By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
Last week Thursday President Muhammadu Buhari visited Owerri, one of the most troubled cities in Southeastern Nigeria, to commission projects which the incumbent government had embarked upon and ostensibly completed. His host, the Supreme Court-appointed Chief Executive, Governor of Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodinma, was on hand along with other prominent leaders of the region to receive him. My Abuja-worshipping and favoured namesake, the governor, had thumped his chest for having the clout to summon a Presidential visit to Imo State. I read a report where immediate past governor Senator Rochas Okorocha countered that in his days in office, the President visited the state three times! As an aside, I don’t remember whether those visits were to commission the statues of past heroes of Nigeria and Africa about which Okorocha was much obsessed for some strange reason! And did he build his own effigy as well? I need to find out what has become of those objects of infinite ridicule and absurdity.
As far as presidential visits go, the President made a big statement aside from the conciliatory tone of his main speech. He can visit any part of the country that he decides to once the security officials assure him that he can be covered, protected from malevolent foes and rampaging scoundrels. IPOB’s declaration that the president was not welcome in Imo State was a joke taken too far. Did they have any way of enforcing the ‘unwelcome? Judging by the turnout of high calibre officials at the Town Hall, the visit was a success, though we cannot say so for the hoi polloi whom politicians usually want to see suffering in the blight of the harsh weather waiting to catch a glimpse of them. Reports show that the streets of Owerri were deserted in obedience to IPOB stay-at-home order. Besides, Uzodinma’s projects were no projects indeed. Was that what prompted the President to say to the governor that ‘I cannot thank you enough but I will be careful with your invitations in the future? That was a technical slap on the Abuja-made Governor Hope Uzodinma. The President and the cabal in Abuja created Hope Uzodinma and they should ‘take am as dem see am’.
The audience included traditional rulers, (did I sight the respected Obi of Onitsha on stage?) the President-General of Ohanaeze, Ndigbo Professor George Obiozor, and ‘over 200 Igbo leaders drawn from the Southeast states. At the meeting the President paid tribute to the resourcefulness of the Igbo and declared that ‘the fundamental thing about the Igbo people is that there is no town you will visit in Nigeria without seeing the Igbo being in charge of either infrastructure or pharmaceutical industry’, adding that ‘it is unthinkable for me that any Igbo man would consider himself not to be a part of Nigeria’. The real question is: if Igbo are so well entrenched in the country business-wise, why is there a groundswell of agitation for secession? Has there been a vigorous interrogation of the contradiction? If I may add, there is hardly any country in the world that Igbo traders and compatriots cannot be found in, from Russia to South Africa to Australia or Mongolia!
Presidential visits all over the world are often beneficial to the economy of the host community through multiplier effects. It is also a hazard for the host government. When a President visits, different activities take place both on the part of the government and private citizens. A presidential visit could result in improved facilities before and during the visit. In some cases, the benefits outlive the visit. Some state governments get into a frenzy fixing roads and building infrastructure so that there would projects to commission. As a result, the quality of the work could be shoddy, and God save the host if it rains suddenly to expose the derriere of the chicken. Of course, security men swarm the state, staying in hotels and spending money on different items and persons. Of course, there are often newspaper and radio adverts welcoming the august visitor. The groups which are hired to dance in the sun also smile to the bank with some naira in their pockets. Psychologically too, the state benefits or ought to benefit from such a visit. A presidential visit is like a nod of approval from the Number One man. As a result, investments, presidential approvals and other things which could translate into billions of naira and goodwill ought to follow. For example, during such a visit, there could be a presidential directive that the Second Niger Bridge must be completed before 2023 or that Nnamdi Kanu the arch defender of the Biafran cause should be released before Christmas!
In normal circumstances, petty traders would have a field day around the venue of the reception. But we are not in normal times. The security situation in Imo State is scary, especially in Owerri. The sheer number of security vehicles that accompanied the president and the helicopter flying overhead showed how seriously the security agencies took the implied threat of the outlawed IPOB. To be sure, there must be no mistakes during such a visit. The State of Texas got into the wrong side of history when a popular president JFK was gunned down during a visit. Ibadan still holds unpleasant memories of the tragedy that followed Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi’s visit to that peaceful city in July 1967. So, every Chief Security Officer of a state, working with the federal authorities, ensures that nothing funny happens during a presidential visit.
Professor Obiozor did not mince words when he said in his welcome speech that ‘the security of Ndigbo in Nigeria and beyond has become a compelling primary responsibility of serious concern for Ndigbo. Regrettably, our Southeast zone has recently become a theatre of conflict, negating the peace-loving nature of our people’. He went on to stress a sore point in federal government-Ndigbo relations when he called for the ‘release of Igbo youths detained by various security agencies across the country’. How and why did Mr. President skip a public pronouncement on this vexatious matter?
For me, this was the great miss of the visit- the failure to, with a stroke of the pen, end the agitation in the Southeast. In a democracy, a president does not concentrate on the power of the military or security agencies only. Statesmanship involves negotiations and concessions. The perception that the Buhari administration has not been fair to the Igbo was not obliterated. Or should I believe that behind closed doors, negotiations about IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu took place? Nnamdi Kanu might be an irritant. But he has become like a bee that is perched on the proverbial scrotum that must be shooed off with care and diplomacy. The current state of things in the country requires fine diplomacy, conversations, and concessions. It is only when dealing with outright criminality as perpetrated by bandits and terrorists that kid gloves should not be used.
As an aside, it was so ridiculous that the size and style of the pants of Mr. President which he wore to show cultural affinity with Imo State became the focus of social media ridicule. Whatever it was the First Citizen must turn out well at all times. The wardrobe did not do a good job even with the selection of the pair of shoes. Was the regalia hurriedly made for the occasion?
Finally, it was a good thing that policymakers and cultural icons of Igbo extraction turned out to welcome the Number One Citizen to Owerri last Thursday. The effect of the visit must translate into gains visible so as to bring peace to the beleaguered state and region. Whether this is a possibility can only be seen in the months ahead. Tokenism is not a solution to the severity of the security crisis which we face in Nigeria today. And because the buck stops at the desk of the Commander-in-Chief, President Buhari must rise to the occasion and hand over a stable polity to his successor in 2023 after a free and fair election.
*Professor Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha, University of Lagos