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Beyond Grief and Anger: Preliminary Ideas for SE Political Strategy After the 2023 Elections

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The South East invested heavy political capital in Peter Obi’s 2023 presidential bid. While Obi pursues litigation to recover his allegedly stolen mandate, the South East must avoid the tyranny of protracted grief over the last election and must begin early to prepare for the next one which may be challenging, in part because of the singularity of its choice in the just concluded election.

By Chudi Okoye

We the Igbos of the South East are reputed for our republican streak and rugged individualism. Yet, when it comes to presidential elections, we tend to vote in a concorant manner, offering a disproportionate share of our votes to a single candidate we favor in the contest, whether or not they are fellow Igbo. In 1979, the two South-eastern states as they existed then gave Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe over 80% of their votes. In this Fourth Republic the five South-eastern states have offered a preponderant share of their votes to their preferred candidates in successive elections: Olusegun Obasanjo, nearly 70% in 2003; Goodluck Jonathan, 84% in 2011 and 91% in 2015; Atiku Abubakar, 76% in 2019; and Peter Obi, 88% in 2023.

It is a remarkable and probably admirable history of loyalty. The question is: did it pay off in the past? Also, how will our latest choice play out in the politics of the next presidential poll?

It is a high-stakes political gamble to continue to place the bulk of one’s chips behind one candidate; and it bucks the trend of other geopolitical zones hedging their bets, in successive elections, by distributing their votes competitively among leading candidates. Only the South East votes so lopsidedly for its preferred presidential candidates.

With a high-stakes gamble, you could win big or lose big, depending on whether or not you place a successful bet. Alas, the South East’s strategy has seemed so far to secure only suboptimal outcomes in the political game, yielding low payoffs when we pick a winning candidate but maximum pain when our electoral bets have been unsuccessful. We had moderate gains under Obasanjo and Jonathan, but incurred huge pain after Abubakar lost to Muhammadu Buhari in 2019. And, with Bola Tinubu’s poor performance in the South East in the recent election (similar to Buhari’s), there are ominous signs for the zone if the courts affirm his victory.

The potential loss to the South East with Tinubu’s likely ascendancy may not be limited to being isolated in his administration – in terms of appointments, federal investments, etc. There could also be a serious setback to the goal of finally having a Nigerian president of South East extraction.

To begin with, since Tinubu will be deemed to have taken the South’s presidential slot should INEC’s verdict be upheld by the courts, there will be agitation for power to return to the North after his presidency. We can expect such agitation, even after Tinubu’s first tenure, among the more restless and ruthless northern protagonists who would claim that by 2027 (at the end of Tinubu’s first tenure) the South would have ruled for about 17 of what would then be 28 years of the Fourth Republic, while the North would have ruled only for about 11 years. The clamor would be even more insistent if Tinubu, despite his apparent health issues, goes for a second term, thus increasing the South/North share of incumbency, at the end of Tinubu’s second term in 2031, to a 2:1 ratio. Assuming that the North insists thereafter on an uninterrupted eight-year run, it means we’d be looking at around 2039 – 16 years from now! – before the South East might get a meaningful shot.

It gets worse. In 2039, the current crop of Igbo political leaders thought now to be capable of an effective presidential run would have become quite advanced in age: Peter Obi and Anyim Pius Anyim would be 78; Chukwuma Soludo and Orji Uzoh Kalu would be 79; Dave Umahi would be 75; Hope Uzodinma would be 81, and so on. None of these guys, unable to nab the presidency as sexagenarians, would be able to clinch it as septuagenarians, let alone octogenarian. A two-term tenure for Tinubu would be political Nunc Dimittis for most in the current crop of Igbo political leaders.

So, given this scenario which I have sketched, what is to be done in the near term?

Right now, with his sweep of the South-eastern states and his inroad to other geopolitical zones in the recent presidential election, Peter Obi seems unassailable in the Igbo presidential pecking order. Certainly other fairly strong presidential aspirants could emerge, perhaps in the PDP which might be looking to mend fences in the South East. But, again, Obi’s command of the South East in this last election denies other presidential hopefuls much bargaining power in other parties. That is the logic of the overwhelming vote received by Obi in the South East. If the courts uphold Tinubu’s INEC victory, Obi will be expected to run again in 2027. By then, Obi could be in a stronger or weaker position, depending on what he does in the interim.

There is a danger that his incipient (‘Obidient’) movement could dissipate, seeing as it is majorly populated by impatient youths many of whom might have been motivated by the promise of a quick gratification in this electoral cycle. Many could simply wander off, disillusioned by the failure to clinch the coveted prize this time around.

However, as I pointed out in my last article, Obi stands a chance of building his base into a formidable movement, to be deployed with greater efficacy in the next cycle. Not only that. With the national profile he has gained, he could also build more formidable political alliances across the country, especially in the geopolitical zones – North West and North East – where he underperformed in the recent election. He will also need to deepen his reach even in the zones where he did perform well. And he will need to cultivate more in the mainstream Igbo political class, though it will be a task with that shifty lot.

Even as he does this necessary work of extending his political reach, Obi needs to watch out for internal power struggle within the Labor Party. Obi has taken what was a dormant party and given it an electoral success beyond its wildest dreams. But this party having its origins in the labor movement, there may be some in the old ‘labor movement’ wing of the party who will question capitalist Obi’s authenticity as an ideological representative for the party. There were in fact such rumblings in this cycle, mollified only by the rapid successes Obi achieved on the campaign trail. Such forces within the party might want to attempt a usurpation of Obi’s achievement and political celebrity, attempting to exploit the political inroad he has created for a more radical ideological agenda. It is a typical ‘entryist’ strategy on the left. If Obi does not head off such potential internal challenge, it could lead to a rupture within the Labor Party, rendering it ill-disposed to take on the All Progressives Congress (APC) especially if Tinubu runs for a second term; or even a resurgent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which might probably have reconstituted itself after the noxious politics of Atiku Abubakar’s presidential run in this cycle.

Given the above, there is clearly much work ahead to prepare for the next election, which is the window for the South East to produce a president – or it might have to wait until 2039, with an improbable pipeline of younger politicians ready for such a time!

There is much work to do, and the time to begin is now!

I imagine however that right now, much of the focus of Obi’s team is on litigating the February 2023 election which Obi insists he had won. The team should certainly pursue that effort to its logical end, though I have laid out my tentative prognosis about its prospects.

Given the despondency and level of anger probably within the Labor Party hierarchy but certainly among its support base, Obi simply cannot abandon the battle to reclaim his supposed ‘victory’. But at the same time he needs to begin to prepare his base to move beyond grief.

Political analysts sometimes talk about the ‘five stages of political grief’, a construct based on the traditional Kübler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ model which is associated with death and dying. The model goes through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It may be too early yet to expect any advance in that recovery model. Emotions currently are too raw and complicated for a rapid recovery. We are confronted with a complex of disappointment wrapped in political rage inside a thick layer of defiance and braggadocio. It rends the air. It pervades our gatherings and suffuses the media, especially the poorly governed wildness of social media. And, in much that’s muttered or brazenly uttered, we get little but cluttered thinking.

There’s probably some utility in political rage. But, to achieve the legitimate Igbo goal of cracking the glass ceiling of presidential power in Nigeria, we cannot allow the tyranny of protracted political grief. We cannot allow the current angst and despondency to fester. And it will come down to Peter Obi, having cornered Igbo vote in the last election, to lead the recovery and rebound. Obi and his team should take a well-deserved rest and then suit up for the battle ahead in the next election. It will be a tough but an entirely winnable election.


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