By Reuben Abati

The politics of zoning is likely to make or mar the 2023 Presidential election, with implications for the stability of the country. It is one of the most contentious issues in Nigeria at the moment particularly in the two major political parties: the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC), which both represent most of the contending stakeholders in Nigeria. It is often argued that zoning is not expressly stated in either the 1999 Constitution or the Electoral Act, but it is a convenient measure adopted by the Peoples Democratic Party in 1999, with the return to civilian rule, in order to ensure equity, justice and a sense of ownership in the political representation process. Even though the word zoning is not used in the 1999 Constitution, it is nonetheless in line with the ideals of Federal Character as stated in Sections 14(3), 147(3) and 171(5) and the establishment of a Federal Character Commission in Section 153 (1c) and Part 1(C) of the Third Schedule.

The principle is that in a multi-plural, diverse country like Nigeria, with over 400 ethnic nationalities, it is important that every group is given a sense of belonging, and participation, to promote national unity and loyalty, and to prevent the overt domination of some sections of the country, lording it over others in appointments and the sharing of power and access. It is in this sense that zoning or the concept of rotational presidency is a derivative of the Federal Character principle. Since independence, this principle has been a source of tension and conflict among the various ethnic nationalities, regions and zones that make up Nigeria, with minority groups protesting about their marginalization by majorities, and great discontent over the distribution of power and positions by leaders who assume office and resort to the politics of hegemony, nepotism and favouritism to the advantage of their own ethnic stock. This was an issue during the military era, under Lt. General Aguiyi-Ironsi – Igbos were accused of dominating other groups. Then, there was the civil war, and the North seized power. Over the years, other Nigerians complained of marginalization, and the Northernization of power in Nigeria. The return to civilian rule in 1999 and the exit of the military were both meant in part, to address this volatile issue and ensure true, participatory democracy sitting on a tripod of equity, justice and good conscience.

It is therefore most unfortunate that as Nigeria moves closer to the 2023 general elections, there is so much disquiet about zoning and rotational Presidency. The kernel of it is the insistence by certain Northern interest groups that there is nothing wrong in a Northerner becoming President after eight years of the Buhari Presidency. These groups including the Northern Leaders of Thought, Northern Elders Forum, Coalition of Northern Groups and the Arewa Consultative Forum and their spokespersons have at one time or the other in the last few months argued that the North has as much right as any other zone in the country to run for the Presidency in 2023, and that there is no such thing as a consensus or an agreement to zone the Presidency of Nigeria to either the South or to the South East. Most Northern commentators on the subject indeed sound irritated by the idea of Igbo Presidency or the thought that Ndigbo is the only major ethnic group that has not been allowed to lead Nigeria since the return to civilian rule in 1999. There are however exceptions from the North: the Arewa Consensus Assembly for example, has called for a Southern Presidency in 2023.

The main argument of the naysayers is as articulated by former Governor of Kano State, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso who argued in a Television Interview: “If you look at it from 1999 to date, or even after 2023, we have 16 years for PDP, eight years for APC. Now in the 16 years of PDP, we had a situation where the Presidency has been in the South for 14 years and only in the North for two years during the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of blessed memory.” Similarly, the Governor of Bauchi State, Bala Muhammed has argued as follows: “I want to let all Nigerians, especially those clamouring for the 2023 Presidency to go to the South, that it is the turn of the North to produce the next President.. We are aware of the agitations of the Southern part of the country because the leader of the country today, President Muhammadu Buhari who is from the North will finish his tenure in 2023, so power could rotate to the South. But I want to say that I am in PDP. I am not in APC that has this burden of zoning the Presidency to the South….my party was at the centre for 16 years; 14 of those years were led by people from the South, so where is the justice and the justification. Therefore, it is the turn of the North to produce the next President…”

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Both Kwankwaso and Muhammad may be defending the reported plan by the PDP to throw the race for the Presidency open within its ranks, but at the heart of their argument is the suggestion that the South has spent more time in power at the centre than the North. It is a specious argument that has been taken up by some youth groups in the North and they are wrong. Nigeria did not begin in 1999. In the 61 years of the country’s independence, under both the military and civilians, the North has controlled power at the centre, for more than 41 years! So there is a case to be made for equity and justice and it is in part why many Nigerians from the Middle Belt to the South are calling for restructuring. This is also at the root of calls for self-determination and/or secession by ethnic nationalist groups in the East and the West.

For the benefit of those arguing that nobody should come to power based on sentiments, they may need to be reminded of a bit of history, which they seem to be conveniently ignoring. After the annulment of the 1993 Presidential election won by Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate, Bashorun MKO Abiola and the turmoil that enveloped the country, the military junta in setting up the Interim National Government (ING) had to choose as its head, a Yoruba man, and not just a Yoruba man, but someone from the same town as Chief Abiola, that is Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan. It doesn’t take much commonsense to see that there was an attempt here to assuage the feelings of the Yoruba and the Egba even if that didn’t last for too long. Again in 1999, with the tension over the 1993 debacle yet to settle, the two major political parties at the time: the PDP and the SDP, both chose Yorubas as Presidential candidates: Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (PDP) and Chief Olu Falae (SDP). The plan obviously was to appease the South West over the injustice that had been done to Chief MKO Abiola in 1993, and perhaps to show that Abiola’s party, the SDP still stood a chance of winning Nigeria’s Presidential election Again, for the benefit of those opposing the idea of a Nigerian President of Southern extraction in 2023, they should remember the dust that was thrown up by the North in 2010, after the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. The 1999 Constitution is very clear on succession to power in the event of the death of a sitting President: the Vice President is immediately sworn in. But Northern groups opposed the idea of then Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan assuming office in accordance with Constitutional provisions (see section 146).

