As the 2023 general elections draw close, agitations for rotational presidency have intensified. At the centre of these arguments is the Igbo ethnic group of South East Nigeria. The most recent an Igbo man was in Ask Rock was 39 years ago when Alex Ekwueme was vice president to Shehu Shagari. Since the return of democracy in 1999 several attempts made by Igbos at becoming president have failed. The impression is created that the restiveness in the region is partly a response to this situation.
I am not an advocate of ethnic or rotational presidency. First, not everybody must be president. Second, there should be no special benefit for having a president who comes from one’s ethnic group. The reason people want the president to come from their village is the same reason they want the governor, the commissioner, the university vice chancellor, the school principal or even the headmaster to come from their village. That reason is that the Nigerian system fails her citizens and routinely denies them access to their entitlements unless they know someone in the office concerned. This is the fundamental problem that we must fix.
However, agitators for ethnic presidency are not doing so as a means to solve the problem. Rather, assuming that their ethnic group has been the victim of nepotism by other tribes for many years, they are simply asking for their turn to now be in government – to end their own marginalization and commence marginalizing those who once marginalized them. In other words, they accept that marginalization is unjust, but they are only seeking the opportunity to redistribute the injustice, not to end it. This is a distraction because it does not solve the fundamental problem of sectionalism in Nigeria’s politics. Rather, it seeks to institutionalize it. Nigerians of good conscience must resist it. They must insist on structural reforms that compel Nigerian governments to serve all citizens with equity and accountability, regardless of who is president. This is the solution to the current toxic battle for Aso Rock.
Equity does not mean that we need to draw a presidential roster showing all the ethnic groups in Nigeria and what dates each should be president. What happens if the tribe whose turn it is on the roster puts forward an incompetent candidate? Are we going to ask the more competent candidates to step down just because they come from the wrong tribes? Which do we prefer – to have a competent president and a government that works for all or to have the country butchered from limb to limb just to satisfy our delusion of equity? That is not equity. That is foolishness. Equity simply means, every time there is vacancy for president, all the ethnic groups have an equal chance to become president, and Nigerians are free to choose the most competent without worrying about his origin.
That equal chance entails that the electoral system must be free from manipulation – that all other institutions of government are equally above reproach. This means that if a candidate considers that he is competent enough, he should be free to run for office any year he wants. It means that no institution of government – security agencies or financial institutions – should be manipulated to harass him or unjustly stop him from winning. If the people agree with him and vote him, the electoral system should not interfere with the people’s will. And if there is any interference, the judiciary should be able to dispense justice promptly and fairly. In summary, equity means, how can Nigeria serve all Nigerians without bias?
This is the work which true advocates of equity must focus on. They must focus on building a country that works for everyone at the same time, not a country that works for people, one tribe per presidential term. When that happens, all ethnic groups will know that they have an equal chance to be president, but it is not an entitlement. They will, therefore, put forward their best candidates and compete on the basis of merit, not by trying to blackmail other tribes into supporting them.
This is where the Peter Obi 2023 candidature presents a unique opportunity for Ndigbo. Obi represents the strongest argument Igbo people can make about Nigeria’s presidency. He is the most competent of the candidates. He demonstrated that competence during his eight years as Governor of Anambra State. While people can argue that he is not a typical politician – whatever that means – no one can dispute that Obi has the stuff we have been trying to put in Ask Rock. This is Ndigbo’s chance to kill two birds with one stone – to give Nigeria a truly competent president while simultaneously achieving their struggle for Igbo presidency.
To achieve this, though, Ndigbo must pull itself together. For a long time, Ndigbo has been unable to present a common front on its future. Divided between self-determination for an independent Biafra on the one hand and achieving Igbo presidency within Nigeria, the Igbos have been politically distracted. It is time for them to key into the Peter Obi brand, massively obtain their voter’s cards and leave no vote uncast on election day. Ndigbo must know that without maximizing its voter turnout and presenting a thoroughly credible Igbo candidate, any agitation for Igbo presidency based purely on ethnicity will not fly.