Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
The 2023 general elections is still more than two years away but the issues relating to whether or not the presidency should be zoned or thrown open to all qualified aspirants have dominated public discourse lately.
In both the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the zoning debate has kept party stalwarts on the edge as they forcefully push their position on the contentious issue.
Since the inception of the present Fourth Republic, zoning has been a major feature in the polity, with the presidency rotating between the South and North.
In the 1999 general elections, the PDP, as well as the defunct All Peoples Party (APP) had zoned their presidential tickets to the South West with former President Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP emerging winner. The concession of the exalted position to the South West by the nation’s power elite spearheaded by some retired Army Generals was considered an appeasement of the Yoruba bloc after the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by late MKO Abiola.
But after Obasanjo’s 8 years tenure in 2007, the party zoned its presidential ticket to the North. Late President Umaru Yar ‘Adua, from North West, who emerged the PDP candidate in the 2007 polls, eventually clinched the presidential seat.
However, the death of Yar ‘Adua in 2010, three years into his tenure, was to later spark a controversy in the opposition party in the 2011 general elections. The contention then was whether or not his deputy, President Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded him should be the PDP candidate in the poll.
Jonathan later emerged the opposition party’s candidate in the 2011 presidential poll, allegedly with an understanding among party leaders, especially those from the North that power will shift to the zone in 2015.
Attempts by the PDP to truncate the zoning arrangement in 2015 led to an implosion. The result was the humiliating loss the party suffered in the 2015 polls, as Jonathan lost the presidential election to President Muhammadu Buhari.
However, in the run-up to the 2023 general elections, there are diverse opinions if the presidency should be zoned to Southern Nigeria or thrown open to all and sundry. President Buhari would have completed his second term and would be ineligible to contest the next presidential poll.
Presently, there are three different divides regarding where the next president should come from. There are those who want the party to retain the presidential ticket in the North, while another group of PDP leaders wants the opposition party ticket to be ceded to the South, particularly the South East. The third group wants the contest to be thrown open to all qualified aspirants, irrespective of their zone of origin.
APC bidding its time
Last August, President Buhari’s nephew and confidant , Mamman Daura, caused a stir in the polity, when he declared in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Hausa Service, that there was no need for the country to continue to zone the presidency. Daura had argued that the leadership of the country should be based on merit and not zoning.
However, despite the controversy generated by Daura, the APC is yet to make a categorical statement on which of the six geopolitical zones will produce its president standard bearer in 2023. Nevertheless, there is already an intense power play in the ruling party over who clinches the 2019 presidential ticket of the party.
Amid speculations that the APC might be disposed towards ceding its 2023 presidential ticket to the South, some leaders of the party are believed to be making a strong case for the South East. That not withstanding, the South West is known to also be making a serious bid for the APC 2023 presidential ticket.
Analysts say the zoning of the national chairmanship position of the ruling party will to a great extent determine where the presidential candidate would come from.
Regardless, the chairman of the APC National Caretaker Committee, and governor of Yobe State, Mai Mala Buni, in a recent interview said it is too early to say which of the zones will produce the next national chairman and presidential candidate of the party.
According to Buni, the preoccupation of the party at the moment is to reconcile aggrieved members and resolve all differences within its fold.
“We cannot say where the chairman or president of the party will be coming from. We cannot cross the bridge until when we get there. Meanwhile, the committee is preoccupied with the task of rebuilding a party that would stand the test of time and remain Nigeria’s leading political party,” he stated.
Gathering storm in PDP
Like the APC, the PDP is yet to make a definite pronouncement on its 2023 zoning arrangement. However, inside sources say the PDP leadership is more disposed to retaining the 2023 presidential ticket in the North, rather than ceding the ticket to the South as anticipated.
Recently, former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswan had stated that the opposition party will retain the presidential ticket in the North. Suswan noted that the PDP ‘s objective in zoning the presidency to the North has not been realised.
According to him, “Of course, the PDP will maintain zoning. We have not realised it, so the zoning still remains in the North in the PDP. In PDP, we zoned the Presidency to the North and have we realised it? No. So, the zoning still remains in the North for 2023. Presidency is not micro-zoned. Once you say North, every person in the North is entitled to contest and the best person wins.”
Similarly, the PDP National Chairman told journalists in Bauchi State, recently, that the party’s presidential ticket for the 2023 polls will be thrown open to all qualified party men and women.
According to him, “Everyone who is qualified, young, old, governors and non-governors, is qualified and will have the opportunity to contest, and we have the space for everyone.”
Party sources say though Suswam and Secondus may have expressed their personal opinions on the zoning of the PDP’s next presidential ticket, as the opposition party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) is yet to come up with a position on the contentious issue, the duo spoke the mind of many of the party leaders.
A member of the PDP BoT, who is also a former presiding officer of the National Assembly told Daily Sun that the party wants to win the 2023 presidential election and believes that a Northerner is better placed to win the coveted seat for the opposition party.
“But we have not discussed it in the party. We have not discussed and agreed that in the party. But that will be the best way to go, because there is no chance for any Southerner, “ the BoT member, who pleaded for anonymity said.
