Symbolic gestures are particularly evident in Africa. Ndigbo or the South-Easterners, more than any other group, attach importance to symbolic gestures. It is ingrained in their culture. However, for once, Igbos are divided over the significance and symbolisms of last week’s visit of President Muhammadu Buhari to the Eastern heartland.
The visit of Mr President to Imo State has elicited many reactions.
Interestingly, much of the focus has been on the president’s attire. In a picture that circulated on social media, the president wore ill-fitting oversized trousers and the traditional Igbo ‘ishi agu’ clothes, which were ‘uncomplimented’ by non-matching shoes. There have been arguments and counterarguments over whether the picture was accurate or photoshopped. But this is an unnecessary diversion. How did we get to the stage where after the president visited Imo State – a theatre of conflict owing to secessionist agitation and where he has very few friends and supporters – we are focused more on his clothes than the essence, impact, and import of the visit?
Ordinarily, our discussion should focus on how the president’s alleged inability to harness the country’s diversity impacted his trip to the South-East; how the secessionist agitation that is most pronounced in the region reflected on the president’s visit; and whether the visit moved a needle in his fractious relationship with most of the people in the South-Eastern part of the country.
The plurality of the connotation of the South-East in the nascent geopolitics and the convoluted emotional experience of the political actors and ordinary citizens of the area, make the visit of the president very significant. The South-East largely did not vote for the president in the last two elections. Imo State is the epicentre of separatist agitation in the region, the theatre of multiple political wars, and the hotspot of ‘unknown gunmen’. The president’s visit juxtaposes with the alleged perception that he hates the region, still treats it with the mindset and mode of the Biafran civil war, and yet considers it as a lesser part of Nigeria’s foundational ethnic entities. Therefore, one may ask: Has the president confronted this perception of hatred of the region by this visit? Is it a signpost of a new relationship with the mainstream political centre? Does this signify the president’s readiness to engage with the region? Is this an outreach to the South-East?
No one was in doubt that the president’s handlers and intelligence coterie considered the area ‘an enemy territory’. The conspicuous presence of a bulletproof ballistic case carried by some of the security personnel lent credence to this. Maximum protection is always offered to our country’s leaders anywhere they go. However, the sight of this discreet close protection, a rapid deployment solution that unfolds with one hand to provide a sizeable line of defence for ballistic and fragmentation threats, demonstrated that the president’s handlers saw an inherent security risk to his person in the South-East. In this context, the president’s visit to Imo State was an opportunity for fence-mending and peacebuilding. The cries of marginalisation have been persistent in the region since the end of the civil war in 1970. However, the perceived hostility of President Buhari towards the South-East and the administration’s alleged poor handling of the country’s diversity, in addition to rising poverty, have led to the clamour for separation from Nigeria becoming very popular in the region.
We should commend the president for embarking on the trip to Imo State in the first place. For someone often accused of never visiting many States in the country’s south, except during election campaigns, the president silenced his doubters. The opposition often tries to portray him as insensitive to the feelings of people from particular areas in the country. As such, the president has demonstrated that he is indeed the leader of all Nigerians. This new philosophy of engagement is a core democratic ideal and must be embraced by all. Through such engagement, the government and the governed exchange ideas, understand themselves, and work ‘hand in gloves’ to achieve unity and prosperity.
In the light of the above, Ndigbo were happy to hear the president’s commitment and promise to complete the second Niger bridge during his dispensation. This bridge, started during the Babangida regime, has outlived five previous administrations. I must point out that the Niger bridge is probably the busiest transport artery in Nigeria, linking the South-East to the other parts of southern Nigeria. Although it is erroneously considered an Igbo project, its significance and importance are actually national.
Furthermore, the president acknowledged the place of Ndigbo in the economic life of Nigeria. He posited that Igbos hold the economic power in Nigeria, especially in trade and real estate, and they are interwoven into the fabric of the economy in every part of the country. As such, it should be unthinkable for the Igbos to want to separate from Nigeria. Although this seems cogent in its face value, underneath it belies the contention by the Igbos that they are not at the commanding heights of the national economy and they have been systematically denied that opportunity since the civil war and the indigenisation decree of 1970. They are quick to point out the fact that they are not in charge of sectors such as oil and gas, agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications, Customs, and even banking. These are the major pillars of the economic life of the country.
A fact which cannot be challenged is that the economic growth of the Igbos is self-motivated and driven, and it is doubtful that the public sector has proactively created an enabling environment to harness the entrepreneurial dexterity inherent in the Igbos. The Igbo economic cocktail is brewed through their restlessness and spirit of enterprise, which has led to their phenomenal economic recovery in the post-civil war period, till date. I believe it is time for a synergy between the Nigerian state and the Igbo economic renaissance, which has the capacity to fuel the development of Nigeria. All psychological and physical curtains and ceilings placed on restraining the economic potentials of people of this region must be lifted. The strength of every component part of the country should be harnessed to maximise our competitive advantage as a nation. The rhetoric that Igbos, like other component units of the country, are an indispensable part of Nigeria, is accurate. Therefore, actions and inactions that are to the contrary fuel the feelings of marginalisation amongst the Igbos. These should be looked at and changed, if they are inimical to the new synergy being propounded.
