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The cat-and-mouse game over zoning by Simon Kolawole

Where should the next president come from? In the unwritten code that guides matters of national politics in Nigeria, the answer is obvious. A northerner will have been president for eight years by 2023 and it is naturally expected that the next one will be a southerner. Ideally, where the next president comes from or where the commander-in-chief worships should not matter. Nigerians need a competent and patriotic leader who can unleash our enormous economic potential and tackle insecurity convincingly. But in realpolitik, ethnic, regional and religious sentiments are of significance in the Nigerian power game. That explains why power rotation and zoning are always on our lips.

But there is a game within the game and, to use a tired cliché, this is heating up the polity. Senator Abdullahi Adamu, the national chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), recently poured water on assumptions that the ruling party had already decided to zone its presidential slot to the south. It had been presumed that since he, a northerner, has just been chosen as the party chairman, coupled with the fact that the current president is a northerner, then presidency would go to the south. But Adamu came out to say the issue of zoning the presidential ticket had not been settled. Officially speaking, he was correct. On record, only the party’s national offices were zoned.

What is Adamu up to? His rhetoric, I believe, is influenced by the game going on in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The leading opposition party appears determined to get back power in 2023 and would be ready to adopt any strategy to achieve its aim. Some in PDP apparently believe that it would be to the party’s advantage to field a northerner. With the number of votes in the north, they probably did their maths and concluded that fielding a northerner against a southerner from the APC would boost their chances at the polls. The party that wrote power rotation in its constitution has, for all intents and purposes, jettisoned the principle in order to leave the APC on the backfoot.

In a sense, those pushing for a northern candidate in the PDP have their argument. Although the party was in power for 16 years — from 1999 to 2015 — a northerner was president for only three of those years. Even at that, it was a terminally ill President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua that was in office during which he was in and out of the hospital till he died. The pro-north group can, therefore, argue that the 16 years of PDP were overwhelmingly in the hands of southerners — Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan — and northerners in the party were short-changed. They can argue that the onus to zone to the south is on APC, not PDP. That would form a good debate.

Where do I stand? I have never hidden it: I am for power rotation. Why do I support rotation? I have my reasons, which I have been advancing in various tones and forms on this page for close to 20 years. One, in a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious underdeveloped African society such as ours, there will always be fears of domination. People want to be assured that they would not be eternally disadvantaged because they do not have the numbers. Accommodation is partly assured when it is established that political power — which Nigerians perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the biggest dispenser of scarce opportunities — will not be monopolised by the biggest groups.

Two, our inability to address certain questions concerning our nationhood is causing too much distraction from the real goal of national development. We keep playing identity politics. The interests of the political elite are best served through the perennial emphasis on ethnic, religious and regional identities. Whereas the ordinary Nigerian is troubled about access to safe water, decent housing, food, healthcare, education and security, they do not set the agenda for electioneering. Instead, they are unwittingly co-opted into discussing the sentiments of the political elite who are more interested in the politics of sharing the “national cake” in form of appointments and contracts.

As a result of the sheer power of the political elite to impose their agenda above that of the ordinary Nigerians, we will always place identity politics above development politics. Come and see ordinary people at newspaper stands in Abeokuta, Abakaliki and Abaji arguing over north and south and Christian and Muslim when they do not know where their next meal will come from or if they will not be kidnapped or killed on their way home. My thinking, therefore, is that until we appease the political elite by settling the issue of predictability of where power will go at election times, they will not allow us to table a development agenda, which is what really matters to 200 million Nigerians.

While I support “power shift” to the south in 2023, I also want to quickly raise two issues. One, where there is no law, there is no offence. The parties are free to take their tickets anywhere. If both APC and PDP pick northern candidates, no court of law can annul it. Power rotation is not a legal matter — it is a political understanding. Two, since this is an understanding, we should always leave a room for good politics in making it work. Blackmail and intimidation would be counterproductive. Playing good politics means forging the right alliances and striking the right chord, not threatening other regions and ethnic groups with war. That would only amount to work avoidance in my view.

The notion that the south-west got presidency in 1999 because of the violence unleashed by the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) cannot be true. Bashorun MKO Abiola won the June 12 election in 1993 and it was annulled. This plunged the nation into a prolonged political crisis. When Abiola died in detention in 1998, the political class came together and agreed to compensate the south-west over the annulment as well as his death. Even at that, Dr Alex Ekwueme, from the south-east, contested against Obasanjo at the PDP primary and lost by a wide margin. OPC did not stop its violent campaign for “Oduduwa Republic” after Obasanjo became president but he contained them.

Neither did Jonathan become president in 2011 because of Niger Delta militancy. The militants were not asking for presidency. They wanted 100 percent control of the oil and gas resources in their region and started a bombing campaign in 2005. At no time did they demand that the president after Obasanjo should come from the Niger Delta, except I missed it. In any case, Jonathan was not going to be running mate to Yar’Adua until some last-minute abracadabra at the PDP presidential convention ground in Abuja. Jonathan became president not because of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) but because Yar’Adua died unexpectedly in 2010.

