Buhari’s visit to Imo State and implications for southeast

President Buhari in Imo state

Since he became governor of Imo State on January 14, 2020 by the pronouncement of the Supreme Court, Senator Hope Uzodimma has been faced with many battles. Part of the challenges he faced on assumption of office was how to convince his Imo people to accept him as their governor. That was partly because in the said governorship election conducted in 2019, that eventually brought him to power; he had finished a distant fourth. The pronouncement of the Supreme Court, which removed Emeka Ihedioha, who was returned by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), as winner of the poll paved the way for his emergence.

Settling down after his swearing in was not an easy task. He had initial problem of choosing members of his cabinet because majority of those he earlier contacted had rejected his offer but he eventually constituted his cabinet many months after assumption of office.
 
However, on May 13, this year, he sacked 20 members of his cabinet and retained only eight. That development was an indication that he had summoned strange bedfellows, whose work ethics or political ideas did not agree with his. He came close to confirming this when he adduced reasons for the sack and told those who cared to listen that the dissolution was to restructure his administration to further achieve his numerous projects of “the 3R” of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, and Recovery agenda.

Although, he had promised to reconstitute the cabinet within a short time, the reconstitution is still being awaited by the state.

The other is his quest to become the leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the southeast geopolitical zone that also has Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State. Before Uzodimma became governor Umahi who was a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had walked his way into the heart of President Muhammadu Buhari becoming one of his pointsmen in the region.

There was also the battle for supremacy over the soul of APC in the state between him and former Governor Rochas Okorocha, as well as, the recent conflagration in the state between him and members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). There has been several killings in the state in recent time leading to the invitation of the military and various air strikes; an action that received condemnation from various quarters.

Thus, when Uzodimma on September 4, after a meeting with the President at the State House Abuja, announced that he had secured Buhari’s approval to visit the state for a one-day working tour, the idea was received with mixed grill. Various interpretations were given to the visit. While some attributed it to part of efforts to ensure the victory of APC in Anambra State on November 6, governorship election, others stated it was a hidden plot to further embolden the governor in some actions that have not contributed to the development of the state.

But those who knew what the administration has faced and the kind of politics the governor played to get to where he is, believed that the visit would be a “show” to shore up his acceptability and true political leadership of APC in the zone.

The governor had however, explained that the visit was to enable the President commission “strategic projects” of his administration and those being sponsored by the federal government in the state, especially, the erosion control projects.

Although it was not the first visit Buhari was making to Imo State since becoming president, he nonetheless, needed to give this one a different flare. That was apparently why he invited leaders of Igbo from political, religious, traditional, economic and the governors were pulled from the five states of the zone to witness the visit. A day to the visit, the state capital, Owerri was already abuzz. Those invited had arrived and waiting in anticipation.

And Buhari came amid empty streets
AT about 9.35 a.m. that fateful Thursday, President Buhari arrived the Sam Mbakwe cargo airport. The governor had led his Ebonyi State counterpart, Dave Umahi, other dignitaries including Ministers from the zone to welcome him.
 
While being driven from the airport into the state capital and the project sites billed for commissioning, the funfare associated with such high profile visit was nowhere to be found, the streets had become empty and deserted. That was because the people were obeying the order by Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB) to “sit at home” as a sign of their disapproval to the president’s visit.
 
There were no vehicular movements on the roads, even as banks, filling stations, schools and markets were completely shut down due to the sit-at-home order.

Some days earlier, IPOB through a statement by Chike Edozien, its head of Directorate, had deplored the visit. He had stated that Buhari was not wanted in “Biafra land”.  He had accused the President of being behind certain problems members of the group were facing as well as the incarceration of their leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, among others.

Edozien had said: “Nigeria’s President is not welcomed into Imo State, Biafra Land on Thursday, September 9, 2021”. He added: “all the traditional rulers, all ndi iche and every Biafran should stay away from any ceremony organised by Hope Uzodimma to welcome him.” To him, the empty streets was an indication that “the people of the zone have rejected their President”, adding that it would send strong signals about how the people feel about the situation in Nigeria.

There were, however, some members of APC who flew the flag of the party at the project sites, including those allegedly paid by the state government to come out and welcome the President.

But some APC stalwarts see the empty streets that welcomed the President, following the IPOB’s sit at home as an honour in disguise to the president. A Chieftain of the Party in Imo State, Jerry Nwogu told The Guardian: “I think it is an honour that our people choose to remain indoors. In the minds of average members of IPOB, the sit-at-home action will register their grievances to President Buhari or gravely affect him and the Federal Government of Nigeria. But, it is a great honour for people to decide to stay out of work or business because the President is coming to town.

“It makes sense that after the spate of insecurity with unknown gunmen in Imo State, life has come back and the President had visited Owerri, the Imo State capital to see things for himself. When they were off the streets, we did not have reason to close roads or cause traffic gridlock that ordinarily should be the case. So it is an honour, which the IPOB has accorded the leader of this country,” he said.

President Buhari had commissioned four projects executed by Uzodinma, including the Naze/Ihiagwa/Nekede/Obinze link Road, the Balloon Driven/Flood Control drainage at Dick Tiger Road, the Egbeada Bypass Road and the New Exco-Chambers, Government House, Owerri.

The Igbo position
Igbo leaders who were in Owerri to receive the President at first did not have a position on what to present before him. They needed to interface with him, that was why an emergency meeting was summoned on the eve of his visit to adopt a common position for Ndigbo.
 
