By Jideofor Adibe

Dr Chidi Amuta’s elegantly entitled article ‘2023: Igbos and the Politics of Moral Consequence’ (THISDAY, August 23 2020) and Bishop Kukah’s rejoinder, ‘Of Igbos, 2023 and Politics of Moral Consequence’ (THISDAY, September 2 2020) have perhaps opened up the space for robust, unemotional conversations not just about the current clamour for a President of Igbo extraction in 2023 but also for the whole project of nation-building in the country.

Dr Amuta’s basic argument over which geopolitical zone should produce a successor to President Buhari in 2023 is that “national history has a moral arc”, which bends inexorably in “the direction of justice no matter how long it takes”. He called it the “politics of moral consequence”, which he defined as “politics in the service of the higher meaning of democracy when democratic outcomes redress injustices.” He contended that the aim of such a form of politics is to “avert the dire consequences of a nation sustained on systemic injustice.” Based on this he argued that the agitation for a shift of the locus of presidential power to the South East is “rooted in the general history of nations” and mentioned a number of countries where he felt such had been used effectively to redress historical injustices. He also identified several obstacles to the Igbo quest for the presidency including (a) “The Igbo political elite has to reduce the habitual fears and nervousness of the competing political elite of other factions in the country”; (b) “Internally, the Igbo political elite must strike a consensus to avoid presenting Nigeria with multiple candidates” and (c) “there is a disturbing pride, arrogance and noisy ebullience in the Igbo character that can unsettle competitors.” He advised that in “the long run, the best way the Igbo can attain self-actualization is to “lose themselves in the Nigerian market place.”

Bishop Kukah, while commending Dr Amuta for his “elegant turn of phrase and sheer depth of thoughtful analysis”, did a very robust critique of the piece, especially on Amuta’s analyses of what he sees as the constraints militating against the country having a President of Igbo extraction.

Both Dr Amuta’s essay and Bishop Kukah’s commentary raised fundamental issues:

One, while I enjoyed reading Dr Amuta’s theses of ‘moral arc’ and ‘moral consequences’ in his very riveting article, I found myself agreeing substantially with Bishop Kukah’s eloquent critique of both the premise of the article and its recommendations to the Igbo. Additionally I feel that Dr Amuta’s ‘moral arc’ and ‘moral consequence’ these assumed, not very correctly in my opinion, that politics is driven only by the fear of ‘moral consequences’ of injustice. The truth is that there are broadly speaking two competing philosophies in the theory and practice of politics – one school believes in power accumulation – that the end justifies the means, that politics is the ‘art of the possible’ and therefore not a vocation for angels and moralists and that only those who have the capacity to dip their hands in the burning political furnace for the crown jewel should be supported in their quest for power because “power is not given on a platter”. In political science, the various shades of thought within this perspective are often designated as the School of Realism.

On the other hand there are several perspectives in both the theory and practice of politics which are not only critical of the School of Realism’s Machiavellian brand of politics without principles, morality or justice but also insist that such values should indeed be the bedrock of politics. It can be argued that there are sparks of the divine in most people that drive them towards fairness and just acts even against their personal and institutional interests. For instance some Northern Muslim elites have been in the vanguard of condemning Buhari’s alleged Northern Muslim bias just as there are some Yoruba politicians who have taken the position that the Yoruba should excuse themselves from running for the President in 2023 because they have had their turn under Obasanjo (1999-2007) and in the Vice Presidency of Osinbajo (2015-2023). Similarly when the June 1993 election won by MKO Abiola, a Yoruba, was annulled by the Babangida government, some non-Yoruba elements joined the struggle for the revalidation of Abiola’s mandate under the banner of campaign for democracy. Those who believe that politics should be driven by morality, fair play and justice usually immaterialize the ethnic locus of any campaign for these values. The current clamour for a President of Igbo extraction should therefore be better framed as a direct appeal to the adherents of this brand of politics. This also means that those who are against the presidency being conceded to the South East in 2023 are not necessarily Igbo haters but probably subscribe to a different philosophy of politics. Those clamouring for a President of Igbo extraction on the basis of justice and fair play should also ensure that such values are upheld in the respective Igbo states to make their demand more credible.

