National history has a moral arc. It bends perennially in the direction of justice no matter how long it takes. This truism is my response to the three dominant positions on the desirable geo-political location of the Nigerian presidency in 2023. The first is the repeated general political advisory by my friend Nasir El-Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, that the next president should not come from the northern zones of the country. The second is the ambiguous view of Mr. Mamman Daura, President Buhari’s nephew, that subsequent presidents after Mr. Buhari should be chosen on the basis of ‘merit’, whatever that means. The third is the entitlement preference of the South Eastern political and cultural elite that the next president should emanate from their zone.
Ordinarily, discourse on succession preferences in a democracy ought to be determined by two factors: pressing issues of national concern; or leading political figures in the contending parties and their stand in relation to important national issues. Succession should not be determined by either directions on a compass or some other primordial consideration. But this is Nigeria. It is a nation conceived in compromise, nurtured in aggressive geo ethnic competition and sustained by hegemonic blackmail and systemic injustices.
The agitation for a shift of the locus of presidential power to the South East is however rooted in the general history of nations. No nation is an immaculate conception. Nearly every national history is an undulating pageant of glorious moments and inevitable episodes of brutish savagery and intense sadness. Nations come into being and progress sometimes by willfully or inadvertently hurting sections of their populace. Communal clashes, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, slavery, genocide, pogroms, insurgency, foolish mass killings and reprisals thereof are part of national history. When the hour of sadness passes, a nation so afflicted incurs moral debts to those sections of the community that have been hurt.
Subsequent social peace and political order in a nation as a community of feelings is often dependent on how the moral arc bends in relation to healing the injuries of the past. The mere passage of time is never enough to heal the moral wounds that lie buried in the hearts of injured precincts of a nation. As a strategy of national survival, nations with past injuries have had to confront the moral consequences of their past through conscious management of the political process. Such managed political process implies a recalibration of the moral compass of the nation. It is politics in the service of the higher meaning of democracy when democratic outcomes redress injustices. This is the essence of the politics of moral consequence. Its ultimate aim is to avert the dire consequences of a nation sustained on systemic injustice.
Nigeria is neither the first nor the last nation to come face to face with the ugly face of its past. In 2008, the United States of America rose in democratic unison to right the systemic historic wrong of its racist past by electing Barak Hussein Obama as its first black president. Similarly, by the first half of 1994, the very survival of the Rwandan nation was threatened by the injustice of the genocide against the Tutsis minority. It was a Tutsi army officer that crossed the border from Uganda, leading the forces that ended the anarchy. By 2000, that gallant soldier, Paul Kagame, was elected President of a reconciled Rwanda. His subsequent re-elections have led to the reconciliation, peace and prosperity that have become the hallmarks of modern Rwanda.
The South African story is too familiar. Yet, it was the recognition by the white apartheid regime that only true majoritarian democracy would restore harmony, peace and order to end decades of violent revolt. That realization and the conscious political actions that followed led to the enthronement of a free and democratic South Africa. Nelson Mandela became the president of a multi racial South Africa. The rest is history.
Australia too has had to confront and assuage a ghost from its past. There was a prolonged unease about injustices against Australian Aborigines, especially the forced removal of indigenous children (‘the Stolen Generations’) as well as centuries of discrimination and neglect by the state. In 2008, then Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, summoned the moral courage to apologise to the injured. On 13th February, 2008, parliament passed a historic resolution mandating an open apology to the Aboriginal population. Hear the words: “We apologize for the laws and policies of successive…governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians…, (For all these), we say sorry”
Similar recourse to national piety, regret and compassion is not strange to Nigeria. In a sense, the Nigerian nation is an example of the merits of national reconciliation and magnanimity. Our civil war ended without major physical reprisals against the ex -Biafrans. In the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1992 presidential elections presumptively won by M.K.O Abiola, the Yorubas of the South West felt injured by the Nigerian military state. The nation came to a virtual stop. Social and political order were abridged. In a hastily revamped political transition project in 1998, the political system was consciously managed to field two Yoruba candidates, Olu Falae and Olusegun Obasanjo. The latter became president. A sense of justice was restored. Peace and order returned to the nation.
Late president Umaru Yar’dua was a man of unusual commitment and impeccable patriotism. He inherited a Nigeria that was wracked by fierce militancy by youth of the Niger Delta against environmental and economic injustices. The nation was virtually at war with itself. The survival of the economy was severely threatened. President Yar’dua adopted a combination of military suppression and the olive branch of the Amnesty Programme. When Yar’dua died mid stream in his tenure, the political system ensured his succession by Goodluck Jonathan, a son of the troubled Niger Delta. Jonathan consummated the Yar’dua peace plan. Today, peace and quiet has returned to the region. The peoples of the Niger Delta no longer feel excluded from national leadership.
When in December 1983 Major General Buhari led a military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of late Shehu Shagari, the nation welcomed a self proclaimed messiah. He ruled with an iron fist and wore a sad face. He wanted to instill discipline and curb corruption. Many politicians were jailed for several life times. Some citizens were executed for excusable misdemeanors. The state degenerated into a rogue terror squad that even staged a daring kidnap in the streets of London. Buhari flogged us with horsewhips for minor traffic infractions or as we queued for common grocery. Truthful journalists and honest judges were punished with long jail terms for doing their jobs. It was a relieved nation that welcomed Mr. Buhari’s toppling by his more humane colleagues in uniform. Buhari was briefly detained and later released.
He went into political wilderness. Later, he insistently sought employment by vying to return to power as a democratic convert. In the lead on to the 2015 elections, the Nigerian nation unanimously granted Mr. Buhari political amnesty to contest as a free repentant citizen. Today, he is a second term elected president, cleansed of his past sins against us. Today’s Buhari presidency is therefore a product of our unusual national generosity, forgiveness and gracious magnanimity.
