By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
The very idea that the Igbo cannot compete politically even in a wonky Nigeria is absurd.
It’s a new attitude. And it is threatening to shackle the Igbo, its industriousness and its future. It began in the third republic. It could have been born during the military regime. It has to be shed by a deliberate pragmatic political engagement with other ethnic nationalities with the Igbo deploying its full weight in population and resources
The Igbo cannot become the whining nation. We must shed the victim mentality of political passivity, negative thinking, helplessness, pessimism.
“Oh it is rigged against us. We cant help it. We are hated. There is no need to try, we cannot not win. They won’t let us be president. And even if we become president, he will be their puppet”
And the voices of the cynics drown out reason and hope. Ala Igbo is then allowed to gather hopelessness and the people become drunk with despair. An ethnic group that has flourished better than all other groups in the country would then stay on the sidelines, moaning perpetually. That is a tragedy. When we are not crying wolf , we are threatening to upturn the table like sore losers.
That can’t be the right attitude. The Igbo is born to compete and win.
What is the reality?
Of all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria , the Igbo is the most dispersed and most entrenched in the fabric of the nation. The Igbo is perhaps the only ethnic group that has more wealth outside than inside its ancestral territory. If the talk about national unity exists outside sloganeering then its real tangible evidence of existence is in the commercial activities of the Igbo. The most prominent evidence of national unity today is not contraptions like the NYSC and unity schools, it is the millions of Igbos setting out and sojourning; settling, living and owning properties a thousand kilometers away from their homeland.
If these and more constitute the status quo, then why is Igbo the group most dissatisfied with Nigeria. Why are some Igbos championing the dismemberment of the nation?
Of all the ethnic groups in the country the Igbo isn’t just about the most prosperous. Apart from perhaps the Yorubas, the average Igbo man is more likely to have better education, better health care , better security, better disposable income than the average individual of any other ethnic group. These advantages accrue from the shrewdness and industriousness of the Igbo man which is acknowledged by everybody.
Let’s take a look at history.
Jaja of Opobo dominated his era. Azikiwe was an African star. The Igbo were in the thick of things before the Independence. Azikiwe and Hebert Maculay formed NCNC – the political torch bearer of the nation.
In the first republic Igbos were in a sense dominant. I wouldn’t delve into anything that would come off as ethnic self promotion. But let me say, modestly, that in the first republic Igbos were satisfied with their hold on the NCNC, their political marriages in the west , and their alliance with the NPC. The Igbo promoted Nigerian nationalism.
In the second republic Azikiwe, Obi wali ,Guy Ikokwu, RBK Okafor, Jim Nwobodo, Edwin Onwudiwe, Umezuoke, Echeruo had the NPP with Solomon Lar, Unongo and others. And they won Ikwerre land, Plateau state and parts of Niger.
Igbos – Ekwueme, Okadigbo, Onoh, Sylvester Ugoh, Mbadiwe and company- were at the heart of the ruling NPN.
In the first and second republics Igbos didn’t cry marginalization like denied children. They immersed themselves in the national political milieu and played the game with dexterity and self possession.
If we say that Okpara, K O Mbadiwe, Mbazulike Amaechi , Azikiwe and others were fortunate in the first republic because the civil war brought evil and retrogression upon us, how can anyone explain the second republic. We had just emerged from the brutal war. The suspicions were rife and untempered by time. But we played the game with purpose and intensity. Neither Azikiwe nor Ojukwu, neither Collins Obi nor CC Onoh, neither Mbakwe nor Arthur Nzeribe, neither Obi Wali nor Jaja Wachukwu would have imagined that our politics could recede into playing from the sidelines or throwing sand to disrupt a game we could seize by the scruff of the neck if we deployed half the ingenuity we engaged in owning half of Abuja properties.
What has changed?
What the Igbo nation lacks today is political emotional intelligence and self belief.
It is true the Nigerian civil war left a scar on our psyche. And because we are the most widely dispersed and consequently the most deeply entrenched group in the country, upheavals and societal ruptures affect us the most. They especially haunt us by evoking memories of the pogrom and the war. The pattern is predictable. When ‘wahala’ starts the man who has a shop and the stranger are most vulnerable. So while we might be remotely associated with the events leading to chaos , once law and order are upturned , we bear the brunt disproportionately. Mayhem is visited on the Igbo – the settler- and his shop. Men and women who have put faith in the Nigeria project; who have traveled a thousand kilometers would have to scurry back to the home land, children on the back , sometimes with one or two body bags. These graze deep wounds.
