Following the traumatic outcome of the 2023 presidential election, the South East summit on economy, security and politics holding this week is a welcome initiative to begin a reset that may enable a frazzled region to compete more effectively for power at the presidential level
By Chudi Okoye
The Labour Party is now, very methodically, plotting a path back to power. If the party wins the next general election, which must be held no later than 28th January 2025, victory would not have come a moment too soon. In the past 44 years, beginning with the Thatcherite revolution of 1979, Britain has had eleven general elections, only three of which were won by Labour. From these elections emerged nine prime ministers, six of whom at different points won general elections, while the rest exercised power through existing party mandate. Of the six election winners, only one has been a Labour prime minister; and of the three mandate riders, just one too has been Labour. So, of the nine prime ministers that have ruled Britain since 1979, only two have been Labour; the rest, Tory. It is not an edifying record.
The British Labour Party lost four general elections in a row from Margaret Thatcher’s ascendance in 1979. The party regained power in 1997 after major ideological shifts and tactical changes engendered by the Blairite revolution. But since 2010, the party has again lost four elections in a row. The political zeitgeist in the UK now appears to favor Labour, which is working assiduously to regain power. Due to its own focused efforts, which are more grind than grand gestures, and thanks too to a string of recent tactical blunders by dinky Tory prime ministers, Labour might be on the cusp of capturing power again; though, trailing the Conservative Party by 156 seats, this will not be a cakewalk.
The UK Labour Party’s exertions toward power provide ample lessons for us on these shores, particularly for the South East region in its so far elusive quest for federal power in Nigeria. Not unlike the UK Labour Party’s spotty record over the past two score and four years, the South East boasts only one of Nigeria’s 14 heads of government since independence: a short-lived military one at that with a turbulent six-month tenure representing only 0.8% of head of government tenures over the past 63 years. It is not an edifying record.
The South East’s stunted record of political accession is not of course for want of trying. In every national election, there’s been a rash of candidates from the region, with a rush of rotational claim to apex leadership. But for all that, the highest office remains elusive, the region coming the closest to date only with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s ceremonial presidency in the 1st Republic and Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s vice-presidency in the 2nd. The region came somewhat close again in the 2023 presidential election, with Peter Obi, campaigning on the platform of the Labour Party, securing 25.40% of the votes compared to the great Zik who’d managed only 16.75% in the 1979 and 13.99% in the 1983 presidential elections. As I pointed out in a March article for Awka Times, Obi had a more impressive footprint across the country than had Zik, hence his higher score. Still, for all that, according to the official results which are currently being contested, Obi came only third in the 2023 election, just as Zik had done in the two 2nd Republic elections.
In the wake of another seemingly failed South East sally, we must ask some obvious questions: Why does the region, home to one of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups, continue to play third fiddle in the drama of Nigeria’s presidential politics? Is it, as the Igbo saying goes, that the barber isn’t skilled or that his aguba (razor) and mkpa (scissors) aren’t sharp enough? What must now be done, and what is the timeframe to do it, for there finally to emerge an elected Nigerian president of South East extraction?
These questions, among many others I hope, will be top of mind in the convocation of the 2023 Igbo Day and ‘South East Summit on Security and Economy’, two events holding concurrently in Owerri, Imo State capital, on 28th and 29th September. The events are sponsored by the South East Governor’s Forum (SEGF) in collaboration with the socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo.
South East Summit Agenda
Going by the billing, the upcoming South East events will be star-studded, and issues to be discussed weighty and urgent. Luminaries from the five south-eastern states are expected at the events, among them leaders in politics and government, business, academia, media and civil society, along with traditional and religious leaders, as well as women and youths.
On the first day of summit, to be chaired by Anyim Pius Anyim, a former Senate President and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, the incomparable Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, herself a former super minister and currently Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, will kick things off with a keynote speech dwelling on the overarching summit theme: ‘Beyond 2023, time for reset’. Thereafter, a series of speakers and discussion panels will tackle the most critical issues troubling the region, with specific regard to the triad of economy, security and politics. Newspaper reports indicate that Sam Amadi, a law professor and former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, will present a paper likely titled: ‘South-East Agenda 2043: A roadmap to accelerated economic transformation’; Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika (rtd), a former Chief of Army Staff, will look at ‘Overcoming South-East security challenges as a precursor to new development efforts’; while Dr. Chidi Amuta, a literary critic and newspaper columnist, will speak on the topic of ‘Enhancing the South East political competiveness in Nigeria’.
On the second day of summit, to be chaired by Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, there’ll be break-out sessions looking more closely at the three topics of economy, security, and political inclusiveness. Dr. Abraham Nwankwo, a former Director General of the Debt Management Office, will chair the economy session; Chidi Odinkalu, a law professor and former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, will guide a session on security; while Dr. Ferdinand Agu, a former Director General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), will pilot the panel on political inclusiveness.
It looks, in all fairness, like a well-planned agenda, developed by a summit planning team led by my former editor-in-chief, Senator Chris Anyanwu. I would have expected nothing less of her. But, of course, the devil will be in execution, particularly in the coverage and depth of the presentations, the audacity of the major presenters in broaching the issues facing the region, the perspicacity of the discussion panels, and ultimately on the implementation of summit recommendations.
