For and Against the Quest for a President of Igbo Extraction (1)


By Emmanuel Okogba

The demand that Nigerians should elect (or select) a president of Igbo extraction in 2023 is gathering momentum as a cross-section of politicians, academics, business tycoons, members of the clergy, and other interested parties from Igboland and elsewhere led by Ohaneze Ndigbo drums up support for the Igbo presidency project.

Expectedly, there are discordant voices that hold a contrary view. For example, a sizeable number of people from the defunct eastern region favour the principled stance of Nnamdi Kanu and the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) that resuscitation of the sovereign state of Biafra is the best way to resolve the National Question that lies at the heart of the trouble with Nigeria, and that the quest for Igbo presidency is a red-herring which would surreptitiously perpetuate Fulani caliphate subjugation of Ndigbo and their immediate southern neighbours.

Alhaji Isa Funtua, made condescending remarks on the moral necessity of having an Igbo President in a television interview. But in what some Igbo people have interpreted as a just and apt fatal providential rebuke, Funtua died not long after his derogatory statements.

According to media reports, Mamman Daura, another member of the cabal presently running the country as a serfdom who hypocritically forgot the issue of competence all the time his uncle, retired Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, contested for the presidency insisted that merit and competence rather than zoning should be the criteria for electing the next president in 2023.

Even so, there is deliberate ambiguity in the northern position on letting the presidency go to the south. Thus, while some politicians from the north maintain that the next president should be a southerner, others are more specific in favour a president of Igbo extraction. Now, before examining in details the merits and demerits of the Igbo presidency project, a quick terminological clarification is necessary.

Between the two expressions ‘Igbo President’ and ‘President of Igbo extraction,’ the latter is preferable to the former because the adjective ‘Igbo’ in the first one has a strong ethnic flavour which suggests that such a president would be for the Igbo alone, whereas a ‘President of Igbo extraction’ emphasises the fact that the quest is primarily about a president for all Nigerians who happens to be an Igbo.

Consequently, our analysis will use ‘President of Igbo extraction’ (abbreviated as PIE) instead of ‘Igbo President’ to emphasise the point that an Igbo who emerges as president must work for all Nigerians, unlike the incumbent who is governing the country as if she were the Fulani Islamic Republic of Nigeria.

With that clarification out of the way, let us situate our discussion in its proper context by considering the ethnic composition and duration of Nigerian leaders or rulers since independence in 1960.

The first thing to note is that as Britain was preparing to grant Nigeria full political autonomy the last British colonial Governor-General, Sir James Robertson, rigged the electoral process to ensure that his northern friend and puppet, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, became Prime Minister. I have already explored this topic in previous essays so there is no need to reiterate it again.

The point I wish to stress now is that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, was the only foremost Pan-African nationalist and anti-colonialist who did not become the leader of his country after independence simply because British colonial administrators hated him and his ethnic group for their single-minded relentless fight against colonialism.

Balewa’s lacklustre government was cut short by an abortive military coup on January 15, 1966 led by a group of naïve, misguided, and youthfully exuberant majors several of whom were of Igbo origin. The highest ranking senior military officer then, Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo from Umuahia, Abia State, became the first military head of state.

Ironsi’s tenure lasted for only six months: he was brutally murdered on July 29, 1966 during the most bloody revanchist military coups in Nigerian history. Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon succeeded Ironsi; but he was toppled precisely nine years later in 1975.

Immediately afterwards, Brig. Murtala Ramat Mohammed became head of state. However, in a sort of karmic retribution for his ignoble role in the northern coup of July 1966 and the Biafran war, Mohammed was killed on February 13, 1976 by a gang of soldiers led by Lt. Col. Bukar Suka Dimka. Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, replaced Gen. Mohammed as head of state. It must be mentioned in passing that the assassination of Mohammed was the third coup by a faction of the northern soldiers who took active part in the coup of July 1966.

Gen. Obasanjo spent about three years and eight months as military ruler when he handed over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) on October 1, 1979, after a controversial election in which, once again, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo lost to a less qualified northerner. Shagari was overthrown on December 31, 1983 and Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari became the third northern military dictator to rule Nigeria.

As they say, what goes around comes around: Buhari who, according to Max Siollun, was a key player in the military coups of July 29, 1966 and July 29, 1975 was kicked out by the coup of August 27, 1985. Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Chief of Army Staff at that time, succeeded Buhari. Babangida ruled from 1985 to 1993.

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The centrifugal fallouts of his annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections put him under tremendous pressure to return the country back to civilian rule. As a result, Babangida “stepped aside” and handed over to Chief Ernest Shonekan on August 25, 1993. Less than three months later Gen. Sani Abacha who had been patiently waiting for his turn deposed Shonekan and ruled till June 8, 1998.

After Abacha died, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar assumed power. At this stage, it looked as if Nigeria’s topmost political position was a four by four hundred metres relay race in which senior military officers from the north handed the baton over to one another after each round.

Anyway, like Obasanjo, Gen. Abubakar relinquished his position to a democratically elected president on May 29, 1999. Obasanjo’s “second coming” in 1999 ended eight years later with late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as the second northerner to become executive president. Yar’Adua died without completing his term of four years.

He was succeeded by his Vice, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who lost the 2015 presidential election to the incumbent, Buhari. From the foregoing, it is very clear that of all the major ethnic groups and the initial three regions the Igbo and eastern Nigeria have not really led Nigeria for any reasonable period.

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Northerners have ruled for almost forty-two years and eight months, the south-west or Yoruba for approximately eleven years and ten months, whereas the only person from core Igbo heartland at the helm of affairs remains Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi who ruled from January 16, 1966 to July 28, 1966. Clearly, Ndigbo have not had their fair share of leadership since independence.

Nigerians who bear unwarranted grudge against Ndigbo often deliberately trivialise or dismiss the quest for PIE as a distraction or storm in a teacup. Since their bitterness stems from the resilience and relative success of Igbo people despite the devastating Biafran war, these Nigerians believe strongly that the Igbo deserve their subordinate status because, in the words of Col. Joe Garba, former commander of the Brigade of Guards,

“We needed to teach our country people that it doesn’t pay to pick up arms against one’s brothers.” Col. Garba’s bizarre argument manifests the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the ruling northern military-civilian establishment. Biafra did not pick up arms against the rest of Nigeria. On the contrary, it was Nigeria led by Gowon that brought war to the Biafrans who were forced to fight a war of survival and self-defence.

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Moreover, as World War II amply demonstrates, extreme maltreatment of a defeated people is not a guarantee of peace or complete subjugation. Rather, it provides fertile ground for another, probably deadlier, armed confrontation in future because human beings cannot endure injustice and oppression indefinitely.

Without equivocation, the Igbo together with their cultural cum historical kith and kin in the defunct eastern region have contributed more to the emancipation and economic development of Nigeria than the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba.

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This statement may irritate those from the north and south-west, but an objective assessment of the political and economic evolution of Nigeria since 1914 will corroborate it. On the political front, and despite my misgivings about Dr. Azikiwe’s regrettable obsession with the unified British contraption called Nigeria, Zik of Africa remains the greatest nationalist leader to emerge from the country.

No matter how some intellectually dishonest revisionist historians from other ethnic groups might try to twist the facts acrobatically, available records both in Nigeria and in the British archives indicate unambiguously that Azikiwe, supported by other nationalists from Igboland and other ethnic groups, was the lodestar that triggered and guided the militant phase of nationalist movements that gathered traction in Nigeria around the 1930s and 1940s which woke Britain up from colonialist slumbers and compelled her to take the agitation for Nigeria’s independence very seriously.

To be continued.

By Douglas Anele

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