He added that: “What we should be praying for in 2023 is that we elect a president that is better than Buhari who is there now. A president that believes in Nigeria. A president that believes in the unity of the country against what we have today. Gradually that person will eventually relinquish power to the South by the Grace of God. “
Recall that the PDP, in a bid to correct its mistake in the 2015 polls, had zoned its 2019 presidential ticket to the North, with Atiku, who returned to the party in late 2017 emerging its candidate for the presidential poll.
A committee set up by the opposition party after its abysmal performance in the 2015 polls and headed by former deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, had linked the loss of the party in polls to a breach of its zoning arrangement.
Consequently, the Ekweremadu’s panel recommended that “the party should seek its presidential candidate from the North of Nigeria to compensate for the obvious violation of the zoning arrangement in the 2011 poll, which led to a major apathy against the party in the North from 2011, culminating in the poor performance of the party in the 2015 elections.”
Therefore, it was taken for granted that the 2023 presidential ticket of the opposition party would go to Southern Nigeria, in which case someone from South East would be nominated as PDP candidate, especially as the North would have produced a president for 8 unbroken years.
Analysts say, like what obtained in the North in the 2015.polls, there could be backlash in the South, especially in the South East geopolitical zone, in the event that the PDP retains its 2023 presidential ticket in the North.
The South East has been unwavering in its support for the opposition party since 1999. And unlike in the past where the PDP used to be almost the sole political party in control of the zone, the APC in the last few years has made considerable inroads into the area.
Already, stakeholders in the South East have warned that there will be consequences, should the PDP deny the zone an opportunity to produce the party’s presidential candidate in 2023.
Last week, Ebonyi State governor, David Umahi, at a meeting with the PDP National Working Committee (NWC), reportedly threatened to dump the opposition party if the 2023 presidential ticket of the PDP is not ceded to the South East.
Former PDP National Chairman, Chief Okwesilieze Nwodo, told Daily Sun in an interview that the culture of rotating the presidential ticket between the North and South must be maintained.
Nwodo, who insists that it is the turn of the South East to produce the PDP presidential standard bearer in 2023, cautions that it will not do the opposition party any good to jettison zoning in the next general elections.
“We have a culture in this country since 1999 that presidency will rotate between North and South. The sitting president will finish 8 years in 2023. What is the reason that it will not go to Southern Nigeria. Why would the tradition change now? That is number one.
“If we insist that the presidency will come from one part of the country, why are we complaining now; that all heads of security agencies, all the important positions in this country are occupied by one tribe and one religion, why is anybody complaining. The Presidency should also remain there forever.
“But if we think that nepotism is wrong, why are we going to bless it and honour it in the choice of the presidency of the country? What is good for the goose is good for the gander. I believe that the rotation of the presidency is primarily responsible for the political peace that we are having in Nigeria. If we want to destroy that peace, then we can go ahead,” the PDP leader stated.
Nwodo, who is also a former governor of Enugu State says the opposition party has enjoyed 95 percent support in the South East. Regardless, the former governor added that the PDP can decide to throw away the support of the South East, if it does not mean anything to it.
“If you reject me, what do you expect me to do? To reject myself, as well? The PDP has enjoyed 95 per center voters support from the South East. If it does not mean anything to the party, it is okay. They can throw it away. It may not decide who will win the election. If they don’t need it, it is okay,” he posited.
On his part, former Minister of Transport, Ebenezer Babatope said that in as much as the PDP will have the final say on who becomes its presidential candidate in the 2023 poll, for the sake of equity, the ticket should be ceded to someone from the South East.
According to him, “as far I am concerned, the PDP has the final say. But left to me, I would have wanted that somebody from the South East be nominated, so that it can go round the whole country to satisfy the principle of federalism…we must know in our mind that South East deserves to be given a shot.”
Analysts say if the PDP eventually retains its presidential ticket in the North, it will open an intense tussle in the South for which of the three geo political zones will produce the opposition party’s national chairman and vice presidential candidate in the 2023 polls.
A member of the PDP National Executive Committee (NEC) from the South West, who does not want his name in print, told Daily Sun that once the party decides to retain the 2023 presidential ticket in the North, the national chairmanship must of necessity be zoned to the South West.
The South West had made a strong bid for the PDP national chairmanship position in 2017. However, all the aspirants from the zone withdrew from the contest at eleventh hour paving the way for the emergence of Secondus, who hails from the South South, as the national chairman.
The NEC member stated that anything short of national chairmanship would be unacceptable to the South West, should the party decide to retain its current zoning formula.
According to him, “the presidency has just left the South South. You bring the national chairman you give it to the South South. Why South West has nothing. We have been shortchanged. It is only fair that the National Chairman should come to the South West . The only thing that will not make that happen is if the party decides to zone the presidency to the South.”
As Nigerians eagerly await the zoning formula of the two major political parties, there is no doubt, that their fortunes in the 2023 polls, will to a great extent depend on how they manage issues arising from the zoning of their presidential tickets.