Although Bola Ahmed Tinubu scored only one per cent of votes in the South East, as Nigeria’s next president, he has a responsibility to bring peace to the region by intentionally running an inclusive government and addressing the marginalization of the South East.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A Nation Divided. Buy the issue here.
In the early hours of 01 March 2023, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, declared Mr. Bola Ahmed Tinubu the winner of the 2023 presidential election. In a tightly contested poll, according to INEC, Tinubu garnered a total of 8,794,726 votes as against his closest rivals, Atiku Abubakar, who polled 6,984,520, and Peter Obi, who received a total of 6,101,533 votes. The three leading candidates won an equivalent of twelve states, each spreading across different geo-political zones in the country.
Although the results and processes of the elections have been challenged at the electoral tribunal by both Atiku (as he’s more commonly known) and Obi, INEC issuing a certificate of return to Mr. Tinubu implies that he is most likely to be sworn in as the next president of Nigeria by 29 May 2023. But as I predicted in an earlier essay, voting patterns were partly influenced by identity and value considerations, raising serious gaps in the spread with concomitant legitimacy concerns. For instance, Mr. Tinubu’s victory was made possible largely from votes by the South West and Muslim-North, while Obi’s were pulled from Christian-majority Southern and North Central Nigeria. The Igbo-majority states in the South East, specifically, voted overwhelmingly for one candidate—Obi—a pattern of opposition voting that critics have argued hitherto condemned the region to systematic marginalization by the Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressive Congress (APC) administration.
On the pretext of Buhari’s 97-5 per cent metaphor and the context of the voting pattern of Nigerians in the South East in the 2023 presidential election, this essay will attempt to discuss the security challenges in the South East and what the Tinubu administration could do differently to restore peace in the region. The staunch rejection of APC by the region, the rejection of the Muslim-Muslim ticket, and the growing perception of a ‘massively rigged’ election are creating ambivalence that could amplify the fragilities that are associated with the federal government’s policies towards critical issues such as the Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB), its leader Nnamdi Kanu, and contested economic policies, such as the impracticability of an eastern railway corridor, that may be interpreted as ‘punishing the South East,’ despite its altruism. The success or acceptance of the Tinubu administration in South East Nigeria depends on how ‘peacefully’ he circumvents these ‘issues’.
THE SOUTH EAST AND TINUBU’S ROUTE TO THE PRESIDENCY
Mr. Tinubu campaigned vigorously and traveled across the five states in the South East to market his candidacy and share his plans for the region. In Abia State, he touched on his plans for university education and his strategy to resolve the intra-party conflicts, and he intimated the people of the state on the rewards of not staying in opposition. In Imo State, Tinubu shared his vision of love, peace, unity, stability, and progress. He further promised to break the shackles of poverty and ignorance, and tackle corruption and problems in the power sector. He also pledged to make the state an attractive centre for tourism by adding value to real estate while also supporting critical infrastructure, as well as education, security, and revenue generation, among others.
In Enugu, however, Mr. Tinubu warned that it is only when the people of the state vote for him and the APC gubernatorial candidate, Mr. Uche Nnaji, that they will enjoy the national cake. According to him: ‘Nobody will give you any credit, you are working hard, you’re sweating now. We want you to sweat well now for this party until you deliver victory. Until Bola Tinubu becomes the president of Nigeria, we will not give you but a soaked sliced bread.’ The threats of marginalization notwithstanding, Tinubu promised to make the state a manufacturing hub, an agro-processing centre, tap from its coal deposits, build deep seaports, and construct rail lines if he got elected. In Anambra, Mr. Tinubu promised development, industrialization, erosion control, and jobs, while committing in Ebonyi to make the South East an equivalent of what Taiwan is in Asia, invest in education and security, connect the region through interconnected rail lines, and dialogue with all agitators.