But there is more . In many circumstances Igbos, despite being the tangible, empirical evidence of national unity, are required to prove their loyalty to the nation afresh. Fifty years after the civil war Igbos have occupied the positions of Police Inspector General and Chief of Army staff once each, and for only fleeting moments. We have observed that we are not easily trusted with certain security appointments , we do not therefore move around with the sure-footedness of sons of the soil. It is therefore not inexplicable that our faith in the Nigerian project might have been dented and continues to be dented.
How these affect the political calculations of the igbo man is still being examined. What can’t , however, be denied is that they breed apathy and cynicism. So the the average Igbo man in Ihiala or Asaba continues to hold the Hausa Fulani responsible for real and perceived subjugation. And continues to view with suspicion any tendency that suggests Hausa Fulani hegemony. That is why the recent flares in herdsmen violence have only managed to complicate a delicate political situation.
But the question must be asked: Does the Igbo man suffer a kind of political paranoia?
We can interrogate that by asking another question. Are there any political shackles the Igbo cannot dismantle by themselves? The answer is obvious.
Alternatively , are Igbos living in bondage in Nigeria? The answer is obvious. Again , my answer is no.
So why do we fret?
We have only failed to play national politics purposefully. What we need is effective political leadership in the states. And that is in our hands. And then political nimbleness at the centre to serve out best interest in a fractious multi ethnic entity like Nigeria were we are perhaps the most prosperous but also perhaps the most vulnerable group.
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While the events of the war and their aftermath may have conditioned the political attitude of the Igbo, the Igbo as a group, have been undone by unbridled individualism and resultant unhealthy rivalry and commercialism. It is great to be a tribe of ambitious people amongst whom rivalry is intense but when insane competition allows a prioritization of individual attainments above collective group aims in a multi ethnic primordial society like Nigeria, the group is in clear jeopardy. There no longer exists any concerted attempt to articulate the group’s interest and there has been no forward -looking deliberate and coherent strategy to harness the resources and numerical strength and versatility of the Igbo to enhance the group’s political fortunes.
There lies our problem.
Some may argue that it is retrogressive and atavistic, and perhaps divisive , to treat the country as a collection of ethnic groupings and to prioritize ethnic interests. I understand those sentiments. But the reality is that groups like IPOB exist for a reason . They exist because there has been a manifest failure in political leadership , particularly at the local levels. Rather than take recourse to primordial finger pointing at Hausa Fulani hegemony, it is important to assess and articulate the collective group interests so that certain harmful assumptions can be challenged objectively and hopefully dismantled. It is sadly true that amongst Igbos, those who are materially endowed have voice and are worshiped, and those who are intellectually endowed have little influence and are not envied. This affliction may however be a national epidemic. But it’s particularly inhibiting in Igbo land.
Do the social injustices in Nigeria affect the Igbo the most?
In other words, is there any justifications in Igbos crying the loudest?
Let us reflect on the dominant injustices that exist in the country. We can categorize them as General and Targeted. General social injustices are those that affect all sections of Nigeria almost equally. They are injustices not designed for any section. They are the result of chronic bad leadership and enduring mis-governance. They stretch across poor healthcare and dilapidated educational systems, Joblessness, Insecurity, poor social infrastructure like broken road networks, absent railways , feeble generation and disorderly distribution of power. Many of these result from incompetence , corruption and theft by political office holders. And they abound at the dreamland state levels.
These general injustices affect the average Fulani as they affect the man in Aba. They cant constitute an excuse why the Igbo would become more apathetic or more belligerent than the Urhobo or the Jukun.
There are other kinds of Injustices I will include in this group. They are injustices that undermine merit and effort. They include Quota System , Federal Character, Nepotism. While these injustices could mean that a child from Abia is denied a national school admission after performing better than a child from Zamfara , these injustices are not targeted primarily at the Igbo. They affect the Bini and Yorubas as they affect the Igbo.
They cannot objectively constitute a reason any Igbo should champion dismemberment of a country in which the Igbo has evident competitive advantage. I will concede that indirectly they could inhibit the most competitive groups more than others.
The injustices targeted against the Igbo could include: having less federal infrastructure than other places, the requirement to prove trust more than the Fulani while being considered for a top security appointment. The other, which is the perception of gang-up against the Igbo, is effectively undermined by the fact of Igbo owning more properties in Abuja, Amuwo Odofin, parts of Kano than even the indigenes.
I will submit that even if the Igbo have cumulatively suffered more than all other groups , the problems the Igbo have in Nigeria are problems they can solve if they play politics with clear eyed sobriety and belief in their collective abilities.
Is the Igbo a heavyweight punching like a Featherweight?
