“Theoretically, it is finally time for an Igbo president, which Peter Obi clearly fancies himself as. The trouble is that while Peter Obi is certainly Igbo but lacks support from the current ruling structure, Rotimi Amaechi enjoys said support but is inconveniently Ikwerre. It is the proverbial paradox of the headless cap and the capless head”.
Is the Ikwerre ethnic group an Igbo subgroup? This has hardly ever been a question of national significance in Nigeria. Typically, it is a debate that rages in the wild and untamed depths of Nairaland and the darker reaches of Twitter and Facebook.
Nobody who claims to have any real understanding of Nigeria’s post-civil-war politics would ever really involve themselves in this argument, which often appears to be as pointless as it is interminable. Nobody, that is, until Federal Minister of Transportation – and proud Ikwerre native – Rotimi Amaechi recently decided to drop a bombshell.
Lying 230 KM northwest of Amaechi’s hometown of Diobu, the bustling city of Awka is home to a former Anambra State governor Peter Obi. According to the unwritten – but very real – political principle of “zoning” in post-1999 Nigeria, it is the turn of the southeastern region to produce the country’s next president in 2023.
Theoretically, it is finally time for an Igbo president, which Peter Obi clearly fancies himself as. The trouble is that while Peter Obi is certainly Igbo but lacks support from the current ruling structure, Rotimi Amaechi enjoys said support but is inconveniently Ikwerre. It is the proverbial paradox of the headless cap and the capless head.
The 2023 presidential election is after all, unlike any other before it. Without fear of exaggeration, it promises to be a defining point in Nigeria’s history on a scale to dwarf even the 2015 election. Under these circumstances, it is extremely important to know the candidates and have an idea of what their chances are and what they are about.
Who are the viable candidates and what does each of them represent in terms of politics and policy? In the second of this series, I attempt to unravel the mysteries around Rotimi Amaechi and Peter Obi, and look ahead to what Nigeria can expect from each of them if they become president.
“Candidate Peter Obi” – The Capless Head
Peter Obi is possibly the most unusual candidate in this series. Save for the noisy conversation about whether the zoning agreement still holds, and whether Rotimi Amaechi satisfies the requirements for being recognised as ‘Igbo’, Peter Obi’s name rarely comes up in political conversations for dramatic reasons. For a Nigerian politician from the southeast, he is quite the oddity – clearly and undeniably Igbo, and yet apparently not quite enough to trigger the latent Civil-War Complex that haunts much of Southern Nigeria.
For the first time in 2023, he will be considered a bonafide contestant, as against a spare wheel on someone else’s ticket or a vaguely optimistic but never-going-to-happen name people bring up alongside Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Akinwunmi Adesina. There are two important questions that his candidacy will answer, namely: “What makes a Nigerian politician electable?” and “Will Nigeria ever move on from 1966?”
The answer to the first question will lie in how the public receive Peter Obi’s message – economic liberalisation, reduction in growth of the state, zero appetite for flashy “projects” and an almost cartoonish enthusiasm for emulating the so-called Chinese economic miracle of 1979-2009.
Using his period in office as Anambra State governor as a reference, Peter Obi’s governing style is everything but ostentatious – you could almost call it boring. There are no prolonged media wars with political rivals; no “zing” quotable quotes savaging his “enemies;” no ribbon cuttings to commission N500 million overhead bridges – next to nothing.
During the post-1999 “bonanza” when state governors loaded on the recurrent expenditure bill with retinues of new political offices and pork barrel projects to keep everyone sweet, Peter Obi famously earned the pejorative nickname “Aka Gum” signifying his perceived stinginess and unwillingness to “spend the money.” He was scarcely appreciated for it, but Anambra State as a result became one of Nigeria’s most fiscally disciplined states – a position it still maintains today.
Extrapolating from his record and his stated policy positions while running as VP on the challenger ticket in 2019, it is safe to say that a Peter Obi presidency will have no “Millenium Tower” projects, no billion-dollar loan-funded railways to nowhere, and almost certainly no further expansion of the Nigerian state. More likely will be a directed trimming of the Nigerian state’s power to interfere with the economy and a redirection of state energies into being a market regulator and not a participant.
This is not to say that Peter Obi comes completely without any baggage. Following the #EndSARS protests and the exposure of CSP James Nwafor and the atrocities of the notorious Awkuzu SARS which took place during his tenure in Awka, his response was to hide behind the “I have no control over the federal police” excuse. His successor and political godson Willie Obiano even appointed Nwafor as his Chief Security Officer, only quietly dismissing him in the face of national outcry last year.
The judicial panel subsequently set up by the Anambra state government was openly undermined at every turn until it simply stopped sitting. The obvious message from the establishment in Anambra is that there are several questions over what happened during the tenure of Peter Obi and his successor – questions that neither of them are willing to answer.
Can Nigeria have a “President Obi?”
The second question that Peter Obi’s candidacy will answer dates back to the events of the infamous January 15, 1966 military coup which was subsequently (and inaccurately) labelled as an “Igbo coup.” The legacy of that coup and the deadly 3-year conflict that ensued from 1967-1970 continues to live at the top level of Nigeria’s political calculation. Regardless of whatever public denials have been issued on this matter, the reality is that a deep resentment toward the entire Igbo ethnic group continues to exist at the heart of the Nigerian state.