I heard people argue when Jonathan was in power that the north propped up Boko Haram after Buhari lost to him in 2011 in order to push for power to return to the region in 2015. This conspiracy theory stands on nothing. Buhari has now been in office for nearly seven years and Boko Haram has continued to wreak havoc on the north. This is to say nothing about the attempt on Buhari’s life in Kaduna in 2014 by suspected Boko Haram members or the various attacks on mosques in Borno and Kano states by the terrorist group. How it could ever be interpreted that the Boko Haram militancy was designed to take power back to the north beats the imagination. The facts do not support this.

If power would come to the south in 2023, in my view, it would be most useful to put blackmail aside and focus on playing good politics. I support zoning but I also know that even without zoning, power can still shift to the south. Abiola did not win June 12 election by blackmailing anybody. He forged the right alliances nationwide over a long period of time. Abiola, from Ogun state, south-west Nigeria, defeated Alhaji Bashir Tofa in Kano state, north-west. Was it Yoruba voters or southerners that gave him victory in Kano state? The answer is obvious. Abiola aligned with the right power blocs. Also, Obasanjo did not win in the south-west in 1999 yet became president. Let’s be guided.

Finally, zoning to the south is one thing, micro-zoning within the region is another. Based on the “tripod theory” — the pre-Independence political structuring of Nigeria along Hausa/Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba ethnic classification — only the Igbo are yet to produce an elected president. A strong case has been built that on the basis of equity, the two biggest parties should concede their tickets to the Igbo. I do not have any problems with that. In fact, it would help actualise the Nigeria of my dream where no part will feel left behind because of any disadvantages — be they educational, historical, social, political or numerical. A president of Igbo origin would gladden my heart.

Some issues will still crop up nonetheless. For one, the APC — the biggest party in Nigeria today — is very weak in the south-east. A counterargument would be that PDP was also weak in the south-west in 1999 and Obasanjo was still elected president. I doubt if the circumstances and dynamics of 1999 are similar to what we have today and I don’t know if APC would want to take that risk. Also, if an Igbo from the south-south becomes presidential candidate of either APC or PDP or both, will the Igbo of the south-east finally feel accommodated? Meanwhile, APC presidential hopefuls from the south-west are not showing any signs of considering conceding to the south-south or south-east.

I will now round up. The underlying factor behind the cat-and-mouse game between APC and PDP over zoning is cold political calculation. Both parties are strategising on how to get the largest share of the votes in the presidential election. But there is a bigger picture they must keep in focus. The basic point I would make here is that personal interests should not trump the cause of political stability. Zoning is in our DNA. We have made some progress in national integration through the application of federal character in sharing revenue, appointments, projects and what not, and I believe that power rotation can further help unify our troubled country. We are a work in progress.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

MOTLEY MASS

Nigeria’s debts are doubling. Boko Haram keeps harming Chibok. ISWAP is sweeping the north-west. Bandits are butchering villagers en masse in Zamfara and Sokoto. IPOB wants to take the Igbo out of the Nigerian “zoo”. Sunday Igboho, backed by professors, is saying give me Oduduwa Republic or I die. Crude oil is daily stolen in hundreds of thousands of barrels. ASUU is eternally on strike. Unemployment is sky-high. We cannot fund education, cannot build hospitals. Nigeria is broke. Yet, politicians are jostling like mad to become the next president. The ruling APC alone has about 100 million presidential aspirants. Is there something the politicians are not telling us? Wonderful.

THE GAME

Still on the number of contestants for APC’s presidential ticket, many Nigerians have been worried or even disgusted by the crowd. The N100 million price tag that is supposed to discourage them is appearing to be more of a magnet. We may not be able to explain all the reasons for the surge, but being a presidential contestant gives you some leverage. You are at the table when the negotiations and calculations are being made. In the end, you can be well positioned for appointments in the new dispensation — if APC wins. You can be minister, ambassador, agency head, etc. You can even be asked to nominate people into positions. Just be part of the process. The game is the game. Politics!

MIMICKING MTN

The next president will have many things to deal with, but accelerating the growth of the private sector must be paramount. The figures presented by Mr Karl Toriola, CEO of MTN Nigeria, at the LBS recently sent my head spinning. The telco alone has paid a total of N3.5trn in taxes and levies to government since 2002. That is about N1trn more than it has paid as dividends to its investors. Toriola said MTN has made over N3.4trn in capital investments, mostly sunk costs on building infrastructure and network roll-out. We need a business-conscious president who can drive unprecedented investment by the private sector. That will mean a lot for job creation. Crucial.

LASSA ALERT

I wish to draw our attention to the growing cases of Lassa fever in Nigeria. Because COVID-19 disrupted international travels and changed our way of living, we seem to have forgotten that there are other diseases still hanging around our necks. So far in 2022, Lassa has infected 751 Nigerians and claimed 140 lives, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). These are the confirmed cases. Some cases may never be captured officially. Lassa may not get many inches in the newspapers because it is associated with the poor — it is spread mainly by rodents — but it is in 22 states and killing human beings like us. Government needs to step up public enlightenment. Deadly.

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