Fifty years after the end of our civil war, the estrangement of the people of the South East from the mainstream of national political life is a national embarrassment. The marginalization is not just about infrastructure neglect. The landscape of the region still bears the tragic marks of war and desolation. A sense of real belonging in a nation is not reducible to highways, bridges and railway lines. It is not about token periodic appointments of citizens from the South East into federal offices to fulfill cosmetic constitutional requirements. That can be assumed by even the most plastic definition of citizenship.
There is a deeper and more essential sense of alienation of the Igbos from the heart of Nigeria. It is the unwritten and unstated presumption that Nigeria can still not find it in its heart to forgive the Igbos for Biafra. On the part of the Igbos, a dangerous psychological alienation has taken root. The youth now feel that there is some sin committed by their elders that has alienated them from fully realizing the fruits of their Nigerian citizenship. For these people, there seems to be an invisible iron ceiling to their political and economic aspirations. It is beginning to look like an original sin, something that has become integral to the communal psychology of national life.
Here lies the source of the resurgence of Biafra and other secessionist pressures in the region. These pressures are growing into a global torrent of agitations with a consistent message especially in the diaspora where the Igbo have massively fled in pursuit of self actualization. Among those arms of the national elite that have any conscience left, the systemic exclusion of the Igbo from the leadership equation in Nigeria has almost become a directive principle of an unscripted political code of conduct.
Of course the politics of leadership supremacy in a multi ethnic nation state is competitive. The competition is made more fierce by the scramble for the allocation of scarce resources in a political economy that emphasizes entitlement over productivity. In that competitive framework, the immediate tasks for the Igbo political elite are many in the quest for pre eminence. The Igbo political elite has to reduce the habitual fears and nervousness of the competing political elite of other factions in the country. They need to assure the rest of Nigeria that entrusting them with presidential power will enhance the prospects of better governance and more productive leadership. Internally, the Igbo political elite must strike a consensus to avoid presenting Nigeria with multiple candidates. In a region where the political landscape is now dominated by all manner of scoundrels, the matter of a fit and proper candidate for responsible, modern and informed national leadership becomes paramount.
In cultural terms, it is a question of “who shall we send and who will run our errand as the best possible ambassador to a feast at the national arena?” A good number of the political upstarts, miscreants and glorified illiterates thrown up by the present arrangements must self isolate and excuse themselves from the race for 2023 if indeed the option of a South East presidential candidate become real.
Identity politics in a multinational state requires deft footwork. The most important ingredient for the Igbo to embark on this journey is first a willingness to negotiate with competing national elites and factions. As instinctive business people, deal making ought to be a major asset of the igbo. But there is a disturbing pride, arrogance and noisy ebullience in the Igbo character that can unsettle competitors. The Igbo hardly get on their knees to seek a favour. But negotiating for the Nigerian presidency will require a mixture of self assurance and pragmatic flexibility. When you go out to seek the lion’s share of what belongs to all, you go in meekness.
To move from subordination to pre-eminence, a sense of realism is required. The Igbo now have a unique demographic limitation. The majority of the Igbo population do not live in the homeland. They form part of the voter population of the rest of the country. Being the single most dispersed ethnic group in the country, Igbos vote wherever they live in accordance with their economic and other interests. Diaspora voting is in Igbo interest. There may be more Igbo professionals based in Houston, Texas than in Lagos! The registered voter population in the five South Eastern states put together could be less than that of any two states in other less mobile parts of the country.
Owing to a relatively higher degree of economic enlightenment among the Igbo population, the average Igbo family size has been shrinking in the last two decades. Pervasive Catholicism and high educational goals means that family sizes are down to an average of 5 (husband, wife and a maximum of three offspring). Divorce rate is low while high achievement motivation and age grade competition means that marriages are delayed in anticipation of economic fulfillment.
The current political strategies among the South East political elite remain somewhat unwise. The sustained weaponization of Biafra may be strategically convenient. But using it to gain political concessions is a serious tactical blunder. You cannot frighten Nigeria with the force of mobs armed only with nostalgia except your preference is for mass suicide. It has led the Nigerian state to do the predictable: brand the Biafran agitation a terrorist movement and proceed to shoot, teargas and arrest innocent young men and women. Only Amnesty International has an idea of the fatalities from the pro-Biafra agitations in the last five years. The more the new breed Biafrans frighten people, the more the rest of Nigeria becomes jittery about the prospect of Igbo political ascendancy.
The alternative of a well articulated and principled civil disobedience pressure movement has not been explored. We are yet to see a platform of South East professional and enlightened elements with a reasoned agenda for an alternative Nigeria. An agitation for a mere geo political power shift devoid of real content may be a gratuitous insult and a futile drama.
We should however rise above sentimental and moralistic simplification. The dark forces that propel Nigeria’s bad political culture are not about to retire. Nor are the merchants of hate going on recess soon. Politics is mostly amoral and is by no means a love affair. The merchants of habitual vote rigging and demographic engineering will strive to vitiate the aims of the politics of moral merit.
The proposition for an Igbo president is likely to be the most consequential subject in the 2023 election year. If it comes about, there will be consequences for Nigeria and the Igbos. If not, the consequences will be even more dire. If the proposition fails, Nigeria will carry the moral burden of continuing as a nation sustained on systemic injustice. For the Igbo, the challenge of the future will be that of being who they are but living in a nation that regards them perpetually as the ‘other’ Nigerians. But the long term Igbo interest will not be resolved by having one of their own as a tenant of Aso Rock Villa for 8 years. In the long run, the best way the Igbo can attain self actualization is to lose themselves in the Nigerian market place. In the process, they will eventually realize their best potentials as a formidable force in the context of a more diverse, inclusive, free market Nigeria.