The above notwithstanding, an unhealthy rivalry between the Igbos and Yoruba had quietly crept in, as it seemed both ethnic groups fortuitously presented their best as options for Nigerians to choose from through the ballots. Consequently, ethnic whistling became a part of the campaign strategy and was, in the case of South Easterners, counted against Mr. Tinubu. Previous incidents of ‘igbophobia’ and anti-Igbo comments made by Tinubu’s camp were instrumental. For instance, a video where Senator Remi Tinubu, Mr. Tinubu’s wife, blamed the Igbos in Lagos for ‘spoiling everything’ and threatened to ‘entreat all the deities of Lagos to chase Igbo people out’ in 2019 was recirculated.
Similarly, a viral xenophobic and anti-Igbo phone conversation between Ibikunle Amosun and Kashim Shettima, fact-checked by PR Nigeria, and found to be fabricated, inundated the social media space and created a distorted view of Mr. Tinubu’s running mate. Importantly, Mr. Obi overtly condemned the identity-based campaign and faulted Tinubu’s acquiescence to his camp’s ethnic whistling in a viral WhatsApp broadcast that read,
Yoruba, shine your eyes; if you vote for Peter Obi, you are automatically voting for seaports in the South-South and South East. The Igbos will stop coming to Lagos to invest; rather, they will go to Delta and Rivers States. They may even stop building houses in Lagos. It will affect a lot of Yorubas. Yoruba ‘ronu o’ (think).
These, coupled with Tinubu’s preference for a Muslim-Muslim ticket and according to Business Day, his past involvement in narcotics, as well as Obi’s popularity in the South East, the ignoble legacies of APC rule, and, as Ebenezer Obadare, a professor of sociology, has argued, the prospects of producing an Igbo president since the end of the Civil War, made the Tinubu candidacy quite unpopular and trivial among the Igbos in the South East.
BUHARI’S PRECEDENT AND FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
Although Mr. Tinubu won the election, he managed to garner only 127,605 votes—about one per cent of his almost nine million total votes—from the South East. This demonstrates his unpopularity and low acceptance in the region. The above is similar to the 2015 presidential election scenario where the then-APC flagbearer, Buhari, pulled just 198,248 votes—about one per cent of his 15,424,921 total—from the South East. Nevertheless, the Buhari ‘winner takes all’ politics or governance based on votes awarded by regions and states established a precedence—that attention granted by the federal government to states or regions could be directly proportional to the distribution of votes the chief executive received from those regions.
On 22 July 2015, at the United States Institute of Peace, Buhari proposed and held on to this theory when he declared that ‘the constituents, for example, (that) gave me 97 per cent (of the vote) cannot, in all honesty, be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me five per cent.’ The implication, therefore, was that the South East, which gave him only about one per cent of votes, was to be systematically relegated and this was partly responsible for the resurgence of separatist activities in that region. As Buhari’s prospective successor and as an APC member, the chances of Tinubu maintaining Buhari’s ‘winner takes it all’ ideology are potent and may be partially responsible for the tension and trepidation in the South East region. These fears are made more germane by the WhatsApp broadcast amplified by Mr. Obi as well as Tinubu’s campaign speech at Enugu, which threatened to perpetually marginalize the Igbos if they failed to work for his victory at the poll. Although Tinubu has promised to run an all-inclusive government, the Buhari antecedent still hovers like a specter far beyond rhetoric. The stability of the South East may hinge on Tinubu’s absolute commitment to ‘belonging to everybody and belonging to nobody’—a promise his predecessor never honoured.
THE ISSUES THAT WERE MADE COMPLEX
Relative peace has evaded the South East region in recent times. Data computed by the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations, indicates that the South East was one of the most peaceful regions in Nigeria before 2015. For instance, between March 2010 and May 2015, the South East recorded only 302 violent deaths—an average of five per month. However, between March 2015 and December 2022, the region recorded a whopping 2,423 violent deaths—an average of 26 per month. This is around a 520 per cent increase in the monthly average of violent deaths recorded.