Two, Dr Amuta’s example of countries which have used the politics of ‘moral consequence’ to redress perceived acts of historical injustices such as the USA electing Barrack Obama as President in 2008 to redress injustices against American Blacks deserve further interrogation. We may in fact add to Dr Amuta’s instances Nigeria engineering that the two main political parties in 1999 – the PDP and the AD – both had Yoruba presidential candidates as an appeasement for the injustice of annulling the election won by MKO Abiola, a Yoruba. But were these gestures actually enough to redress those perceived historical injustices? For instance did an Obama presidency in the USA lead to better racial harmony in the country or did it pave way for the mainstreaming of right-wing politics there? Has the concession of the Presidency to the Yoruba in 1999 and the current Vice Presidency of Professor Osinbajo assuaged the Yoruba quest for restructuring and various secessionist movements in the South West? The truth is that while gesture politics could be helpful it can also paradoxically exacerbate the problem it was designed to solve as it can actually in the short term worsen the antipathy towards an ethnic group – as happened to the Niger Delta under Jonathan and to the Fulanis under Buhari. The long term solution, may also not be, as Dr Amuta suggested, in the ‘Igbos losing themselves to the Nigerian marketplace” (which they have probably always done – perhaps more than any other group in the country) but for re-starting the stalled nation-building process so that every constituent member of the federation will come to feel that they are better off being in the Nigerian federation than as an independent entity. This is the strategy that has been used to repeatedly defeat secessionist quests in Scotland (United Kingdom) and Quebec (Canada) where the ‘better together’ movements have always triumphed in every referendum.

Three, some of Dr Amuta’s reasons on why the rest of the country may not be comfortable with a President of Igbo extraction seem to be derived from the stereotypes Nigerian ethnic groups have of one another in the country. Take for instance his point on the “noisy ebullience in the Igbo character that can unsettle competitors.” The truth is that there is something in the culture of every ethnic group which compels and repels – and the Igbo have enough of theirs.

One of these is the achievement-oriented nature of the Igbo society, which was well articulated by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958) where he wrote that though age is respected among the Igbo, achievement is revered. On the positive side, this cultural trait imbues the ‘can do it mentality’ and culture of never giving up. On the flipside, you get not just the “noisy ebullience” that Dr Amuta and others talk about but also a seeming overrepresentation of the Igbo in activities on the other side of the moral divide as no Igbo wants to be seen as failing in a culture that revers achievements and scorns failure. The hope is that as societies evolve and move further away from their peasant origin and the culture that goes with it, other values will hopefully gradually emerge to replace the undesirable ones.

Four, while I agree substantially with Bishop Kukah’s very incisive commentary on Dr Amuta’s essay, his argument that the “north unravelled a long time ago and that what is left is a scarecrow that still frightens some ignorant people in the south” will be an interesting topic for students of identity. As we all know, every individual is an embodiment of a mosaic of identities. But as Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and 1998 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics Sciences argued convincingly in his 2006 book, Identity and Violence, the identity that is perceived to be under threat will be the one most privileged and vociferously defended. Following from this, we can surmise that Bishop Kukah’s identity as a Northern Christian has been at the fore in his recent public engagements because he perceives that identity – rightly or wrongly- to be under threat. But this cannot vitiate the fact that he is also from Kaduna State and therefore has ‘Northernness’ as one of the mosaics of identities that he bears.

This means that if there is a potent external threat to his Northern identity, in all probability, his Christian identity will be submerged under his Northern identity, which he will now privilege over his other identities. This explains why a respected and cosmopolitan national figure may sometimes be seen championing parochial identities and why, when the national team, the Green Eagle, plays a match, all the internal grievances, fault lines and secessionist threats in the country are submerged under our Nigerian identity as we line up to support our own against an external threat. In essence, if the North is seen to have unravelled, it is most likely because there is currently no existential external threat capable of galvanizing the people to act like one. I feel a number of Southern groups trying to appropriate the Middle Belt (essentially Benue and Plateau States and the Christian minorities in the ‘core’ North) have a lot to learn about identity construction, including that it has both time and space dimensions.

Five, a crucial issue that was left unaddressed both in Dr Amuta’s piece and Bishop Kukah’s commentary on it is what happens, if in the clamour for a presidency of Igbo extraction, an Igbo regarded by the generality of the Igbo as an efulefu (a never do well who stands for nothing) is sprouted and supported by the kingmakers, and pitted against someone from another ethnic group who is deemed to be more honourable and intellectually endowed? My suspicion is that such a scenario will lead to ‘moral dilemma’ for many Igbos – close to what we saw in the relationship between Olusegun Obasanjo and Yoruba when he became President in 1999. In essence the quest for the presidency of Igbo extraction, while it will be good gesture politics that will in the short run help to avoid the Biafranization of most Igbos, is not as simple or straight forward an argument as it is often presented to be.

•Jideofor Adibe is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University, Keffi

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