Contrary to the impression they have tried to give, the Igbo seem to be playing politics with the politics of the 2023 presidency. It is correct to play the politics of 2023, which they believe they are doing. However, playing politics with the presidency of 2023 tells a very different story than the one the Southeast is telling Nigerians. Since last year, the Igbo have stridently reminded the country that fairness and equity demand that all political parties, particularly the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), nominate their presidential candidates from among Igbo aspirants. No one has heeded them, and no one is likely to heed them as the race for the top position intensifies in the coming months. It will not be because the parties, or Nigerians as a whole, repudiate the principle of fairness; it will be because, apart from the Igbo, who persuaded themselves that it is their turn, no one else, in a manner of speaking, is convinced.
Nothing really substantially disqualifies the Igbo from seeking the presidency. They are academically, emotionally, and physically qualified. What indeed stymies the Igbo quest for the presidency is their inability to expertly play the politics of the presidency. Last Wednesday, George Obiozor, President-General of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the umbrella socio-cultural body of the Igbo, voiced the frustrations the Igbo face in their quest for the presidency. It is unfair, he said, that neither of the two leading parties seem to be seriously considering Igbo aspirants for the top position. He recounted how many times the other major ethnic groups had won the presidency or become vice president, and he bemoaned the Igbo’s perpetual disadvantage, having yet to win first or second place even once since 1999.
He is statistically right but politically incorrect. Politically speaking, for instance, he concluded that in 1999, the PDP and the Alliance for Democracy (AD), acting jointly with the All Peoples Party (APP), nominated their candidates, Olusegun Obasanjo and his main challenger, Olu Falae, from the Southwest. Had he contextualised the unanimity of the parties against the rage that accompanied the annulled election of MKO Abiola, he would have got a different picture. There was no other time in Nigerian history when such unanimity was contrived among political parties, not even after 1999. It won’t happen now, and probably not ever again.
Prof. Obiozor proposed that the presidency be zoned to the Southeast. He could not be more mistaken. There are a number of factors that must align for an idea or movement to mature. Other than the Southeast itself, which is increasingly desperate about the subject of who becomes president, few Nigerians seem to think the idea of a Southeast presidency is urgent. First, apart from tribe or region, other qualifications are being bandied about, such as age, health, paper qualification, network, political base, and regional and national acceptance. By placing undue emphasis on the candidate’s tribe, Prof. Obiozor and others like him may be tilting at windmills, ignoring current realities. He also seemed to suggest that in 1999, the Southwest was not even more prepared than the Southeast in 2015. Well, that is arguable. It is not a region that prepares someone; it is the aspirant who prepares himself. And an aspirant’s preparation is neither region-specific nor tribe-specific.
The Ohanaeze Ndigbo president omits the most crucial qualification an aspirant must possess in seeking the presidency. What matters most is not the zone, tribe, academic qualification, age, health, or wealth of the aspirant. What matters most, and which the Southeast has simply refused to contemplate, is how widely connected the aspirant is and whether he can be trusted.
In 1999, Chief Obasanjo was known and trusted all over Nigeria, except among the Yoruba, though the Southwest seemed to think Chief Falae, also well-known around the country, was better. In 2011, because of the religious antecedents of aspirant Muhammadu Buhari, President Goodluck Jonathan was better trusted, having ruled as president for about one year plus. In 2015, with the North and Southwest distrusting Dr. Jonathan and insecurity mounting, the aspirant Buhari miraculously became more trusted.
In 2023, the question is, who will be best known and trusted? Has Igbo produced an aspirant who is well known and trusted?
Until the Southeast can answer those questions, its quest for the presidency will remain a chimera. The agitations and anxieties of Prof. Obiora are understandable. It has been a long time since the Igbos produced anyone in the presidency. After Nnamdi Azikiwe’s titular presidency and Alex Ekweme’s vice presidential promotion in 1979, it has been one long and ghostly silence from the Southeast. No, the region does not deserve that demotion. But until the Igbo recognise that what matters is whether they can produce someone the rest of the country can trust, they are not going anywhere.
Their quest is complicated by the vestigial politics of the civil war, residues that still reverberate most egregiously in northern politics, and particularly in President Buhari’s archetypal antagonisms. After winning over the North, the Igbo must also find the formula, ethics, politics, and commonsense to moderate their distrust and resentment of the Southwest, which took root during colonialism and continued well after independence.
The task is long and arduous. They must recognize the obstacles before them and quit sentimentalizing about presidential politics. It is a tough business to win the presidency. It is a national assignment for the aspirant. There will be no free lunch, and no unprovoked consensus by political parties, now or in the future. Perhaps in the years ahead, the cerebral and eminent professor Chukwuma Soludo will have done enough with Anambra to grab national attention and not become an anticlimax like the maverick and eclectic Aminu Tambuwal, who has neither distinguished himself in Sokoto State as governor nor sustained national admiration in the same firm and buoyant way he endeared himself in parliament to Nigerians during the giddy years of Dr. Jonathan.
Unfortunately for the Igbo, they have managed to produce political clowns like Rochas Okorocha with their profligate statues. There is not one governor of distinction; not David Umahi, the pretender from Ebonyi, nor Okezie Ikpeazu, the irreverent and blundering politician and governor of Abia, nor Hope Uzodinma, the abrasive opportunist of Imo, nor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, the dour governor of Enugu whose gritty realism has disabled him from becoming as distinguished as many expect. So, with the Southeast turned into a barren wasteland of cultic politics and rampant and uncontrollable revolutionaries, it is fitting and proper for the Ohanaeze Ndigbo to first look inward, educate southern-eastern politicians to embrace global perspective as it were, and encourage them to reach out to the rest of the country in a politics of inclusion and unashamed repudiation of the worst in their regional politics, and gently coax them away from the primordial and snobbbish supremacy with which their politics is suffused.
Surprisingly, Ohanaeze is even advising Igbo politicians not to accept anyone’s running mate in the next presidential poll. They are good enough for the number one position; they should not settle for the number two. How wise that admonition is remains to be seen, especially in light of the incompetent and amateurish politics that southerners have played at the national and regional levels in the past decade or so. The Igbo have not played presidential politics right, and must first acknowledge this depressing truth before thumbing their nose at one position or the other. For people whose presidential politics has not gone beyond the sentiment of cajoling the country to cede the number one position to them to satisfy equity and fairness, and who have not produced an aspirant the country can trust – someone who would help bring some form of closure to the tragic and traumatising events of January 1966 – it is hard to see them having a choice. They are unlikely to get what they want; they should grab what they are given.