Retired Muhammadu Buhari’s recent victory at the polls has given aggressive vent to the aphorism that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. Many APC partisans are regaling in ‘I told you so’, while several merchants of fortune scamper for media opportunities to surreptitiously remind us of their ‘immense’ contributions to the Buhari enterprise. Those who chose to buy into different political narratives from the competing ideas in the political marketplace are now scorned or pitied for their political ‘illiteracy’ or naivety – as if political campaigns are no longer meant to be contests for ideas and narratives. Cowboys masquerading as wisdom merchants are offering unsolicited advice that merely mask their search for relevance in the new dispensation. Is this what bandwagoning is all about? I feel nauseated that some politicians do not even have the decency to wait for the new government to settle down and unfold its values before jumping into the new ship. What these fair weather politicians have succeeded in doing, in my opinion, is to ennoble opposition politics. As our democracy matures, politicians will increasingly be identified by what they stand for – and not whether they are in the ‘right’ or ‘opposition’ party.
Reflective of this emerging triumphalism and ‘chop-chop’ politics is the tendency to pick on the South-east, which voted massively for Jonathan in both 2011 and 2015, for their apparent lack of political foresight or even ‘political illiteracy’ (as one writer called it) - even though most parts of the country, out of group think, historically give bloc votes to identified parties and individuals. While I am averse to ‘chop chop’ politics and believe no group should owe any one explanations on why they chose to vote the way they did, as a political science teacher I am intrigued by the level of support Jonathan appears to have in Igboland. In fact going by the published figures (by the way I believe both APC and PDP fiddled with figures from their strongholds), the PDP bested even APGA (said to be Igbo party) while Jonathan’s popularity far surpassed that of the Great Zik at the peak of his fame. How can one explain this?
Taking the published figures at face value, I believe there are several variables simultaneously at play in the South-east:
One, the critical elements of the Igbo faction of the Nigerian elite rarely like to play ‘opposition’ politics – or put crudely to be shut off from the corridors of power. In the First Republic for instance, Zik’s NCNC was in alliance with Sarduana’s NPC just as Zik’s NPP was also in alliance with the NPC’s reincarnate, the NPN in the Second Republic (1979-1983). In fact, despite Zik’s leadership of the NPP in the Second Republic, by 1983, most of the eminent Igbo politicians had joined NPN, abandoning Zik, so to say. Again it should be recalled that when Yaradua became gravely ill and a cabal around him did not want power to be transferred to then Vice President Dr Goodluck Jonathan, the South east Governors collectively aligned themselves with the cabal. So how do we interpret the tendency of the Igbo faction of the elite to want to be at the corridors of power? Is it reflective of their lack of political foresight or pragmatic politics?
Some have argued that being very diasporic and with homes and businesses in every nook and cranny of the country, it will be unwise for them to play ‘opposition’ politics as they need to be friends with the government at the centre to ensure friendly policies that will protect the group’s interests across the country. This is perhaps what some Igbo people mean when they defend their politics by arguing that the goat follows the man with the palm fronds. Whether this is pragmatic politics or reflective of politics without principles remains however debatable but is reflective of the fear that the group that wins power at the centre could use such power to privilege its in-group or disadvantage others.
Two, given the structure of the Nigerian federation and the inevitability of an alliance between a Northern faction of the elite and a southern faction to form government at the centre, there is often a competition among the various sub-regional factions of the elites (South-west, south-south and South-east) on who will be chosen. For the elites of the South-east, the Buhari-Osibanjo ticket is an alliance between the North and their rival south-west, and were the ticket to win, it would position the southwest faction of the elite to succeed Buhari rather than them. Based on this, it is possible the Igbo faction of the elite calculated it was better for them to massively oppose the Buhari-Osibanjo ticket.
Three, coterminous with the above two factors was the fear factor, which was massively exploited by the PDP. I had in another article in the run-up to the presidential election hypothesized that in areas like the South west, the south east, the south-south and the Middle Belt, the power of incumbency, the fear factor and money could play decisive roles in influencing the outcome of the election. It would seem that these factors worked quite well for the PDP in Igboland. For instance it was alleged that in the run-up to the election several text messages circulated in Igboland on contrived roles for Buhari during the civil war. Given how sensitive Igbos are generally about the civil war, such fear-inducing text messages are bound to be effective. While one may question the veracity and morality of such text messages, playing up the fear factor is unfortunately a legitimate campaign weapon in any democracy. What the APC strategists would have done would have been to anticipate such fear mongering and develop, also through bulk SMS, counter narratives.
Four, the South-east and its neighbour the south-south have had an uneasy relationship since the First Republic, especially during the Zik -Professor Eyo Ita fallout of the 1960s. The general consensus seems to be that Igbo politicians did not manage their relations with the ethnic minorities in the former Eastern region well. For some Igbos therefore, supporting Jonathan - or appropriating him as one of their own – was one way to repair that damaged relationship.
I believe a combination of the above factors could explain Jonathan’s popularity in Igboland.
One of the lessons from the last election is that contrary to the argument of some APC partisans that Buhari’s election was a revolution, or that ethnicity and regionalism are dead- – they are actually very alive and remained the key drivers of the election. True, there were some elements of the innate desire by some to try something new after the PDP had been in power for nearly 16 years. Regional and ethnic sentiments however were all too obvious in the support for Buhari in the North-west and North-east since 2003. In the same vein, as my explanations for Jonathan’s popularity in Igboland shows, ethnicity, regionalism and religion on their own are not sufficient to determine electoral outcomes. They need to interact with other variables or predisposing factors. For instance would most of the Northerners who have consistently supported Buhari since 2003 have remained faithful if it were another candidate - say Atiku or Ribadu? The truth is that identity politics is a fact of life in any plural society – which is why in countries like the USA politicians will deliberately target Jewish votes, Hispanic votes, African American, White votes etc. As Nigeria matures in its journey towards nationhood, we are likely to become a melting pot of cultures, rather than a region, ethnic and religion blind country. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong in regional and ethnic factions of the elite coming into alliance. As our democracy matures, the fear that the regional faction of the elites that wins power will abuse it to privilege its in-groups or punish the others will change. This fear is where the problem currently lies and why some are characterized as having lost out or being confined to playing opposition politics.
One interesting question I have been reflecting on in the past few days is the statement credited to Oba Akiolu of Lagos who reportedly ordered the Igbos to vote for Ambode in the forthcoming Governorship election in the State or perish in the lagoon. How can one interpret the Oba’s reported threat – reflective of the new triumphalism, angling to be seen as pro-APC (even though he had previously given reasons why he would not endorse Buhari) or a critical test of free speech? I believe in free speech because it is a prerequisite for defending our democratic space and all the freedoms we currently enjoy. Therefore while I found his speech reprehensible and happy that he is shunned by right-thinking members of the society, I am also wary of over-reaction, which could boomerang and damage community relations. Certainly the Oba is no God and does not have the capacity to implement his threat. To that extent his speech, as offensive as it may seem, does not qualify, in my opinion as hate speech because it cannot pass the ‘clear and immediate danger’ test. Was his speech incitement? Perhaps. But we should again bear in mind that every opinion could be construed as an incitement. As Justice Holmes put it in a landmark case in the USA, (Gitlow v New York ), “Every idea is an incitement... The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker's enthusiasm for the result.”