Since the end of the war in 1970, Nigeria has never had an Igbo Head of State, and there has only been an Igbo No 2 citizen on 2 occasions. The first, Alex Ekwueme, was unceremoniously removed from office and tossed into prison during a certain Muhammadu Buhari’s military coup in 1983. The second, Ebitu Ukiwe, was humiliated by Ibrahim Babangida and chose to resign. It is also a documented fact that the Southeastern region of Nigeria has minimal FG presence compared to the rest of the south, the Middle Belt and the North. Proportional to its relatively peaceful status, the southeast is also the most over-militarised region in Nigeria.
Denials notwithstanding, all these are evidence of the Civil-War Complex that continues to animate the Nigerian state. Peter Obi’s candidacy promises to rip the band aids off Nigeria’s unaddressed national wound by giving Nigerians a direct choice between the candidate who appears to have the most coherent plan and idea for governance, and their visceral and unhidden unwillingness to vote for an Igbo person. It will be recalled that Goodluck Jonathan’s “Ebele” political gambit – harmless as it was – had real political consequences, particularly in the north. In the absence of any kind of federal support of the sort that Jonathan had in 2011, can Nigeria really vote for a “President Obi”, or is that yet a bridge too far? Only time can tell.
Popular Support: D
Economic policy: A
Security policy: [unknown]
Policy on youth: A
Respect for rule of law and civil freedoms: B
Overall Electability: C
“Candidate Rotimi Amaechi” – The Headless Cap
As mentioned at the outset, Rotimi Amaechi’s major impediment on the path to Aso Rock in 2023 would appear to be his undeniably Ikwerre roots. With a nickname like “The Lion of Ubima” and a background in Diobu, Rivers State which he has spent much of his political career wearing proudly, it is – to say the least – quite problematic to manufacture or play up any genealogical links to Nigeria’s political southeast 21 months to the 2023 election. The successful rebranding of “Goodluck Jonathan” into “Goodluck Ebele Jonathan” was a one-time deal whose coupon was fully scratched in 2011.
In any case, with a first name like “Rotimi,” good luck with trying to reprise that.
In fact, it isn’t just that Rotimi Amaechi is “not Igbo” that is the problem. The problem is that he belongs to perhaps the most inconvenient ethnicity for someone who needs a quick red-cap-and-ishi-agu rebrand. The mutual antipathy between Igbo and Ikwerre identities is the stuff of folklore.
Politically speaking, the sight of an Ikwerre politician competing against “Pit’Obi” for a vacancy expressly marked “Igbo” is a bit like Justin Trudeau crossing the U.S. border and trying to run for office in Texas. Fortunately or unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell Rotimi Amaechi any of this, which is why we get to have delightful spectacles like this.
It might seem less than advisable for a man from Rivers State whose name is Rotimi, to start a war with Senator Eyinaya Abaribe over who is more “Igbo” than the other, but this typifies everything that Rotimi Amaechi’s political career is about. He has an everlasting willingness to fight against the odds and he backs himself to win every single time. It was the trait he displayed when rising through the ranks to eventually become governor in Rivers State. It was the same trait he displayed while defying a sitting first lady and breaking with tradition to join the opposition as Rivers State governor.
It is the trait he continues to display, which has helped him survive for 5 long years as the most visible southern face on president Buhari’s cabinet. His strategy for taking on Peter Obi is simple – fight like hell, remain loyal to President Buhari, refuse to surrender the initiative and hope for support from Aso Rock and Buhari’s northern base when the time comes. While this trait may conceivably serve him politically and possibly even get him into Aso Rock, it is also what makes him the most difficult policy read of all candidates.
What exactly would a President Rotimi Amaechi do with power?
If as with the other 3 spotlighted candidates, his term as a state governor is used to extrapolate his possible policy direction, it remains impossible to tell. Apart from his much-publicised falling out with Patience Jonathan and his decision to build one of the most iconic white elephant projects in Nigeria’s history, Amaechi had a generally solid and unspectacular pair of terms as Rivers State governor.
Notably, while states like Lagos, Kaduna and Cross River had piled on external debt to the tune of $1bn, $234 million and $131 million respectively toward the end of Amaechi’s tenure in 2014, Rivers State had a relatively low external debt profile of $44 million. While other relatively large states like Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Kaduna and Osun triggered several official warnings from the Debt Management Office (DMO), Rivers State under his leadership was rarely mentioned in such conversations, and was never censured for taking on huge amounts of debt.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Amaechi was an especially shrewd fiscal administrator. Rivers State’s monthly recurrent expense under him ballooned 450 percent, going from just over N2bn to over N9bn. Toward the end of his tenure, civil servants in the state also began to complain of going unpaid for months, to which his response was that the state’s federal allocation had fallen by over 50 percent.
His tenure as Transport Minister has also not been without its contradictions. On the one hand, he is arguably one of the most active ministers in the federal cabinet, and his legacy will include the game-changing Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan standard gauge railway – behind schedule and over budget, but very much functional and welcome. On the other hand, several questionable decisions have passed through his table including the head-scratching decision to build a loan-funded $2bn standard gauge “railway to nowhere”, linking Kano and Maradi.
His zest for rail infrastructure projects also strangely failed to account for the southeast and Niger Delta. Apart from a line of questionable viability linking Warri to Ajaokuta via Itakpe, and a refurbishment of the existing Port-Harcourt – Aba – Maiduguri narrow gauge line, both regions have been essentially left out. The southeast in particular has not received a single metre of standard gauge railway during Amaechi’s 6 years as Transport Minister, despite being an important trade centre and the undisputed manufacturing hub of Nigeria.
Popular Support: C
Economic policy: [unknown]
Security policy: [unknown]
Policy on youth: [unknown]
Respect for rule of law and civil freedoms: C
Overall Electability: C