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The South-East: No Longer At Ease In Nigeria?

Since Nigeria’s transition into Democratic rule in 1999, it was evident that there was some form of agreement between the six geo-political zones of Nigeria to rotate power. This process, which has been described as the zoning formula, was supposed to be the basis for determining the ethnic group that would produce the head of the executive arm of government as well as be in charge of the centre. However, in a country where the ‘centre cannot hold,’ do the citizens wait for anarchy to be loosed on them?

One ethnic group that has been constantly lost in the labyrinth of this zoning formula happens to be the Igbo, initially disadvantaged by the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970, before rising to become the economic stalwarts of Nigeria’s informal sector. The question yet remains, is democracy working for the South-Eastern States of Nigeria? In addressing this question, it would be needful to trace the historical trajectory of two concepts, the Igbo idea of governance and the position of the Igbos in Nigeria’s political landscape. Due to the disparities in the pre-colonial Igbo system of governance and the present-day system of governance that has witnessed the emergence of autonomous communities in those parts of the South-East without traditional rulers.

Hence, the Igbo political system could be better described as an idea. This idea, in some sense can be equated with the notion of Igbo Presidency which has continued to be a matter of contention in the nation’s body polity.

In order to navigate the political topography of South-Eastern Nigeria, one may need to delve into the concept of federalism as it relates to revenue allocation. Among the numerous definitions of federalism that exist, this treatise will focus on the one that refers to it as a system of government that divides the powers of government between the national or federal government and state and local government. A close examination of this definition will reveal that the Igbos, like most Nigerians, constantly look to the federal government rather than focus most of their attention on their state government. In a country where the centre wields so much influence in terms of revenue allocation to the other component units, it is only natural that governance will be determined by centrifugal forces. This phenomenon has unfortunately affected the Igbos who constantly blame the North for their woes instead of holding their state and local governments accountable. At this juncture, one should critically examine the concept of revenue allocation and how this can translate into the “dividends of democracy’’ as most Nigerians are wont to call it.

Revenue Allocation and its impact on Nigeria’s economic development have captured the attention of scholars and public affairs analysts in and out of the country. Looking beyond the politics of Nigeria’s fiscal federalism one cannot but wonder what is being done with the allocation that is sent to the South-Eastern States. For so long many Nigerians, Igbos inclusive, have been swimming in the murky waters of ethnic competition for public resources. This has blurred and prevented them from focusing their lenses on their State Governments. This is evident in the comments of Nigerian citizens of Igbo extraction in relation to governance in Nigeria. Most of these comments make constant reference to Igbo marginalization at the political and economic level. It should be made clear that this discourse does not attempt to discountenance the Igbo agitation for political relevance at the federal level, rather it attempts to shift their binoculars from Aso Rock to their respective State Houses. When the people of the South-Eastern States of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo realize that the real power to make democracy work lies in their hands, they will apply the same level of tenacity to their politics as they do to their business enterprise.

Democracy as a system of government has its procedures. These procedures are oftentimes too abstract for the average Nigerian on the street. So when it comes to measuring the performance of the South-Eastern States, most Nigerians view it in strictly economic terms. Hence, economic factors must be considered when it comes to assessing the performance of these states. In a recently released report on Nigeria’s level of poverty by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the South Eastern States were mentioned with Ebonyi State ranking as the worst with eighty percent of her citizens been described as poor. The state with the least amount of poor people according to the report is Anambra with the percentage of the poor rated as fifteen (15%), Enugu ranks number two with about sixty percent (60%) poverty level, Abia comes third with about thirty-one percent (31%) and Imo State at twenty-nine percent (29%). On the average, the poverty level of the South-East was pegged at forty-three percent (43%).

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These figures from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics arguably portray the impact of governance on the citizens. When one ties this to the agitation of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), one is only left to wonder if the people of the South-Eastern States possess the capacity to demand for better governance from their political leaders. The point is that democracy can work for the people of the South-East if they can get more involved with the leadership of their state and local governments.

The protests and hullaballoo on marginalization all point to the issue of effective management and distribution of resources as seen in tangible things like good infrastructure and welfare.

A critical analysis of the ethnic democracy of the Igbo people will reveal that the concept of leadership as reflected in their politics is one that is tied to achievement especially at the socio-economic level. The popular Ozo title and the ascribing of chieftaincy titles to people with certain levels of wealth and influence is a perfect example. The Igbos are known for their high sense of industry and contribution to Nigeria’s informal sector. The success of most of their enterprise has been ascribed to their apprenticeship system, which is highly infused with a strong sense of community and solidarity. If this can be adapted at the political level, the people will consciously look out for leaders that have made a significant level of achievement either in business, academics or other endeavours. Rather than voting a leader who panders to the dictates of some political godfather, let them seek for someone who represents their ideals of grit, determination, hard work and a genuine interest in the well being of people.

Igbo perception of democratic governance in the South-East is also fuelled by the embers of relative deprivation. In a broad sense, relative deprivation refers to feelings of deprivation or entitlement that stems from comparison. Most citizens of the South-Eastern States of Nigeria are mainly preoccupied with comparing their state of affairs with that of other regions. The media, particularly Radio Biafra, has been used to sell the widely held narrative of political marginalization. Rather than proffer solutions, it has focused on secession and all the attendant emotions that go with it. This also brings one to the wider question of ethnic politics in Nigeria and how this has affected the Igbos. Nigerian Scholars like Okwudiba Nnoli who have written extensively on the subject of ethnic politics in Nigeria have argued that ethnic groups strive to have access to state power in order to control and dominate the state. This scramble for state power emanates from the primordial sentiments that are common to all the ethnic groups in Nigeria. Rather than approach ethnicity from a negative and divisive standpoint, it should be used to encourage healthy competition in terms of political and economic resourcefulness. Hence, the Igbos should focus on their resourcefulness, get their political strategies right and strive to join political parties based on ideology and geographic spread rather than primordial inclinations.

