The news that South East Governors and other major political office holders stayed away from the installation of former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as the Waziri Adamawa on November 22, 2018, in Yola, has sparked concerns about possible disaffections within the PDP following the selection of Peter Obi as Atiku’s running mate. Earlier, the South East political leaders were also conspicuously absent when Igbo elders and leaders from across party lines - including President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo Chief Nnia Nwodo, renowned constitutional lawyer Professor Ben Nwabueze and former President of Nigerian Bar Association Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) and a host of orders - endorsed the Atiku/Obi ticket. As if these signals were not enough, on November 21, a day before the installation of Atiku as the Waziri Adamawa, the South East Governors, together with the Deputy Senate President, Dr Ike Ekweremadu, met with President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa where they were reportedly told that the political investment of the South East in the re-election of Buhari would determine their fate in 2023. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha was quoted as saying that the South East political leaders “came essentially to thank Mr. President over the major activities that have taken place in the South East”.
So what is happening?
There are a number of observations:
One, there are a different versions of why the Southeast political leadership appear lukewarm towards the candidacy of Peter Obi. One version is that about five people, including Peter Obi, were promised to be the running mate to the Waziri Adamawa and that when Obi was eventually chosen, those who lost out felt embittered. Another version was that the South East political leaders were disappointed that they were not consulted before Obi was selected and announced as Atiku’s running mate. According to this version, the South East political leaders read about the selection of Peter Obi as Atiku’s running mate in the media – just like everyone else. While we will probably never really know the ‘whole truth’ in the various narratives, it remains debatable whether Atiku’s decisiveness in announcing the selection of Obi foreclosed an even more acerbic wrangling among the South East political leaders or whether it would have soothed some nerves if he had called some of them few minutes before the public announcement of Obi as his running mate.
Two, political parties generally try to take advantage of perceptions of cracks in their opponents’ camps to woo those suspected of being disaffected with goodies and carrots. It is therefore perfectly normal for the APC to find ways of playing up any perceived disaffection in their main opponent’s camp – and the visit of the South East leaders to President Buhari could be just that. After all, the PDP also exploited perceptions of disaffection in the APC to engineer some high profile defections including those of Atiku Abubakar, Senate President Bukola Saraki and Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwaal. I think what the Atiku/Obi ticket and the PDP need – if they want to consolidate their hold on the region- is to redouble their efforts in reaching out to as many of the disaffected political leaders as possible. Though several Igbos seem to have appropriated Atiku as one of their own, it will be unwise to take things for granted or underestimate the electoral value of the political leaders. Unless the voters are sufficiently energized, they may not have the enthusiasm to turn out to vote – as happened to Jonathan in the 2015 election.
Three, it is actually possible that the visit of the Igbo political leaders to Buhari or their absenting themselves from the installation of Atiku as the Waziri of Adamawa or from the endorsement of the Atiku/Obi ticket by South East elders and leaders was a way of positioning themselves to negotiate from a position of strength. We saw both the Senate President Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives Dogara play such a game before their final defection to the PDP. Politicians in the final analysis are political investors who need assurances that their own ambitions will one way or the other be accommodated in the existing party structure. It will be up to the PDP and the Atiku/Obi ticket to come up with effective counter strategies that will pacify the aggrieved political leaders of the Southeast. I think it will be unwise to just assume that the political leaders from the zone cannot do much political harm presumably because not supporting the Atiku/Obi ticket will not be in tune with the mood of the generality of the people of the zone.
Four, there are increasingly in the Southeast talks of which of the two main political parties – APC and the PDP - is the shortest route for a President of Igbo extraction, and of the need for the Igbos not to put all their eggs in one basket. Conversations such as these are invariably ways of softening the image of the APC and Buhari in the zone and will be a convenient excuse by the Igbo political leaders to justify any apathy or even defection to another party. In fact just defecting to a smaller political party will serve the same objective as defecting to the APC – if they do not want to offend the assumed mood of the people.
Five, I am generally amused about conversations on President of Igbo extraction as a matter of entitlement. While I believe in zoning and power rotation as a way of getting the buy-in of the various components of the federation in the Nigeria project at this stage of our political development, I am not really sure that either PDP or APC (or any party for that matter) can guarantee a president of Igbo extraction or to any group with certainty. Power is rarely given to any group on a platter. You strategize for it, and even if you have the best strategy, it may still not work . There are always intervening variables or what the Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz would call the ‘fog of war’ which no analyst or strategist can predict.
And talking about power shift as if it is cast in stone, let us not forget that in 2003 when there was a ‘consensus’ that the South should have the presidency for another four years (to enable Obasanjo complete a second term in office), Buhari defied that and contested for the presidency on the platform of ANPP (a new party at that time) and polled some 12 million votes – mostly from the North. Again in 2011 when some people felt that Jonathan should simply complete Yaradua’s tenure and allow power to ‘return’ to the North, Jonathan not only contested and won in 2011 but went ahead to contest again in 2015. Essentially therefore, it will be naïve to believe that even zoning and power rotation will happen automatically as a matter of entitlement.
Six, questions have also been asked about whether Peter Obi is really the best the Southeast can offer at this time. Answers to questions like the above will always be subjective. What people cannot deny is that as Governor of Anambra State, Obi not only continued Dr Chris Ngige’s record of good governance but also improved on it. Under his watch, Anambra state never borrowed and never owed salaries. Under him, the fortunes of public schools in the state were turned around with many schools returned to the missionaries. Anambra state suddenly rediscovered its mojo in education and began to record stellar performances at both WASC and NECO exams. Peter Obi is certainly not a saint – and none of us is- but he is not your typical former Governor or billionaire. He carries himself simply and humbly. He does not move around with fanfare or escorts – in Abuja just a Camry car and a driver. This remains one of his greatest marketing points.
Seven, Peter Obi reminds one so much of Professor Yemi Osinbajo. The two are alike in many ways but also dissimilar. While Peter Obi’s forté is in the business world (he was said to be a major shareholder in Fidelity Bank – among other businesses), Osinbajo is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, a cerebral lawyer, academic, public intellectual and an effective communicator. Both carry themselves with dignity, humility and contentment. Again while Osinbajo is a pastor and does not take his faith lightly, Peter Obi is reputed to be a highly devoted practising Catholic who enjoys very cordial relationship with the Catholic Church in the South east – the most influential religious group in Igboland. Though the bottom half of a presidential ticket rarely adds much electoral value to a presidential ticket, with Osinbajo assured of the support of the very influential Redeem Christian Church of God in the South-West and Obi assured of the support of the equally influential Catholic church in the South East, the two appear evenly matched in terms of value to be added to their tickets.