A recent private conversation I had just before Christmas with an informed and well-known Nigerian of Igbo origin left me stunned and challenged as an individual and as a Nigerian citizen. It also made feel me sad and embarrassed. Our dialogue centred on the present and the future of Nigeria and as expected, we agreed and disagreed on many issues but the surprise came when my interlocutor, in what can be defined as quite an articulate and certainly undramatic manner, informed me that there is no way an Igbo person or somebody from the South-South will be allowed to be president of the present day Nigeria. Only the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba can rule Nigeria for now, he told me.
As an individual that grew up discovering Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi before Wole Soyinka; Namdi Azikwe and Emeka Ojuwku before Awolowo and Aminu Kano, it is hard for me to believe or accept that the whole of the South-East, and the South-South cannot come up with a person, just one! that is acceptable to them and to the rest of Nigeria as president. As a citizen I feel dismayed and embarrassed by the idea that I come from a country where a substantial part of its constituents are considered and indeed consider themselves unfit to rule.
I felt the need to further investigate this apparent conventio ad excludendum towards potential leaders from the South-East, and the South-South of Nigeria.
My first port of call was the North. I contacted someone that hails from the northern part of Nigeria and who has been very at home with the rulers and quite familiar with the affairs and intrigues of power in Nigeria since the last 30 years. In his ever pleasant manner he simply informed me that he does not understand why I am bothering myself. To the best of his knowledge, the South-East, and the South-South were not really interested in producing a president. He elicited attitudes, episodes and personalities that allowed him infer that most of the elites and representatives of South-East, and the South-South are only interested in ministerial positions, oil blocks, juicy contracts and nominations as ambassadors or directors of government agencies. I reminded him that there was a time, not so long ago, when most Nigerians were talking about zoning the presidency to the South-East, and the South-South and he, mimicking me, reminded me that no so long ago, while people like myself were bombarding people like him with letters and appeal for the South-East and the South-South, the leaders of this group were busy supporting the third term agenda.
One of the advantages of festive periods is that it gives you a valid excuse to (re)contact just anybody, even if you have not spoken to them for a long time or have not departed frequentations on the best of terms. I called on a former governor and a respected leader from the South-East. Among many other things, His Excellency, as we still call him, told me not mind all those governors and their likes, the highest position they wanted was VP and they wanted it for themselves not for their people he warned me. It is shame he added but then concluded that we might still be in for surprises.
I did not feel any better but I tried to ease my pain with the thought of my next host. A very colourful, charismatic and dynamic Yoruba leader, who has tasted the comfort of power and the frustrations of opposition; he has never ceased being involved in Nigerian politics one way other since the fifties. He was very happy to see me and glad that I was asking questions, the man listened to me with undivided attention and I even thought he was sympathising if not empathising with me. I however soon realised he wasn’t thising anything with me when he started spraying me with his own list of questions. He wanted to know who were the leaders of the South-East, and the South-South? Who is their candidate? What exactly do they want, and when and for how much they have articulated their demands. I gave my answers, but without listening to me he simply reminded me of how the Yoruba people led the June 12 battle that let to the election of Obasanjo. He asked me if the South-East, and the South-South had done much or were prepared to do the same? He jokingly asked me if my friends expected others to fight for power and hand it to them in a plate?
The everyday average Nigerians I know were not spared from my grilling on the South-East, South-South and the Nigerian leadership issue. Most agreed that a South-East or South-South leadership was out of the question for Nigeria. Save for some few that impishly regurgitated some common places such as the prominent role of the people of South-East and the South-South in the forgery and sales of goods and drugs or their tendency to take over anywhere they go in Nigeria, most people could not and did not logically say they were against a president from the South-East or the South-South. Their main point were that the powers that be, will not allow it and more importantly the people of the South-East and the South-South were not actively and organically seeking to produce a president.
This repulsive sense of helplessness that makes Nigerians believe and act as if the powers that be are made up of some kind of invincible and diabolical individuals is not new to me; I have come across it in many quarters and I still find it nauseating. It is really pitiful that after the lessons and sacrifices offered by people like Beko Kuti, Wole Soyinka Frank Kokori (and even Obasanjo and Ribadu in their own ways) , Nigerians still continue to believe in the and omnipotence of some people.
