Home Commentary Nigeria: Is Amaechi the latest Southerner to eye the presidency?

Nigeria: Is Amaechi the latest Southerner to eye the presidency?

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Nigeria's new Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi smiles during a swearing-in ceremony in Abuja, Nigeria November 11, 2015. Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari swore 36 ministers into his cabinet on Wednesday, five months after his inauguration. Buhari won March elections after vowing to crack down on corruption in Africa's biggest economy and top oil producer. He has been criticised for waiting until September to name his ministers at a time when the economy has been hammered by the fall in oil prices. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde - GF20000054922

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.

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