At that meeting, several positions were canvassed. While those on the government side preferred that a speech be specifically directed at thanking Buhari for some federal government’s projects being done in the region, others wanted a strong case for continued unity of the country.
 
It was gathered that those who called for appreciation on the work done so far had reasoned that Ndigbo had not felt the federal government’s presence for a long time. They had insisted that it took Buhari’s intervention for the many projects such as the Akanu Ibiam International airport Enugu to be remodeled; the ongoing 2nd Niger Bridge; rehabilitation of some federal highways, among others.
 
Others who felt otherwise based their position on the fact that his style of leadership has further excluded the zone in the scheme of things, they argued that the zone’s security situation has been compounded by the federal government’s hounding of IPOB members, arrests and detention of its members and alleged marginalisation of the zone in the scheme of things, among others 
 
Ohanaeze Ndigbo President General; Prof George Obiozor had taken out time to churn out the speech that eventually became the position of Ndigbo at the meeting. Buhari did not have an advance copy of the speech, a development that made him reply ex-tempore.
 

At the town hall meeting however, Obiozor told the President that the security of Ndigbo in Nigeria and beyond has become a compelling primary responsibility of serious concern for Ndigbo. He said: “Mr. President, in spite of all the threats of secession or separatism facing the country, there is no doubt that no secessionist element can succeed in Nigeria, provided there is good governance based on equity, justice and fairness to all the citizens.

“Ndigbo are committed to Nigerian unity and there is news for those trying to push us out of Nigeria. Ndigbo in Nigeria are like fish in the ocean, no matter how rough the storm is, it cannot drive the fish out of the ocean.

“Your Excellency, the most urgent and imperative need of Ndigbo today is security. The security of Ndigbo in Nigeria and beyond has become a compelling primary responsibility of serious concern for Ndigbo. Regrettably, our South-east Zone has recently become a theatre of conflict, negating the peace-loving nature of our people.

“However, the South-east zone is in dire need of more infrastructure sponsored by the Federal Government. Amongst these are roads, bridges, railways and ports. It is the considered view of Ohanaeze Ndigbo that federal investments in these critical areas will revitalize the economy and will have the tangential effect of dousing the youth restiveness and unemployment in the zone.

“Mr. President, your visit and presence today in Igboland and Owerri, Imo State in particular has more than political significance. In a manner of symbolism, this visit has thrown light into the cloudiness and doubts surrounding the perception of the relation between your government and Ndigbo. Your presence reassures us that there is still reason for optimism for Nigeria and Nigerian unity”

Obiozor received a loud ovation when he told the President to “see to the release of Igbo youths detained by various security agencies across the country.” This is presumed as part of the ongoing agitation in Igbo land.

Buhari’s response
PRESIDENT Buhari told the leaders of South East that it was unthinkable for any Igbo man to consider himself not part of Nigeria. He also said that without peace, there was nothing anyone could do; no matter how much the person tried. The President told the people that he would want to be remembered as the President who stabilised Nigeria in the area of security, economic prosperity and triumph over corruption.

Implications of the visit
ONE thing that has become incontestable about the zone is that its political soul has become a subject of contention between APC and PDP; the 2023 general elections is being  seen by many as the decider on which of the parties would  take firm control of the zone. At the moment, each of them shares two states apiece.
 
Since entering the political space after its successful merger, the APC had not hidden its desire to break the dominance of PDP in the Southeast region. It made an inroad when the former Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha, then of the APGA, left the party and joined APC. Okorocha used the platform to re-contest his election in 2015 and won and that victory opened the floodgate for APC in the southeast as the party did not just stop at grabbing some seats in other elections in the zone, but had some big wigs in PDP and other parties moved into it.

With Uzodinma coming on board and the Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi, jettisoning the PDP for APC in November, last year, the ranking of the party in the zone was further improved. Presently, APC prides itself on taking over the zone in 2023, beginning with the November 6, governorship election in Anambra State.

Buhari did not however, ask the people of the zone to continue to vote for APC nor support his party, he assured that he would complete the projects he started in the zone, continue in the fight against corruption as well as fight insecurity.

Buhari’s visit to Imo State was not for electioneering campaigns. It happened at a time the state and parts of southeast are still recovering from the wave of attacks and killings the zone experienced recently. It was the first meeting he was having with Ndigbo outside a campaign trip to the zone since becoming president. Previous visits had been to inaugurate projects.

National Publicity Secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Chiedozie Ogbonnia, told The Guardian that the visit “offered opportunity for us once again to represent the views of Ndigbo to him and to correct certain misconceptions about Ndigbo in Nigeria. We have poured our heart to indicate that agitation of the youths was because of certain injustices and that there won’t be any if we apply fairness in all we do”.

He said, “We have also appreciated the fact that he has remembered Ndigbo in some of his projects but called on him to deepen the projects, due to the level of dilapidation in federal roads, those moribund industries that have created unemployment among others. So we have made the point and we feel he has heard”.

On Uzodimma, a Political Analyst, Uchenna Orji said,  “he wanted to use the visit to assure the President that he is in control of the party and that he has the ears of the people of the zone. I think he achieved that by the galaxy of Igbo leaders at the event. But whether he has been able to erase the credibility issue is what will be seen in the days ahead”.

Orji however, stated that the “desire of the people of the state is to have a peaceful environment; they want to see development; they want to see good governance and I don’t think that dragging the President down to the state will provide answers to the issues”.

He added that the “mere fact that the P resident said that he ‘will be careful with future invitations from the governor’ leaves much to be desired”. That is a statement of fact that is pregnant with meanings, especially for those who claim what they are not.”