Deserted streets and a tension-soaked atmosphere in Owerri – the Imo State capital – on 9 September 2021, preceded President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit. The capture of this historic city in 1970 forced General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran president, to flee to Cote D’Ivoire, signalling the end of the civil war and its current historic significance.
Known as the eastern heartland, Imo State – especially Owerri – was hitherto a beehive of commercial activities. However, it has all but become a ghost town due to the strict observance of a sit-at-home order by residents.
Every week, residents of Imo State as well as those of four other states in the South-East, stay at home in protest of the continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (a secessionist group), who is being accused of treason and terrorism. Residents say the sit-at-home order is usually violently enforced by the Eastern Security Network – IPOB’s militant arm – even though the group continually denies it.
Unrest in recent times
In the last couple of months, Owerri has witnessed the burning of police headquarters and election offices; a prison break that led to the escape of over 1,800 inmates; and the killing of security agents – many of whom are now afraid to wear their uniform in public. In May, a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress party, Ahmad Gulak, who was on a government assignment, was shot and killed on his way to the airport during the enforcement of the sit-at-home order.
In response to the carnage, the president had posted a message on Twitter saying: “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigeria Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
This tweet, which sparked an outrage among the Igbo, was eventually taken down by Twitter, a move which would ultimately lead to the suspension of the social media platform by the Nigerian government.
The Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodinma, who is a member of the president’s party, the APC, had come 4th in the governorship election in 2019, but was declared the winner by the Supreme Court in one of the most controversial judgments in Nigeria’s judicial history. He was inaugurated in January 2020.
The rise in tension in the state seemed to coincide with his win, as his legitimacy remains in question. Now, Uzodinma has been given the presidential task of ensuring that the APC wins the governorship election in neighbouring Anambra State on 6 November.
Buhari’s visit to Igboland
Days before the president’s visit, many commercial flights were cancelled while banks were shut due to the sit-at-home order. It was against this backdrop that President Muhammadu Buahri visited Imo State on 9 September. The president, clad in traditional Igbo attire (known as ‘Isi Agu’) in solidarity with the people, was received at the airport by the governor and other APC leaders in the South-East.
A decision was made not to mention IPOB to Buhari during his visit but make a veiled reference to the president supporting the emergence of an Igbo man in 2023.
A few APC supporters, who had been escorted by heavily armed security officials, were on hand to cheer the president as he inaugurated two roads, a drainage tunnel and a chamber in the Government House. While the president’s visit was ostensibly for the purpose of inaugurating projects, an Igbo leader who spoke to The Africa Report explained that the visit was mainly an attempt to douse tension in the state and deescalate hostilities.
“The projects completed by the governor were minor projects which did not warrant a presidential visit. The main aim of the president’s visit was to douse tension in the south-east which has gotten out of hand in recent times.
“So, we set up a team of leaders from the entire south-east to speak with the president on issues affecting our region. Yes, Buhari is not popular in the south-east but he is the president and he has a role to play in our collective prosperity and destiny,” an Igbo leader says.
The leader further explained that a decision was made not to mention IPOB to Buhari during his visit, but make a veiled reference to the president supporting the emergence of an Igbo man in 2023.
Expectedly, after Buhari had inaugurated the project, a town hall meeting was held in Owerri. Senior monarchs from the south-east, Igbo ministers, serving and former APC governors from the region and other dignitaries of Igbo extraction were in attendance.
The apex Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo, which is seriously agitating for an Igbo president in 2023, spoke on behalf of all personalities gathered. The group has recently also accused Buhari’s government of marginalising the Igbo, especially in the area of federal appointments.
This complaint of marginalisation has also helped the secessionist agitations gain wider acceptance in the south-east. Additionally, Buhari, who contested five presidential elections between 2003 and 2019, never won a single state in the south-east region, a reflection of the sour relationship he has had with the region.
The rejection of the APC and Buhari, as well as the rising secessionist agitations, has also affected the south-east’s chances of clinching the presidential ticket in 2023.
‘Your presence reassures us’
Addressing the gathering, George Obiozor, the president-general of Ohanaeze, admitted that the president’s visit to the region was significant.
“Mr. President, your visit and presence today in Igboland and Owerri, Imo State in particular has more than political significance. In manner of symbolism, this visit has thrown light into the cloudiness and doubts surrounding the perception of the relations between your government and Ndigbo. Your presence reassures us that there is still reason for optimism for Nigeria and Nigerian unity,” Obiozor said.
He told Buhari that the Igbo also believe in the unity of Nigeria because they are the most travelled people in the country and a “traveller makes no enemies.”
The Ohanaeze leader said the secessionist movement would not succeed, provided there is good governance based on equity, justice and fairness to all the citizens. He also assured Buhari that the Igbo remained committed to the Nigerian project.
“Mr. President, it is in this context that we see a new dawn in your distinguished presence in Igboland and believe that on your return to Abuja the significance and substance of this visit will form a new foundation of a platform for meaningful dialogue on critical issues of concern to the Igbo Nation,” Obiozor added.
He noted that the South East Zone has recently become a theatre of conflict and also called on the president to ensure the release of Igbo youths detained unjustly.
In a veiled reference to the 2023 election, Obiozor said: “In conclusion, Mr. President, nothing is more important to the Igbos in Nigeria today more than the restoration of serious sense of belonging and the spirit of Nigeria’s founding fathers based on one nation, one destiny; and we believe this is possible through the devolution of power, ensuring a sense of balance in our political system.”
South-East must make compromises
Speaking on the 2023 elections, Buhari said he was committed to credible polls but urged the south-east leaders to honestly educate their people on the need to hold their elected representatives accountable. He also said he would continue to support the south-east as much as he could within his constitutional powers.
Political observers believe the outcome of the Anambra governorship election, which comes up in less than 60 days, will reveal the success or failure of the president’s new advances towards the south-east and will gauge the mood of the Igbo towards the APC ahead of the presidential election in 2023.
An Igbo leader in the APC, Joe Igbokwe, who is also the former chairman of the APC Conference of Publicity Secretaries, says the south-east must be willing to make compromises and build bridges if they want to attain the presidency in 2023.
Igbokwe, who is from Anambra State, said the secessionist movement could undermine the chances of the south-east if the situation is not contained. “My people need to play the politics very well first if they want the presidential seat. They are not building bridges. Look at Buhari for instance. He won election in 2015 after building bridges. He had been contesting since 2003, scoring huge votes but never won the election,” Igbokwe tells The Africa Report.
“But in 2013, Bola Tinubu and others met Buhari in Daura and convinced him to form a coalition and they won. That is political mathematics. My people must do away with this secession, hate and bigotry; if not, we will remain mere onlookers in politics,” he says.
With the two major parties – the APC and the Peoples Democratic Party – set to zone their presidential seats in the coming months, it remains to be seen if the Igbos’ long journey to the seat of power will ever come to fruition.
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