A presidential visit to a state is a very significant event. Both the presidency and the host state look forward to it for several reasons. Although the president and the governor would have been meeting at other fora, an official visit to a state is set aside, exclusively, for the president to interact with one of his main constituents, defined as a geo-political entity.
It is symbolic because irrespective of the president’s political party, during the visit, he exercises the sovereign authority reposed in him by the constitution. During the visit, the president meets with the people; he talks to them and they talk to him, an experience that lifts the veil of invincibility and creates same bonding, depending on how the exchanges are handled. The visit affords the President the opportunity to witness, first hand, the state of affairs and the problems of the state. More often than not, he ends up making landmark pronouncements that would not only give confidence to the indigenes of the state but nationals of the country at large.
For the states of the south east geo-political zone of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit to Ebonyi State, on Tuesday, November 14, 2017, has a symbolism that goes beyond state visits at normal times. To start with, over two years into office, this is the President’s first official visit to any state in the south east geo-political zone. For another, the visit is coming shortly after the controversial “Operation Python Dance 2” to the zone. Third, the President is paying his first visit to the zone at a time of intense agitation for restructuring of the federation, to provide the basis for rapid development of the various constituents.
With these in mind, many will be wondering why the President has chosen to visit at this time. And why did he decide to start from Ebonyi State instead of any other state in the zone? Finally, what does he expect to encounter during the visit and what difference, if any, will his visit make to Ebonyi State, the situation in the south east and the political ferment that has engulfed the country? On the first question, my guess is that the President, who really has not been travelling much within Nigeria, has decided to heed the calls for him to engage every part of the country, to give every part of the country a sense of belonging.
Starting from Ebonyi State should not surprise anyone who has followed President Buhari’s political odyssey. One of the President’s staunch loyalists, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, the minister of science and technology, hails from Ebonyi State. Onu, a highly principled politician, had defied all odds, to stand with Buhari and was chairman of the defunct All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, and the platform on which Buhari twice ran for president. People were not surprised, therefore, when, at the onset of the Buhari Administration, the speculation grew very strong, that Onu would be appointed secretary to the government of the federation.
However, going by recent events, great credit should go to the Governor of Ebonyi State, Engineer Dave Umahi. There are several reasons for my position. First, Umahi has provided effective and decisive leadership to the South East Governors Forum of which he is chairman. Under his leadership, the forum acted decisively to douse the raging inferno that had threatened the south east in the wake of the “Operation Python Dance 2”. The action of the governors, in collaboration with Ohanaeze Ndigbo and other stakeholders, averted a bloodbath as well as the possible onset of another major crisis in Nigeria. Any president would have been pleased with Umahi’s actions. That was leadership at its best.
Second, Umahi has continually demonstrated admirable statesmanship in his actions and utterances. He stands out as a national patriot who strikes a balance between party loyalty and ethnic identity, on the one hand, and the imperatives of national survival, on the other. As evidence of this, the Commissioner for Information in Ebonyi State, Senator Emmanuel Onwe is quoted as saying that Umahi has banned banners and partisan items at the stadium during the President’s visit. Umahi’s words are instructive: “Nobody should come to the stadium with any party logo. We don’t want to embarrass the President. If we invite the President for a state visit and PDP roll out their logo, it is an embarrassment to Mr. President.
“So, it is a Presidential visit, no party is coming to the stadium with a logo or party slogan of anything. It is just a simple Presidential visit. If they don’t understand they should go and find out what a presidential visit is and what it entails.”
Third, Umahi appears to be enjoying a special relationship with the President and was among the six governors that visited him in London last July 26 while he was still receiving treatment in London. Fourth, his trail-blazing performance, especially in the agricultural sector, rekindles hope that someday, not too far from now, the Michael Okpara economic miracle of the defunct Eastern Region of Nigeria could be re-enacted. That is why Ebonyi is a poster child of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Anchor Borrower’s program. That is apart from the several infrastructural projects dotting the Ebonyi landscape.
Thus, Buhari will come face to face with a state that is in a hurry to eradicate hunger not just within its jurisdiction but Nigeria as a whole. He will come face to face with some of the finest Nigerians, people who are fiercely Igbo yet unapologetically Nigerian; an area that habours some of the most honest Nigerians as epitomized by Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, a pearl of a human being, a man of unquestionable integrity, a first rate brain whose worth is yet to be well appreciated and whose value is yet to be properly deployed even as he remains uncompromisingly loyal to President and country.
Given the recent events, it is not inconceivable that a visit of this nature could be the source of a new agitation. But that will not be a wise step to take. His visit should be seen as an opportunity for a new beginning, a fresh engagement between the Presidency and the south east, starting with Ebonyi State, an opportunity to chart a direction that is devoid of vote-catching antics. Given Umahi’s pragmatism, his capacity for hard work and the excitement generated by the historic visit, it is hoped that reason will prevail and the President will be accorded a rousing welcome.
Ultimately, the ball is in the hands of the President. In some climes, on the eve of the visit or during the visit proper, the president could drop one landmark pronouncement or two that could calm frayed nerves, heal gaping wounds and redirect the national narrative. Without prejudice to what Buhari’s advisers would have told him, this is one visit that should not have any provision for drawing “red lines”, partisan cleavages or vote-catching antics. Rather, it is an opportunity, to emphasize the things that hold us, Nigerians, together as a people, a country under one God; to rekindle hope that the people of the south east can trust their President to uphold equity and justice, that they have cause to renew their faith in the Nigerian project.
Buhari’s visit to Ebonyi State on Tuesday, November 14, 2017, promises to be a truly historic event. Let us make the best out of it.
Welcome, Mr. President, to the “Salt of the Nation”.