Politics, echoes of President Buhari’s visit to Owerri

There were many sides to the recent working visit by President Muhammadu Buhari to Owerri, Imo State. Whether as a political lift to Governor Hope Uzodimma, or about the internal power play within the Southeast zonal chapter of All Progressives Congress (APC), or even the intrigues surrounding the 2023 Presidential aspiration of political actors from the Zone, the President found himself in the middle of intricate schemes.

In the midst of those strategies, President Buhari seemed to have figured out that what was sold to him, as a working visit was actually a political equivalent of an ambush. That discovery must have informed the President’s cryptic remarks at the end of the visit, which became the butt of political backlash.

After thanking the coterie of Southeast leaders, both spiritual and temporal that gathered to receive him, President Buhari, a man given to few words, but always frank, stated. “For the Governor of Imo State, I cannot thank you enough, but I will be careful with your future invitation.”  
Of all the many tactics and fighting strategies adopted by soldiers, there is none that troops detest as ambush. An ambush renders the most powerful army feeble, even impotent.

As a veteran, therefore, President Buhari must have weighed the totality of his experience in Owerri, the Eastern heartland and concluded that his chief host, Senator Hope Uzodimma, seemed to have led him (Buhari) into an ambush.

Consequently, the two veritable features during the President’s visit, which must have convinced him that he was lured into a trap, include the deserted streets and the town hall meeting he was ‘forced’ to address, comprising notable Southeast leaders.  

However, the other not-so apparent reason for President Buhari’s quip could relate to the fact of the nature of projects he was invited to commission, which comprise mostly uncompleted works on the signature flood control initiative and roads.

But, the greatest unspoken rumbles from the President’s visit could be seen from three other perspectives. They include, supremacy contest for Southeast APC leadership, battle with Senator Rochas Okocha, vis a vis contending groups for 2023 Presidential ticket of APC and search for validation.

Political scores/validation
THE fact that ever since the Supreme Court delivered the surprising verdict that declared Senator Uzodimma as the winner of the 2019 Imo State governorship election instead of Emeka Ihedioha, who was returned by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the governor has been seeking validation for his tenure.
Against that background, getting President Buhari to come on a working visit was believed to be a huge lift. Former chief executive of Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Directorate Dr. Sam Amadi, apart from picking holes on the rationale of project commissioning, saw the political angle to President Buhari’s visit.
Amadi stated: “I have argued here against the national madness of commissioning projects. Must we commission projects? I now ask another question: why commission uncompleted project? Today’s event leads to two conclusions.
“One, Governor Uzodinma is politically powerful. He is strong and influential in Aso Rock. He has partly won the bragging right to a large extent. He got the President to Owerri despite the threat of IPOB (Indigenous Peoples Of Biafra). Yes, that is strong and bold, in the Nigerian style of brutish politics. 

“Two, Governor Uzodinma is still lagging behind in the governance index. The projects ‘commissioned’ still don’t speak to a compelling governance vision. Nothing really is happening in Imo State. I try to say the truth and nothing, but the truth all the times.”

Was it the huge cost that project commissioning entails that Dr. Amadi was worried about or that there should be no ribbon cutting to announce the official completion of projects? The former NERD director said: “I feel that there is too much flippancy and ceremony about governance. When we complete a project we do not need a political carnival to commission it. To commission should be basically to declare we have completed and the project can be used now.

“Depending on the historic importance of the project, you can commission it as an opportunity to deepen commitment to the goal of the government. For example, we have a crisis of electricity in Nigeria. If you complete a 400mw power project that can guarantee all Imo businesses and citizens 24/7 light, you can use the commissioning as an opportunity to rally the people towards greater focus on industrialization or urban development. It should not just be for every project and not to hold political rally

“The money wasted is a problem. But, it is also because it has foisted in our leaders a sense of too much ceremony and self praise for basically doing really nothing.”

Perhaps, being a man given to frugality, President Buhari must have anticipated such negative backlash from the citizens despite the fact that the total absence of the people on the streets robbed him of the opportunity to gauge the public mood.  

Prior to the President’s visit, a socio-political group of Imo professionals known as Imolites Collective told journalists in Abuja that the visit would help the President to see how far peace has returned in the state.

In a statement signed by its President and Secretary, Longinus Duru and Ernest Iroha respectively, the group said, “The President’s visit would help Nigerians, especially NdImo to know how far the government has gone in improving dilapidated infrastructure, enhancing social development and boosting commerce and industry.

“Of particular interest is the construction of underground tunnel and surface drainage system along Dick Tiger junction, connecting ChukwumaNwoha and Relief market, which discharge point is at Otamiri River measuring 2.45 kilometres.

“We are happy to recall that upon his assumption of office, Governor Uzodimma saw the need to ameliorate the plight of Imolites through the award of the gigantic and signature project to curb the flood menace around Owerri metropolis.”

But, contrary to the anticipated unveiling of gigantic projects, President Buhari was led to commission the ongoing project, even as the massive rainfall the previous day succeeded in putting a lie to the claim that flood had been arrested in the state capital.

Imo State citizens who were restrained to their homes took to the social media to deride the entire visit, stressing that President Buhari was brought to Owerri to commission a gutter.

However, if the projects he saw did not meet with the hype about them, the President must have had a rethink we saw the caliber of people gathered to receive him at the Banquet Hall of the Government House. The town hall meeting, which came up as President Buhari’s last official assignment in the state, presented as the main attraction. And that must have left the idea of an ambush in his mind.

