Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was so irritated by what he called the undue interference of socio-cultural organisations in the political affairs of the country during his eight-year tenure that he openly called for their ban, describing them as meddlesome organisations.
Although he persisted in his opinion after leaving office, he appeared to have had a second thought in the intervening years about the groups, namely the Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Forum and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, which attacked him fiercely for calling for their proscription then.
On September 14, 2020, 15 years after he left office, Obasanjo held a two-day meeting with the groups, including new ones, such as the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) and the Northern Leaders Forum (NLF), with the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum and Ekiti State governor, Kayode Fayemi and his Sokoto and Kebbi counterparts, who are Chairmen of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Governors Forum and the All Progressives Congress Governors Forum in attendance.
The agenda of the meeting, however, was the parlous nature of the country.
“This is the kind of meetings and issues of national importance that should be the focus of these social-political and cultural organisations and not overt political participation which erodes their influence over the generality of their people.” said Martins Ori, a veteran political journalist and Editor-in Chief of a South-East-based regional newspaper, New Oriental, in a chat with THEWILL on Friday. “Partisanship would always reduce them in the estimation of their people.”
For him, politics should be a backdoor involvement for the organisations, even during intense political activities like electioneering.
Spokesperson for Afenifere, Mr Sola Ebisomi, disagreed vehemently.
“We are the owners of Nigeria,” he told this newspaper at the weekend. “By we, I mean Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, PANDEF, Middle Belt Forum and Arewa Consultative Forum. The reason is because the fundamental basis of Nigeria’s existence is ethnic nationality.”
But isn’t this the very reason, because of the fiery nature of politics, socio-political organisations should go above partisan politics, particularly in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria? he was asked.
“No,” he said, voice rising, “We are not politicians who speak the language of power alone. We are champions of justice, equity and fairness.”
Then asked if the difference may be on what mode of operations the organisations should adopt to remain neutral in their operations, he replied, unrelenting, “it is the politicians who come seeking our endorsements, we don’t need endorsements of political parties. They need us to be relevant.”
Endorsements for relevance may be the Catch-22 situation here, particularly during the political era when politicians and their parties needed every and any form of support to beat their rivals every inch the way. But the group endorsements sought by politicians are for their symbolic nature in a country still to achieve some appreciable level of scientific and technological development, which broaden the mental horizon of the citizenry.
The fact that the most relevant of the organisations come from the three dominant ethnic groups – Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani – speaks volumes about the assumed importance of these organisations, reasoned Chief Willy Ezugwu, General Secretary of the Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP).
He said, “It is difficult to shut them out of politics totally because of the way politicians have run our country, very badly. Why I agree they should speak and act on the side of the general good of the country, they cannot help speaking up most times because we have over the years politicised things in the country.”
Yet, besides their symbolic importance, it is doubtful if the groupings have any solid relevance or whether their endorsements carry weight. For example, all the major and minor aforementioned groups endorsed the candidacy of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the opposition PDP. He lost the election to incumbent President, Muhammadu Buhari.
Dramatically, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan lost the landmark presidential polls in 2015 despite getting the support of the groups, with the exception of ACF.
For Afenifere, the story has been a stark reality. Since the first republic when, “Awolowo ran against Tafawa Balewa in the First Republic, to Awolowo versus Shehu Shagari in the Second Republic, to Obasanjo versus Olu Falae in the Fourth Republic in 1999, to Obasanjo versus Muhammadu Buhari in 2003, to Umar Yar’Adua versus Buhari in 2007, to Goodluck Jonathan versus Buhari in 2011, to Goodluck Jonathan versus Buhari in 2015, to Buhari versus Atiku Abubakar in 2019, “the story has been the same. None of its candidates has won any election.
In fact, the organisation since its establishment over 70 years ago as a political movement for the welfare of the people of the current Southwest has weathered many political storms and intrigues from within and without that it has ended up a shadow of its former vibrant self today.
The uproar that greeted Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s October 16, 2022 visit to Pa Reuben Fasoranti for the endorsement of his presidential ambition marked a major milestone in Afenifere’s chequered political history. The accompanying quarrel between former leader Pa Fasoranti and Acting leader, Pa Ayo Adebanjo and the ensuing controversy once again raised the civic importance of the organization.
Tinubu’s visit, it turned out, had followed the Adebanjo led- Afenifere’s public endorsement of the candidacy of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, for the 2023 polls on the basis of its perceived fairness and equity. But the very thing it was running away from by that endorsement caught up with it; ethnic support for the son of the soil.
