Buhari’s two- day visit to the South-east is a proof – if one is still needed- that the race for 2019 has begun in all earnest and that he will – unless God decides otherwise – be a candidate in the election. The late Mandela was the only African leader to decline his right for a second term in office.
Earlier, in what appeared to be more than a mere coincidence, Buhari announced plans to make more political appointments and promised that in doing so he would allow the Governors and party apparatchiks to make in-puts. In his previous appointments, it is thought that he sidelined those groups and chose whoever it pleased his fancy and those of his inner cabinet (or the ‘cabal’) to choose.
What can we expect from the President’s one- day visit to Ebonyi state on November 14, 2017 and another one- day visit to Anambra State the following day?
There is no doubt that the President has image problem in the Southeast. The image problem is often dramatized by vested interests in the number of votes he got in the region – 198,248 as against the 2,464,906 secured by President Jonathan. The politicisation of the disparity in the votes secured by Buhari in the region and the incorrect reading of its import contributed immeasurably in worsening the relations between the region and the President.
It would seem that in the early months of his government Buhari bought into the narrative of being hated by the Igbos by a simplistic reliance on the vote figures he got from the region. We saw this in the exclusion of the Igbos in the early appointments into his kitchen cabinet, his statement about 95 per cent versus 5 per cent, the relocation of 47 Boko Haram prisoners to Ekwulobia prison, Anambra state, without offering any explanation – among others. Obviously groups like IPOB tapped into the situation and worsened matters.
The President’s visit affords him the opportunity to feel the pulse of the people and hopefully re-invent himself in the region. A starting point is to go beyond the simplistic interpretation of the import of his electoral figures in the region as evidence of hate. The truth is that historically the critical elements of the Igbo faction of the Nigerian elite rarely like to play ‘opposition’ politics – or put crudely to be shut off from the corridors of power. In the First Republic for instance, Zik’s NCNC was in alliance with Sarduana’s NPC just as Zik’s NPP was also in alliance with the NPC’s reincarnate, the NPN in the Second Republic (1979-1983). In fact, the Igbo political elites’ philosophy of the ‘goat follows the man with the palm fronds’ was dramatized in 1983, when, despite the Great Zik’s leadership of the NPP in the Second Republic, most of the eminent Igbo politicians chose to join NPN, the ruling party at the centre at that time, abandoning Zik, so to say. Again it should be recalled that when the late Yaradua became gravely ill and a cabal around him did not want power to be transferred to then Vice President Dr Goodluck Jonathan, the South- east Governors collectively aligned themselves with the cabal. So the decision by the Igbo elites to massively support Jonathan was partly in tandem with their philosophy of the ‘goat follows the man with the palm frond’ and not necessarily anything personal against Buhari as it was being interpreted. If this philosophy is still strong among Igbo political elites, it means that Buhari, as an incumbent President, may also benefit from it – if the size of the crowd that welcomed him in both Ebonyi and Anambra States were anything to go by (and assuming the crowd was not rented). It can also be argued that the fact that an APC candidate in the November 18 governorship election in Anambra State is regarded as one of the key contenders in the race is already an indication of the softening of attitude in the region towards Buhari and his party, the APC.
But how do we interpret the Igbo political elite’s philosophy of the ‘goat follows the man with the palm fronds’? Is it reflective of lack of political principle or is it pragmatic politics?
Some have argued that being very diasporic and with homes and businesses in every nook and cranny of the country, it will be unwise for them to play ‘opposition’ politics as they need to be friends with the government at the centre to ensure friendly policies that will protect the group’s interests across the country. Proponents of this view will often point to top business people like Aliko Dangote who seem to be friends with any government in power at the centre. But while it will remain debatable whether this type of politics is crass opportunism or pragmatism, it is however symptomatic of the character of our politics, which hinges on fears that the group that wins power at the centre will inevitably use such power to privilege its in-group or disadvantage others.
There were certainly other reasons for Buhari’s poor outing in the region in 2015 but the point is that some of the structural issues that played against him as a candidate may now also play in his favour as an incumbent – if he manages his relations with the region well, including its optics.
In essence Buhari’s visit affords him the opportunity to soften his mind about the people in the region – and vice versa. It is human nature that sometimes when you meet someone you are angry with, the anger has a way of softening on its own – just by a human feeling that the other person may actually not be as bad as you thought from a distance. It is instructive that during the visit (in which Buhari appeared relaxed and happy with the reception he received in both states) he was conferred with the chieftaincy title of Ochi Oha Ndigbo (Leader of all in Igboland) by the South East Traditional Rulers and Enyi Oma 1 (Number one good friend) of Ebonyi State by the Ebonyi State Traditional Council).
During the visit Buhari did precisely what incumbents on campaign trails do – talk about dividends of their administration for the area they are visiting and commission new projects. Buhari did not miss the chance to tell his guests that he gave four senior ministerial slots to four of the five states in the Southeast and that in the 2018 Budget before the National Assembly the Second Niger Bridge was allocated ten billion Naira. Other projects in the Southeast he unveiled included construction of new international airport terminal in Enugu, a coastal rail line that passes through Aba in Abia State and Onitsha in Anambra State and a promise that the Federal government is to dredge the River Niger to satisfy the yearning for maritime access to the sea by the South-east and the North.
Going by the recent statistics of the distribution of appointments and infrastructure by the Buhari government, it will appear there are areas that the Buhari government may not be getting as much credit as it deserves in the Southeast. This could be a result of several factors: Buhari’s communication style, which needs to be changed to recognize the crucial role of optics in politics and these ‘positives’ not being well communicated or communicated by those who have lost credibility in the eyes of the public such that the messenger, so to say, becomes the message.
A softening of attitude in the Southeast towards the Buhari presidency may not necessarily translate into electoral victory for Dr Nwoye, the President’s candidate, in the November 18 2017 Anambra State governorship election. This is because the Igbos seem to be currently struggling for a new identity within the Nigerian political space and it remains unclear which of the contending forces in the region will triumph. While in the past all it would have taken to placate the Igbo political elites against opposition to the Buhari government would probably be promises of contract and perhaps land allocations in choice locations in Abuja or Lagos, in the last few years, there are forces in the region pushing for a new form of politics that is antithetical to joggling to be a junior partner with any government at the centre. While some within this group try to anchor the new identity on ‘marginalization’ some are trying to revolve it around a neo Biafra identity that seeks to build Igbo solidarity on a shared victimhood narrative. In this sense these forces are trying to play catch-up to the Yoruba political elite which for long glamorized opposition politics as ‘progressive’ politics and consequently placed more premium in having the Oduduwa states being under one political umbrella than being a junior partner in any government.