The prospects of an Igbo presidency have always been met with sceptic pessimism. Sometimes, it’s hard to argue when doubters present facts based on the psyche of the Nigerian voter. Amongst other criticisms, the biggest reason I’ve heard on why Nigeria is yet to produce a president of Igbo ancestry (since Nnamdi Azikwe’s ceremonial record) is that Ndigbo both as a voting block and an ethnic nationality is not as united as other regions. Given their dividedness, Ndigbo does not have a politician with a pan-Nigerian influence the PDP or APC could present as their standard-bearer.
It seems Nigeria never forgave Ndigbo for Biafra and that perhaps explains why no major party made efforts to zone their ticket to the southeast since 1999. With each passing election, the southeast felt more marginalised from the Nigerian commonwealth; their lack of political cohesion notwithstanding. But then came Nnamdi Kanu and his Indigenous People of Biafra movement. Founded in 2012, IPOB very quickly rose to notoriety during the Buhari years. In fighting anti-Igbo marginalisation in the country, Kanu and IPOB committed the greatest sin – calling for secession and a reborn of Biafra. At first, a lot of people tried to sympathise with him. They may disapprove of his methods and rhetoric, but many thought IPOB was an inevitable consequence of decades of marginalising the third-largest ethnic nationality from the polity of the country. It didn’t look like Nigeria was ever going to be ready for an Igbo president. But the sympathies began to run out with Kanu’s daily invectives. He started losing a lot of people when he called Nigeria a zoo and when he went conspiratorial with the Jubril from Sudan hoax.
And then came Peter Obi, the dark horse no one foresaw. For the first time, an Igbo politician commandeered a pan-Nigerian support. For the first time, we had a true alternative to PDP and APC. But even so, the prospect of a Peter Obi Igbo presidency was hurt by the nefarious activities of IPOB. In an article written in defence of Igbo presidency, I argued:
“Nnamdi Kanu’s Independent People of Biafra has been the Achilles heel of the struggle for Igbo presidency. IPOB is the biggest reason most people who are against Igbo presidency would cite if you ask them. While we can objectively say that IPOB has used some extreme and uncivil tactics in its struggle to rebirth Biafra, it is unfair and disingenuous to say that the entire South East must pay for the crimes of the militia group. IPOB is not representative of all Igbo people. IPOB is a symptom of inequity and marginalisation.”
And true to my prediction, IPOB was weaponised against Peter Obi. TV hosts and Twitter users repeatedly asked him to condemn the group. But in his characteristic manner, he often would respond with word salad to avoid a straight answer. And then his haters spun and spun conspiracy theories on how he is a member of IPOB. I remember a viral picture of a masked IPOB flag bearer they said was his son. As much as he was loved for his macroeconomics stats and oft-references to how he reduced the cost of governance when he was governor of Anambra, his refusal to unequivocally disavow IPOB ruined his image in certain quarters in the country.
While Peter Obi is still in court slugging it out with INEC and Tinubu, IPOB has assumed a jihadist dimension. Under the leadership of Finland-based Simon Ekpa, the group has become incredibly rabid and insufferable. Monday sit-at-homes in the southeast are enforced with fascist autocracy by the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the militia arm of IPOB. Recently, videos littered social media of ESN militants attacking traders. They even beat up children for going to school. Making children a target of your political cause is nothing short of despicable.
Even primary school children are receiving their Biafra from Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB ESN known gunmen for disobeying their sit at home order.— Michael Zucci. 𓃵 (@MichaelOkwegba) July 5, 2023
As usual, you won’t hear from @PeterObi @osita_chidoka @obyezeks @AishaYesufu @ruffydfire @SamAmadi @ChidiOdinkalu @AreaFada1 etc. pic.twitter.com/pAeaLEcoqJ
But how did Peter Obi respond to this mania perpetrated by his kinfolk? In a Twitter thread where he condemned recent killings in the North Central and Southeast, he failed to disavow IPOB by tacitly absolving the group from the mania going on in the Southeast. According to him, the Monday sit-at-home orders are “purported” to come from IPOB but “the body has publicly denied issuing such directive.” Yet again, Peter Obi failed to prove how detrabilised he is. You may think Obi will make a great president. But it would be disingenuous to pretend his repeated absolving of IPOB is nothing.
