A good argument mangled by small interests and naive politics. That, to my mind, is the plight of the option for a president of Igbo extraction currently being canvassed in the media.
The matter is made more disconcerting by the very fact that the Igbo political elite- the very ones who ought to articulate the matter most poignantly- has reduced what ought to be an engaging subject to the level of the absurdist comedy that is Nigerian politics. It is bad enough that the Igbo political elite want to earn the unenviable distinction of securing presidential power on the pages of newspapers. The clear and present danger, as I see it, however, is that an attractive political option is being so wrong-headedly articulated that it stands a chance of being stillborn or at best conveniently ignored by the rest of the nation.
The summation of the argument as it is being canvassed by the Igbo elite and their discordant choristers is simply this: it is the turn of the Igbos to produce a president for the Nigerian federation because the other two major geo-ethnic blocs have variously over used their turns and in the process marginalised the Igbo nation in terms of developmental infrastructure and political patronage. Underlying this argument is the now familiar ‘turn by turn’ syndrome in which national political office and patronage are supposed to be tossed around among various factions of a largely unproductive elite. Underlying the clamour is a naive assumption that by crying foul, those who have held power will feel a moral compulsion to give it those who are crying!
This approach to the matter is not only wrong headed, it is also absurd in a constitutional democracy properly defined. There is to my knowledge no social or political contract in the constitution between the Nigerian sovereign and the ethnic groups that make up the federation. Therefore to insist that it is the turn of any ethnic group to produce the next president or governor etc is to substitute regression to primordial tribal loyalties for the right that belongs to individuals in a democratic national polity.
On the contrary, what the constitution recognises, and which is implicit in the very idea of liberal democracy and the existence of the democratic state, is a social contract that binds the individual and the sovereign. That contract only recognises the right of the individual Nigerian irrespective of the traditional specificities-tribe, sex, colour, belief, abode etc- to vie for political office, to vote and be voted for. If we deviate from that fundamental assumption to predicate specific quests for political ascendancy or socio- political justice on ethnic or some other primordial parameters, we devalue our democracy and undermine the very cause that we are championing. We may also, in the process, do incalculable damage to the very idea of a Nigerian federation because there will be no objective criteria for demarcating between individual merit and group blackmail.
It is of course true that in a polity, injustice can be meted out to groups on the basis of their collective identity or place of abode: the Jews in the Holocaust, the Palestinians in the West Bank or the blacks under Apartheid, the Igbos of Nigeria or the Hutus of Rwanda. In such situations, the quest for justice can assume ethnic or racial tones but the rights that are denied the subject group are more often than not vicariously also denied the perpetrators of the very injustices themselves as individuals or groups. For instance, the very Apartheid laws that segregated and brutalised blacks in South Africa also brutalised and dehumanised their tormentors because they abridged their freedom for fear of retributive violence. Similarly, Israel’s military superiority has not conferred on its citizens an immunity from the ever so frequent suicide bombers. For as long as the Palestinians feel aggrieved, the Israelis cannot enjoy their freedom in safety. It seems to me that in their quiet moments, the rest of Nigeria must be feeling a bit uneasy that the Igbos who have given so much to the Nigerian federation have not managed to derive much value from the federation for their energetic exertions and stupendous sacrifices.
Therefore, the best way to fight a perceived injustice is perhaps to fight for the enthronement of higher values that will give justice, freedom and humanity to all individuals in a free state.
In our specific instance, I believe it is the right and turn of every individual Nigerian, irrespective of ethnic affiliation, to vie for and be elected the next President of Nigeria. That is as far as the ideal goes.
On the contrary, there is quite a different case to be made in support of those arguing that it is about time we had an Igbo president in Aso Rock at this point in time. This argument can only go far if it is predicated on considerations that are not strictly ethnic in an allocative sense. I would hinge it more on the intrinsic qualities that are badly needed in the leadership that Nigeria needs to break away quickly from our present enslavement to the worst calamities that afflict humanity. Simply put, I would attribute our recurrent crisis of leadership as the chronic absence of the ability to manage poverty and adversity in order to create wealth.
In a multi-ethnic society, it is often the case that certain groups typify certain strengths (and of course weaknesses). At specific moments in national history, the attributes which are most abundantly found in a group can coincide with the qualities which the nation requires to propel itself forward. However, the collective desire to tap such attributes wherever in the nation they are most readily available can and must be felt by the national collectivity. The quest is only realisable in the context of the rights which the constitution confers on individuals and the processes specified for orderly political ascendancy and succession.
