What do the Igbo want?
In an angry retort to a question thrown at him in his recent Media chat, President Muhammadu Buhari asked, “What do they (Igbo) want?” “Who is marginalizing them?” In his own defence, he said the Minister of state for oil in his government is Igbo, the Minister for Science and Technology is Igbo, and of course, the Governor of the Central Bank too. He might also have added the Foreign Minister Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, Minister of Labour & Productivity (it used to be Establishment), Dr. Chris Ngige, the Minister for Transport, Rotimi Amechi, the Minister for Trade, Industries and investment, Dr. Okey Enelemah, and the junior Minister for education, Anthony Anwuka. On the face of it, the president would be right to say that he has Igbo as members of his Executive Council.
His critics would of course be quick to respond that Buhari was hampered by a constitutional requirement that compelled him to effect plural representation in his cabinet, willy-nilly. They would say were it not for the constitution, the president would, left to him, not have had any Igbo in his cabinet, given his known historical predilection. The evidence, they would say, is in the constitution of the cabinet itself: Ibe Kachikwu is not the Oil Minister, he is the junior Minister for oil.
The president is the oil minister. Nonetheless, oil is Nigeria chief commodity; that which gives it its sex appeal, and Kachikwu is no doormat and his position not insignifcant. The Foreign Ministry portfolio is a sinecure position, at best. There was a time when it would have carried some weight. In those years Nigeria carried its weight in the international scene. Today, the Nigerian Foreign Ministry is no more than a clearing house for the great powers to which Nigeria is now just a proxy nation. A foreign minister is as powerful as his nation in the international arena, and Nigeria seems increasingly insignificant, even as a notable voice in African affairs.
So, at best, the Foreign Minister is a prestige position, full of glitter, and nothing else. Yet, President Buhari might also argue that it is Nigeria’s voice, its eyes and its ears in the outside world, for whatever it is worth. That by itself is significant – Nigeria speaks to the world through the voice of an Igbo, whose own illustrious father was no less the World Court judge, Charles Daddy Onyeama of Eke. The Ministry of Labour could equally be powerful, and might be in the hands of a visionary minister, the arrowhead for the reform of the Civil Service and the public sector.
The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Investment could, working in tandem with the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Education, where Anwuka is a junior minister, transform the landscape of national production, and shift the entire job situation radically. It might be President Buhari’s challenge to his Igbo ministers, to solve the greatest problems that the Igbo themselves have always argued about: lack of jobs for the teeming army of skilled youth, expansion of the local industrial and investment base, and so on and so forth. Nigerians often see the big ministries – Education, Home Affairs, Works, Health and Defence – as the important ministries because they have huge budgetary allocations – they are the pork ministries.
Labour, Trade, Science and Tech, are often ignorantly dismissed because they are not as well-funded. Even Lai Muhammed’s Ministry of Information was given more in allocations than the Ministries of Science and Technology, and Trade and Industries, and even Transport, in the president’s recent budget sent to the National Assembly, which makes you wonder where the priorities of this administration lie – in manufacturing propaganda, or in manufacturing Nigeria’s national defence equipment, as Ogbonnaya Onu has promised, through an expanded technological base? In any case, these are catalytic ministries of government at that can transform the very thrust of this nation, and the legacy of this administration – if only the administration could halve the allocations to Defence, Health, and Education, and move the money to the Research and Production component of the Ministries of Science & Technology, and Trade & Industries. But Buhari’s policies are not in that direction. The budget just recently announced makes that clear. Current policy thrust, evident in the base allocations made to these ministries of government under the Buhari budget for 2016, indicate that TII, Labour, Sci &Tech, are at best, shop-front ministries in this administration. But of course, the question is, what do the Igbo want, and who is marginalizing them? First, and above else, the Igbo want the same thing every thoughtful Nigerian wants: a great nation of which they can be proud. They want equal protection, and the equal rights of citizenship; they want non-discriminatory standards applied, which does not undermine their individual aspirations towards economic justice and the pursuit of happiness.
Very often the Igbo feel that they do not get this, and that they have often been serially targeted in Nigeria for selective injustice. Frequently, the Igbo are targets of selective taxation, deportations, violence and brutality. The federal government has never, through its Ministry of Justice, investigated or prosecuted anyone for targeting the Igbo outside Igbo land. Igbo life feels expendable in this republic, and the Igbo thus feel themselves unprotected in Nigeria.
The use of the police and military to mount road blocks in the East makes the East, since1970, feel like a perpetual area of conquest, where citizens are constantly harassed and brutalized. No business can thrive under those conditions. No investor or tourist would come to an area that feels like it is under siege and quarantine. President Buhari began his presidency by declaring publicly that he’d favor those who voted more for him against those who voted less for him in the elections. Basically President Buhari began his government on a policy of discrimination. It showed in his key appointments into the inner sanctum of his presidency. The Igbo feel themselves gated from the presidency where all executive decisions take place. This kind of discrimination is equally evident at the larger space of nation. An Igbo child who is denied a place in a federal institution on the basis of a quota-system gone berserk will grow up naturally to resent Nigeria. And the Igbo, more than any other group in Nigeria, have had to suffer seriously from federal discriminatory policies that ought by now to have been revised.
The Igbo have the highest number of educated and skilled unemployed, because discriminatory policies have kept them in silos. The Igbo are not necessarily against the use of the quota principle for inclusion and spread of opportunities to all parts of Nigeria. The Igbo in fact want the expansion of the Nigerian middle class from North to South because it is good for their business. But this must not be, as it is often the case at the expense of the Igbo. All development must be based on the human person. To understand Igbo anger, one must first comprehend that since 1970, the South-East of Nigeria has received the least infusion of federal capital, in fact in general, less than 11% of all capital expenditure. The old Kano state comprising Kano and Jigawa receive more in federal allocation than all the states of the South East put together. This is strategic diminution.
There is not a single federal industrial investment in Igbo land. In 1981, Governor Sam Mbakwe secured President Shagari’s guarantee to site the National Petrochemical plant in Ohaji, or he would build it himself. In 1984, Buhari revised the plan and the Petrochemical plant slated for Ohaji was later sited in Eleme by Babangida. It was much the same about the National Steel plant which was designated to be built in Onitsha, but which was moved to Ajaokuta. By 1967, the city of Aba was at par with Lagos: whatever industrial plant was built in Lagos was also built in Aba – Lever brothers, SCOA industries, Nigerian Breweries, Guinness, Proctor & Gamble, PZ, etc. In fact the West African headquarters of Pfizer Pharmaceutical Laboratories was in Aba, before it was forcibly relocated to Lagos in 1970.
The East has the worst federal roads, and much of the infrastructure destroyed by the federal forces during the war was never been rebuilt. Rather there is a policy of strategic divestment and capital flight out of the East. Basically the federal government has deliberately created a steel bucket out of Igbo land, with crabs in it. So, what do the Igbo want? First, a president who would be president of all Nigerians, irrespective of who voted for him. Secondly, a fulfilment of one of the basic conditions for ending the last war: the rehabilitation and reconstruction of all of Eastern Nigeria, including the Igbo heartland of that region. It is a matter beyond the President’s appointments.