The nature of the issues that culminate in these deaths and instability is multi-dimensional, but they are caused and sustained by overlapping structural, proximate, and triggering factors. Major amongst these is leadership failure, which has culminated in underdevelopment, unemployment, a high illiteracy rate, economic hardship, career criminality, the proliferation of small and light weapons, and little trust and confidence in public institutions. There is also the factor of state repression and militarization of the region, with no positive result. Nevertheless, the human development index reports on Nigeria by the National Bureau of Statistics and the Centre for the Studies of Economies of Africa have shown that states in the South East are among the fairly well-governed by Nigerian standards, ranking among the top 15 in areas such as literacy, health, education, and income. Hence, social and political leadership failures in these states may not adequately explain the security disruption since 2015.
The disruptive impulses that destabilized the South East region from 2015 were largely a product of the highhanded and unempathetic policies of the Buhari-led federal governments towards the South East states. Specifically, Buhari’s lopsidedness in his earlier appointments and narrow justifications for doing so, as well as his ‘deafening silence’ over the ravaging activities of Fulani herders in the South East and elsewhere created an argumentative gap in which non-state actors and secessionist leaders weaponized. One such actor was IPOB, a secessionist movement, led by Mr. Nnamdi Kanu.
Utilizing a corpus of hate messages against Buhari and the Fulani, Mr. Kanu blamed the entire insecurity and herders’ violence in the South East on Buhari and his ethnicity, further alleging that it was a prelude to an ‘Islamization’ agenda. His message on the marginalization of the Igbos found credence in relatable facts such as the ‘cold war’ that has truncated the Igbo presidency, the lack of functioning international air and seaports, the militarization of states in the South East, poor federal roads and rail lines in comparison with other regions, among others. As the herders’ violence continued unabated and Buhari’s discriminatory policies persisted, IPOB became quite attractive and popular in the South East. The failure of the federal government to also address the herders’ menace culminated in the establishment of a parallel security outfit—Eastern Security Network (ESN)—by IPOB.
Understandably, the rhetoric on marginalization, injustice, and negligence of the South East region became the livewire of IPOB’s propaganda. It became worse when a member of the Igbo political elite and then-minister of labour and productivity, Mr. Chris Ngige, justified the marginalization, confirming that ‘politics is business in a way, you invest in (a) business and you reap profit. Yes, that is what it is. But all I want to tell you is that we played bad politics; we made a bad investment because they invested in the Jonathan presidency.’
While it would have been better to either ignore IPOB or suffocate it by addressing the issues that made it relevant, the Buhari government intervened violently by suppressing, arresting, and killing group members, destroying group properties, and eventually proscribing and declaring the group a terrorist group. Benjamin Maiangwa, a professor of political science and social justice, argued that this violent approach radicalized the group and ‘unwittingly elevated Kanu into a cult hero.’ While the IPOB leader, Mr. Kanu, is still imprisoned, the legacies of the federal government’s violent action keep haunting the region. For instance, the ESN still operates and is allegedly responsible for hundreds of deaths recorded recently in the South East.
Secondly, the militarization of the region has also resulted in regular friction and violent confrontations between civilians and military personnel. Thirdly, the pace at which IPOB was proscribed in comparison with other criminal groups in Nigeria, such as bandits, portrays a discriminatory framing of a threat to national security and resonates in Kanu’s messages. Importantly, the gloomy security situation has created an enabling environment for security racketeers who perpetuate and benefit from violence in the region, disguising themselves as IPOB or ESN. It is also worth mentioning that the Monday sit-at-home declared by IPOB (whereby physical movements and commerce are restricted), has resulted in significant economic damage and has weakened the ease of doing business in the region. An ICIR report revealed that South East states lost an average of N4. 618 trillion ($10.495 billion) annually to the sit-at-home order.
Moreover, the enforcement of the sit-at-home order by IPOB is also another avenue where non-state actors unleash violence against innocent citizens. It is also pertinent to add that the securitization of IPOB by the government has also led to the indiscriminate arrest, torturing, and killing of suspected members who, often times, are not members of the group. In this vicious circle, the associates of victims of violence from security forces often seek revenge, thereby producing waves of continued violence and counter-violence targeting civilians and security personnel.
