By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
Last Friday’s interaction between President Muhammadu Buhari and Igbo leaders could have been the beginning of a fresh engagement between two hitherto suspicious sides needful of one another
THE message to everyone who saw the film footage of President Muhammadu Buhari smiling with visiting Southeast leaders was that of conviviality and a forsaking of the past narratives of disgust. The Southeast leaders it seemed had forgotten the story of the marginalisation of the region in projects and appointments by the Buhari regime.
The president on his part seemed to have also pushed aside the bitterness of how the region gave him the fewest votes in the 2015 presidential elections.
However, sources in the meeting told Vanguard that the first formal meeting between the president and the Southeast leaders was a fiasco that underlined the fault lines in the engagement between the Buhari administration and the people of the Southeast.
The Southeast delegation led by the president of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, included the deputy president of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekeweremadu, Governors Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State and the deputy governors of Imo and Anambra states.
Also present were the Chairman of the South East Senate Caucus, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, the Deputy Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, Chukwuma Onyema, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama and the Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah.
As he read his address that Friday and perhaps to make Buhari feel good, the president of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, disclosed that the story of the marginalisation of the Southeast did not start with Buhari.
Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, who sat in on the meeting in a statement released to State House correspondents quoted Nwodo as presenting the needs of the zone to include the creation of an additional state, restructuring, and for the completion of abandoned federal projects in the zone.
Among the specific projects mentioned were the Enugu-Onitsha road, Enugu-Port Harcourt road and Aba-Ikot-Ekpene road, Enugu Airport, and the connection to a standard gauge railway network.
As everyone nearly does these days, the Ohanaeze president also joined in commending the president for what he described as the president’s remarkable achievements on security and the fight against corruption. “We are ready to work with you. We are determined to work with you. We know you are a decisive leader and we know God will continue to give you the wisdom to govern Nigeria.”
Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, the chairman of the Southeast Governors Forum also speaking at the occasion cleared the president of all allegations of bias and sectionalism saying: “You have no hatred for any state. You have treated all states with equality. What one state gets in the north, the other gets in the South.”
The president who replied after the two members of the delegation had spoken, spoke for about twenty minutes and in those minutes acquitted himself of the charges of sectionalism. His disposition was despite the fact the zone did not vote for him in the last election.
A source present at the meeting told Vanguard that the president in thrice in the space of the about twenty minutes that he spoke told the delegation that he got the least votes from the region. It was an assertion that shocked some of the members of the delegation. The president in responding also told them that the East-West Road and the Coastal rail project, 2nd Niger Bridge were receiving utmost attention from his administration.
Money for the projects
Adesina quoted President Buhari as saying that “I know the Chinese are very competent in handling such projects and we will ensure that we get the money for the projects to take off. I thank you for articulating your demands, and I want to assure that we are doing our best for the country.
“If we can stop people from stealing, then there will be more resources to put into projects that will create employment for Nigerians.”
The president’s claim of the multibillion naira East-West Road which traverses the South-South as part of the Southeast was shocking to one of those present at the meeting. “It shows the level of the advice the president is getting for him to be told that the East-West road is part of the Southeast.”
Another point of departure between the president and some members of the Southeast delegation was on the issue of appointments. The Igbo and even non-Igbo have complained that the Igbo are very poorly represented in the Buhari government and notably in the security architecture of the administration.
Defenders of the Buhari administration had asserted that the Igbo had their time under President Goodluck Jonathan when they held the position of Chief of Army Staff and Secretary to the Government of the Federation at the same time. Buhari reversed the same allocation by giving the two positions to the Northeast.
Responding frontally to the allegation of under-representation of Igbo in his government, the President said: “I gave Southeast four substantive ministers in the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Investment, Science and Technology and Labour. Seven states in the North got Ministers of State; and of the two Ministries headed by your sons, I cannot take any decision on foreign policy and investments without their input.”
The comparison was, however, debunked by a member of the delegation who told Vanguard that it was like comparing apples and oranges. “Let him give us minister of state for aviation and take any of the full ministers,” the man said as he noted that most of the ministries given to the Southeast are of little practical benefit to the felt needs of the region.
As he concluded, the president affirmed that he had nothing against the region despite the claims by several of his political detractors of hating Ndigbo. “I want to assure you that I came into government with a clear conscience and I will also leave with a clear conscience.”
Asked by State House reporters whether he believed the president on his sincerity towards the issues raised, Nwodo said: “There is no reason for me to doubt them because this is the first time I have had this interaction with him. I have the feeling that he spoke to us very frankly.”
The two sides meeting one another and presenting their sincere views is perhaps the opening side in what promises to be a keenly watched relationship as the president contemplates a second term in which the Igbo are likely to play a crucial part.