The recent blocking of a planned meeting of the Igbo Political Forum (IPF), which was to take place at the Banquet Hall of Hotel Concorde, Owerri, on Monday September 27, 2010, has generated headlines, editorials and condemnations by various groups. According to the story, the organisers had paid N100, 000 to use the hall two weeks before the scheduled event. However, just a few days to the date, riot police men ‘invaded’ the hotel, claiming they had ‘orders from above’ not to allow the event to take place. The organisers tried to move the event to a nearby All Seasons hotel only to be rebuffed by the hotel’s managers, who allegedly also claimed they were acting on ‘orders from above’.
Several issues are raised by the debacle that surrounded the planned confab.
One, the blocking of the meeting turned out to be a public relations coup for IPF as it enabled it to attract far more media attention than would have been the case had the conference been allowed to hold as planned. The notion that some respected Igbo leaders like former Vice President Dr Alex Ekwueme, former Governor of old Anambra State Chief Jim Nwobodo, former Senate President Ken Nnamani and former CBN Governor Professor Chukwuma Soludo – among others – were prevented from holding a political meeting in their homeland and had to resort to having such a confab in an open field, amid an inclement weather, played into a certain persecution narrative and disrespect for Igbo leaders. Since the IPF is thought to support PDP’s zoning arrangement, implying that it is opposed to the candidacy of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ), the situation was happily exploited by Jonathan’s political opponents, with innuendos suggesting that the lockout could not have taken place without the active connivance of both the federal government which controls the police and the Imo State government, which owns Hotel Concorde.
Two, suggestions, even if by innuendo, of the federal government’s complicity in the lockout, undermines the ‘moving train’ storyline on which much of GEJ’s campaign has so far been premised. This storyline, accentuated by the mammoth crowd that came to the Eagle Square at Abuja to witness the president’s declaration of his intent to contest the 2011 presidential election, suggests that GEJ winning the PDP primary and even the general election is a fait accompli. There are a several stories and events – some probably contrived- to feed into that narrative. These include reports that the PDP in the South West pledged the support of the entire geopolitical zone for GEJ; news that the South East Governors and Speakers of their respective Houses of Assemblies unanimously endorsed the candidacy of GEJ, news reports that Dr Alex Ekwueme, former Vice President, has accepted to work for GEJ’s campaign and ThisDay’s ‘trends analyses’ which suggest that President Jonathan would win an overwhelming majority of the delegates in the PDP primary.
Critics have argued that if the ‘moving train’ storyline is true, then there would not have been any need for such a panicky measure as stopping a group of people in a democracy from exercising their right to free assembly. The critics also point out other incidents that cast a big question mark on the ‘moving train’ story line such as the fact that Dr Alex Ekwueme, who was recently reported to have accepted to work for GEJ’s campaign actually turned out to be the chairman of the IPF’s conference at Owerri. In the IPF’s communiqué, which was read in an open field, Ekwueme insisted that the Igbos would not compromise on their right to take a shot at the presidency in 2015.
Three, GEJ’s political opponents have tried to use innuendos to link him to the lockout with the aim of raising questions about his democratic credentials. Though it is perfectly possible that the Presidency had absolutely nothing to do with the lockout, the suggestion that GEJ could have been involved puts a big dent on the image he projects onto the public space. There is no doubt that the President is genuinely popular with some people, most of whom respect him as an unassuming gentle man. During the late President Yaradua’s terminal illness, when a ‘cabal’ within the presidency tried to prevent GEJ, who was then the Vice President, from being named the Acting President, his public persona helped to galvanise support and compassion for him. In this respect, any action that will undermine the President’s public persona of an affable, tolerant and easy-going gentleman will undermine his support among many Nigerians. In recent times however, there have been quite a couple of such stories that may end up hurting the President’s image. For instance, Chief Raymond Dokpesi, chairman of Babangida’s campaign organisation, claimed the presidency was after him for agreeing to work with the Minna General. Similarly, some critics have accused GEJ of using a suddenly resurgent EFCC to go after state Governors who refuse to support his candidacy. Again, few days before the lockout of Igbo leaders at the Hotel Concorde, Owerri, the Secretary-General of the Igbo Political Forum, Chief Chyna Iwuanyanwu, was reportedly whisked away by security operatives at the Sam Mbakwe Airport, Owerri and allegedly detained at the State Security Service, (SSS) offices for five hours before being allowed to go. Stories like these – some of these obviously exaggerated by the President’s opponents – do no political good to his image.
Four, the contentious meeting of the IPF also raises questions about Igbo political leadership. Is there really any particular set of people who can claim to speak on behalf of the extremely republican Igbos? At least one faction of the Igbo elites led by First Republic Minister of Aviation Mbazuluike Amechi had already endorsed the candidacy of GEJ. The South East Governors, who have a tendency of supporting whoever is in power at the centre under the thesis that the “goat follows the person with the palm fronds”, have, as expected, already declared their support for Jonathan (they also voted that Jonathan should not be made Acting President even though it was obvious the late Yaradua had become terminally ill). The IPF and some other Igbo groupings have expressed preference for other political options. So which of these groups could be said to be representing the interest of the Igbos? There is a feeling that before the lockout, those genuinely supporting and opposing Goodluck Jonathan in Igboland appeared to be evenly divided. The crucial question now is the likely impact of the lockout and the emotions it stirred, not to talk of their exploitation by politicians, on possible support for GEJ in Igboland.