The (now ex) presidential aspirants from the South-East and the South-South, who should be leading the battle for national leadership have not helped matters. Sooner or later we will get to know the full and true details of why and how they abandoned their aspirations to vie for president in 2007. Some of the essential elements or leadership include character, commitment and foresight. For now, one cannot but conclude that whether these men were convinced, cajoled or railroaded into quitting the stage, their stature and capability as leaders are dented. The ease and rapidity with which they abandoned the contest of leadership speaks tons about their passion and their stamina to rule. The nonchalance with which they spent and then forsook money and other resources for their ephemeral commitment to national leadership does not speak well of their respect for money and resources; it does not give encouraging indication to the source of the dissipated funds and it does not give heartening indication of how they plan to or might want to recoup such funds.
As gloomy as the present scenario might appear, things are in reality not so bad, the South-East and the South-South still have more than a slim chance of producing the next President of Nigeria. They have the right and the responsibility to produce a credible candidate, support and sustain him till April 2007. They have to do it now because if they miss this chance to at least make a bold statement there might be no second chance as good as this.
Paradoxically, it is this Obasanjo led PDP (or is it just Obasanjo) that in one single stroke is consciously or unconsciously providing the South-East and the South-South with three fundamental building blocks for a collective leadership battle: a common political bond, a challenge and hope. The selection of two complete outsiders who had till only recently showed no interest in become national leaders and the complete exclusion of all the South-East
and the South-South leaders from the race, notwithstanding their own loudly expressed desire and commitment to rule and the general clamour for a shift of power to their region is enough ground to pull the people and leaders of the South-East and the South-South together. They have been challenged to react and to do so as a team. The exclusion, defeat and defection of other aspiring candidates perceived as intimidating and invincible such a Babangida shows that there is hope for any project and person that can dare in Nigeria. Most other political parties have followed suit; rather than go against the tide, like the PDP other parties such as the AC and the ANPP have consciously or unconsciously intensified the common political bond for the South-East and the South-South people. They have dared them again to react, to prove they consider themselves bigger than the role of second fiddle.
It is now time for the leaders and people of the South-East and the South-South to react. They must come together, find a common voice, pick up the challenge and react. They need to prove to the world that they can produce a leader and that they are not content to just perpetually abet or deputise for others. It is time for them to call their PhDs, Chiefs and Princes, to advise, convince or even instruct them to stop offering the support of their various Youth Movements to others. They need to identify their own candidate and support him. They need to take their collective destiny into their own hands. Never mind all the talk, there is enough human and financial resources in the hands of the people and leaders of the South-East and the South-South to make their own candidate acceptable to majority of Nigerians. All they need do is find a good one and support him.
I of course already have a candidate the leaders and people of the South-East and the South-South can champion. His name is Pat Utomi. He is a registered presidential candidate; he is competent and has clear idea of how to lead Nigeria. He hails from the Igbo speaking area of the South-South so he is the one presidential candidate that in a single body personifies the South-East and the South-South. All they need do is to make it known that he is their candidate, rally round and support for him and let Nigeria and the world know that he is the only candidate they will accept.
The 2007 presidential election is an opportunity and a test bed; if the leaders and people of South-East and the South-South can come together and present a common front to ask and fight for a leading role in the coming 2007 elections, the whole issue of marginalisation might come to an end; everybody will began to understand that there is no second class nation in Nigeria. They would have done themselves and the whole of Nigeria a big favour. They don’t need to invent anything new, the 1999 model is there to emulate and fine-tune to fit the purposes of the battle at hand in 2007. By the way, it is worth noticing that that the Yoruba are not really presenting any candidate in 2007.
If however 2007 goes by, and the leaders and people of South-East and the South-South do not rise up to this challenge, then this generation will have missed a chance they might never gain again. Other Nigerian nations will conclude that they can walk over some nations. Rotation of power does not mean your place will wait for you; it is more like an English queue, once you let it go you will have to start again. This is the best time for the South-East and the South-South to produce or at least seriously attempt to produce a leader. Timing is critical in politics; people should not be deceived by the live to fight another syndrome because a chance lost is hardly ever regained in the tussle for power, reasons and excuses, no matter how valid tend to be useful to only scholars and posterity.