However, beyond the visit, the president must take further steps to show that he appreciates the significance and cares a lot about Nigeria’s ethnic diversity. Government appointments and policies should be promoting inclusiveness and enhancing our diversity. He should bring people threatening the peace and security of the country to justice, irrespective of their ethnic and religious leanings. Added to these, as the president-general of the Pan-Igbo cultural organisation told President Buhari during the visit, despite all the threats of secessionism or separatism facing the country, there is no doubt that no secessionist element can succeed in Nigeria, provided there is good governance based on equity, justice, and fairness to all citizens.
On their part, the leaders of the South-East should rise to the occasion and save their region from total anarchy. A local leadership deficit is part of the reason why non-state actors have taken control of the conversation. When the roads are bad, water and electricity are scarce, the unemployment rate is very high, salaries and pensions are not being paid on time or are never paid, people are more than willing to heed the call of the next charlatan or mob leader who promises them Utopia. When people lose complete trust in the government, they are more susceptible to the manipulations of demagogues, con artistes and wannabe saviours disguised as modern-day heroes and ethnic champions. There should be a genuine conversation amongst governors, legislators, socio-cultural organisations, and opinion leaders of the South-East on tackling the crisis in the once peaceful area. The deafening silence of many prominent intellectuals and opinion leaders from the region on the imbroglio in the South-East is very worrisome. Now is the time to forcefully speak out in a fruitful conversation to ameliorate an awful situation.
Governors of the South-East should establish a line of dialogue with the leadership of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Despite their crude methods and foibles, they enjoy sympathy in the region. And, it may be more challenging to find a solution to the crises without their involvement. Continuous engagement is therefore critical. Military might and solution will never be enough in tackling the problem. For the citizenry in the South-East, the region has a lot to gain from the country remaining a united entity.
To paraphrase Professor Obiozor, in his address to the president, “Ndigbo are the most federating unit among all Nigerian citizens. Anywhere in Nigeria you don’t find the Igbos, run away, something is wrong there. Igbos are market people and travel adventurers.” The Igbos are the only ethnic group in Nigeria that has more investments outside their homeland than they have in it. Why would this group be keen on becoming foreigners in other parts of the country, with the attendant consequences? Why will they allow insecurity to pervade their land?
In the security circles, any society that decides to eliminate its policemen should ensure that they have made peace with their criminals. Despite the shortcomings of our security agents and prevalent unprofessionalism in their conduct, obliterating them is a straightforward recipe for anarchy. Overt and covert support for attacks on security personnel would only be counterproductive. The populace must be cautious with those who make incendiary speeches that widen the ethnic divide in the country. We as a people, irrespective of our ethnic and religious leanings, can only thrive in an atmosphere of peace and unity.
The President’s visit is highly commendable, but there are a few negatives. The first negative is that the visit should not have been branded a commissioning visit, given that the level and quality of projects to be commissioned do not warrant such a visit by the President. The visit would have been better portrayed as an engagement visit, an outreach of Mr president to Ndigbo, to start a conversation to soothe the frayed nerves of some Igbos. Significantly, the President may be visiting other states in Igbo land. There is still an opportunity for his handlers to frame his visits right. We hope that these visits may be a part of the president’s National Healing Project – an engagement with parts of the country that feel left out and on the fringes of his government. Besides, we hope these visits are extended to other parts of the nation, especially in the Southern regions, to douse the ‘Fulanisation conspiracy theory’. I will advise that he includes people of various ideological shades during these visits/engagements, especially those not known to be in cahoots of Mr president.
The second negative is that the security agents ignored or under rated the IPOB sit-at-home directive, and this led to the streets of Owerri being literarily empty, almost looking embarrassing for the President. There were not many citizens coming to cheer their President. The President’s handlers should rectify this in his further visits to other states in the Southeast.
The President has a few missed opportunities in this visit. The feeling of marginalisation by the Igbos is historic and culminated in an internecine war with epic human and material losses to Nigeria. Post- civil war has seen new generation Igbos carrying the burden of the psyche of a defeated people. This psyche has seen them interpret actions and inactions and even utterances of leaders from other parts of the nation as marginalisation hence their agitations. As a veteran of that conflagration, his visit should have allowed him to speak about it and reassure the youths from the region about their being equal partners in the Nigerian project with others from various parts of the country. We do not expect Mr president to talk about the ‘Igbo presidency’ since that is a product of a democratic process involving partisan politics and electioneering.
I hope he will address proactively the angry Igbo youths who have convinced themselves that Nigeria holds no place for them, and they are better off in a utopian Biafran country that will solve all their problems. There has not been a proper high-level engagement from the top echelons of power to counter the Biafran utopia narrative. The President can use his visits to the Southeast to win the hearts and minds of the region’s youths.
Whether Mr presidents’ Ishi agu’ fits him or not; whether his pair of trousers are out of sync with his shoes; whether it was photoshopped or not; whether IPOB succeeded to embarrass Mr president with their sit-at-home order or not; Mr president has gone to Imo State with huge ramifications and potentials. It is left for Ndigbo to perpetuate the positives and improve the chances of peace, harmony, and progress in the region.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.
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