Ohanaeze Ndigbo and the 2019 Presidential Elections
By Emma Agu
Cyprian Ekwensi’s novel: Survive the Peace was premised, among others, on the disrupted family ties and social relations that emerged in Igboland, after the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us, who witnessed the war, albeit as kids, will confirm that things actually went awry: Brothers turned against brothers; most time, as they squabbled over resources that were, indeed, very scarce. Unfortunately, while in some cases, the enmity caused by the situation has petered out, in others, erstwhile harmonious relationships have been destroyed forever.
By some surprising amnesia, sadly, today, some of those who witnessed that low era, in Igboland, seem not to have properly digested the lessons of the period hence the stage is set for a repeat of that history. This time around, it is the countdown to the 2019 elections, a period that is, again, pregnant with unfathomable forebodings, as Igbo brothers squabble over the best strategy to confront what many regard, as an existential challenge.
From the current fireworks, ignited by the recent endorsement of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, by the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, over and above the incumbent President Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari of the All Peoples Congress Party, APC, it is obvious that, no matter the outcome of the elections, things will no longer be the same again. While the pro-Atiku groups do not see anything wrong with the Ohanaeze position, those in the pro-Buhari camp disagree vehemently with and, in fact, reject the endorsement. Those who want to dismiss the disagreement with a wave of the hand should be concerned that Barrister Uche Okwukwu, the secretary general of Ohanaeze, has endorsed President Muhammadu Buhari, obviously conveying the lack of consensus on such a serious matter.
For those who do not know, Okwukwu is an unapologetic pro-Igbo Ikwerre man from Rivers State; he is one whose Igbo DNA has not undergone any mutation, even if you prefixed his first name “Uche” with an “R”, to read Ruche! It is against this background that the reported suspension of Okwukwu, last Friday, should be viewed as not just a dangerous escalation of a worrisome crisis but a questionable strategy for resolving an impasse that could have been averted, had Ohanaeze Ndigbo not been dragged into the murky waters of partisan politics.
Here again, history appears to be repeating itself, as this looks like a throwback to the situation just before the 1979 elections when the leadership of Ohanaeze, at the time, endorsed the Shagari-Ekwueme ticket. Predictably, Ohanaeze went comatose after that incident, only to be revived in 1983. Let us hope that the body is not being railroaded into another state of suspended animation! It is interesting to note that the great ZIK of Africa, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was on the ballot as the presidential candidate of the defunct Nigerian People’s Party, NPP, the same year Ohanaeze endorsed Shagari. This time around, by some poetic coincidence, Buhari was at Onitsha, Anambra State, commissioning the Zik Mausoleum, a project that had been abandoned for over 20 years, just as the Nnia Nwodo-led Ohanaeze leadership was publicly endorsing Atiku Abubakar. History!!!
Passions are understandably very high at the moment with each group posturing sanctimoniously, as the moral beacon of the Igbo society. This is particularly the case with those who support the Ohanaeze President, the erudite Dr. John Nnia Nwodo who, in turn, sees himself, not without justification, as the repository of the sovereign socio-cultural authority, of the Igbo nation. Curiously, that is the source of the problem: his authority is socio-cultural, not political. The Ohanaeze leadership was never intended to usurp the role, of political parties, to openly canvass for votes, in a purely partisan fashion. Those who take this line of argument have a strong point, for several reasons.
The first reason is that Ohanaeze is supposed to act as FATHER, to every Igbo person, no matter where the person lives or what interest group, the person belongs. That is why people of Igbo extraction, in the South-South, who share common geo-political and socio-economic affinity with other ethnic groups, also belong to Ohanaeze. However, given their dual identity, their political interests may not always converge with those of the core Igbo heartland. It is precisely for reasons such as this that, playing the role of FATHER demands a high level of dispassion, on the part of Ohanaeze leadership. Put bluntly, neutrality confers on the body, the moral authority to legitimately expect those in dispute to enthusiastically submit to the organisation’s adjudication. But when the body takes an overtly partisan posture as it has done, it subverts its own authority.
