Last year, Nigeria’s Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi began doing something unusual. Throughout his political career, the so-called ‘Lion of Ubima’, born in Rivers State and raised in the bustling state capital Port Harcourt, has always appeared in public wearing his trademark ornately embroidered cap.
On rare occasions he had been seen in public wearing the fedora hat favoured by his Ikwerre ethnic group, or in western attire without a hat on. But the fact that Rotimi Amaechi is a proud son of the Ikwerre people has never been in doubt.
In December 2020 however, he appeared on Channels Television wearing something else altogether. A plain red cap and a white shirt embroidered with the recurring motif of a lion head. To a non-Nigerian viewer, the whimsical choice of clothing might have escaped notice. To those in the know, however, this was a bombshell on par with what he was about to say.
Responding to a question about the senate minority leader, Eyinaya Abaribe’s criticism of his handling of Nigeria’s nationwide rail modernisation project, Amaechi said: “The criticisms of the opposition did not influence our decision to extend the rail line to the Eastern corridor. Senator Abaribe is not more Igbo than I am. My surname is Amaechi, but no Igbo man can tell you the meaning of Abaribe.”
It was not the first time that the outspoken cabinet minister had publicly uttered words to that effect, but it was the first time that the intent behind the words was unmistakable.
Alongside the visual spectacle of an ethnic Ikwerre donning the Igbo ethnic group’s famous “Ishi Agu” and red cap, it was no longer a subtle hint – it was now a statement delivered at the volume of a ship foghorn: “I want to be Nigeria’s first ‘Igbo’ president.”
Amaechi and zoning are strange bedfellows
To understand why Rotimi Amaechi’s ethnicity hopping is an important political statement it is important to understand that ethnicity and geographical origin are central to Nigeria’s electoral politics.
Following the death of General Abacha in 1998, the political deal that took the country from a dictatorship to an imperfect electoral democracy had the unwritten principle of “zoning” at its core.
The idea was that to prevent the emergence of another Abacha, every one of Nigeria’s six geo-political regions must get a turn at the presidency in a rotational order, oscillating between north and south. Olusegun Obasanjo accounted for the southwest, then Goodluck Jonathan for the so-called “south-south” following Umaru Yar’Adua’s truncated presidency. Muhammadu Buhari is in the process of accounting for the northwest.
This means that the next president (who is expected to be from the south) should come from the southeast, which is overwhelmingly populated by the Igbo ethnic group. It so happens that Rotimi Amaechi’s hometown of Diobu falls just within the arbitrary boundaries that define the “south-south.” On paper, therefore, his candidacy should not fly – except he can co-opt a southeastern identity for himself.
Very tellingly, when questioned directly about his thoughts on zoning to the southeast in 2023, Amaechi has never offered a direct answer. In 2017, when asked point-blank about whether the zoning principle should be respected, he stated that the zoning arrangement should be respected in rotating the presidency to the south in 2023.
Compared to an unpredictable wheeler-dealer like Bola Tinubu or a perceived enemy like Peter Obi, Rotimi Amaechi thinks of himself as the least problematic southern off-ramp for a government that has been accused of being excessively northern-centred.
Pressed further about zoning to the southeast, his response was that it was “too early” to discuss such things. Going by the newfound habit of public appearances wearing the Ishi Agu and red cap four years later, the time has definitely come now.
Will Buhari support his loyal lieutenant?
Despite the emergence of at least two embarrassing leaked conversations involving him talking about his boss in a less than complimentary manner, Amaechi remains a mainstay of Buhari’s cabinet. A party man through and through since 2014, his expectation is that come 2023, Buhari will prefer to hand over to a southerner whom he can trust.
Compared to an unpredictable wheeler-dealer like Bola Tinubu or a perceived enemy like Peter Obi, Rotimi Amaechi thinks of himself as the least problematic southern off-ramp for a government that has been accused of being excessively northern-centred. On paper, Amaechi’s strategy makes sense. Himself, Bola Tinubu and Peter Obi look set to be the front running southern candidates in 2023.
Northern hopefuls like Nasir El-Rufai and Atiku Abubakar might command support on paper, but their candidacy would violate the zoning agreement and potentially compromise Nigeria’s fragile simulacrum of unity.
By positioning himself to Buhari as the “least worst” option of the three southern frontrunners, he hopes to secure his boss’ support. In reality, however, several southern politicians before him have also made it to this point before, only to get jilted at the altar.
Before there was Amaechi, there was Peter Odili who dreamed of succeeding Umaru Yar’Adua. There was also James Ibori who had the same ambition. Even ex-president Goodluck Jonathan arguably fell into the same quagmire in 2015.
The most iconic example of this recurrent subset of Nigerian political theatre was MKO Abiola, who not only considered himself a friend to the northern political establishment but actually won the popular vote in the north – one of the very few times a southerner has ever done so.
In his 2013 paper, ‘The Politics of Islamic Leadership and Representation in Nigeria: A Historical Analytical Study on the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA),’ Saheed Ahmad Rufai describes what happened when Abiola found himself needing the help of his northern friends and co-travellers at the NSCIA: “…(The Council) maintained what could be aptly described as “an embarrassing silence.”
In an early newspaper review on the radio in 1994, a statement was credited to the then Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of the apex body, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki enjoining the undeclared winner of the 12 June elections to accept the annulment as “an act of God.”
The Secretary-General (Abiola) wasted no time in phoning the Sultan for confirmation of what was credited to him. He (the Sultan) too, claimed to have been trying to reach him on the phone. The scribe sought to know from the Sultan whether he said so or not.
The Sultan said he never made such a statement and that he even wanted to ask Secretary-General whether he instructed the Administrative Secretary of the Council to make a release on “our behalf.” The rest of the story, as they say, is history now.