Prior to the civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970, the Igbo of the Eastern Region were a dominant force in Nigerian politics. Apart from producing the first President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, (although ceremonial), an Igbo man, Nwafor Orizu, was also the President of the Senate. They also held key positions in the private sector and civil service, and dominated commerce across the country.
Fearing Igbo dominance, Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, told the media that he introduced a ‘northernisation policy’ to give northerners the right of first refusal over any government job in the north.
“Well, the Igbo like to dominate everybody. If they go to a village or town, they want to monopolise everything in that area. If you put them in a labour camp as a labourer, within a year, they will try to emerge as the headman of that camp,” Bello said.
Amid this mistrust, a coup spearheaded by mainly Igbo army officers took place in January 1966, killing Bello, the hero of the North, and several other notable southwest and northern leaders and senior military officers. The coup was, however, botched.
To worsen the situation, another Igbo man, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was not known to have taken part in the coup, became the biggest beneficiary, by emerging as Head of State by virtue of being the most senior officer at the time. The north embarked on a revenge coup six months later, a pogrom followed and the Igbo seceded, forming the Republic of Biafra and a civil war ensued with the Nigerian side emerging victorious.
As part of attempts to weaken the Igbo region, the oil rich Niger Delta inhabited by mostly non-Igbo speaking natives was also removed from Igbo control. After the civil war, it was time for reconciliation but this proved difficult as mutual suspicion persisted. The fact that the Igbo people were never really given any reparation and many had to start life from scratch exacerbated the situation.
While more states were being created, the Igbo which are one of the three largest ethnic groups in the country were given the smallest number of states – five – which constitute the southeast. This meant that at the National Assembly, the Igbo had the smallest number of representatives. This was also reflected in federal appointments as they had the smallest number of ministers in the President’s cabinet.
This political structure of only five southeast states made the region the smallest voting bloc in the country while the northwest dominated by the Fulani/Hausa tribe had seven states, making it the largest voting bloc in Nigeria. Although Igbo would later take up positions like Vice-President and Senate President, the highly coveted position of President and commander-in-chief continued to elude them for decades.
A new strategy
Eager to change the status quo, the southeast is now making a fresh demand: all 18 political parties must agree to zone their Presidential ticket to the southeast ahead of their primaries which will take place next month. Some of the notable Igbo politicians that have declared their interest in the Presidency include: Senator Rochas Okorocha (APC), Governor Dave Umahi (APC), Labour Minister, Chris Ngige (APC), Peter Obi (PDP), Senator Ken Nnamani (PDP), Senator Anyim Pius (PDP), Mao Ohuabunwa (PDP) and Kingsley Moghalu (ADC).
At a meeting attended by all major Igbo aspirants, top socio-cultural groups including Afenifere representing the southwest; the Middle Belt Forum representing the Christian minorities in the north; the Pan Niger Delta Forum representing the Niger Delta region and Ohaneze representing the southeast, all agreed that it was the time of the Igbo of the southeast to produce the next President of Nigeria.
They believe it is time to adopt the strategy of 1999 where it was collectively agreed that all existing political parties zone their Presidential ticket to the southwest as a way of compensating the region for the injustice meted to the winner of the June 12, 1993 election, MKO Abiola, who was not only denied his victory but was detained by the military government and then died under controversial circumstances. This paved the way for only two southwest candidates – Olu Falae and Olusegun Obasanjo – with the latter winning the race.
Niger Delta leader, Edwin Clark, who turns 95 next month, pleaded with all Nigerians to ensure that the southeast produces the next President, saying, “Let us do what is right; let us accommodate one another, and be fair to one another. Let all other Nigerians support a south-eastern candidate for President, come 2023. I repeat, very soon, I will be 95 years old.
“I have spent more than 70 years of this period in Nigerian affairs. I have seen it all. For the peace and sanity of the country, I appeal to all, in the name of the Almighty God, to make this concession to the Igbo, to present a President Nigeria.”
One thing that has worked against the Igbo is the recent violent secessionist agitation spearheaded by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its militant arm the Easter Security Network (ESN) which the Nigerian government has since declared as a terrorist organisation. Reports say the ESN has contributed to a 344% increase in killings in the southeast which was hitherto the safest region in Nigeria.
