Editor's Note: In this piece, Nurudeen Lawal predicts the APC's fate in 2023 if the ruling party decides to abandon presidential zoning in favour of competence as Governor El-Rufai advised.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna state argues in the prologue which he contributed to “Power of Possibilities and Politics of Change in Nigeria”, a book by Salihu Lukman, director-general of the Progressives Governors’ Forum, that presidential zoning should be abandoned for competence.
He described zoning as “opaque”, adding that it is a barrier to political equality.
There are disastrous consequences if the ruling APC decides to heed El-Rufai's advice and jettison zoning ahead of 2023.
I will highlight three of the consequences here. But before then, let's take a brief look at how zoning began.
In Nigeria, political offices, including the presidency, are rotated on the basis of geographical zones.
What zoning means; how it started
In Nigerian politics, zoning is the method through which the presidential seat is rotated between the north and the south through an unofficial, non-legal binding agreement.
Though unofficial, political analysts believe zoning is important because it ensures political inclusion and protects the minority – it helps to avoid a situation where it's only one region that produces the president.
Usman Mohammed, an Associate Professor of Political Science, Kaduna State University, told BBC that zoning began during Ibrahim Babangida's military regime when it was used for political and economic appointments.
However, presidential zoning started with the regime of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 after General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a Muslim from the north-central, Niger state, handed over power to him, a Christian from the southwest.
Following the zoning principle, in 2003 the PDP picked their presidential candidate from the north, Umar Musa Yar'adua whom Obasanjo after serving two terms handed over power to. Sadly, Yar'adua died two years into his administration paving way for his vice, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, to become president.
After finishing Yar'adua's term, Jonathan, after scaling many hurdles, secured the PDP’s presidential ticket for the 2011 elections, thereby cutting short the north's 'tenure' and distorting the zoning arrangement.
The northern elements who stood against Jonathan were eventually persuaded to wait till 2015 for the Presidency to return to the north.
Unfortunately, Jonathan dismissed the agreement and contested the 2015 presidential election against Muhammadu Buhari, the APC flagbearer from the north.
Dismissing the zoning agreement is part of the web of factors that caused Jonathan's defeat in 2015.
The spokesman for the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Professor Ango Abdullahi, confirmed that the group worked against Jonathan and the PDP because they jettisoned the zoning arrangement.
Now, what are the disastrous consequences if the APC disregards zoning?
One, the ruling party may lose the 2023 presidency if it imposes a northern candidate. The south, particularly the southwest, believes its support for the Buhari presidency should earn it the presidential slot in 2023.
Any northern presidential candidate in 2023 will not enjoy the support of the south, regardless of party affiliations. Though the north has population advantage, experience over the years has shown that it (the north) still needs the support of at least one zone from the south to produce a president.
The PDP can also take advantage of the situation and present a southern candidate who may enjoy the support of both the north and the south, and oust the APC.
"I'm not a prophet of doom, but I can confidently say that given my over three decades experience, I'm afraid if the APC decides to retain power, not only the party but northerners would lose woefully," Umar Duhu, pioneer national vice chairman of APC (Northeast) told SaharaReporters.
Two, the APC, apart from losing the presidency, risks going into extinction if it doesn't respect the zoning formula.
Though it's the ruling party, the APC is still struggling to manage the interests of its various members who came together in 2015 to displace the PDP. Not respecting zoning will prompt the party leaders to return to their regional politics to pursue their interests, a move that will bring the APC's ruling, and its existence, to a premature end.
Three, abandoning zoning will bring to the fore again the ethnic tensions the nation has been grappling with over the years.
For instance, in his reaction to El-Rufai's statement, the secretary-general of the Yoruba Council of Elders, Dr Kunle Olajide, told The Punch that the Kaduna state governor’s suggestion was an invitation to a crisis, which he said the nation should avoid by all means.
“Governor el-Rufai has to be checked. I hope he is not mouthing the agenda of other people or a particular ethnic group in the country. Zoning has sustained Nigeria’s democracy thus far and any attempt to tamper with it can lead to a political crisis,” Olajide said.
“Zoning is between the North and the South and it is not among the regions. In other words, the presidency has been rotating between the North and the South. Anybody who attempts to jettison that for whatever reason is trying to undermine the integrity of this country.
“We are still tottering and that is the reason for the relative instability you see. There is mutual suspicion that one ethnic group wants to dominate others. So, anybody who is trying to throw away what has been holding the nation together now is an enemy of the nation.”
A former director of the Institute of African Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Prof Banji Akintoye, also told The Punch:
“If you cancel that ( zoning), then it becomes a rough and tumble scramble without any rule. If you do that, you will only add to the enormous instability Nigeria is suffering now. Nigeria is going through hell in terms of inter-people relationships and in terms of the quality of life and the people’s expectations. We are treading very close to the dissolution of Nigeria as it is today."
Similarly, Ohanaeze Ndigbo also warned that dropping zoning may prove to be disastrous if implemented in 2023.
The publicity secretary of the pan-Igbo socio-cultural association, Uche Achi-Ukpaga, said the situation in the nation was not ripe for el-Rufai’s suggestion.
"The implication of this (calling for an end to zoning) is that they want to put the nation into a severe political turmoil by their selfishness," Achi-Ukpaga said.
Zoning versus competence
Ideally, competence, as El-Rufai said, should take precedence over zoning. However, an ethnically volatile nation like Nigeria needs zoning to allay the fears of marginalisation.
For instance, Olisa Agbakoba is of the view that zoning does not matter in ideal societies. He, however, said that it will take time for Nigeria to attain such democratic maturity.
“In a truly organised state, the ideal is to place competence and character at the heart of the minimum standards for public service.
“Unfortunately, we are far from an ideal Nigeria and we will have to struggle to get the balance right as this policy is entrenched in the Constitution and designated federal character,” he told The Nation.
Meanwhile, adopting zoning does not mean that competence is jettisoned; it only means that in 2023, you look for the 'competent' candidate from the zone whose turn is to occupy the presidency.
Or, are there are no competent personalities to occupy the Aso Villa in the south?
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What APC should be doing now
Rather than calling for an end to zoning, what should be the ruling party's worry now is how to amicably decide on which zone gets the 2023 presidency between the southwest and the southeast.
In the build-up to the 2019 elections, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo urged the southwest to vote for Buhari promising that the APC would support the region’s presidential bid in 2023. Similarly, Boss Mustapha, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, promised the southeast that their support for Buhari’s second term can give life to their 2023 presidential ambition.
It is now the time to reconcile the doublespeak which the party leaders used to solicit votes for President Buhari to ensure it doesn't degenerate into crisis ahead of the 2023 elections.
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