by Bayo Olupohunda
The Igbo, one of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups, are an important power bloc in the nation’s political equation. Yet, the Igbo nation has strangely failed to make its influence count politically as the major ethnic groups schemed to dominate political power at the centre since the country’s return to democratic rule in the Fourth Republic. But the root of the South-East political stagnation dates back to the first decade of Nigeria’s post-independence history. A look at the political trajectory of the Igbo will reveal how one of Nigeria’s largest and significant ethnic groups has slipped from the commanding height of political dominance it once occupied to the margins of power. After a stint at the top echelons of power in the First and Second Republics with Nnamdi Azikiwe and Alex Ekwueme occupying prime positions, the Igbo, who also had completely dominated post-independence civil service, have had their political influence reduced significantly.
The political decline of the Igbo nation has been attributed to a number of factors including the dynamics of politics of that era. The Igbo elite have also been blamed for pursing narrow self-interest rather than the common good of the entire Igbo nation.
The military coup that terminated the government of Tafawa Balewa government triggered a chain of bloody events. The military putsch believed to have been hatched and executed by a predominantly revolutionary Igbo officers led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu revealed that the ethnic group also dominated the military institution that emerged when the British left. But the coup, which wiped out many of the leading politicians of that era, triggered a chain of events that threatened to consume the nation. The Igbo, of course, became the target of widespread suspicion as other ethnic groups perceive them as having an agenda to dominate political power. The fear of Igbo dominance was further heightened when viewed against the backdrop of the first coup. The Northern political class who had felt that they were the main target soon began to plot revenge. The result was a mass hysteria of Igbo paranoia that resonated well beyond independence culminating in the civil war. The resultant bloody counter coup of July 1966 instigated by the aggrieved Northern political class and executed by Northern military officers was to avenge the killings of politicians from the region. The major casualty of the counter coup was the head of state. Maj.-Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo.
Within the period, the Igbo, who had been a powerful force at independence, soon began to suffer politically. The Northern pogrom of 1966 and the subsequent civil war completed the violent struggle for power by the major ethnic groups with the North playing a major role in seeing to the political capitulation of the Igbo nation. Needless to say that the period after civil war was a difficult one for the Igbo. The civil war took a heavy toll that a once leading ethnic group had been reduced to just fighting for its survival. After the war, the half-hearted attempt to re-integrate the Igbo back into economic and political mainstream did little to bring back its lost glory.
But several years after the events of hate and violence-filled decade, the Igbo have fought back, through sheer resilience, to regain what they have lost economically. But how have they fared politically decades after? What is particularly responsible for the near stagnation of the Igbo politically in the Fourth Republic? Will the Igbo gain presidential power anytime soon? These questions are germane when we consider that the last time the group attained notable political position was in the Second Republic when Ekwueme became a deputy to President Shehu Shagari. Now, more than three decades after the demise of the Second Republic and 14 years into the Fourth, the Igbo nation still trails other major ethnic groups politically. Not even have they been found worthy to occupy the position of vice-president. This is even noteworthy when one considers that smaller ethnic groups have sought and attained more political relevance. The emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s first minority president, just shows how the Igbo have lost the game. At the beginning of the Fourth Republic, power went to the Yoruba ethnic group. This was to pacify the South-West zone for the annulment of the June 12 election won by the late M.K.O. Abiola. After Obasanjo’s two terms, the Igbo agitation to rule the country was soon truncated. Many at the time blamed the Igbo elite for failing to speak with one voice and present a common front. The cacophony of Igbo aspirants who could not agree to rally round a fine candidate like Ekwueme soon saw their agitation dashed. Obasanjo completed his second term and handed over to the North.
Not only have the Igbo not been able to gain presidential power, they have also not been considered for the vice-presidency since 1999. In 1999, Obasanjo picked Abubakar Atiku. In 2007, the late Umaru Yar’Adua picked an Ijaw vice-president in Jonathan, now President. Once again, they were not considered even for the vice-presidential slot when Jonathan became the president in 2011. Jonathan picked a Northerner in Namadi Sambo. Now, in the race for 2015, the Igbo are not in reckoning again. The Igbo elite are, yet again, beginning to speak with discordant tunes in the race for 2015. Why won’t they take advantage of their position as a major ethnic group to negotiate for the president or vice-president slot from the leading parties? Is politics not a game of numbers anymore? Are the Igbo not an important voting bloc again? President Jonathan may run for another term in 2015. Will any of the parties present an Igbo as a presidential candidate or as deputy in 2015? Will they stake a claim for the presidency in 2015 or will they take the back seat as usual? Already, there have been discordant tunes among the region’s political elite. While some are clamouring for another term for Jonathan, feeble voices are making a case for an Igbo president in 2015.
The questions I have often asked are: While can’t the Igbo speak with one voice? Why is it always easy for the Igbo elite to kow-tow to other ethnic groups like they have done in the past and now? There is no doubt that the Igbo deserve to occupy a prime place in the presidency in the next dispensation. For me, in the race for 2015, the Igbo are the beautiful bride and the coming months offer them the best chance to stake a claim for a position that is long overdue for them to occupy. The political parties must also by now have realised how important this voting bloc is to their chances in the next election. Now is the time for the Igbo to push for and realign with any political platform that offers a realistic path to the presidency. But Ndigbo or their political class would be naïve to think that they would be served the presidency on a platter, not in 2015, 2019 or beyond. There goes the Igbo dilemma. Will the Igbo ever rule Nigeria? This is one question they have to collectively find an answer to?
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Bayo Olupohunda/Punch
– Follow this writer on twitter: @bayoolupohunda.