The brewing insurgency in Nigeria’s Southeast has been blamed on the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its quest for an independent Biafran state but there may be more to it. As the race for the 2023 Presidency intensifies, questions have been asked about whether the growing violence is a bargaining tool to put pressure on the political class to choose someone from the region as a presidential candidate. There is no obvious evidence to suggest that there is a link between the campaign and the escalating violence but many believe that it could be more than a coincidence. Since the beginning of the year, the frequent attacks on security agencies in the Southeast have resulted in the death of at least 34 police officers.
In a 7 April statement, President Muhammadu Buhari described the latest attack as an act of terrorism and ordered the police to act to ensure that the attackers are arrested. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, was sacked while he was in Imo State with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo inspecting the damage which has been blamed on the IPOB’s Eastern Security Network (ESN) vigilante group. The same day the IPOB issued a counter-statement denying responsibility for the attack.
IPOB’s denial received surprising support from Imo State’s Governor Hope Uzodinma. On 8 April he exonerated IPOB and blamed it on ‘some aggrieved and known politicians’ determined to destabilise the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) administration. He claimed to have carried out investigations and uncovered credible evidence to back up his allegations but the police disagree with him.
Uzodinma (b.1945) is not a popular governor. Locally he is referred to as the ‘Supreme Court governor’ because he was installed — despite coming a distant fourth in the state’s 2019 gubernatorial election — following a highly controversial Supreme Court ruling. The people view him as illegitimate which explains his nickname which he obviously dislikes. Since he came to office, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated and Imo State has become a hotbed of secessionist activities but it has also escalated in the region’s other states.
There are alternative theories on the rising violence in the Southeast. It is happening just when the Southeast is demanding that the 2023 Presidency should be zoned to it. Some believe that it has been orchestrated to undermine the Southeast’s bid and that the violence, sponsored by unknown external agents, is designed to show that, if given the Presidency, the Southeast will use the situation to secede from Nigeria. Those supporting this view argue that a candidate from the region cannot be trusted to become Nigeria’s president in 2023.
Some, however, believe that the violence is a bargaining card used by Southeast politicians to gain an edge in the 2023 race. On 28 March, the president of the youth wing of the Igbo-based Ohanaeze Ndigbo socio-cultural organisation, Igboayaka O. Igboayaka, said that there will be no Nigeria if the APC or the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) fails to field an Igbo candidate in 2023. Some security sources believe that this is linked to the ongoing attacks which are designed to pressure the two parties to pick a candidate from the region.
Using the threat of violence to gain political power is not unusual. It started when Olusegun Obasanjo became president in 1999 after the military decided to hand over power to civilians after years of protests and violence, mainly in the Southwest, over army’s annulment of the 1993 national elections. The military regime chose and supported Obasanjo to be president in order to assuage the anger that had boiled over into violence in the Southwest. When Obasanjo handed over power in 2007, he was instrumental in selecting Bayelsa State’s Governor Goodluck Jonathan to be the vice-presidential running mate of his preferred presidential candidate, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Jonathan’s selection was also mainly to assuage militants in the South-South where most of the country’s crude oil is produced.
The Southeast is likely to try and play a similar card that brought the Presidency first to the Southwest and then the South-South. While its politicians may not be directly involved in the increasing violence, they are aware that they could benefit from it politically.
Despite the violence, it is still very unlikely that there will be a president from Southeast in Aso Rock in 2023. The region has left it a bit too late because — despite it being only two years until the election and less than a year before serious campaigning begins — there is still no frontrunner in the area. By contrast the Southwest has at least two prominent nationally recognised candidates seeking the job, while the South-South could still persuade Goodluck Jonathan to agree to run again.
Perhaps because of a hangover from the 1967-1970 civil war — when Igbos tried to secede from Nigeria and establish Biafra as an independent state — no Southeast politician has been able to establish a strong national political network. Most Southeast governors that could have done so have largely restricted their influence to their home states. Perhaps, the most prominent politician from the region remains Anambra State’s 2007-2014 PDP governor, Peter Obi (b.1961) who was the Atiku Abubakar’s running mate in the 2019 elections. Even though Obi has national name recognition, his political acceptability is low because he is not the stereotypical Nigerian politician that throws money around, which is a key requirement for anyone seeking national office.
The other major challenge for the Southeast is that it brings little in terms of political power to the table. It has the lowest number of registered voters and usually has the lowest election turnout in elections. This is an obvious disadvantage and means that any Southeast candidate must work hard to be accepted by the Northwest and the Southwest which have the largest number of voters. Unless both regions support a candidate, it becomes even more challenging for them to win a national election and, so far, no-one from the Southeast has been acceptable in the two other regions.
Since 2015, the Southeast has pitched its camp in the PDP and has ignored the APC but the former is in a bind. It is desperate to regain power but fielding a Southeast candidate would be a huge risk which would dim its chances. Presidential candidates have to count on regional support and then hope that other regions will come on board. A PDP candidate could bank on the Southeast’s votes but would have to win a disproportionate number of votes from the Northwest and Northeast to stand any chance. This becomes even more difficult if the APC fields a Southwest candidate, which it is likely to do.
The truth is that no one from the Southeast will be a candidate for either major party in 2023 because neither is prepared to take the risk. This does not bode well for the region’s future security which is likely to continue to deteriorate. The IPOB will take advantage of this to advance its claims that the Southeast is not wanted in the larger Nigerian state. This will help it win more recruits for its guerrilla campaign in the region. Southeast politicians are losing credibility amongst ordinary people which will benefit the IPOB. The likelihood of a third insurgency — besides the Northeast and the Northwest — would carry a significant risk that it could spread to the main oil-producing South-South. It is almost inevitable that this will happen, and escalate both in the run up to and following the 2023 elections until a Southeast candidate is on the ballot for one of the major parties in 2027 at the earliest.