The Igbo is a heavy weight fighting like a feather weight.
Those who want political power must strategize and assert themselves. They will woo some , brow beat some and ignore others. The sort of marginalization the Igbo lament loudly about today comes from failure of Igbo politicians and failure of Igbo politics. Lopsided appointments, inequity in distribution of infrastructure and development and poverty.
Good local politics at the state and local government levels will cure poverty substantially and address lapses in education and rural development. Good national politics will bring more amenities, better equity and the missing sense of belonging
The Igbo is an unexploited vantage position. It has a competitive edge against many of the other groups in human and material resources. Any foreign observer of Nigerian politics could mistake the Igbo for a backward forsaken group, incapable of competition with the other sections of the country and needing political or economic favors if he listened to lamentations on social media. But he would be wrong
So why have Igbos, of late, failed miserably in national politics?
So what must the Igbo do.
The Igbo must approach politics with clear eyed objectivity and not unhelpful emotions. Collective interests must be paramount and long term interest must have priority. Untamed materialism cripples. Beggarliness is shortsightedness. Igbos must hold hands with their neighbors and assert themselves.
Our ultimate interest lies in a truly federalist Nigeria where power is fully devolved to the regions. We must help enthrone a just and equitable Nigeria where every citizen is given an opportunity to maximize his potentials. Some might ask , why not Biafra?
The Igbos need a bigger playing field. That is why we have fanged out all over West Africa. We need the size of Nigeria. We would even fare better in a United States of Africa. It is not in our interest to recede rather than expand. We have competitive advantage on the big stage. While there exist some easily surmountable odds against us which we tend to exaggerate in Nigeria we must understand that Biafra , even Biafra wont be problem free. There are no guarantees we wont be riven by internecine squabbles once we pull out and our emotions look inwards.
What should be our political strategy?
We must play the game in front of us.
An Igbo presidency in 2023 will yield immediate symbolic and substantial benefits. It will bring some sense of belonging to soothe chafing youths. It will cure disaffection that has accrued from lopsidedness in appointments and all other kinds of political exclusion.. It will, if judiciously utilized, bring more infrastructural development and help re integration.
But an Igbo presidency is not a given. We have to make our best arguments and put out best foot forward. We must not approach it with sense of entitlement, sense of victimhood, peevishness or tantrums.
The Igbo presidency project must be led by a thinking rather than howling select group. It is good that some folks howl and heckle from the periphery. It will help the negotiations. But howlers and fountains of hate speech cannot be at the center, otherwise they would estrange other ethnic groups and damage bridges.
This is not Ohaneze rushing in drunkenly to endorse one political party or aspirant at night. And not IPOB signing a secret MOU it is too ashamed to let anyone read.
The Igbo will join hands with the yorubas and make the argument that it is the turn of the South. Then it will look towards the Yorubas, Ijaws and other southern groups and persuade them to allow the Igbo take it. It must assume nothing. Nothing will be guaranteed .
The Igbo must put their best foot forward and make the most appealing arguments.
Why should it be Igbo rather than South East presidency?
The most appealing argument is an argument for Igbo presidency to assuage Igbos and heal the wounds of the war. The sort of argument that was made for the Yorubas in 1999 when the wounds of June 12 were soothed with an Obasanjo presidency.
I have heard the arguments that it should be a quest of a south east president since the south west and south south have had their turns recently. However I believe that an Igbo presidency isn’t just the most appealing moral argument , because it assuages the wounded and heals the nation, but because it does much more.
It presents an opportunity for the healing of the Igbo nation of the internal wounds caused by the civil war. An opportunity for Igbos from Delta and Rivers to partake in the feast that could ordinarily belong to the southeast would signal that the past has come to belong to the past.
All Igbos suffered the injustices of the war and its fallouts. If the best argument is an argument that the Igbo presidency is for national healing then it must include all those who are Igbos.
We stand a better chance if we make the best emotional argument. When it comes to us, let all Igbos partake in being free to compete. We need to heal ourselves too. The war tore us apart from within . Amongst us , we all have our grievances. We must put our best and most convincing foot forward. It won’t be an election of an Ohaneze president . Others will play a role in choosing. And Atiku Abubakar and other heavyweights could be in the race. Let us present people who have the sort of gravitas and appeal required to win majority votes at the national level against strong opponents who wont concede to an Igbo presidency.
It won’t be donated to us. We have a good chance. But we can lose it while quibbling and dis uniting ourselves.
Our best case is the case for an Igbo presidency pushed persuasively with a united south making overtures to the middle belt and the far north.