The second reason is that partisan politics exposes the actors to all sorts of indignities, given that politicians are not known to be too economical with disparaging language. To be in politics is akin to entering the boxing ring, for a fight: Once in, you cannot hide; you throw and take punches and your opponent may not respect your height or status. Could that be what is happening right now between the Ohanaeze President, Dr. Nnia Nwodo and Governor Willy Obiano of Anambra State? It is precisely for this reason that traditional institutions and socio-cultural organisations like Ohanaeze are advised to steer clear of partisan politics. At any rate, if one may ask, what makes it mandatory for Ohanaeze to make its support public? Are there no corridors for conveying the position of the group, in a manner that it still retains the confidence of all, without exposing some of its members to public ridicule or even danger?
We must face the fact: that is precisely what Ohanaeze has achieved. It has given the impression, which is wrong, that those who support other candidates, especially President Buhari, are less patriotic than others; that they do not have the interest of Igboland at heart. Yet we know that that is debatable. For crying out loud, it is preposterous for anybody to claim that every person, of South-East extraction, in the APC, is an Igbo hater. Furthermore, it will be dubious in the extreme, to suggest, let alone insist, that Igboland got to its present sorry state, just in the past four years.
Let’s face it: the poor infrastructure, absence of strategic national assets such as refineries, iron and steel complexes (in spite of the abundance of coal in the zone!), etc did not just start, four years ago. By some coincidence, many high-ranking members of the Imeobi, the apex decision making organ of Ohanaeze Ndigbo have held sway in Nigeria’s political scene as governors, ministers, special advisers, chief execs of strategic federal institutions or top party men, even as infrastructure in the south east deteriorated and sunk into complete disrepair. If one may ask, did the miserable state of the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway just happen? It will be interesting to tell our people why that stretch of road has lingered in that condition since the restoration of democracy in 1999. What about the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport in Owerri? Do we need a national referendum or United Nations supervised plebiscite, to provide the infrastructure required to achieve its designated status? Why have successive administrations before now not effectively tackled the indefensible underutilization of sea ports in the eastern corridor of the country? Did President Buhari or the APC stop any previous administration, from doing the needful? I think the time has come for us, Ndigbo, to be more honest with ourselves.
Another strong case that should discourage Ohanaeze, from overt political exposure, is the fact that, by its structure and role, it interfaces with similar bodies in other parts of Nigeria. Granted that other socio-cultural organisations necessarily have their political preferences, these are astutely masked by emphasizing matters that affect regional interests and programs, rather than endorsing individuals or political parties. One possible exception to this rule is the Afenifere which publicly supports any candidate or party. But they hedge their bets through what, some have argued, are public stunts, designed to obfuscate their overall strategy. While I do not necessarily agree with that position, the reality is that, head or tail, the Yoruba will always find a way of not losing out completely; it doesn’t matter if they scream to the top of their voices that the contrary is the case! I think they have mastered the art of not stacking all their (political) eggs in one basket! Are there lessons for the Igbo in this?
Political wisdom will dictate that institutions, like Ohanaeze, retain the credibility to act, on behalf of their groups, no matter the outcome of the elections. There are moments when people think that elections have been wrapped up, that the public mood, as expressed on social media or even dictated by opinion polls or public debates, have settled the outcome of elections. That is where false confidence can be disastrous. Let us hope that Ohanaeze does not become a victim of such over-confidence. Should Buhari/APC win, and going by the demographics and the peculiar primordial determinants of electoral behaviour in Nigeria, nothing so far suggests that the party will lose, it is hoped that Ohanaeze will retain the moral fiber to present itself as a credible voice of the Igbo, thereafter.
Besides, it needs to be stated that one way to avert a reenactment of the immediate post-civil war era calamity, where the Igbo found surviving the peace much more difficult than surviving the war, is to commence immediate fence-mending steps, to repair the damage already caused. Ohanaeze Ndigbo can borrow a leaf from President Buhari who, while campaigning in Owerri, advised voters in Imo State to vote for candidates of their choice, across party and not ethnic or religious lines.
Emma Agu, CEO of GAVINTA & ASSOCIATE LTD, a media consultancy, is a fellow of both the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE).