The other day, I read a story from the papers that Mr. Sam Ohuabunwa, an industrialist and one-time boss at Niemeth Pharmaceuticals, has declared his intention to vie for the presidency of Nigeria. The convener of New Nigeria Group (NNG) and former chairman, Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), had earlier made a case for someone from the southeastern part of Nigeria to mount the saddle as the President of Nigeria. I have been enamoured by that call, not for its novelty, given its age-long existence, but because it comes from someone who is no typical politician.
Most politicians make that call with the intention to benefit from it, although Ohuabunwa’s alleged declaration would be akin to a desire to be a direct beneficiary of his call. I am tempted to jettison that line of thought because the man cannot boldly stand to be counted in the roll call of politicians. His younger brother, Mao, had been in the fray of politics, having moved from House of Representatives to the Senate, before former governor of Abia State, Orji Uzo Kalu, replaced him at the Senate. The senior Ohuabunwa may just have decided to give flesh to his call rather than leave it as a stir of the conscience of Nigeria. He wants to put his money with his mouth.
The point, really, is that the call is another reminder of a rather sore point in the political annals of Nigeria, namely, that no one from the South-East has ever sat in the saddle as President of Nigeria but for Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi who paid the supreme price for his six-month stint there. Let’s allow the sleeping dog of military politics prior to the civil war to slide. But the fact is that the matter, even after the war ended with the much-mouthed reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction mantra, would seem like a conspiracy from the political elite that no one from that zone should ever mount that saddle. The conspiracy straddles military and civilian circles. I may be wrong, or even crying wolf on the matter, but I hold that the coup that took late President Shehu Shagari out of power on December 31, 1983, may also have been inspired, among other things, by a move to stop Dr. Alex Ekwueme, Vice- President to Shagari, from succeeding his boss. He was well positioned to do so but the coup stopped him in his tracks.
When the military chose to step away from political interference in 1999, Ekwueme was again stopped by the military top brass, who chose to bring General Olusegun Obasanjo out of the gulag, and literally foist him on the people because they saw the yawning need to assuage the South-West over the annulled 1993 election won by Chief MKO Abiola. I recall that Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu was coasting home to clinch the ticket of the opposition party to PDP at that time, before the conspirators used a fellow Igboman, to pull the carpet from under his feet and made Chief Olu Falae win. Falae ran against Obasanjo in that election. The game plan was, head or tail, someone from the South-West would emerge President. The bottom line is that the political elite wanted the presidency to move to the South-West. Again, let us ignore Obasanjo’s battle with those who put him in power with the intention of installing a stooge. They met their match in Obasanjo but, in spite of that, he ensured that someone from the North succeeded him after his alleged third term bid failed.
In fact, it was Obasanjo, in his blunt and forthright manner, who told some Igbo people, in a town hall meeting during a trip to the United States, when he was in office, something to the effect that they ought not make issues about political marginalization because they lost a war, and the Nigerian nation has been magnanimous to integrate them into the nation. That comment was so volatile that the Presidency either denied or modified it. But the former President said what everyone knows but many have had no courage to say. The implication is that there seems to be suspicion by the larger population, especially the political elite, about the Igbo people. The contrast between the suspicion and the behaviour of people of the South-East stand like darkness and light. There is no part of Nigeria where the Igbo do not live, integrate with the locals, own property, sometimes to the envy and attack from indigenes. The suspicion has no empirical basis. Nigerians know this, and acknowledge it in their sober moment. Why is it then anathema to mention or demand that the nation concedes the Presidency to the zone? Elder statesman, Ayo Banjo, recently asked the question: How can a people be part of a country where they cannot produce the President?
I have consistently heard the trite statement that people from the South-East play bad politics. Perhaps, they do, but someone has to tell me the kind of politics the South-West played when the presidency was conceded to it in 1999. The political elite simply agreed to cede the presidency to the South-West. There may be some pointers that the South-East people play bad politics. At the inception of democratic dispensation in 1999, the Senate Presidency was zoned to the South-East. There were complaints that politicians from the zone tried hard to undo one another in order to clinch that position. I do not know how that has resulted in continued political decline of the people. Today, the zone is nowhere near the position of Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker or Deputy Speaker. President and Vice-President has not been mentioned in the zone since 1999. Now it appears the political elite has put paid to that, given current political moves.
It is as though a people exit poverty or have their fortunes changed. It is a psychological soothing balm to show that the people belong to Nigeria. Those who have held power over the years have not translated same to a change of fortune for their people. As Ohuabunwa said, the motivation of the Igboman to lead Nigeria was not about the Igbo nation but about Nigeria.
Now the question is why a people are expected to remain in a nation whose leader they are not allowed to produce. Perhaps the answer would also help resolve why the agitation for Biafra has refused to go away.