By Omoniyi Salaudeen
All things being equal, review of the 1999 constitution is expected to be one of the top priorities of the National Assembly in this new legislative year. And as the new amendment takes the front burner, different shades of opinions have been expressed on the desirability or otherwise of the inclusion of rotational presidency in the constitution. In the view of the promoters of power rotation, entrenchment of this clause in the new document would not only help to stabilize the polity, but also complement the principle of federalism.
Those against the doctrine, on the other hand, have faulted this claim on the ground that it does not take the interest of the minorities into consideration. This is in view of the fact that there are over 250 ethnic nationalities spread across the six geo-political zones. And to this extent, they argue, power rotation has not fully addressed the question of marginalization. On the contrary, the policy, according to them, has accentuated the consciousness of deep differences among the various ethnic groups.
The introduction of the principle of zoning, or rotation into the Nigeria political lexicon has its origin in the imbroglio that followed the annulment of the 12, 1993 presidential election. It was adopted as a consensus arrangement by the power brokers to appease the people of Southwest for the ultimate demise of the presumed winner of the election, Chief MKO Abiola.
Before then, the1995 Constituent Assembly put together by the late Head of State, Gen Sani Abacha, to review the 1999 constitution had made similar proposal but was jettisoned by his successor, Gen Abdul Salam Abubakar. Abacha in his Independence Day broadcast on October 1, 1995 did not only grant the proposal an official recognition, but also approved demarcation of Nigeria into six geopolitical zones, saying the principles “shall be entrenched in the constitution and shall be at the federal level and applicable for an experimental period of 30 (thirty) years.”
Following the death of Abacha in 1998, Abubakar omitted the provision in the constitution, perhaps, as part of deliberate effort to sustain the hegemony of the northern oligarchs who perceived ruler ship as their birthright. Until the advent of the present civilian dispensation in 1999, the North had held on to power for 31 out of 34 years of nationhood. However, with the political stalemate occasioned by the annulment of the June 12 election, the power elite realized the need to incorporate rotation into the political arrangement. Consequently, two Yoruba candidates emerged in the 1999 presidential election. In particular, the constitution of the PDP section 7 (2) 1998 specifically provides that: “In pursuance of the principle of zoning, justice and fairness, the party shall adhere to the policy of rotation and zoning of party and public elective offices and it shall be enforced by the appropriate executive committee at all levels.” It, therefore, closed its doors to Northern presidential aspirants and only considered presidential aspirants from the South-east, South-South and South-West. The late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi from the Northwest, who defied the zoning arrangement and purchased the presidential nomination form, was forbidden from contesting, but his nomination fee was refunded. In a way, the inclusion of zoning arrangement in the constitution of the PDP is a recognition of the the reality of northern domination of the presidency since 1960. Therefore, the Obasanjo presidency represented the first attempt to actualize power sharing in Nigeria. Since then, the PDP has always ensured zoning of elective positions to specific geo-political regions within specific periods of time. The idea of zoning is not restricted to the office of the President, but also extended to the offices of Vice-President, Senate President, and speaker of the House of Representatives.
However, the decision by former president Goodluck to contest the 2011 presidential election following the demise of the late president Umar Yar’Adua imperiled the zoning formula within the party. The power brokers from the North had wanted a candidate from the region to complete Yar’Adua’s tenure, but Jonathan had more sympathy and support from across all sections of Nigeria, including ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo who insisted that zoning most be set aside to meet the exigency of the time. Consequently, Jonathan defeated former vice president Atiku Abubakar in the party’s primaries to face other candidates from other political parties. While the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) presented Gen Muhammadu Buhari as its own presidential candidate, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) fielded Mallam Nuhu Ribadu as its standard bearer. Both of them are from the northwest zone. The political strategy of the CPC and ACN then was to take advantage of the seeming discontent in the North, stemming from disagreements about zoning arrangement to gain electoral leverage. Although Jonathan won the election, his popular mandate ignited widespread violence in the North, leading to the loss of lives of several corps members and other innocent citizens.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the 2015 general elections. Many stakeholders blamed the woeful defeat of the PDP on Jonathan’s refusal to concede power to the North. In view of this, all permutations towards the 2019 general elections seem to be in favour of the North. There is, indeed a strong belief within the PDP fold that a popular Northern candidate would be needed to confront President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the next presidential election. Regrettably, however, the party still largely remains enmeshed in its protracted crisis.
Although section 135 (2) of the Nigerian constitution provides for a second term for the incumbent president, the ruling APC does not have power rotation or zoning arrangement in its constitution. And for now, whether or not Buhari would contest the 2019 presidential election is in the realm of speculation.
If Buhari decides to contest, perhaps, the PDP may have no other choice than to present a Northern candidate who has the clout to pull support of the electorate from across different sections of the country.
As part of the scheming for the 2019 elections, there are already moves by Ahmed Makarfi-led leadership of the PDP to reach out to other political parties with a view to forming a new alliance to confront the APC. This followed the recent inauguration of an ad hoc committee known as Strategy Review and Inter-party affairs to interface with other political interests to form a mega party.
Whichever side of the political divide the pendulum swings, the reality is that power is likely to remain in the North, at least for a minimum of six more years, if President Buhari returns in 2019. If otherwise, it will take another 12 years, if another candidate from the region emerges the president in 2019. This inevitably would accentuate the feeling of marginalization by the Southeast geo-political zone that has never had a taste of presidency after the civil war.
The Second Republic governor of the old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, in an interview with Sunday Sun, said retention of zoning and power rotation in the system would give every region a sense of belonging. His words: “The reason for power rotation and zoning is to give every Nigerian a sense of belonging. That has not been achieved yet. But we are moving towards that. At least, two out of the three major sections of Nigeria- the North and Southwest-have held office of the president. But one section, that is, the Southeast has not had the opportunity of attaining that position. For that reason, I recommend continuation of zoning and power rotation. Therefore, for the sake of stability and the need to give each section a sense of belonging, Southeast should be allowed to hold the office of the president.”
But the presidential candidate of the UPP, Chief Chekwas Okorie, in his own view, said only restructuring of the federal structure would ensure the stability of the country. “I will rather go for the outright restructuring of this country as recommended by the 2014 national conference instead of power rotation. Power rotation and zoning presuppose that the structure of Nigeria still remains the way it is. The fact that so much power is concentrated at the centre is the problem Nigeria has today. If Nigeria is restructured in such a way that there is devolution of power, nobody will bother as to which tribe or colour is at Abuja presiding over the affairs of the country. It does not matter who is at Abuja, every federating unit has the liberty to develop at its own pace. So, I would not go for power zoning or power rotation at the expense of restructuring that will involve fiscal federalism,” he maintained.
The debate is still raging. Those with strong argument in favour of power rotation hinge their support on Section 14 of the constitution (Federal Character) which prescribes inclusion of the six geopolitical zones in the allocation of political and public appointments including the office of President. On the other hand, there are those calling for the abolition of zoning and power rotation, saying it would enable people to gain access to offices at the expense of merit.