It’s no secret that President Muhammadu Buhari’s victory in last year’s election didn’t go down well with the South-South and South-East zones. The people of these parts of the country massively voted for ex-President Goodluck Jonathan who eventually lost the ballot. Almost a year into the new administration the people of the zones have stridently maintained their dislike for the winner. Why are they bitter?
Some say it’s because their son former President Goodluck Jonathan was unfairly denied a second term. If others before him were allowed to have a final term, why not him, they reason. In their opinion, as the only person from the oil-rich Niger Delta ever to be elected president, he should have been allowed the maximum two terms so as to help correct years of perceived injustice and deprivation against Niger Deltans. Conspiracy theorists also suggest that the traditional power centres plotted to oust Jonathan so that they could continue with the exploitation of their region’s oil wealth.
Some others equally contend that the election was rigged for President Buhari. Otherwise, there’s no way an incumbent could have lost, so the argument goes. There’s yet another belief in the region that Nigerians voted for Buhari just so they can have peace. Had Jonathan won, the opposition would have orchestrated such a massive upheaval that would have consumed the country, they maintain.
Some have even claimed that the President and his supporters floated Boko Haram to blackmail Nigerians into electing him. This segment of the country is so dead set against the current government that it does not believe that anything good can come out of it. Fulani herdsmen who are killing and maiming all over the country are not helping him either as many see him as their benefactor. They complain that his silence over their destructive attacks against fellow Nigerians signals his acquiescence.
The animosity between supporters of President Buhari and ex-President Jonathan is most visible on social media. The exchanges between the two camps are vitriolic, crude and filled with hatred. If it is not toned down soon, the diatribes are capable of pitting one section of the country against another, further damaging our fragile cohesion.
As a first sign of danger, a previously unknown group called the Niger Delta Avengers, fashioned after the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has claimed responsibility for an attack on an oil pipeline in Forcados that takes gas to power plants. We are told that this action has worsened the current nationwide power cuts.
These things ought not to be so. The election took place a year ago. To his credit, Jonathan demonstrated uncommon magnanimity when he put through that famous phone call to Buhari to concede defeat. The winner has in return been applauding Jonathan’s historic gesture, which helped to prevent the post-election conflagration that many had predicted. Their foot soldiers must take their cue from these men and leave campaigning till 2019.
But having lost the votes of the oil-producing zones in 2015, what I’d do if I were Mr. President is to aim to win the hearts of the people by undertaking official visits to the states in these zones. This will enable the electorates to see and hear me from close range. Also, it should prove to them that I am not the monster being made out to be.
During this exercise, the President should put on the garb of a statesman and show the people that he means well for the South-South and the South-East, just as much as he does for the rest of the country. And to be fair, some of his actions so far are encouraging. Consider his support for the proposed Calabar/Katsina-Ala highway despite being the pet project of the Peoples Democratic Party controlled state.
Not only was he physically there to flag it off last October, he expressed his wish to return some day to commission it. Another former president actively frustrated efforts by the opposition party controlled Lagos State not too long to secure federal backing for a rail line meant to serve Lagosians.
We have heard of the Lagos/Calabar rail line project in this year’s budget. Buhari has approved the status of a national flag carrier for Air Peace with the right to fly passengers non-stop to Guangzhou in China from Enugu. Allen Onyema, the airline’s Chief Executive Officer who broke the news last week, attested to the wholesome style of the Buhari administration. His application was approved purely on merit, according to him. This clearly does not fit the narrative that Buhari hates Igbo people, who arguably may also be the greatest beneficiary of the currency swap deal, which the President agreed with China.
Bayelsa State too is pencilled down to host a new oil refinery to be built by the Chinese. With these and other measures in the pipeline, the president should be able to warm himself into the people’s hearts and assure them that they will prosper during his tenure. The suggested visit to the region should be undertaken as soon as possible. And this is not an assignment to be delegated to other officials. He has to blow his own trumpet himself. Everybody will still not be converted in the end but the current “bad belle” would have been decisively punctured.

Paul Okolo, an Abuja-based public affairs analyst

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