The question then is simply this: Are there conditions in the present culture of leadership in Nigeria that necessitate a president of Igbo extraction? Or, put better, are there qualities that are more inherent in the Igbo as a group which our national leadership culture requires now to get us out of the recurrent cycle of hopelessness? I would answer in an unconditional affirmative for a different set of reasons from the present choir of Igbo presidency agitators.
Our national leadership has consistently failed, as Achebe notes in The Trouble With Nigeria, to rise to the challenges of leadership principally because, they lack patriotism. They are bad managers of resources and, they are ethnocentric. It is precisely because these attributes are to be found in greater abundance among the Igbo in any sample of Nigerians that ought to propel the argument for a president of Igbo extraction.
Let me substantiate. Without fear of contradiction, it is safe to assert that the Igbo are the closest approximations to the Nigerian ideal. They are the most patriotic Nigerians that I know of. As a group, the Igbo, of all our nationalities, have the highest percentage of their investment outside the Igbo homeland, investing massively in every part of the country because they believe in the ideal that every Nigerian should be free to live and ply his trade in every part of the federation. The Igbos live, invest, integrate and add value to other parts of the federation more than any other group.
Of all our ethnic groups, the Igbos are the least ethnocentric. The great Zik of Africa was often indicted for not paying as much attention to the development of Igbo land to the same degree as the late illustrious Yoruba leader, Chief Awolowo or in fact the late Sardauna of Sokoto. Igbo ministers have been known to serve out their terms only to realise that the very roads leading to their villages are unmotorable. Even today, the Igbos are perhaps the only Nigerians who are likely to be found conversing with their kind in English when they meet in public.
On the scale of collective sacrifice, again the Igbo of all our nationalities taken in isolation have given the most for the survival of Nigeria. Over a million lost in the Civil War, nearly that number again dead in the series of disturbances and organised crises that have characterised our history since 1970.
In spite of these sacrifices and losses, there is statistical evidence to support the claim that in terms of private contribution to national wealth, the Igbos all over the country account for a far greater percentage of our non-oil Gross National Product- in real terms- than any other ethnic nationality. It would be a good test of this claim to have all Igbo-owned businesses in Nigeria closed down for a week and see what happens to the national economy!
At the level of management of resources, Igboland contains the highest percentage of persons who typify the classical capitalist myth of rags to riches in Nigeria in their ability to convert hopeless adversity to astounding wealth within a very short time without depending on government patronage and handouts. The only scandalous ambiguity in Igboland is that the titanic developmental strides of individuals and communities is hardly complemented by public sector support in terms of infrastructure. That is the root of the cry about marginalisation.
It is also true that among the Igbo are to be found individuals who display some of the more despicable attributes of the ugly Nigerian. Perhaps prolonged contact with other Nigerians and the deliberate political and economic squeeze on the Igbo since 1970 would partly account for some of the ugliness.
Nevertheless, the prevalence of those qualities that our national leadership badly needs among the Igbo is perhaps the single most compelling argument in favour of a president of Igbo extraction this time around. The quest for a president of Igbo extraction should therefore be for the nationalistic reason of finding an individual who typifies these more positive attributes and who is prepared to place them at the disposal of Nigeria. That is about the only sure way of ending the marginalisation and hopelessness that has chained us all to the pre-history of human development.
But care needs to be taken in the parading of candidates. It is part of the sad irony of our recent history that there have been situations where power has been ceded to an individual in the hope that they will bring to the nation the benefits of those qualities that their ethnic roots suggest only for the result to negate the expectation. The tragedy of Obasanjo’s presidency is essentially that the nation expected that he would bring the rich legal clout, technocratic prowess and libertarian attributes of the Yoruba nation to bear on national life. Alas, see the mess we have. In one fell swoop of epic political irresponsibility and monumental incompetence, Obasanjo has not only vicariously demystified the Yoruba nation but has, more tragically, vitiated the credibility of the power shift argument that helped to put him in power.
Perhaps the argument for an Igbo president ought to be couched differently: it is a search for the ideal Nigerian president, the president as a manager of resources and a creator of wealth for public good in a republican sense. In other words the best president that we all badly deserve but have not had the courage to elect.