By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Since a memorable birth over two millennia ago, the anticipation of men from the East has always fascinated the world. The sense of fascination remains undimmed with Nigeria’s debate over a president from the East (APTE).
Senior politicians of south-east origins have already begun auditioning to lead Nigeria in 2023. They include Anyim Pius Anyim, Orji Uzor Kalu and Rochas Okorocha. The first is a former Senate President and former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). The Second is currently Senate Minority Whip and a former state governor. The third is also a serving senator and former governor. These are not insignificant qualifications to bring to a contest for the presidency by leading contenders in prosecuting the advocacy for what has been called “Igbo Presidency”.
The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) has named all three among “Nigerian presidential hopefuls with hanging corruption…. cases.”
In October 2021, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) interrogated Anyim for 48 hours in connection with allegations of money laundering concerning over a quarter of a billion Naira. He was not charged.
Orji Uzor Kalu’s case is different. A two-term governor of Abia State, it has been said that as governor, he not only “left Abia State in a state worse than he met it” but practically “destroyed” the state.
In December 2019, the Federal High Court in Lagos convicted Kalu and his company, SLOK Nigeria Limited, of stealing N7.5 billion from the state as governor and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. In May 2020, the Supreme Court set aside the conviction on a technicality, ordering a retrial. Kalu decided thereafter to sue the EFCC, his prosecutors, before another judge of the Federal High Court. In September 2021, in a judgment that could only have been delivered by a crooked court or a manifestly unqualified judge, the Federal High Court defied the Supreme Court and restrained the EFCC from filing fresh charges against Mr. Kalu, claiming that such a step would breach the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.
In 2018, the Abia State University “withdrew Senator Kalu’s certificate over allegations of fraud and breach of admission regulations concerning his graduation.” At the end of November 2021, the Court of Appeal validated the withdrawal of Mr. Kalu’s certificate, upholding the university’s finding of fraud and illegality in its award.
As Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha brooked no accountability. Early in his first term as governor, he cashiered the state’s Judicial Service Commission, unlawfully removing the appointed members, ostensibly to get his way with judicial appointments. When courts ruled against him, he refused to obey them. Okorocha “created bizarre ministries and portfolios. Then he went clannish, peopling them with his next of kins. (sic)” In August 2021, the High Court of Imo State ordered the forfeiture of over 500 pieces of real estate acquired by Governor Okorocha. The properties were listed in all of 46 pages from “Pages 226 to 272 of the Imo State Government White Paper report by a Judicial Commission of Enquiry on Recovery of Lands and other related matters.”
These credentials compel a debate about the meaning and mission of “Igbo Presidency”. “Igbo presidency” is a convenient short-hand for an argument for equity in power sharing, a perennial issue in Nigerian politics, dating back to the origins of federalism in the country in the Macpherson Constitution in 1951. Originally, its most vocal advocates were Nigeria’s minorities mostly from what is now known as the Middle Belt and the South-South. At the confluence of the discovery of oil and another constitutional conference in London around 1956, the colonial government eventually relented and, in 1957, constituted a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the fears of the minorities concerning subjugation in post-colonial Nigeria. It was headed by colonial administrator, Sir Henry Willink and the defining report, which he authored, came to bear his name.
The Willink Report was, however, a mis-diagnosis followed by a wrong prescription. Instead of power sharing, the Willink Commission saw a problem of human rights. Reluctant to acknowledge an African challenge of building a nation from a multiplicity of ethnicities, Sir Henry instead divined a European problem of building common citizenship, which assumed the existence of a nation. Implementing the report, the colonial government imported the European Convention on Human Rights into Nigeria by colonial order-in-council in 1959 and made it Nigeria’s constitutional Bill of Rights in 1960.
