By Okoronkwo Okoroma
The build-up to the 2023 elections is eerily reminiscent of that of the 2015 elections. The south-east overwhelmingly sided with a candidate, treating his ambition as a south-east ambition. Using south-east here is somewhat obfuscating. Perhaps the more apt expression is Igbos or the Igbo, as the commitment to the Jonathan re-election project transcended the regional bounds of the south-east, travelling to the farthest reaches of the Nigerian expanse in the comfort of the hearts and souls of the average Igbo citizen— politically conscious or sheepish, religious or irreligious, educated or uneducated, young, old, rich, poor— it permeated every class!
And those who summoned the courage to tow a different political path, were maligned, even politically ostracized. Some went as far as diminishing their cultural identity, questioning the authenticity of their roots. It was one of the rankest contradictions of the famed republicanism of the Igbo.
It should be noted that there was nothing especially wrong with the electoral decision. It was well within the free political choice of the people. But the near-unanimous, open— even vociferous— choice of a candidate was a obvious political risk, one whose quotient multiplied given the people in question— a people with a dark history of marginalization and exclusion, one needing to build bridges across the Niger in order to deepen trust for its long-overdue elevation in mainstream national politics. And so, when the Jonathan project failed, the repercussions reverberated far and wide. It didn’t take too long for the signals to begin to appear; the president hinted at it, even graphically captured it in his infamous 95% quip. The south-east was headed for national political wilderness.
There was another opportunity in 2019, and the south-east chose a similar path. It stuck with the PDP. If it wasn’t already clear, it became unmistakable at this point that it was not merely an ethno-religious or southern alliance, but an almost-inexplicable attachment to a political party; one whose love affair history with the south-east could be better traced to the bizarre 1973 Jan-Erik Olsson affair with the four Kreditbanken employees in Stockholm. But still they persisted, and still they lost out.
It was even more perplexing to think that the region stayed with the beaten, broken and damaged PDP. They waited, worked for its resuscitation, and dragged it again into the arena. All that effort and for what? Another loss. Another defiance against mainstream political prominence. It was as if there was a communal oath to resist alliance with the centre, to resist even a smidgen of political compromise, however beneficial. It was a mystery. A collective plunge to the depths. And for what? Principles? Loyalty to beneficial relationship?
Some politically prescient minds in the region had called for a different strategy, for a safer approach; to not appear monolithic in a political game when a more liberal approach carried greater potential for benefit for the region. But they were defied, even scorned.
The good thing is that there is another opportunity. And now with an even harder decision to make, as life is wont to do— making it harder for every opportunity spurned. A popular son of the soil is on the ballot. A real son this time, not the 11th hour-christened Azikiwe. Peter Obi has risen almost meteorically, becoming the darling of many a Nigerian especially in the south and middle-belt. He is set to cause a huge splash; but can he win? The jury is still out.
This is maybe the hardest time to advise the south-east to spread its net, when the seemingly obvious call should be to encourage other Nigerians to support the Igbo candidacy. On the surface, it defies logic. But from a pragmatic political perspective, it is rational to consider that where the possibility of defeat exists, some allowance should be made to accommodate political compromise. The same failed approach of antagonizing everyone who dares make a different political calculation cannot be the way. It makes the other candidates who court the Igbo vote conclude that there is a collective rejection of their candidacy, creating an ominous sign of things to come if they do win— continued rejection by the region. This can make them take an exclusionary stance even before their emergence.
I know what you’re thinking; this cannot be right. The president must rise above petty politics. He must be the president of all, even those who did not vote for him. You are right. This is the ideal. But the reality is almost always far from it. History has shown us that. We must not wallow in naive philosophical contradiction by justifying our playing petty politics while expecting other political animals, (whatever office they occupy) to take the high road. Sadly, it just doesn’t work that way. A president and ruling party can politically exclude a region without violating the letter of the law. Politicians are masters of this.
Tinubu has a very real chance of winning. From political trends, he seems to have inherited the angst directed at President Buhari by the south-east. But is this a winning strategy? What will be the political lot of the Igbo should Tinubu win? Further push into the political wilderness? There is an opportunity to prevent this. The south-east must come to terms with the possibility of a Tinubu presidency, and must allow those who believe in it to openly and freely canvass for it, while also sending a signal that it is ready to build progressive partnership with Tinubu, the south-west and the APC should the electoral wind blow in their direction.
The horse may have already bolted after the stable was shut, but that’s what an equestrian rescuer is for.