The Igbo political elite faces the challenge of transforming an unimpeachable moral argument into a winning political coalition.
As campaigning for the just concluded presidential election gathered pace, Peter Obi, standard bearer of the Labour Party (LP) found himself athwart two apparently contrary impulses. The first, let’s call it the liberal impulse, centered on the irrepressible energy and creativity of the “Obi-dient,” the mass of mostly young enthusiasts who had come to see the former Anambra State Governor as the answer to all their prayers for a better Nigeria. The second impulse was the ethnic one, the conviction of the Igbo that “it is our turn” to produce the next Nigerian president. The tension between these impulses, one inspired by social justice in the broadest sense, and the other anchored on ethnopolitical equity, simmered throughout the campaign, intensifying as Obi’s candidacy became increasingly plausible.
The first impulse has been copiously remarked. The immediate roots of “Obi-dience” are, as widely acknowledged, directly traceable to #EndSARS, but its antecedents within the broader ambit of Nigerian civil society are more profound, an accretion of student protests, anti-corruption rallies, and, since the dawn of social media, innumerable hashtags. Simply stated, before Obi, there was Obi-dience, and the Labour Party standard bearer is just an eponym for a cause in need of a personality to galvanize it.
If Obi-dience is of historic vintage, the Igbo quest for admission to the political mainstream has shadowed Nigerian politics since the end of the Civil War in 1970. Although Hausa-Fulani-Yoruba collusion can be difficult to prove, there has been enough evidence over the years to suggest the existence of a post-Civil War elite consensus to make the Igbo pay for effectively raising a hand against the state. The extent to which the Igbo elite itself may have perpetuated Igbo marginalization through its own political bungling is a different matter.
On the contrary, the Igbo, who have a legitimate claim to being the single most driven, most entrepreneurial ethnic group in the whole world, have claimed success from the jaws of adversity, building thriving businesses and communities where other Nigerian ethnic groups fear to tread. All told, Igbo political rustication sticks out like a sore thumb, and, their violent excesses notwithstanding, successive Igbo self-determination movements like the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) or the more recent Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) enjoy widespread support because of the perception that they channel a legitimate grievance.
All this explains the enthusiasm for Peter Obi among the Igbo, both across Nigeria and in the diaspora. Rightly seeing in Obi the best chance in a generation of putting one of their own in the saddle, the Igbo would gradually overcome their initial skepticism as to the viability of his candidacy and rally to his standard. The Labour Party’s rout of the other parties in the Igbo heartland testifies to the strength and near unanimity of this support. At the same time, Obi’s successful management of the potentially cataclysmic tension between the liberal and ethnic impulses embedded within the Obi-dient movement illustrates a personal shrewdness for which he has not received enough credit.
Yet, if Obi eventually came up short, the reasons were on display all along, and even at the peak of his political ascendance, there was no shortage of Igbo leaders (Governor of Anambra State Charles Soludo and former Governor of Abia State Governor Orji Uzor Kalu immediately come to mind) who feared that the passion of the Obi-dient notwithstanding, the platform was doomed because of Obi’s failure to build a winning pan-ethnic alliance. It is difficult to believe that Obi himself, given his aforementioned astuteness, would have failed to see this.
To say that Obi failed to build a winning coalition is not to imply that he did not try, or to deny that, politically speaking he had been dealt a bad hand. While the political benefit may have been paltry, the choice of Datti Baba-Ahmed as running mate was definitely an admission that the road to the Nigerian presidency runs through the northern Islamic belt, and the outcome of the presidential election might just have been different had Abubakar Atiku not gone rogue, abandoning an elite consensus on power shift and leaving Obi with no choice but to fend for himself outside the main opposition party. Significantly, Obi also made headway in the southwest, forging an alliance with a faction of Afenifere, the paramount Yoruba sociocultural organization, and winning the endorsement of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
A key challenge for Obi, and by extension Igbo presidential ambition, is that the political landscape after the election is now radically different from the one before. For instance, given that in principle the north would feel entitled to the presidency at the expiration of Tinubu’s potential two four-year terms as president, the Igbo face the dire prospect of having their stay in the political wilderness indefinitely extended. On the contrary, the Igbo can very well make the not implausible case that Atiku’s power move and subsequent hijack of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential ticket has effectively terminated the North-South elite compact. Either way, and as underscored by the just concluded election, the Igbo elite must find a way to cobble together a heterogeneous political coalition, comprising both those who believe that the presidency should go to the Igbo as a matter of equity and justice and others who may decide to enlist purely on account of self-interest.
Every day that the Igbo are locked out of the political mainstream is a rebuke to the Nigerian conscience. An Igbo presidency is long overdue, and last month’s election has proven that the desire for one exists among a cross-section of Nigerians. But being in the right is not enough. To get over the hump, the Igbo elite must be willing to do the necessary political work.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. This article first appeared in CFR.
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