Apart from APC leaders from the Southeast, including Chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum, Governor Dave Umahi and former President of the Senate, Ken Nnamani, spiritual and opinion leaders were also present. Some of the dignitaries at the hall included the Anglican Archbishop of Owerri Province, Most Rev David Onuoha; and Anglican Archbishop of Enugu, Dr. Emmanuel Olisaeloka Chukwuma, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Achebe; former Chief of General Staff (CGS), Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe (Rtd) and the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Prof. George Obiozor.

Sources at the meeting disclosed that President Buhari was surprised when the President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo delivered his written address, which tended to support the impression that the invitation to Owerri was not circumscribed to project commissioning.   

 Obiozor, in his remarks informed the august visitor that “your visit and presence today in Igboland and Owerri, Imo State in particular, has more than political significance.

“It is also our firm belief that this visit will mark the beginning of a new chapter of dialogue, cooperation and understanding between Ndigbo and your administration.” 

The Ohanaeze President General had stated: “It is also our firm belief that this visit will mark the beginning of a new chapter of dialogue, cooperation and understanding between Ndigbo and your administration. 

“Mr. President, after all Nigeria has gone through in its nearly sixty years of chequered history of crises and continuity and the spectacular patriotic role of Ndigbo to ensure its unity and survival, the consistent perception that the Igbos are separatists and secessionists agitators is a historical fallacy.

“Mr. President, in spite of all the threats of secessionism or separatism facing the country, there is no doubt that no secessionist element can succeed in Nigeria provided there is good governance based on equity, justice and fairness to all the citizens.” 
The Ohanaeze leader reminded President Buhari that, “nothing is more important to the Igbo in Nigeria today, more than the restoration of serious sense of belonging and the spirit of Nigeria’s founding fathers based on one nation, one destiny.”

The claim of secession as a fallacy may have sounded very discomforting to President Buhari, especially against the background of the deserted streets, which the President must have seen as evidence of utmost obedience to IPOB’s stay at home order.

Going away from the speeches, there were a number of unspoken political nuances. They include the long standing battle between the governor and his predecessor, Senator Rochas Okorocha, and the silent supremacy schemes between the Imo State governor and his Ebonyi counterpart, Engineer Dave Umahi, over who holds closer relevance in the Presidency, and therefore leader of APC in Southeast.

Umahi/Okorocha angles
AS the chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum, the entry of Governor Umahi into APC was hailed in the party as a major catch. Apart from the wide influence the Ebonyi State governor wields in the zone, the general belief among prominent members of the party is that Umahi performed creditably in office and as such that performance would burnish APC’s credentials in Southeast.
While Umahi is accorded great respect by the national leadership of the party, his Imo State colleague believes that he Uzodimma should be seen as the APC leader in the zone. This silent struggle played out during the search for the leader of the Anambra State Governorship Campaign Council.
While many APC leaders wanted Umahi to lead Senator Andy Uba’s governorship campaign due to his sterling performance that could be used as a bragging right, others argued that Uba has been enjoying close working relationship with Uzodimma since their days in the Senate. At the end of the day, Uzodimma was chosen to head the national campaign council due to contiguity of Imo and Anambra States and for the fact that as chairman of Southeast Governors, Umahi should be seen as leader of both APC and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state.

Then there is the issue of Uzodimma’s infighting with his kinsman and former governor, Senator Okorocha. In the build up to the 2019 general elections, Okorocha stood against Uzodimma’s aspiration to return to the Senate or succeed him as governor.

Based on Okorocha’s insistence on fielding his son in law, Uche Nwosu, on the APC ticket, some national leaders of APC decided to side with Uzodimma for the governorship chase.

After the Supreme Court gave Uzodimma a favourable judgment in the governorship election appeal on January 14, 2020, it did not take long after his (Uzodimma’s) inauguration for the two Imo West politicians to renew their hostilities.

Add to the running battle with Okorocha over the control of party structure, the Governor is also opposed to Okorocha playing any serious role in 2023. Knowing that a second term governorship mandate would amount to stretching his luck too far, Governor Uzodimma is said to be working in some group for the emergence of a Northeast presidential candidate that could also consider him worthy of pairing up on the Presidential ticket.
Against this interplay of political animosity and jostling for a Presidential opening, Okorocha’s supporters have continued to amplify the general impression among Imo people that Buhari was conned with false perspectives to come commission uncompleted projects.
While dismissing the fanfare that attended Buhari’s invitation, Okorocha lamented that those who ridiculed him for joining APC are now struggling to destroy the party in Imo State, noting that during his tenure the Presidency visited the state to “commission real and impactful projects.”

To clarify the President’s closing remarks in Imo the President’s spokesman, Femi Adesina issued a statement titled, “What President Buhari said (didn’t say) in Imo State,” the Presidency stated: “We have observed that President Buhari’s concluding remarks at the meeting with Southeast leaders during his one day visit to Imo State is being deliberately contorted and twisted out of context.

“The purveyors of disinformation want Nigerians to believe that the President bluntly told Governor Uzodinma, ‘‘I’ll be careful with your future invitations.’’ 

“They have adduced different meanings to the phrase, contrary to the context wherein the President spoke during his successful dialogue with leaders of thought from Igbo land. When he arrived at the banquet hall of Imo State Government House for his last assignment in Owerri, the President was welcomed by over 50 leaders from the South East who had waited patiently for him for a Town Hall engagement, after commissioning strategic projects in the State.”

While describing the President’s visit to Imo State as very successful, Adesina explained that Buhari’s declaration, ‘‘Governor of Imo State, I cannot thank you enough, but I will be careful with your future invitations,’’ was merely a reiteration of the President’s surprise at the excellent reception accorded him by Southeast leaders.

The visit and all that was said and the interpretations given will all be put to test in a matter of months and years. What cannot be denied at all is that there was a visit.

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