Igbonine: What do we want?
Ndigbo have nothing to gain by self-disenfranchisement in the Nigerian political system through election boycotts or low voter turn.
Keynote Address By Professor Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, OON, FCIB Former Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria Presidential Candidate, 2019 & Convener, Moghalu4Nigeria (M4N) Movement
At the Inauguration of Igbonine Sociocultural Organization
June 21, 2021
The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria are arguably the most cosmopolitan, demographically mobile, and sociologically adaptive of all of Nigeria’s ethnic groups. We take pride in our spirit of hard work, ingenuity, and resilience in the face of challenges. We are to be found in every nook and corner of Nigeria, turn such locations into our permanent homes, and become indispensable members of these local communities. Because we often are not restricted in our minds and in our experience to the confines of our original tribe and tongue, Ndigbo are in reality more “Nigerian” than anyone else.
It is therefore a paradox that today, Ndigbo are at a crossroads, wondering what they want out of Nigeria’s fragile and troubled nationhood project. The Southeast zone has witnessed increased violence and a crisis of governance in recent months, partly as a result of secessionist agitations by a number of groups, partly as a result of political rivalry between powerful politicians from the region, and partly as a result of extrajudicial killings by Nigerian security forces of youth in the region suspected of involvement in these agitations. Given that the identities of many persons thus far arrested in the region for violence have been from outside the Southeast, there also exists a suspicion that at least part of the violence in the region has been fomented by forces from outside in order to discredit Ndigbo politically ahead of the 2023 elections.
We are divided internally over what our response should be to the many failures of the Nigerian project, including indisputable political marginalization of Igbos despite being one of Nigeria’s majority population ethnic groups with over 30 million people, despite our economic success, and despite our educational attainments as reflected in the commanding performance of students from the Southeast states in national secondary school entrance examinations.
Should we continue to focus on entrepreneurship and “mind our business” to the exclusion of national politics? Should we look eastward and homeward, with a laser-like regional focus and pull back a bit from our focus on Nigeria? Should we support a constitutional restructuring back to true federalism and forget about the clamour for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction, or should we simply turn our backs on Nigeria and pursue a dream (or mirage?) of secession and the re-establishment of a territorial Biafran Republic?
The Civil War and Its Consequences
The Eastern Region, in which today’s South East geopolitical zone formed the region’s majority ethnic group, did very well under Nigeria’s federal system of government from 1954 to 1966. By 1963 its economy was one of the fastest growing in the world. The region and its politicians played a frontline leadership role in Nigeria’s quest for independence and was an important political player in post-independence Nigeria. But the Igbo in contemporary Nigeria have been fundamentally and adversely affected by the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 during which, for understandable sentimental and existential reasons, they attempted to secede from Nigeria.
Biafra was the fourth secession movement in Nigeria. The first clamour for secession came from the Northern Region when politicians from the region threatened to secede if the British colonial administration granted Nigeria independence before the North was ready. This provoked Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s famous speech at Yaba, Lagos in 1953 where he argued strenuously against secession and civil war in Nigeria as a consequence. The second was the secessionist attempt by Isaac Adaka Boro, who declared the Niger Delta Republic in early 1966 in defiance of the exploitation of the oil resources of the Niger Delta.
The third was the secessionist clamour for “Araba” (separation) in the Northern region after the first military coup of 1966 in which key political leaders from that region were killed violently and the short-lived military government of Gen. Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi introduced the Unification Decree (Decree 34) of May 24, 1966. That law was believed to have been intended to make Nigeria into a unitary state at the expense of federalism. But the Biafran secession attempt did lead to a tragic civil war in which more than two million died.
While the Igbo recovered from the economic devastation of the war within a few years after it ended in 1970, we clearly are yet to recover politically. The war destabilized Ndigbo politically in three important ways: First, despite the “no victor, no vanquished” official posture of the military regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon, there appeared to be an unwritten assumption that a Nigerian of Igbo origin could not become a Head of Government within the foreseeable future after the war. Despite the remarkable situation in which, just nine years after the war, Dr. Alex Ekwueme became the Vice-President of Nigeria in 1979 as the deputy to President Shehu Shagari, a military coup in 1984 led by Maj. General Muhammadu Buhari truncated the possibility of testing the true depth of national reconciliation if Ekwueme had become a presidential candidate in 1987 after two four-year terms of the Shagari administration.