A Duel Mandate
I am highly encouraged by the conference theme: ‘Beyond 2023: time for reset’. It would seem to align with a perspective I myself have been urging on our region, beginning with a piece I wrote in early March, just two weeks after the presidential election, titled: “Beyond Grief and Anger: Preliminary Ideas for SE Political Strategy After the 2023 Elections”. In writing that piece I was concerned that the South East, “having invested heavy political capital in Peter Obi’s 2023 presidential bid” and getting a deeply muddled outcome, might succumb to a prolonged period of political grief and even irrational rage. Whilst acknowledging the need to interrogate the official results of that election using all legal means, I also urged an expeditious advance through what political analysts sometimes call the ‘stages of political grief’, to help us shake off the cloud of despondency and rage and begin early to prepare for the next electoral battle in 2027. I concluded that piece as follows:
“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.”
It seems to me that the South East summit scheduled to hold this week in Imo State, in urging a focus beyond 2023, has similar concerns. The summit of course has broader concerns than the primarily political focus of my earlier piece, going by the advertised agenda. But politics is an organic part of the agenda, with the topic of ‘political inclusiveness’ and ‘political competitiveness’ purposively projected.
The themes of political inclusiveness and competitiveness are an interesting choice. I can’t wait to see what the summit makes of them. To me, however, those themes represent, first, a triple rebuke; and second, an expression of renewed determination. The inclusiveness theme is a rebuke of the disectarian tendency which has arisen in the wake of the 2023 presidential election, playing into what I might call the ‘exitist’ pathology of the Igbo political fringe. The rage attending the controversial election has threatened a mainstreaming of this fringe pathology. The summit’s theme of inclusiveness is a clear rejection of that instinct and evidently an attempt to sublimate the political rage threatening to derail South East politics.
The competitiveness part of the summit’s political agenda is also a rebuke of sorts: of the entrenched interests in Nigerian politics which have frustrated the legitimate political aspirations of the South East; and of the region’s political class that has proved ineffectual in the face of systemic resistance – by failing to properly articulate a regional agenda, by pursuing individual goals often to the detriment of the region, and by not being persuasive and aggressive enough to advance the regional interest.
It seems then, to invoke a term I coined in an article I wrote over two years ago, that this week’s South East summit will be signaling a Duel Mandate for the regional leadership. The themes of inclusiveness and competitiveness suggest that we the south-easterners must remain in Nigeria, but also that we must find a thrusting new approach to achieve political equality and inclusiveness in our country.
My Duel Mandate coinage is of course a play on the classical Lugardian ‘Dual Mandate’ which described, as I wrote in that earlier article, “a deliberate plan to pursue the strategic and economic interests of the colonial metropole whilst yet striving to ‘civilize’ or ‘pacify’ the colonized ‘savages’.” It meant, as I noted, that “Imperial Europe could exploit African resources in so far as it committed to developing the peripheral colonies.” British neocolonial interests meant distorting Nigerian politics to favor a northern hegemonic bloc that has largely controlled power since independence. But in that 2021 article, I also pointed up the incipience of a Duel Mandate, “a new radical awakening which is rising in the southern region, threatening the norms of Nigerian politics.” I had argued that this new mandate involved a “fight for a restructuring of power relations in Nigeria,” and that “if not assuaged, it [would] cause unimaginable turbulence in the lead-up to the presidential election of 2023.”
We have seen how this played out in the 2023 presidential election. It had forced the nomination of a southerner in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), despite seeming attempts to retain power in the North. It culminated in the party winning the election, according to official results that are currently contested. And it had led to the splintering of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for its insistence on fielding a candidate from the North, triggering an internal dissent and a sustained sabotage which cost the party the election.
With power shift to the South thus achieved in the 2023 cycle, ideally there ought to be an arrangement to further rotate power between the South West and South East in the 2023-2031 cycle, since the North is likely to demand a reverse power shift after the eight-year southern stretch. But, of course, the South East cannot expect a willing concession of power from a triumphant South West.
Since the South West will now likely dominate the 2023-2027 term, assuming the Supreme Court does not remove President Bola Tinubu, the South East must gird up to seriously compete for power in 2027: an obvious political imperative if we are to avoid a 16-year stretch from 2023 to 2039 after the South West and northern rotations. This, I believe, is the urgent message of the South East summit’s political competitiveness agenda. The South East regional leadership therefore has a Duel Mandate, a bidding to fight for power in 2027. This must be the focus in Owerri this week.
As with the Labour Party in the UK, we must entertain no illusions that this would be a cakewalk. It requires a ‘will to power’, to invoke Friedrich Nietzsche’s cryptic philosophical concept. It requires a subjugation of the individualistic tendencies of South East political actors. Given the current political landscape whereby four governing parties hold sway in the South East, it also requires the orchestration of a regional political concert, which will take all the diplomatic skills of the legendary Metternich to achieve. That political concert will have to be encompassing enough to bring back in the currently frayed grassroots of South East political society. Above all, whilst getting our house in order the better to bid for federal power, we must also strive to build more effective coalitions across Nigeria. Power is a coalition game in Nigeria, but to play the game effectively we have to bring something compelling to the table.
It will take all these and more to push an agenda of political competitiveness, or a Duel Mandate, for the South East. But it is an inescapable task if the region is to improve its political fortunes. A South East Duel Mandate to win federal power in 2027 might seem a little daunting. But if the Supreme Court, against widespread demosprudential yearning, upholds the appeal court ruling on the presidential election petitions, it will prove a boon to Bola Tinubu’s political legitimacy but it may also stiffen sentiment against the president. If Tinubu in addition fails to perform, as seems likely under the current conditions, he’ll be all the more vulnerable in 2027 to a formidable opposition. If President Tinubu becomes the second incumbent to be defeated at the polls, it would be a welcome milestone in the development of Nigerian democracy.