Re: President Buhari’s Igbo Problem: Cutting through the noise
I send you greetings from the land of the rising sun.
As I pen this piece, am keenly aware that many sane voices from across our geo-political and cultural divides have been drowned in a cacophony of noise, innuendos, conspiracy theories and unprintable insults. Am sure you will agree with me when I say that we have had enough of those. And so today, we will do something different. I crave your indulgence and challenge you to join us in a little historical excursion. I believe that it’s only by so doing that we can all begin the process of addressing the vexed issues that have become a raging inferno capable of consuming every one of us. I say that mindful of the fact that in war, even when you win, you lose.
Prior to his victory in the March 28th, 2015 Presidential election, General Muhammadu Buhari made three unsuccessful bids for the presidency. First was in 2003, when he picked Senator Chuba Okadigbo under the banner of All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) as his running mate. Another was in 2007, when as the Presidential flag bearer of the same party, he chose Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke. And so, except in 2011 when he paired up with Pastor Tunde Bakare as the Presidential candidate of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the other two failed efforts were both with Igbo running mates. Though love for an individual or his tribe may not have been the most important consideration when pairing up in a presidential ticket, I believe it’s safe to say that the Buhari/Igbo story has not always been that of mutual contempt and suspicion.
To be fair, in each of those instances, his party failed to garner enough support
in the southeast that translated to any meaningful electoral votes. There was nothing however, to suggest that his unpopularity as a party candidate has anything to do with his fluency in Fulfulde or being Muhammadu Buhari, the individual. I know a good number of people within the President’s circle love to advance that line of argument as a proof that Igbos are bonded by a common hate for the man. To believe that is to totally ignore all the confounders that come in play when deciding an election while condemning Shehu Shagari and Atiku Abubakar as outcasts, unworthy of their lineage. I am almost certain that even if you had substituted Buhari with any other APC candidate in 2015, I doubt that Igbos would have voted differently. One has to understand a people, their history and mindset to make sense of their politics.
Much have been said about the bromance between Ndigbo and former President Goodluck Jonathan. Truth be told, that relationship is anchored mostly in the empathy he showed the people rather than any administrative policy that translated to a major economic gain to the southeast. On the second point, available evidence as a matter of fact, does not suggest that he did any better than the man currently in Aso Rock. Yes, Jonathan administration was the first and only since after the civil war that an Igbo was found worthy enough to become the Chief of Army Staff. It was also to his credit that Igbos were able to occupy other consequential positions including the secretary to the federal government, another first. So yes, the man made Ndigbo feel as though they were part of the Nigerian power equation, the importance of which is at the core of the current agitation and surge in separatist movements. But as we have come to realize in Nigeria, individual political appointments do not always equate to group gain.
While campaigning in the 2011 presidential election, President Jonathan told Ndigbo that he would quickly commence the construction of the 2nd Niger bridge and promised to deliver the project before the end of his tenure in 2015 if elected. In fact, he was so sure that at an Onitsha town hall meeting on August 30, 2012, he threatened to go on exile should he not deliver on the project. The President has since come and gone and it may well be that he was unable to come through for reason beyond his control. But it’s worthy of note that the project he flagged off, received the greatest attention under the Buhari administration. Am sure his former spokesperson, Reno Omokri would vehemently disagree with this.
Speaking to a select delegation of Igbo leaders who went on a project assessment tour in February this year, the Julius Berger technical director of the project explained that the Bridge part, a 1.6km span will be completed by November 2021 and the whole contract with the access road by Q3 of 2022. Those are the facts.
With all the Igbos in position including Ayogu Eze as chairman of the Senate committee on Works, Anyim Pius Anyim as Secretary to the Federal government and Ike Ekweremadu as Deputy Senate President, the region’s federal highways including the strategic Enugu-Port Harcourt Road and Enugu-Onitsha Road did not receive any significant attention during the time of Jonathan. On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised to find that work is ongoing on the Enugu-PH arm when I visited home in March this year.
Of course, there are some Igbos and others Nigerians elsewhere who would never see any good in what this president does. Some are just too busy muckraking that they have no time to engage in anything else. I condemn such behavior in no uncertain terms because in my opinion, they are a big part of the problem. Fairness demands that you give credit when it’s due, even to your enemy. It’s akin to saying that Igbos are nuisance that add no economic value to this country, and then turn around to accuse the people of buying every available piece of real estate in your father’s back yard. The results don’t tally!
Now, to be clear, the southeast is still lagging significantly behind the other zones in terms of federal infrastructural development, both in this administration and the previous ones. The idea of an Eastern Seaport has been in the talks for quite some time but the federal government of Nigeria hasn’t shown any interest in pursuing it, not minding the huge economic potential therein. Of all the new rail system stretching from the North to the West and even all the way to Niger Republic, none of those exists in the southeast. The promise to rectify the federal structural imbalance remains what it’s, a promise. The southeast still has the least number of states and local governments out of all the geopolitical zones. These are all actionable issues with real time consequences for Ndigbo.
The issue of neglect has been the case even before President Buhari and so he cannot be the only one to be heaped on all the blame. What then are the issues between this President and Ndigbo?
Well it turns out that actions, mostly inactions, insensitivity and aloofness, wanton herdsman killing, banditry, poor economy and lack of empathy have all become the hallmark of the Buhari administration, qualities which have not endeared him to many Nigerians. When it comes to Ndigbo, however, the president pushes the negative button even much further.
President Buhari clearly drew his battle line in the aftermath of the 2015 election interview where he talked about the differential treatment for the 95% that voted for him and the 5% that did not.
