This opinion article was written by Ruth Okwumbu, a journalist from Asaba, Delta state
In the Nigerian polity, the word ‘marginalisation’ has been a recurrent one such that most Nigerians, illiterates alike should now be familiar with its meaning. This accusation which has not been restricted to the federal government, but also occurring at most states as minority ethnic groups continually cry out about being marginalized. At this point, it has indeed become an issue worth a second thought.
Marginalization is majorly thought to involve the relegation of a particular group of people to a secondary position in the society, and treating them as second-class citizens, be it in regards to political rights, civic rights, or even social rights. By such acts, such a people are made to feel less important than those who wield the power in the society. In the Nigerian context, one might want to examine if the issue of marginalization is real or imagined, or if it can be avoided at all.
As a geographical and political entity, Nigeria has six geo-political zones, 36 states, 774 local government areas and over 250 ethnic groups. The country is still young at 57 years, and its past governments have been brought in through democratic as well as military means. Take the issue of the Igbos crying over marginalization for instance, since the end of the civil war in 1970, there has been democratic elections as well as military take overs.
For the military administrators that the country has had at the federal level, it would be unreasonable for anyone to complain about being marginalized as it is no one’s fault that only officers of northern extraction have risked their lives and organized troops to overthrow the government of the day. One might even conclude that the Igbo military officers choose not to take such steps or simply lacked the guts required to do so.
For all civilian governments which have been ushered in through democratic elections, it is not on record that the Igbos were prevented from fielding candidates at any point in time. In fact in all presidential elections held in the past 41 years, there were Igbo candidates on the ballot except the June 12 elections which was ill-fated anyway. They contested as they were constitutionally allowed to, and lost fair and square.
In fact, some of those presidential elections had more Igbo candidates contesting on various political platforms than any other ethnic group, thanks to Nigeria’s multi-party system. In truth, some might argue that the Igbos have continued to muddle up their chances at the position by fielding multiple candidates on different political platforms, thereby splitting their votes and making it near-impossible to reach the required quota.
Besides, for a country that is 57 years old and has had about 26 years of military rule and 31 years of civilian rule with just 7 national elections conducted and a single tenure of four years where most office holders run two consecutive tenure, it is not out of place that there are ethnic groups that are yet to produce a civilian president, even though the group in question has already had a Governor-General / ceremonial president.
When other positions of national importance are measured, one can still see that the Igbos both within the south east and the south-south have been represented, producing a Central bank governor, head of the federal civil service, Head of Immigration Service, Head of Federal Road Safety Commission, Head of NAFDAC, Head of Bureau for Public Enterprises. They have also had one of their own in ministerial positions such as the Minister of Commerce, Minister of Education, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of State Defence and Minister of State Transport.
One needs not forget that an Igbo from Rivers state has held the position of Inspector General of Police, and an Igbo man was Military Head of State (though briefly), Speaker House of Representatives in the 2nd Republic, Chief of General Staff to President Ibrahim Babangida and even Senate President for eight years under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Even the much coveted position of Minister of finance and the position of the Nigerian Ambassador to the U.S. has been held by people of Igbo extraction, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and George Obiozor respectively. Clearly it is only a matter of time and strategies before the Igbos will produce another Nigerian president.
If in spite of all these, they still claim to have been politically marginalized, over a hundred ethnic groups have even more grounds to complain. The only time their accusations begin to hold water is when the case is considered as though the Nigerian state has only 3 ethnic groups, and any attempt to make such arguments would be tantamount to describing the other 250 ethnic groups as insignificant – another form of marginalization in itself.
However, from the outset of the Buhari’s administration, there have been a couple signs of marginalization. Beginning with the comments made by The People’s General when he was being interviewed a month after his swearing-in on his plans on inclusive governance. He had said: “I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, that gave me 97% [of the vote] cannot in all honesty be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5%” making it clear that he intended to favour the zones that had given him higher votes at the expense of the zones that only gave him 5 percent.
It was in this same line of thought that a former Senate President, Chief Ken Nnamani, speaking at the APC reconciliation meeting held on Thursday in Abuja, stated that his people have no moral standing to complain of marginalization since they do not belong to the ruling party. In his words: “You do not stay under the rain when it is pouring heavily and start crying because nobody will observe. Unless you go into the ruling party and make meaningful contributions, you will then have a moral standing to ask ‘why don’t we have this or that?” Notwithstanding that it is completely unconstitutional as the president is supposed to be president for all Nigerian, irrespective of their voting choices, it seems to be the APC style of governance as one can easily read from the comments of the national chairman.
Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, speaking at the same meeting, had asked the people of the South East to join the party in order to overcome the issue of marginalization in ‘the current dispensation’. While it is difficult to see how such comments are expected to win the affections of the south-easterners, particularly the 5 percent who had given their votes notwithstanding the majority who voted other candidates; President Buhari has not seen any reason to apologize for such statements. The assertion: “I belong to everyone, and I belong to no one” made it clear that the president did not see himself as answerable to anyone or any group for that matter.
His obviously lopsided appointments have continued to give backing to their arguments such that his cabinet members and spokesmen no longer even try to deny it. Speaking in an interview with ThisDay, Dr. Chris Ngige, Minister for Labour and Industrial Relations, had stated that inasmuch as politics is business, the Igbos had “made a bad investment when they invested their votes in Goodluck Jonathan”, and that people can only reap in politics when they have sown.
This ‘bad politics’ might thus be the reason why hundreds of peaceful Biafra protesters were killed by the federal government-controlled forces, and even why it was agreed that other parts of Nigeria would get a rail line corridor through a loan to be paid for by the entire country, while the eastern corridor rail would be developed by a concessionaire and paid for by south-easterners alone? It remains to be seen how such rewards of bad political investment will bully the south-east into voting for the APC government in subsequent elections or help them gain inroads into the south-east.
The president might want to consider the statement of Joe Eto, Chairman of the World Igbo Congress: “Inflicting suppressive and repressive policies on the Igbos in Nigeria will continue to trigger the demand for self-rule. It is really the Nigerian government’s prerogative to have one Nigeria where all components of the nation are treated as equal partners. Biafra is not going to die. Like every other denied agitation for self-determination, Biafra will, at least, remain on the minds of those who seek self-determination.”
Another side of the marginalization coin can be seen in the system being practiced in the country. Recall that in 1995 independence address to the nation, General Sani Abacha had announced the introduction of a modified presidential system in which six key executive and legislative offices will be zoned and rotated between six identifiable geographical groupings being the geo-political zones. This system now has the president/ chief executive as the central source of all state powers and appropriation of state resources. All other political office holders, elected or appointed find themselves in one way or the other answerable to him and now view him as the number 1.
Seeing as he controls both the power and the resources and can bend any rules to his favour, any zone that does not hold this critical position now consider themselves to be subordinate to him. The president thus has oversight function and indeed, the final say on the allocation of resources and even distribution of projects in the country, even when there is a finance minister, a works minister and a senate committee on such matters. This, thus, makes the struggle to occupy this position a very lethal one, and any zone which loses out consistently begins to feel marginalized.
If the issue of restructuring Nigeria is seriously being considered, the legislators might also want to look into modifying the system of governance, to make the President less mystical and powerful, and divert some powers to other key executive, legislative and judicial positions.