WHAT CAN BOLA TINUBU DO DIFFERENTLY?
Addressing Buhari’s mistakes is likely the only pathway to achieving enduring peace and stability in the South East region. From the analysis above, it is convincing that the trigger of instability in the South East region is the mismanagement of the IPOB secessionist threat. A significant part of the insecurity experienced in the region is directly or indirectly associated with IPOB or its (mis)management. Peacebuilding, therefore, must be targeted at resolving the IPOB debacle and other agitations by peaceful means.
Unlike Buhari, Tinubu and the new APC administration must eschew the skewed idea of governance based on the distribution of their votes across states and regions. Such practice is vindictive and anti-democratic and should not be tolerated in Nigeria or elsewhere. While elections offer the masses an opportunity to choose who leads them, their aftermath foists the choice of the majority on all. Hence, the consolation of the minority is, and must be, the victorious party’s pursuit of equity in governance, redistribution of resources, and recognition. Fairness, justice, and equity to the people and states of the South East will counter the argument of relative derivation, which is a factoid and a factor for secessionist actors. To this end, Tinubu must not implement his pledge in Enugu to deprive the Igbos of the ‘larger cake of Nigeria’s success’ for not ‘delivering’ for his party. That, like Buhari’s case, will be retrogressive and may compound the security situation in the South East. Rather, Tinubu should remain committed to his campaign promises to provide stability, education, infrastructure and industrialization that would transform the South East into the Taiwan of Africa. His administration must deflate secessionist actors’ demagoguing of a South East without a functional seaport, a serviceable international airport, the worst federal roads and rail tracts, the most militarized and securitized region in peacetime, and less representation in federal appointments and projects.
Furthermore, Tinubu and the new APC administration must find a political solution to the continued conflict with Mr. Kanu, the IPOB leader who has remained incarcerated for years despite a plenitude of court orders mandating his release. The new government must not continue to be selective in granting amnesty and a ‘safe corridor’ to alleged ‘terrorists’. Tinubu must remain committed to his campaign promise in Ebonyi to dialogue and negotiate with agitators. Although this may not be politically expedient, there are, however, precedents of successes recorded in the case of militants in the Niger Delta and an ongoing experiment with insurgent actors in the North East and North West regions of Nigeria. Nonetheless, the greatest peacebuilding challenge to the Tinubu administration, beyond releasing Nnamdi Kanu, lies in ‘winning’ him back to the Nigerian side. A gradual de-securitization of IPOB and the (un)conditional release of its incarcerated members, alongside a commission and endowment funds to address critical issues and concerns of the people of South East, could make this possible.
Considering the atrocities that have occurred in the region lately, a judicial panel of inquiry could also be set up for victims from both the side of ordinary citizens and that of agents of the state to voice their experiences and grievances to address the vicious circle of revenge violence and counter-violence. The government could act on the report of such a panel to punish, forgive, compensate, or pay reparations. Such attention and concession will exude strong will and drive for reconciliation and healing, and the release of Nnamdi Kanu could be momentous like Shehu Shagari’s pardon granted to Col. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the erstwhile leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra.
Importantly, also, the Tinubu administration must invest in the collection of intelligence in the South East to unravel the names and faces behind the ‘unknown gunmen’, ‘gunmen’, militants, and ‘bandits’ that terrorize, kill, rob, and kidnap law-abiding citizens in the region. An altruistic targeting of these shadow parties is critical to ending the spat of incessant violence in the region. For a quick transformation of the South East region, the Tinubu administration must also collaborate constructively with the serving political elite and other stakeholders in the South East. He must use every legal apparatus to ensure that governors deliver altruistic governance and prudently manage the region’s allocated resources.
The instability in the South East region was escalated by the Buhari government’s negligence and highhandedness in managing its concomitant agitations. Tinubu can remedy the situation with a reversed policy that represents fairness, equity, justice, and fraternity towards the Igbos in the South East and elsewhere in Nigeria. Through this, relative peace can return to the South East⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].