of the number of lives and properties lost with very little resistance from security operatives. Also disturbing is the continued disruption of business and social activities in the South East region over the Sit-at-Home directive purported to be coming from the— Peter Obi (@PeterObi) July 13, 2023
But maybe that’s how politics is. He is not the first politician to stay on the ethnic code. And he definitely won’t be the last. In a heterogeneous society like ours, loyalty often lies with your ethnicity than with the country. Politicians are guilty of it as much as voters. Nigerianess is an amorphous concept. It is something no one wants to be associated with unless it somehow makes them money. Your ethnicity, however, gives you something to be proud of – an ancestral history, a common language, fashion, cuisine, religion, music, philosophy, and art. The only thing Nigeria offers its citizens is penury.
If you are president or you aspire to be, you must not betray your ethnic nationality even as you tour the country seeking people’s support on the pretext of pan-Nigerianism. Not betraying your ethnicity could mean turning a blind eye to the atrocities of your people. It could mean speaking half-truths about the extremisms of your kinfolk. It could mean failing to call out your people, like Peter Obi has consistently failed to do with IPOB. It could mean prioritizing your folk in government appointments. Or it could mean prioritizing infrastructural developments among your people. We’ve seen all of this play out under successive governments.
For instance, despite the preponderance of attacks orchestrated by Fulani herders against hapless farmers and villagers, Buhari failed to make a major arrest. Villages were pillaged, women were raped, babies and men were slaughtered. But the only thing Buhari expressed consistently was ‘shock’. He characteristically would direct his security agencies to investigate these killings. But those investigations never led to any major arrests. Nigerians naturally felt Buihari’s failure to arrest these militia herders was because they are his kinfolk.
The same sentiments were expressed when he started rehabilitating so-called repentant Boko Haram members. Despite all their killing and maiming, Buhari spent taxpayers’ money to reform these terrorists. They were trained, housed, fed, clothed, and even given stipends to help reintegrate them back into society. Was it too much to let them live the rest of their lives in prison for their crimes? Why should the most heinous criminals enjoy that many perks simply because they showed repentance? Probably because most of these “repentant” terrorists were Buhari’s kinfolk.
Ethnicity was weaponised during the elections this year, especially in Lagos. Tinubu’s controversial win was possible in large part because of an anti-Igbo campaign which swayed a large chunk of Yoruba voters. Videos littered the internet of thugs like MC Oluomo, Yoruba actors, and journalists spewing anti-Igbo rhetoric before, during, and after the elections. It was worse in the days that led to the governorship election, especially in Lagos. Guess what? Tinubu and Sanwo-olu did not condemn any of it. Why would they? You turn a blind eye to the atrocities of your people. Especially if what they are doing is in furtherance of your group’s interest.
Good job 👏🏾 👏🏾👏🏾 When are you arresting MC Oluomo? pic.twitter.com/R6ObXhTcRX— Jaypee (@JaypeeGeneral) June 16, 2023
All of these go to show the lack of national cohesion we suffer as a country. Ethnic politics sadly predate our independence. Peter Obi is playing the same script Buhari, Tinubu, and others have played and continue to play. Just the other day, the APC wrote to Tinubu to stop Lagosising the South-West in his appointments. Apparently, there is also the problem of intra-ethnic rivalry. We are a people with concentric circles of ethnoreligious loyalty. And depending on the circumstance, our politicians weaponise our loyalty to divide and rule.
In the meantime, if Peter Obi truly wants to reform governance, he should start by condemning the extremism of his kinfolk.
Olayemi is the publisher of The Disaffected Magazine. He also hosts the Disaffected Nigerian Podcast. He enjoys everything from Evolutionary Psychology to the syncopations of Apala music to Fela’s discography. He fancies himself as an Amala enthusiast. His dream is to be a travel writer someday.