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Nigeria almost broke up because some Northerners argued that only a Northerner could complete President Yar’Adua’s remaining one year in office. It took the National Assembly coming with a “doctrine of necessity”, something unknown to the Constitution before reason prevailed. The people behind the planned subterfuge never forgave President Jonathan. They took their pound of flesh in 2015, when they began yet another drama about how President Jonathan had promised to do only one term in office, and it was the turn of the North to produce the next President. Even Northern members of the PDP, some of whom are now opposed to power-shift to the South, engaged in anti-party activities just to get power back to the North. As a worst case scenario for 2023, across the aisle, some other power brokers, including Emirs, are now suggesting that the same Jonathan that they opposed in 2015, should be allowed to return to office, and it is not certain that they want him back for altruistic reasons or out of love. So, should political parties and their leaders be allowed to always take decisions based on expediency?

It seems to me however that the APC seems to be handling the politics of zoning for the 2023 Presidential race much better than the PDP. With perhaps the exception of Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State, the other APC members that have publicly shown interest in the Presidential race are from the South: Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, former Governor of Abia State, Senator Rochas Okorocha (former Governor of Imo State), Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State and by proxy – Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti. So far, the APC seems to be tilting towards the South as most of its Northern members seem to be more interested in vying for the Chairmanship of the party – 12 so far in the APC Chairmanship race. APC insiders also claim that President Buhari believes that it is immoral and inequitable for a Northerner to succeed him. What is not clear is which Southerner from the South, East or South West the President is interested in, but in any case that is left for party delegates to decide. What is clear is that the APC has problems of its own, the party has been somewhat riotous as a constitutional, legitimate body in managing its own affairs, and that may be seen when and if the party is able to hold its National Convention scheduled for Feb. 26. Is there a Third Force within the APC? So it seems. Already, some members of the party are challenging the legitimacy of the Extra-ordinary Convention Planning Committee led by the Governor of Yobe State, Mai Mala Buni. Even if the Convention holds, there is still the possibility of some aggrieved members of the party going to Court to challenge the legitimacy of the Buni committee as in the Ondo State case: Jegede vs. Akeredolu. The technical point raised by Jegede’s counsel at the time, was determined narrowly by the Supreme Court 4-3. The res in the matter, can still be revisited.

The PDP is likely to find itself in the eye of the storm if it zones its choice of Presidential candidate to the North. Except the PDP is playing some kind of game or a curious strategy, those who are pushing for a Northern PDP Presidential candidate must know that it amounts to political arrogance for anyone from the North to think he or she can win the Presidential election by jettisoning zoning or without the support of the South. The Constitutional provision on the character and spread of votes for a person to be elected Nigerian President is a bit cumbersome (see Section 133). The country is also fragile from many perspectives. We need to manage people’s expectations in the best interest of national stability. Why would the Northern PDP leaders say that they have not had their chance within the party? Do those of them who engaged in anti-party activities in 2015 have the moral right to talk about the Northern interest in 2022/23? Those pushing for a Northern Presidential candidate in the PDP apparently under-estimate the resolve of the Southern Governors Forum comprising the Governors from PDP, APC, APGA and the position as well of the various ethnic socio-political organizations – Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum, PANDEF and Afenifere. Southern leaders are unyielding in their determination that the next President of Nigeria must come from the South. Both PANDEF and Ohanaeze have warned about the possible break up of Nigeria if power at the centre remains in the North. Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Adebanjo wants a President of South East extraction.

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Unlike the APC, the PDP has a long list of Presidential hopefuls from the North: former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, former Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, Governor of Sokoto State, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, Bauchi State Governor, Bala Muhammad, former Kano State Governor, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso. If the PDP goes ahead with its proposed no-zoning policy, these Northern aspirants, would confront, for now, from the South – former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, former Governor of Ekiti State, Ayo Fayose, Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel, former Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim, former President of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, veteran journalist, Dele Momodu and others within the party who may also have their eyes on the ticket. The politics of zoning is bound to widen the gulf within the party with grave consequences in the 2023 elections. In 2014/2015, the PDP lost woefully and imploded, basically because of this same division, with many of the party foot-soldiers at the grassroots level, scattering like pigeons. The standard explanation that is offered by PDP leaders is that consultations are ongoing and that many of the aspirants are also still busy with consultations. Whatever it is, the uncertainty within the party serves only the purpose of giving an advantage to other political parties at all levels.

It remains to add that while the concept of Federal Character has been grossly abused in its application, the zoning principle in politics has helped to ensure a sense of balance, rotation and inclusion, but to jettison it for purposes of expediency would be counter-productive and costly. In an ideal situation, every aspect of national life should be driven by merit, but there is nothing ideal about Nigeria, and that is why we run a turn-by-turn democracy, with emphasis on how access to power amounts to access to the proverbial national cake. The logic is simple: every group wants their own share of the cake before anyone begins to talk about merit, as if any single group in the country has a monopoly of talent. This is the Nigerian dilemma.

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