Second, the psychological impact of the defeat in war led to a loss Igbo political self-confidence. The Igbo political elite developed a psychology of political subservience to hegemonic powers outside of the Southeast in a country in which power was concentrated at the centre instead of in the regions as was the case before the civil war.
Third, and perhaps most important, the civil war resulted in a breakdown of societal norms and values in Igboland. A get-rich-quick culture, hitherto unknown in the ethos of the Igbo nation, developed. The extreme monetisation of politics in the region, resulting in poor leadership selection and weak governance, is an important outcome of the civil war in a region that produced the likes of the great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s post-independence ceremonial President, Dr. Francis Akanu Ibiam, and Dr. Michael Okpara.
What Do We Want?
Ndigbo today are confronted with the following very clear choices:
Option 1: The Status Quo. Nigeria today is mostly a unitary state in reality although federal in name. It is a failing state. It is failing because it is weak, from the standpoint of the absence of state capacity to secure the country’s territorial integrity against terrorists, extract taxes for effective fiscal governance as opposed to the reality that we now live on external borrowing, and to dispense administrative services to its citizens efficiently and effectively despite a bloated public sector. The status quo is of no value to Nigeria and is stunting our country’s development, although a small, parasitic political and business elite profits from the current state of things. As we all know, however, it is unsustainable.
Option 2: Constitutional restructuring to return to real federalism with significant autonomy for regional or state governments. This is the most widely supported option in the minds of most Nigerians -- including the Igbo of the Southeast -- today. Even the core Northern region, which was reticent about restructuring, is coming around to its inevitability as the way out of Nigeria’s quagmire. Unfortunately, President Muhammadu Buhari’s publicly stated opposition to the constitutional restructuring of Nigeria makes it unlikely that this will happen during his tenure of office, and so in reality this will have to be dealt with and sorted out by the next administration. But that is only if in 2023 we elect a president who has the will and, importantly, the capacity, to lead in this direction. There is no question in my mind, however, that Nigeria’s future in the absence of the imperative of restructuring is a bleak one, and the country, in fact, is unlikely to survive for long as one entity in that scenario.
Option 3: A Nigerian President of Southeast Igbo extraction. Many Nigerians, I included, believe that this political outcome is essential to stabilize Nigeria and secure full national reconciliation after the Nigerian civil war over 50 years ago. It is also a fundamental element of justice, equity and inclusion, as other regions of the country have had the opportunity to produce the President of Nigeria since 1999. In the Southern part of Nigeria’s three geopolitical zones, the Southeast is the only one that has not produced the president in the context of informal but important North-South rotation of political power.
This option is under attack from forces outside the Southeast region, and perhaps with silent sympathy from some political actors within the region who seek to position themselves in the usual second-fiddle mode. It is interesting to observe that the two biggest political parties in the country have not yet committed to producing a president from the Southeast in the context of Nigeria’s nation-building project, as was the case in 1999 in response to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that Moshood Abiola won.
Option 4: Secession (Biafra). This option is advanced by groups who believe that Nigeria has failed Ndigbo, and do not want to give the Igbo their place as equal Nigerians with other groups. The secessionist tendency is also driven by the nostalgia for ethnic purity in place of a multi-ethnic nation.
This option faces certain fundamental obstacles:
First, although international law recognizes the right of peoples to self-determination, that right is virtually unassailable when it is expressed in the context of external domination. This is the basis on which colonized territories such as Nigeria became independent of colonial rule. But in the context of an already existing state, the right to self-determination is conditioned by the domestic constitutional law of such a state. This is essentially a political question, in addition to a legal one in this circumstance. For example, in the Nigerian constitution of 1999, Article 2 says that Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known as the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But it does not preclude the possibility of a political process that can amend the Constitution or even replace it with a new one. And it does not preclude a political negotiation of the terms of such a sovereign state to assure its stability and its unity. In order words, the need to address Nigeria’s National Question remains an urgent one.
The right to referendum in Nigeria is constitutionally recognized only in cases of state boundary adjustment and in the recall of a member of the National Assembly. Similar obstacles have prevented the secession of the Catalonia region in Spain, while in the case of Canada and its Quebec province, political negotiations resulted in constitutional amendments to accommodate their interests and prevent secession.
Second, the secessionist agitations do not have the military capacity to use force to create a new state of Biafra and a new reality on the ground. Even the Biafran attempt in 1967 ultimately failed for this reason. This appears to leave no other option other than a peaceful one to advance the legitimate interests of Ndigbo for equity and justice in Nigeria.
