Many were the prayers and goodwill messages that sped our feet to Owerri, capital of Imo State, the Eastern Heartland, on September 9, 2021.
Why were the people so effusive in prayers? We were considered as going into unsafe territory, where anything could happen, as President Muhammadu Buhari and his team visited Owerri on a one day working visit.
Rather erroneously, some people have pedestaled the President as not liking the Igbos. Who, President Buhari? They don’t know the man. Not this man I’ve worked with closely and observed for over six years. He hates nobody. And I repeat: nobody.
To make matters worse, a shadowy group had claimed that the President was not welcome in any part of the South-east. I got messages filled with trepidation from home and abroad. Please prevail on the President to cancel the trip. He should apologize to Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State, and abort the visit. There could be a bloodbath.
I only laughed it all off. Who would tell a duly and popularly elected President where to go, and where not to go, in his own country? At the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, he had campaigned in Borno State in 2015 and 2019, respectively. A man, who repeatedly tells us that for the 30 months the Nigerian Civil War lasted, he was right there at the front, not even taking one day off. Is that then the person you would scare from visiting any part of the country?
And again, this was a serial Igbo Chief. The Ogbuagu 1 (The Lion Killer) of Aba. The Ochioha 1 (Leader of All) of Igboland, given to him in Ebonyi State in 2017. Also The Enyioma 1 (The Good Friend) of Ebonyi, and Ikeogu 1 (The Great Warrior) of Ndigbo, among others. Is this then the kind of person you frighten from visiting anywhere, particularly Igboland? It doesn’t happen!
So, off to Owerri we went. And we saw. And conquered, with Gov Uzodinma pulling out all the stops to make it a memorable visit. A number of landmark projects were commissioned; roads, drainage, new council chambers, and then, a town hall meeting. All drew a modest number of cheering crowd, people of goodwill. It was more than had been portrayed by scaremongers.
The South-east region had virtually emptied into the Town Hall meeting, in terms of quality leadership. From the five South-East States had come Governors, their representatives, monarchs, retired military generals, academics, leaders of Ohanaeze socio-cultural group, politicians, captains of industry, they were all there. It was a colorful event.
President Buhari was turned out in his chieftaincy regalia, completed with the elephant’s tusk. He simply blended well with his hosts, most of who wore the same color of clothes. A son (or rather, father), had come home.
One thing was significant about the whole visit. Closing of ranks and unanimity by the hosts. Looking through major newspapers of the day, it was evident. The five Governors of the region bought advertisement space, welcoming the President. Ohanaeze expressed its welcome. Groups and individuals also did. Even the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Imo State chapter, did. It was crystal clear that anyone against the visit was swimming in lonely waters.
I recall that one of the earliest places the President visited, and spent the night in his first term, was Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, in November, 2017. Gov Dave Umahi was even then still of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But it didn’t stop President Buhari from visiting, and passing the night. The man really has no boundaries, I tell you.
Governor Uzodinma spoke at the Town Hall meeting. He eulogized the President for being a vital part of finding solution to the security crises rocking the region. He said he and his people believe in the unity of Nigeria, and it was inconceivable to support a break up, and it won’t happen now, not tomorrow, and never. Wide applause.
He said the region believes in a united Nigeria based on justice, equity, and fairness. Another wide applause.
The Governor then addressed the President directly: “We want to be treated like Nigerians. Fortunately, you are addressing that through policy initiatives which give us sense of belonging. The Second Niger Bridge is a project we have emotional attachment to.”
He mentioned other benefits the region has got under Buhari, and then declared: “The South-east will continue to support you, because you are not insensitive to the yearnings of our people. You’ve shown us love, we’ll show you love. South-east is with you.”
President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Prof George Obiozor, described Buhari as a “graceful President,” noting that the visit had more than political significance. He said the country was being led by a “serious President,” and not a “frivolous one.”
“Your presence brings light that drives away cloudiness of relationship with Ndigbo, “ he added.
Prof Obiozor said Igbos were not separatists or secessionists. “We are most federating unit among all Nigerians. If you go anywhere, and you don’t see Ndigbo there, run away. Something is wrong there.
“Propensity for friendliness and peaceful co-existence defines us. We are cosmopolitan. The traveler doesn’t make enemies, but friends. Leadership should have faith and hope in us. No secessionist will survive in the face of equity and good governance.”
And this drew thunderous applause from the hall: “However rough the storm, the fish cannot be driven out of the sea. Same with Igbos. We will always be here.”
Prof Obiozor presented a shopping list. Security. Jobs for youths. Infrastructure; more roads, rail, bridges, ports. Sense of balance in the political system. And others.
Then, the main man spoke. The President said he was overwhelmed by the reception he had received, adding: “The Governor didn’t tell me the whole Igbo leaders would be here. He has achieved surprise, which we in the military don’t like.”
President Buhari reiterated the fact that there’s no town you visit in Nigeria, without finding an Igbo. “In fact, they are in charge of the economy, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, and there’s no need for them to be outside Nigeria.”
He said government was working to get infrastructure right, “so that Nigerians can mind their businesses,” pointing out that the South-east has its fair share of different projects. He added: “The Igbos stand to benefit more than anybody, because you are enterprising.”
President Buhari delved into the challenges the country has with security, the economy and corruption, submitting: “I will like to be remembered as a person who stabilized this country. Without security, there’s nothing anybody can do on the economy. When people feel secure, they mind their businesses. I will also make sure we curb corruption under this difficult system. I will do my best, so that Nigerians will succeed in their endeavors.”
The visit of the President was a roaring success, and like the Ohanaeze President said, it drove away “the cloudiness of relationship with Ndigbo.”
The Ogbuagu, indeed, slew the lion of insularity, wrong profiling, and scaremongering. Bring on the other lions!
*Adesina is Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity