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Igbo Presidency: How Ekwueme Lost The Primaries In 1999 And Lessons For 2019 Race

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By CHRIS EKEKE, Abuja

As the call for Igbo presidency in 2019 intensifies, investigations have revealed how and why the Igbo race’s brightest chance to produce the president evaporated in Jos, Plateau State capital at Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) primaries in 1999, when former vice president, Dr Alex Ekwueme due to betrayal by Igbo and northern politicians was
defeated by General Olusegun Obasanjo that had already the backing of Northern Generals.

Recall that recently, the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, steered the hornet nest, when he expressed support for the South-East to produce the country’s next president.

Obasanjo, who explained that the submission was his personal view added that, the “problem of justice and marginalisation have been major source of conflicts between ethnic and regional divisions in the country.”

The former president made this known when the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Ogun State chapter, organised a special New Year service at his Hilltop residence in Abeokuta.

Obasanjo disclosed that it was part of his resolve for a just and fair country that made him to work for the emergence of a South-South president in 2009.
“But, irrespective of the thinking of the people ahead of 2019, I personally think that South-East should have a go at the Presidency, too.”

Few weeks later former Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme, himself a ‘veteran’ in the quest for president of Nigeria of Igbo extraction and President of Ohaneze in Anambra State, Chief Damian Okeke Ogene and other Igbo leaders joined the call for Igbo presidency, saying, it was long overdue.
Ekwueme said: “I pray that the other people (Igbos) can take it up from there and make progress.”

The former vice president, who spoke at St Bernard Catholic Church, Calabar, the Cross River State capital, during the child dedication ceremony of Chief and Lolo Chukwuemeka Egwuonwu (KSM), added: “I would have contested for the number one position in 1987 but the military intervened in 1983 and the civilian regime was cut short.”

To Ogene, who was also at the event, “an Igbo presidency is overdue but as far as I am concerned it is not something that is coming out now. Our President General, Chief Nnia Nwodo, is going to make the stand of Ohaneze known as regards to the presidency. Igbo presidency is long over due whether it is 2019 or 2023, our own President General
will make our stand known.”

The increasing call for Igbo presidency in 2019 at a time that incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, despite his alleged health challenges is strategizing for re-election has raised the question whether 2019 is the right timing. This is more so that since the return of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, the north has been president for only four and a half years out of the 17 years of civil rule and may not be in a hurry to let go of the presidential power.

Aside the challenge posed by Buhari’s incumbency, which the APC in the south east seems to have acknowledged by distancing themselves from the Igbo presidency in 2019 as exemplified by the Enugu State APC, which rejected Obasanjo’s suggestion that the South-East should produce the country’s President in 2019, there is also the treacherous politics that Igbo politicians like to play against their own kind at the national level.

This is why pundits have suggested that if the Igbo must enter the race in 2019 or at any other date for that matter,
they ought to study why one of their brightest stars Ekwueme lost the presidential ticket in 1999 and 2003 respectively.

Recall that no presidential ambition has united the Igbo intelligentsia, money bags and the masses like that of Alex Ekwueme.
There was massive support for the project and the Igbo showed their support in cash and kind. But it was not to be.
Recall also that Ekwueme has national support and had rejected to contest the governor of old Anambra State under the banner of the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) which had its support base in the Igbo heartland in 1979 and rather contested the primaries for the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) ticket which he lost.

It was under the same NPN that he was picked by Alhaji Shehu Shagari as his vice presidential running mate and candidate in the 1979 general election which they won. He also led the opposition against the plan by maximum dictator, and former head of state, Late General Sani Abacha to transmute to civilian president. He was instrumental for the formation of PDP.

He is not just seen as a presidential material by the Igbo, but by other Nigerians as well.
It has been said that Ekwueme lost the presidential primaries in 1999 because while he had the support of Northern politicians, he lacked the support of the Northern Retired Generals led by former military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. IBB-OBJ-Buhari

Speaking on the subject recently in an interview with Hausa newspaper, Rariya, Ekwueme revealed that even the northern politicians betrayed him. He said, “It was not quite right to say that politicians were for me while the military was for Obasanjo. Two politicians for example were for Obasanjo. Rimi was a politician. Even in the stadium where they were choosing the candidate, he was campaigning for Obasanjo in Jos. And then Bamanga Tukur who was in ANC who I campaigned for in 1983 when he was running for governorship of Gongola, he gave his reasons for supporting Obasanjo in the book ‘This House Has Fallen’.

You see where he was interviewed and he said that Obasanjo was like a truck driver and I was like a limousine driver. You know Obasanjo is a rough person and I was a gentleman type of politician and what Nigeria needed at that time was a truck driver and not a Limousine driver. So he was supporting Obasanjo. Even Solomon Lar, may his soul rest in peace, who was the Chairman of the party and who was my deputy in all those organisations, supported Obasanjo in Jos.
Jerry Gana who was my Secretary in Civil Society, Secretary in G34, Secretary in PDP, Secretary in Board of Trustees when I was Chairman, he was also an Obasanjo man. So it was not just a military affair, we had more to it.”

While the northern politicians betrayed Ekwueme perhaps due to pressure by their Generals, the Igbo politicians were said to had collected money and negotiated various positions in the incoming administration at the expense of their kinsman. The former governor of Enugu State, Okwesileze Nwodo was one of the few Igbo politicians who did not sell out. He stood with Ekwueme. Nwodo’s support was not enough to save Ekwueme.

In respect of the 2003 presidential primaries, once the PDP jettisoned the agreement that Obasanjo would only do one term, it was obvious that Ekwueme cannot defeat an incumbent president with all the powers at his disposal. Ekwueme who had hoped to be president after Shagari in 1987 under the NPN zoning arrangement could not achieve the fit
because of the overthrow of the civilian administration in 1984. He also became victim of another unfulfilled zoning arrangement of PDP in 2003.

This is how Ekwueme put it in the said interview with, Raya, “Then in 1999, the same scenario played itself out in a different way.
Also in 2003. You know the format was that presidency was just a single term. Now if I had won in 1999, by 2003 I would have served one term and it goes to the North East with a vice president from South South to serve one term.
By 2007 a south-south man would have served as a president and he would have someone from Northwest as his
Vice so by 2011, a person from Northwest will be president with a VP from South West. By now we would have the opportunity for every geopolitical zone to produce a president and I am persuaded that every geo-political zone in this country has competent manpower and can serve in the highest office in the land.
It appears that there is a concerted effort to prevent a particular zone from achieving that purpose and its not going to be a very healthy development for the country.”

It is therefore obvious that if the Igbo must produce the president of Nigeria, they need a candidate who must have the support of other Nigerians and most importantly his own people, as Ekwueme himself has observed that lack of unity and distrust among themselves are the bane of the Igbos.
Ekwueme, speaking at the traders’ summit at Amaokpala in Orumba North local government area of Anambra State, recently said,
“When Igbo was Igbo, there was so much unity, such that once Igbo leaders met and took a decision, every Igbo person would abide by it.
The trust among Igbo was responsible for the reason apprenticeship became popular with the result that parents would allow their children to stay with an established Igbo man to learn a trade for periods ranging from five to 10 years after which the apprentice would then be settled to start his own business.

“Even after the settlement, the newly settled young trader would be getting goods on credit from his former master and return the money after sale because of the trust that existed. But lack of trust has diminished that age long cooperation between the master and his former apprentice, which is very worrisome.”

Are the present day Igbos ready to go back to the era “when Igbo was Igbo” and there was “so much unity?” Perhaps that holds the key to Aso Rock Presidential Villa, Abuja, for the Igbo.

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