Third, beyond sentiments and nostalgia, we must carefully interrogate whether this is in reality in the best interest of Ndigbo, and whether in fact there is no alternative or better option, such as a return to federalism in Nigeria after President Buhari leaves office. The Southeast is a very small landmass, with high population density, and the Igbo are known to always prefer a much larger playing field for their business and other pursuits inside and outside Nigeria. The existential reality that forced the creation of the State of Israel for the Jews does not exist to anywhere near the same degree in this case.
Fourth, the South-South and North-Central (Middle Belt) geopolitical zones, while now thankfully at one with the Igbos in demanding a constitutional restructuring for Nigeria, are simply not interested in being part of any presumed Biafran territory. This was largely the case in 1967. It remains so today. Even inside the Southeast, a majority of Ndigbo still prefer to remain part of Nigeria, but DO NOT thereby accept political marginalization or injustice, and therefore they prefer a constitutional restructuring with enhanced autonomy of sub-national units. Fifth, the so-called international community will not provide any significant support for the Southeast to break away from Nigeria, but could be made allies in a legitimate peaceful struggle against injustice and inequity against the Igbo inside Nigeria.
Finally, we should be very careful of “co-agitators” for secession who might egg us on to “go first”, and their presumed support for any rash action on the part of Ndigbo. The lessons of 1967 should remain fresh in our memory even as we collaborate with other regions of Nigeria to advance mutually shared legitimate goals.
The Path Forward: What the Igbo Need
What we need is more important than what we want, because what we want is not always good for us. I may like and want cake or ice cream, but I must first consider whether eating the cake or ice cream I want is good for my heart or my blood sugar levels.
Against this background, I say that we, Igbonine, should want what we need most. In my view, those needs are as follows:
First, the Igbo must continue to resist any hegemonic worldviews in Nigerian politics and assert their own political relevance, but this is best done through persuasion combined with firmness, and partnerships with other ethnic groups. To do so, the elected Igbo political elite must overcome any second-fiddle mentality that might have been created by the psychological consequences of the civil war.
Second, the elected Igbo political elite must demonstrate its commitment to the people of the region in order to regain their legitimacy, which has been eroded by secessionist agitation groups in view of demonstrable lapses from legitimately elected leadership of the states in the region, in particular in the area of securing the lives and property of citizens.
Third, we must look inward, not just outward at other ethnic groups as the source of our troubles and reverse the impact of negative norms and value systems that have blocked the development of effective political strategy by Ndigbo.
Fourth, we must shift from reaction to proaction. Ndigbo must look beyond President Buhari and his current administration and plan and position the Southeast beyond the Buhari era, which will inevitably come to an end.
Fifth, the Igbo must insist on power rotation to Southern Nigeria in 2023, and with a unique argument for a President of Southeast extraction. In this context, we must look beyond the APC and PDP as political party-vehicles for this purpose. The priority should be placed on the emergence of a competent and visionary Nigerian President from our region, from any of the recognized political parties who can move Nigeria and all its component parts and peoples forward. Restricting ourselves to APC/PDP as “mainstream” parties has effectively rendered the Igbo politically second class in Nigeria because it has prevented us from effectively advancing our strategic interests.
Sixth, we must be very strategic about the 2023 presidency. We must consider the following, among other criteria, in assessing potential candidates of political parties: Who best meets the criteria to perform the functions of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in terms of nation-building (managing our country’s diversity and building strong institutions), national security, managing our national economy, and restoring Nigeria’s standing in the world? Who is most acceptable to other parts of Nigeria, whose support we also need, and who has or does not have “excess baggage” in terms of track record and integrity?
Seventh, Ndigbo have nothing to gain by self-disenfranchisement in the Nigerian political system through election boycotts or low voter turn. We must register to vote and vote in state and national elections because he who is not at the table, is by implication on the menu.
Finally, Igbo people cannot bear alone, exclusively, the burden of proving their commitment to a united and functional Nigeria. It is time for the rest of Nigeria to prove their own commitment to a nation anchored on equity and justice. That means that Nigerians must abandon any anti-Igbo prejudices based on a distortion of our national history and open their hearts to Ndigbo as fellow countrymen and women in the political arena. As the Igbo have voted for candidates from every part of Nigeria to lead our country -- North, West, South-South, so it is time for these other regions to vote for a competent Igbo to lead Nigeria into the 21st century.
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