Just when the Afenifere controversy was fading out of the public space, Ohanaeze Ndigbo last week took the centre-stage, following the perceived anti-Obi statement by Professor Charles Soludo, governor of Anambra State.
In reaction to the cyber-bullying over his statement in a television interview in which he alluded that Obi’s investment in Anambra State was worthless, Soludo issued a lengthy statement in which he claimed Obi would not win the 2023 presidential election. The reaction from Obi’s supporters and kinsmen alike, was instantaneous. Majority called for the governor’s head, his office and questioned his reasoning.
Ohanaeze’s reaction was instant and acerbic.
Mr Okechukwu Isiguzoro, in a signed statement as Secretary –General of Ohanaeze, lampooned Governor Soludo and called him names rather than react to the issues on competence, due process raised in the statement.
Isiguzoro threatened that the social-cultural group would mobilise for the governor’s impeachment in addition to dragging him before two deities in Igbo land. Although the apex Igbo social-cultural group has since denied authorising the threats, there is no gainsaying the bitter position it had taken in the matter. What is even more amazing is that Isiguzoro who issued the statement has been reportedly stripped of his office as Chairman of Ndigbo Youth Council since 2020. Yet, he is still around in the group’s name.
The President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Professor George Obiozor, refused to make any detailed statement on the matter and also about the real role expected of the organisation, when THEWILL spoke to him at the weekend.
“We have since made our position on the 2023 general election clear and it is public knowledge,” he answered tersely.
He drew blanks when he was prompted further on the real role of the group, at least, in accordance with its objective as a pan Igbo socio-cultural organisation when it was founded by Professor Ben Nwabueze, a constitutional lawyer, in 1976, to represent the interests of all Igbo communities within and outside Nigeria.
Representing the interest of Igbos within and outside Igboland is why, for instance, the core five Igbo states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo are the financing states of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. Igbo indigenous communities in Rivers, Delta, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Kogi and Benue states are also covered under its umbrella.
Indeed, the structure of the organization ensures that Rivers and Delta states produce the Vice President General of the organisation alongside a core Igbo state of Ebonyi, while others like Enugu, Abia, Anambra have only state presidents.
“Ohanaeze Ndigbo has derailed from its core objectives by dabbling into politics. It ought to be and should be a socio-cultural pathfinder,” Martins maintained. ‘’It should work with the many organisations in Igbo land to maintain the equity and dignity of everybody in the Igbo land. In politics, it should play an advisory role. Take the current case between Governor Soludo and Obi. It should be neutral and be the arbiter, not taking sides.”
He pointed to the recent ACF’s denial of its rumoured endorsement of Atiku Abubakar as candidate of the North because “it is not in the character of the North to engage in counterproductive sectional politics,” according to its Chairman, Coordinating Committee, Musa Salihu Getso.
Another challenge facing these organisations is the method of leadership recruitment. Politically exposed persons at times take up leadership positions in these organisations, making it hard for them to steer clear of partisanship.
Former Minister of Communication, Nnia Nwodo, is the immediate past President-General of Ohanaeze. Today, he is a member of the Presidential Campaign Council of PDP. This is as the current Acting leader of Afenifere, Adebanjo, is one of the oldest Awoists still around.
WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE
Given the often negative impact of ethnic, religious and monetary fault lines on the polity, Martins suggested that the groups should be more inclusive in their operations to make them effective for all seasons.
“Ndigbo has been shouting about marginalisation since 1966. What has Ohanaeze Ndigbo done to influence change since it was founded? For instance, there are currently 16 security chiefs in Nigeria. None is Igbo. The current administration has established seven universities with none in Igbo land. In Igboland, there is a prevailing incidence of kidnapping, robbery.
What is Ohanaeze doing about them.? These are key issues it should direct its attention to, working with many groups in Igboland to address.
Afenifere’s Ebisemi agreed, though with reluctance.
“It is the circumstances in the country that determines the relevance of any government. The election in 2023 will determine the existence of Nigeria. People have been questioning why another Fulani man should succeed another one in 2023. When the agitation for power shift to the South started, we asked what part of the South should power go to, given that President Olusegun Obasanjo, who ruled for eight years, comes from the southwest. That is why Afenifere took the position that it should go to the Southeast for justice and fairness. When the people clamour for something, they look up to socio-political organisations like ours to speak up on their behalf,” Ebisemi said.