Political parties play a huge role in determining the kind of leaders that emerge at the Federal, State and Local Government level. As long as Igbos continue to join parties solely on primordial leanings, their chance of representation at the centre will be slim. Democracy in Nigeria includes having effective representation in all the geo-political zones. This is especially the case with the Legislature where bills become laws that can make or mar the polity. If democracy must work for the Igbo, they must learn the Aristotelian concept of the primacy of politics. They must learn the art and science of politics in the same way in which they have mastered the dynamics of trade and commerce. The South-East needs a political leadership that is informed by their collective ethics and ethos which will in turn yield the dividends they desire.

Oftentimes in talking about the impact of democracy in the South-East, the media’s role is barely mentioned. The role of a radio station, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, points to the power that the media, through Radio and Television, can wield in terms political education and participation in the South-Eastern States. While other media platforms like newspapers, online and social media are equally relevant, the Radio and Television, through talk shows and robust political content can begin to stir up the minds of the citizens to engage their public office holders. In those parts of the South-East where the poverty level is reportedly higher, this can be achieved. Still on the media, online and social media can be used to engage those other parts of the South-East, possibly the urban areas, where mobile technology holds sway.

In recent times, online media platforms have begun to use fact-checking tools to verify information or claims made in public discourse. This can also be deployed to Fact-Check and keep track of electoral promises made through the manifestoes of politicians and their parties. When prospective or incumbent governors campaign during elections, the South-Eastern electorate, with the help of these media platforms, should be made to follow up on the progress made by their Governors, Commissioners, Local Government Chairman and Councillors. While doing this, they should be keenly aware of the activities of the legislative arm of their respective states. This is where the State Broadcasting Services and well-funded media establishments in these states can step in by covering some, if not all, of the sessions of the State Houses of Assembly. All these are summed up in the concept of Democratic Accountability as defined by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) which says that ‘citizens expect their government to deliver public services in a way that responds to their needs and recognizes their human rights.’

South-Eastern Nigeria needs to understand the nexus between development and democracy. There is need for more transparency in budgetary allocations in the South-Eastern States. These budgets must be available to the public and the process that produces it must be devoid of secrecy. Budgeting is an integral part of good governance and it must be consultative and open. Due to the peculiarity of the poverty level of the South-East, there should be a forum where the people at the grassroots can monitor and report on projects. The youths of the South East must begin to learn the science of governance and become informed of government projects. Public Advocacy through naming and shaming of corrupt government officials is another means of strengthening good governance in the South-East. Civil Society groups, like the media, should assist in documenting abuse of governance processes.

One overlooked means of making democracy work in the South-East lies in revisiting the tripodal relationship that exists between religion, culture and the politics of development. Religion has been rightfully described as the opium of the masses by Marx and Engels. Opium is known globally for its narcotic and medicinal uses but there is more publicity on its narcotic use. In medicine, it acts as an analgesic, a pain-relieving substance. The journey to development for the South-East will be fraught with pain. Religion can be positively used to ease the pain and build their resilience in the face of challenges they will face. Nigeria is a country where religion thrives. It occupies an important part in the hearts of most Nigerians. In the world of religion, the premise and the conclusion may not relate, yet it is accepted as true and certain. Scholars, atheists and agnostics may be dismissive of it yet it has the potential to be used as a vehicle for development.

Igbo culture and tradition can also be used to (re)sensitize the people of the South-East. There is an urgent need to revisit the Igbo folklore that was, and still is, an assemblage of the collective wisdom of the people. The relevance of moral instruction as taught in folktales should be imbibed in children and teens that will later become the youths who will be the vanguards of change. A greater part of the Igbo epistemology can be transmitted via the tools available through multimedia platforms.

The politics of development within the context of the damaged democracy of the South-East is about examining the effect of political factors on economic development in the region. There is a lot of focus on the economic factors, which is good, but it would be better if the people began to pay more attention to the politics because it plays a huge role in human development. Professor B.K. Barber of the Centre for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict at the University of Tennessee explains that the power of politics lies in the values associated with governing. These values are the most fundamental of human values. Barber describes this value as control or regulation of access, opportunity, freedom, rights, self determination and self expression. When these values are tied to the Igbo political landscape, one discovers that even the agitations for Biafra are tied to control and regulation of resources, a desire for self-determination and self-expression. If these ideals can be genuinely pursued, the quest for secession will die a natural death. Subsumed within the agitations for Biafra is a call for identity, national pride and a strong collective narrative created by the civil war and its aftermath.

Democracy as a system of government gives room for freedom of expression. In the midst of so much talk, which is necessary for national cohesion, it will take lots of political will to ensure that economic development goes beyond the bureaucratic fortress of documents tucked into file cabinets or computer storage systems. The individual well being of any Igbo man, woman, boy or girl is centred on conditions. This could be the election of a governor who will turn things around for the good of the state, better representation at the federal level or any other goal they decide to attain. Like the main character, Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer At Ease who goes against his principles and takes a bribe to solve personal problems, the Igbos have been boxed into going against the norms of their rich culture and tradition to accept handouts from their leaders instead of good governance.

Jude Nwabuokei writes from the United Kingdom

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