The agitations have led to the burning of election offices. Last week, during a voter registration exercise, armed men wearing masks stormed a voter registration office and videoed themselves killing an electoral official for “colluding with the Federal Government to organise elections which is at variance with the secessionist movement”.
Over 20 of such attacks have occurred across the five states of the southeast, according to Nigeria’s electoral commission. Also, the weekly practice of the southeast going on lockdown due to threats by secessionists has also affected political activities in the state with the Anambra State governorship election witnessing a voter turnout of less than 10% last November, a record low for a governorship poll.
Will APC zone to southeast?
With the secessionist agitations and inability of the leaders in the southeast to rein in their youths – many of whom support secession – opponents of the Igbo Presidency believe handing power to the southeast could lead to Nigeria’s disintegration.
In the southwest, Lagos godfather, Bola Tinubu, and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo of the APC are the most formidable. Governor Kayode Fayemi and Senator Ibikunle Amosun also from the southwest APC are also expected to join the Presidential race in the coming days.
With the southwest being the strongest base of the APC in the south, it is widely believed that the region will produce the Presidential candidate of the party next month as opposed to the southeast.
But Ayo Adebanjo, leader of the southwest socio-political group, Afenifere, believes the southwest should not produce the next President.
“President Buhari from the north has been President since 2015. The reasonable thing is for the south to produce the next President but the south also has three zones. Obasanjo from the southwest was President from 1999 to 2007. Osinbajo from the southwest has been Vice-President since 2015. The southwest has not been marginalised. Is the southeast not part of the south? I support the southeast,” he told The Africa Report.
Former Governor Orji Uzor Kalu from the southeast, who plans to contest the Presidency on the APC platform says it would be difficult for him to get the APC ticket unless the party decides to zone.
“The reality is that the north is more advantageous to win elections in this democratic setting,” Kalu lamented.
He berated aspirants from the southwest and the south-south for refusing to step down for the southeast in the spirit of fairness.
“It is embarrassing that these aspirants (APC and PDP) have no single respect and concern for the southeast. I had thought they would think about the southeast; I thought they would support us.
“If there is anything like fairness, equity and justice, it should be the entire south pushing for a president of southeast extraction. Anything less than that is hypocritical, unjustifiable and inordinate,” Kalu adds.
Aides to Tinubu and Osinbajo separately refused to make any comment on the record when they were contacted by The Africa Report for comment. However, they both said on the condition of anonymity that their principals would not be stepping down
Will PDP zone to southeast?
In the PDP, northern elements are still insisting on producing the party’s Presidential ticket. Atiku along with former Senate President Bukola Saraki, Governor Bala Mohammed and Governor Aminu Tambuwal have all purchased Presidential forms and have all refused to step down.
The northern elements claim their region has a larger voting strength and voter turnout and they can help the party to defeat the APC especially if the APC zones its ticket to the south. The debate over zoning in the PDP has almost left the party in crisis and insiders say the party may just be throwing its Presidential race wide open.
But political strategists believe any party that picks an Igbo Presidential candidate risks losing the election because of the low voting strength of the southeast coupled with the voter apathy. The only way out would be if the two major – APC and PDP – agree to zone their tickets which now seem unlikely with the primaries barely a month away.
Social commentator and ex-Presidential aide, Reno Omokri, believes the PDP will lose if it gives its ticket to any region with a small voting population. Omokri noted that the northwest had the highest number of votes in the country in 2019 with 8.2 million voters turning out while the southeast had the lowest with just 2.09 million voters casting their ballot.
“If the APC gives its ticket to the southwest, the PDP will lose if it gives its ticket to any zone with a lower voting strength. Politics is a game of numbers, not sentiments!”he said in a tweet.
Analyst, Deji Adeyanju, who is the Convener, Concerned Nigerians, told The Africa Report that Tinubu, Osinbajo, Atiku and others who have a shot at the Presidency will not step down for the southeast even though it is the right thing to do.
He argues that if the marginalisation continues, the possibility of secession would only get worse
“Nigeria has marginalised the southeast for too long. You don’t want them to secede and yet you will not give them power. This is unfair. Unfortunately, I don’t see Tinubu, Osinbajo, Atiku and others stepping down. All political parties are only thinking of winning,” Adeyanju told The Africa Report.
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