When you make such an insensitive and self-defeatist statement that reflects on 40million Ndigbo, expect to hear 40million different interpretations and every action you take becomes suspect. You provided the fodder for conspiracy theories to thrive. Unfortunately, since then, every opportunity that presented for the president to take advantage of and make amends, he doubled down instead.
Contrary to the belief that the agitation for self-determination by some Igbo groups, started because of Jonathan’s loss in 2015 election, we need to be reminded that MASSOB and a host of other little known splinter groups have long been pressing for self-determination even during the time of Obasanjo and Yar’Adua. But their agitation was no different than what OPC was doing in the southwest. IPOB has a leader who is bombastic and loves to talk tough, but that’s all he did. General Buhari was so rattled to the point that a little-known man was thrown into jail and suddenly he created a folk hero out of a nobody.
The President went on to add salt to the injury by labeling the group a terrorist organization and proscribed it. Haba! The question remains, what was IPOB of the old doing at the time of its proscription that another group such as OPC was not doing? What was the difference? Why were noisy agitators treated same way as Boko Haram terrorists to the point of requiring a military deployment?
In May this year, theCable news reported of a former Niger Delta militant, Government Tompolo who recently issued a 7-day ultimatum and threatened the Buhari administration to either constitute the board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) or face a complete breakdown of law and order in the region. “He (meaning the President) is about to be awakened to the rage of the Niger Delta region,” Tompolo warned in a statement.
Following that threat, Godswill Akpabio, Buhari’s Minister for Niger Delta affairs quietly slipped into town and pleaded with the ex-militant to give the government a little more time to act. Obviously, what is good for the Niger Delta Goose is not good for Ndigbo Gander. What an unconscionable double-standard! Do Nigerians still need to know why Igbos are angry?
How about the recent attempt by the President to reduce a national subgroup with a population the size of Ghana and Israel combined to a mere “dot in a circle.” Of course, many of his spin doctors worked overtime trying to convince us that the comment was made in reference to IPOB and not Ndigbo as a whole. Any benefit of the doubt however, dissipated when he quickly followed up with a warning for Ndigbo to be careful about supporting ethnic agitation since they own businesses and investments all over the country. For sure the last part is true, but there was no excuse for the leader of any nation, let alone a crisis-ridden one to be so tone-deaf and exhibit a body language that smacks of crass insensitivity. There is a reason Buhari is the president and the rest of us are not.
For those Buhari or burst supporters from the Southeast who in 2015, swam against the tide, having been sold as a no-nonsense General with Superman powers, they found themselves in quite an untenable position. Yours truly was one of them. Our gang has cultivated amongst our people, the image of death merchants, poised to sell a poisonous pill for a quick buck. Not a good position to be in and that explains why our rank is shrunk.
More than 50 years ago, a man fought an existential war that saw to the loss of more than 2 million of his kind and his livelihood. He worked hard, deprived himself and overtime rose from the economic ashes of war to legendary prosperity, to the consternation of all. But emotional recovery post-trauma is a different kettle of fish. The journey for him is more of a marathon than it’s a sprint. Most times he requires the support of others to keep pushing.
War takes a toll on people in unimaginable ways. Aside from the human and economic loss, the victim becomes psychologically damaged. He is suspicious, distrustful and averse to any action that reminds him of his past trauma. Now, if you say that Igbos are more emotional than they are strategic in politics, maybe there is some truth to it. But there is a reason and you can’t just ignore the context from where that came to be.
In Nigeria, the Igbos are not even allowed to remember their dead, an act which is crucial to the healing process. The people are supposed to just forget the past and carry on as if nothing happened. In Abuja’s political calculus, anyone that engages in such act must be an IPOB secessionist and is penciled down for elimination as an enemy of the state. The overall attitude is; “you fought a war and lost, get over it.” Then you have a president that in both words and action consistently reinforces that toxic mindset.
As critical as tangibles are to delivering good governance, the intangibles are equally as important. This is more so in
a complex and pluralistic society like Nigeria where perception is often reality. The job of a President demands that he is mindful of the optics of every action taken or word uttered.
With all the tribal animosity, mutual suspicion and blame game, Nigerians should realize that the problem is not the Fulanis, Igbos, Yorubas or any of our numerous ethnic minorities. We ought to place the blame squarely where it belongs which is in the country’s inept and ineffectual leaders and are found in every tribe. Everything else is both a direct and an indirect consequence of that monumental failure. Whether an Igbo, Tiv, Ijaw or Yoruba becomes the president post 2023 election, it’s still the same vultures coming to feast.
The fact remains that Nigeria has had leadership issues way before 2015 and it will therefore be unfair to blame it all on President Buhari. But it is also a fact that under his leadership or lack of it, our nation’s fault line widened and every little problem of the past morphed into a hydra-headed monster. That said, we all have a responsibility as citizens of this country to rise above this dangerous game of ethnic profiling, stop trafficking in hate and tone down caustic rhetoric.
All leaders face challenges from their subjects and that’s acknowledged. But it should never be an excuse to carry on like a tribal warlord against those you consider your enemy, rightly or wrongly. When you paint all Igbos with a broad brush, you condemn even those of us who in 2015 could not stop shouting “Sai Baba” and “Mai Gaskiya”. Even in the scripture, God was willing to save Sodom and Gomorrah, if only there were but few good men.
Thus far, the President has proved unwilling or incapable of leading the charge or managing our diversity in a manner that is all inclusive and irrespective of tribe, region or religious affiliation. Hopefully, one day our nation will outlive him and this administration so Nigeria can begin on the long path to national healing and reconciliation.
Don haka ka taimaka mana allah
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com