains the only geo-political zone that is yet to produce an elected President of Nigeria and this is what everybody is aware of.
“The North-East, through the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, North-West, South-West, South-South, and North-Central, have all produced Nigeria’s President at different times with the exception of the South-East.”
On January 15, 2017, the indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a South-East group seeking self-determination, called out the people on a one-day boycott to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Biafra. The boycott or stay-at-home recorded resounding success in the South-East. It was apparently a plot to negotiate a better deal out of the Nigerian federation. It landed on the rebound with infernal reactions from the North occasioning a ‘quit notice’ from youth groups in the North on the Igbo living there. It all came to a head when a former university teacher and convener of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) joined issues with the Igbo. He said that whoever feels “Nigeria is not conducive for him” should quit, adding: “What the northern youth groups did was not a sin.”
The statement credited to Ango Abdullahi opened a floodgate of hate materials against Nigerians of South-East origin and also exacerbated the struggle by pro-Biafra groups. The clamour for a just and equitable structure by the people of the South-East was, therefore, buried in the cacophony of voices that raged in high decibels without any a cohesive attempt to address the legitimate feelings of structural injustice and marginalisation of fellow Nigerians. They merely reacted to IPOB’s truculent tantrums against the Nigerian state but left out the real issues germane to collective peace, stability and security. As has been argued, in resolving the hydra-headed Igbo question, every opportunity, such as the IPOB stay-at-home order and a Senate President of South-East origin lends itself to seeking solutions to the question. These issues are rooted in an unjust political structure. The South-East, with a staggering population in excess of 50 million, including an estimated 20 million in the diaspora, has the lowest number of states and local governments (five and 95, respectively) as against the North-West, which has seven states and 187 local governments.
According to Ezeife, “the Biafra problem should be treated as a Nigerian problem that requires collective solution.”
Weaving together the flaming appeal to deflate neglect of the zone beyond party barriers, sex and class, there abounds a unity incubating in anger and dissatisfaction. The opportunity provided by this relatively good performance of the party in South-East zone lends itself to strategic moves of rapprochement. It beckons a bold and deft move by the APC and government to worm itself into the hearts of the people and drive away the cold feeling that their world is a zero-sum game. The APC should, as a first step, zone the seat of the Senate President to the zone and begin a moon dance far removed from the ugly past of dystopia. It should, according to Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, play the sucker to catch a sucker. It should harmonise the disparate forces of wrath and resignation to forge a new day without subalterns.
This is a catch-22, the term coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel. Conversely, as some would say, and without any pun intended, it is either “the lady or the tiger.” The airy-fairy thick-cold tales may give way to a new thread of subtle silver wire of rhythm. After all, there is no word for depression in most African languages. Happily, any measure aimed at dismantling this obtuse structure, for all practical purposes, will like the cut hawthorn tree sprout back to life even with torn ivy.
Not just another election
The just-concluded election in which President Muhammadu Buhari retained power is in itself an endorsement of the view by many people who contend that it was a shriek pull-off for stability. Preparations and campaigns for the elections had been greeted with one of the most ferocious vitriol since Nigeria’s nationhood in 1960. So much was the determination of the opposition party, deeply firmed in the South-East, to tear down the tendons of the APC that their eventual trouncing by the APC left them broken, floundering and dispirited. It was like a return from the glade of death in the zone.
In a comment on the alleged marginalisation of the zone by successive governments in the past, Osita Okechukwu, a chieftain of the APC and managing director of the Voice of Nigeria (VON), had said: “It is my duty to remind the people of the South-East to vote for President Buhari. He will, in turn, ensure that he redresses all the real and perceived wrongs done to the people over time. One good turn deserves another. The President has a kind heart. He does not forget any good done to him. And he forgives easily those who hurt him. This is your time to be counted. He will make you proud.”
Significantly, the Special Adviser to the President on Justice Reform Sector, Mrs. Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu, also before the elections, enjoined the South-East to support Buhari because the zone had never had it so good in terms of infrastructural upgrade since the return to democratic rule in 1999.
She said: “The APC will win election in most of the South-East states or at least secure 25 per cent of total votes cast in appreciation of this love.
“President Buhari has demonstrated his love for our people through the over 69 roads and bridge projects currently on-going in the zone. We will reciprocate this gesture by casting our votes massively for him.” And Indeed they did.
Beyond the sophistry of pigeon-holing Okechukwu and Ibekaku-Nwagwu’s entreaties as political campaign slings, the appeals resonate powerfully in the push to produce a Senate President of South-East origin. It unburdens the cysts of many years of political attrition between the President and the South-East. From an abysmally low percentage rating in previous elections, Buhari indeed posted more than the constitutionally required 25 per cent in a state of the zone and slightly fell short of meeting the requirement in two others. This underscores a reaffirmation of a burgeoning love and trust between them. This comes into greater reckoning when positioned against the doomsday prediction of notable opposition leaders to the effect that APC will go extinct in the South-East after 2019.
The national coordinator of the PDP Youth Alliance, Dr. Charles Omini, had declared during the inauguration of the body in Enugu:“ With the mandate we have, and the capable hands we are inaugurating here today, the APC will not exist in the South-East beyond 2019.”
Perhaps, a triumphant way of thrashing it as a lie is to make the party more infusive at the centre and there can be no better way than to zone the number three positions to the zone in a wild acclamation of the famous inference that the nation sits on a tripod: Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. The APC power configuration, therefore, should be this: The North (Hausa/Fulani) occupies the position of President (Buhari). The South-West (Yoruba) has Vice President. The South-East (Igbo) should then have Senate President. This is even more so since South-South is holding the position of national chairman of APC (Adams Oshiuomhole).
Evidently, the presidential election results were a better showing than the results of the succeeding last four elections. This, perhaps, informed the inclusion of Imo State among the states slated for his thank-you visit. It posted a light in the dark caverns of mistrust and intense hate of claustrophobia by the people of the zone. It is a song that has broken out of the ranks and could be sustained and nourished better with a Senate President seat.
There can be no better magic to attain this objective, the same way it is inconceivable to harden soft tissue and wring juice from dried plum.