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An Ibo president wanted for Nigeria - 2002-06-10

In Nigeria, many Ibos -- who are largely based in the southeast -- want their ethnic group to produce the next president in the 2003 election. The Ibo, the Yoruba, and the Hausa are Nigeria's three main ethnic groups. President Olusegun Obasanjo -- whose first term expires next year -- is a Yoruba from southwestern Nigeria. Although the constitution allows him to serve two four-year terms, some political analysts believe the presidency should then go to another southern ethnic group. For most of Nigeria’s 40 years of independence, the country has been led by northern military rulers. None have been Ibo. President Olusegun Obasanjo is the only one of the country’s two elected presidents to come from the South. The Ibo say they've been kept from economic and political power since they lost a bid to form a separate nation 30 years ago. Eghosa Osaghie is a professor of political science and the head of the program on Ethnic and Federal Studies, or PEFS, at the University of Ibadan. He says in 1998, there was an informal arrangement among the parties that the president should come from the south – which has been the most marginalized of the country’s three main regions since independence. He says that includes the Ibo – the second largest ethnic group in the South after the Yoruba: "Many of us have to understand from that arrangement that the president has to come from the south. And that happened (with Obasanjo). Now in 2003 we don’t know if the arrangement is still valid. If it is valid, then I don’t see why the Ibos should not have a go at the presidency. I mean granted that it is a southern thing, we must remember that there are three geopolitical zones in the south."

With about 40 million people, the Ibo are an important voting block. Now, many Ibo politicians say they want to be what they call the president or “the king” – and not just the king-makers. Producing the next president has become their main goal. And analysts say making the dream a reality will go a long way toward giving them a sense of belonging after the defeat of their Biafran Republic in 1970.

The socio-political Ibo organization called the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo says there’s no going back on fielding an Ibo to contest the presidency in 2003. A member of the organization and the head of the Ibo in Oyo state, Eze, King Alex Anozie, says the group has begun consultations with other ethnic groups for support: "We try to convince them [that] the Ibo man has contributed so much to the development and the life of this country Nigeria." Ibo supporters say the Ibo have the qualities to produce well-known leaders, like the former Secretary General of the 52-member Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku. Eze Anozie notes the Ibo are also good traders – and could potentially transform the dwindling economy: "Take a look at the Ibo man all over the world wherever the Ibo man stays, wherever he is, he prospers. He does well. So we continue to think that if an Ibo man is allowed the opportunity to [win the presidency], the same thing will happen. He will put in that his radical aggressive way of succeeding in life. And Nigeria will begin to move forward."

But some believe the Ibo should support President Obasanjo for a second term and press for their turn in the following presidential elections in 2007.

Osisioma Nwolise is a senior lecturer in political Science department at the University of Ibadan. He says the Hausa North should wait until the Yoruba Southwest and the Ibo Southeast have each completed two presidential terms. If President Obasanjo, a Yoruba, is reelected, he will have completed his second term in the year 2007: "The Ibos should give him all the support to complete his tenure. He has the constitutional right not that other aspirants cannot contest against him. I do not believe in the whole talk by a lot of people that he should limit himself to four years and hand over to the Igbos. We (Ibos) are not going to get a half chop. If the Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was not terminated by the military, he (would have) had the chance of serving for two tenures (terms). (Former civilian president Shegun) Shagari had his chance for two tenures. He was also terminated by the military."

Dr. Nwolise believes the Biafran civil war is being used against the Ibo. He says Nigerians have been led to believe that an Ibo president would break up the country. He says that such suspicions are baseless considering the levels of investment the Ibo have made to develop the country. Mr. Nwolise warns of the danger of continuing to isolate the Ibo. He says like the Ibo, the Germans were defeated in World War I - -and were punished by the allies. But the resentment – and a punitive treaty against Germany which kept it economically defeated -- led in part to the rise of Adolf Hilter and to World War II : "In fact that made him prepare to fight the world, and of course later we had a greater catastrophe than the First World War. So if it is hatred and they want to suppress the Ibo man forever of course at a point the Ibo man will go and fight. The youth are saying it. At a point when you push them to the wall [that they can not jump over] there will be an explosion."

Meanwhile President Obasanjo has declared his candidacy for 2003. Other notable northern leaders are following suit, including the former head of state, retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari. The Ibo are intensifying their own search for a credible candidate. The southern Yoruba and the northern Hausa are working against them by looking for ways to divide the large Ibo voting block by attracting some of its members to their own candidates.

In the end, Ibo voters will determine whether an Ibo presidential candidate – or a powerful coalition partner from another region of the country – is the best way to deliver on electoral promises to Nigeria’s Ibo minority.