By Ochereome Nanna
THIS series is dedicated to the Handshake Across the Niger event taking place today in Enugu between the leaders of the Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups.
Before now, I never considered former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the right material for the presidency because I saw him as a regional champion. Now that he seems to have seen the light and become the leading campaigner for restructuring (even risking his political standing in the conservative North) I am willing to give him another look.
During the build-up to the 2011 general elections, he arrogantly boasted at a gathering of the Northern Political Leaders Forum (which was formed as a regional gang-up to thwart former President Goodluck Jonathan’s political ambition), that whenever the North decides on any issue “the rest of the country queues behind it”. In one sense, he was right, as episodes of our history have shown. Let us take a brief historical odyssey.
In 1979, for instance, the North chose Alhaji Shehu Shagari as the presidential candidate of its favoured political party, the National Party of Nigeria, NPN. Though the South was never consulted in making that decision, the North also made the decision to purpose-pick Dr. Alex Ekwueme instead of Dr. JOJ Okezie and Dr. KO Mbadiwe for Vice President. The Southern elements in their party simply queued up and Shagari emerged the President of Nigeria.
Ekwueme was selected because the North did not want a “colourful” personality as Vice President who might “outshine” a humble and gentleman like Shagari, who was a school certificate holder, teacher and trusted ambassador of the Sokoto Caliphate (he was the late Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello’s Personal Secretary). He was an intimate part of the NPN which was created to unite Nigeria behind the Caliphate’s agenda for the country.
Also in the presidential race among the Northerners was a colourful orator, Alhaji Maitama Sule. He would have made a far more inspirational president but Maitama’s father, Abba, though a Fulani was a palace servant to the Emir of Kano. According to the highly classified Caliphate Establishment rules, Maitama came from the “lower classes” and also had a radical bent. He had often flirted with the Aminu Kano leftist ideology for the emancipation of the poor. The Northern Establishment did not want a radical from the lower classes to sit over them as President for fear that he could upset their applecart. It is important to understand the intimate reasons why we have never produced a sound, strong, independent-minded leader.
Again in 1999, the North, sensing a possible Yoruba boycott of General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s transition programme, decided to concede the presidency to a Yoruba of their choice, General Olusegun Obasanjo, whom General Sani Abacha had jailed for coup plotting. Before they made that decision, a prominent Southerner, Dr. Ekwueme, who led the G.34 (which later became the People’s Democratic Party, PDP) was already standing head and shoulders above other political contenders from all parts of the country for the presidency.
Ekwueme had led the Igbo delegates to the 1994-1996 Constitutional Conference convened by General Abacha as a means of burying Chief Moshood Abiola’s annulled June 12 mandate and transforming into a civilian president. The G.34 leaders such as Chief Bola Ige, Alhaji Abubakar Rimi and Chief Solomon Lar and others, held several All Politicians’ Summits in Lagos with Ekwueme as chairman.
The Summits were meant to rally the political class to collectively oppose Abacha’s self-succession. Ekwueme’s sterling performances as a Conference Delegate and chairperson of the meetings of the political class “sold” his eligibility to Nigerians. This probably prompted Chief Bola Ige to pull out shortly after the PDP was formed. To pursue his presidential ambition, he founded the Alliance for Democracy, AD which was heavily subscribed to by the people of his native South West.
Just as Ekwueme was warming up for the presidential primaries of the PDP, rumour hit town that Obasanjo was being pardoned for the alleged coup. He was to be released from the Yola Prisons. Suddenly, Northern leaders both within the military and the civilian political classes reached a decision to sponsor him for the presidency using the PDP. No Northerner would run for president to allow the North enthrone Obasanjo. The region saw him as a trusted and useful lackey to hold their political cow for one term to assuage the Yoruba over their feeling of deprivation occasioned by the double slaps of the annulment of Abiola’s mandate and his murder in government custody.
Obasanjo eventually went on to rule Nigeria for two terms but not as anybody’s lackey. He threw sand into the eyes of the Northern Establishment when he purged the military of the 93 “politicised” officers. He emasculated the coup-making impulses of the Northern-controlled military and nearly got himself a third term but was stopped by combined national effort. But for all his bravado, Obasanjo still did not touch the political structures set up to champion the Caliphate agenda, perhaps because he shared in that ideology; an ideology that made him president twice.
Besides getting Nigerians to queue behind its political interests, the North has successfully weathered all acts of resistance to its dominance of the Nigerian political space over the decades since independence. These include the restructuring campaigns and power shift agitations at the various constitutional conference, coup attempts (especially the Nzeogwu, Dimka, Orkar coups), armed secession attempts (the Biafra war) and militancy in the Niger Delta. It has intrepidly resisted all attempts to effect critical changes that would give more freedom and equity to the people of the South, the Middle and Northern Minorities and thus enhance genuine national unity.
On Monday, I will show that the North’s “touch and follow” magic wand worked only because the South has failed to unite. This is why today’s Handshake Across the Niger event is historic.