Not that it was unimportant to build common citizenship, a project in which post-colonial Nigeria has failed signally, but acknowledging that did not entail denying the problem of political equity, the reality of which promptly descended upon Independent Nigeria with viciousness. In 1963, the then ruling coalition of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) decided to create Mid-West Region (now Edo and Delta States) out of the Western Region as a strategy to contain the influence of the Action Group (AG) of then opposition leader, Obafemi Awolowo. All three parties were identified with dominant ethnic groups.
Four years later, in the heat of a national crisis capping off a brutal decade that included two bloody coups and a pogrom before a civil war, the minorities of what is now the South-South deployed the same logics against the Igbos of the formerly dominant NCNC, resulting in the creation of Rivers (now Rivers and Bayelsa States) and South Eastern (now Akwa Ibom and Cross River) States, out of the then Eastern Region. The post-colonial geo-strategy of Nigeria was thus set on a logic of weaponizing territorial configuration for settling ethnicised political scores. Around this, the country subsequently unitarized its federalism to the point where capture of power at the centre came to be seen, perversely, as the guarantor of political progress.
This is a necessary context to the debate around Igbo Presidency. In summary, it says Nigerians should next elect a person of Igbo ethnic origins as president because the Igbo have never produced one before and it is the surest guarantor that the wounds of Nigeria’s bloody civil war have healed.
Political equity is surely a factor in the choice of who leads a country as consequential as Nigeria but this argument raises four important issues.
One is framing. “Igbo presidency” conflates ethnic origin with geo-politics. This may be convenient in Nigeria but it could also be lazy. Nearly every person from the south-east may be Igbo but not every Igbo is from the south-east. Indeed, the Igbo as an ethnic group are found in at least three geo-political zones – the south-east, south-south and in Benue and Kogi states in the north-central. Will the thirst for an Igbo president be slaked if one from Benue or Kogi gets elected? What if we called it APTE?
Second is branding. APTE will not lead the Igbo alone but calling it “Igbo President” implies precisely that. As a branding, it guarantees isolation and could reinforce inequity. Shehu Shagari was not sold as Fulani president. His appeal, on the contrary, was that he had the networks and temperament to heal the wounds from the civil war. On this, he largely delivered, becoming the president who pardoned the civil war protagonists, Yakubu Gowon and Emeka Ojukwu. Nor was Olusegun Obasanjo sold as Yoruba president. Muhammadu Buhari could only win the presidency after he learnt to sell himself as more than just an avatar for one part of Nigeria or one faith.
Third, the idea of “Igbo Presidency” evokes an unwarranted sense of ethnic entitlement, already evident in the malignant quality of the characters now parading as exhibits of the “Igbo Presidency” project. They include a man who has no defence to being called a convict, a rogue or a certificate forger and another who spent eight years as state governor grasping his way to any piece of choice real estate that he fancied and whose sojourn so far in the senate has been a study in rancid political flatulence. The implicit idea of an ethnic primary of rogues, charlatans and Nabobs at the end of which a tribe presents its preferred criminal to the country for adoption and ratification as president is neither compelling nor reassuring.
Fourth, “Igbo Presidency” still needs an affirmative proposition. Knowing where a president comes from offers no insight as to what he stands for or against. The Igbo narrative of victim-hood framed by the aftermath of the civil war should also accommodate a narrative of responsibility. The region claims it is disadvantaged by being comprised of five states and a land mass less than Kogi State or not much more than Oyo State or, indeed, of Southern Kaduna. However, ethnic homogeneity in such small territory presents inestimable opportunities which the region’s politicians have so far squandered recklessly. Should their reward be the presidency at a time when their region is manifestly overrun by home-grown criminals in high and low places, who have exiled its best and are slowly wringing enterprise and life out of it? If such a promising region cannot offer the country a good model, why should the country entrust it with over 923,000 square kilometres or over 530 ethnic and national groups?
Even the best case can be damaged by bad advocacy. Among the Igbo, a proverb counsels that a man whose house is on fire does not play footsie with rodents. That is what it means to present Orji Kalu and Rochas Okorocha as aspirants for the presidency.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at email@example.com