These are disquietingly interesting times in Nigeria. For the first time in its straggling march through history, the mugging that is often part of the election season will be superimposed on a terrain devastated by an epidemic of terrorism and banditry across a vast stretch of the land. The mix portends horror for all. But the worries are even deeper and more complex.
Forget the posturing and frequent choreographed reminders by some groups of their political virality and claims to turf control within the political space, the reality is that Nigeria is littered at the moment with people running scared. Don’t take bravado in the media for anything. Political trash talking is simply one means of fighting fear and propping up a troubled mind.
Take a look at the landscape. The Fulani are scared because they have exploited and oppressed others for so long and are worried about their prospects in the post-Buhari era.
The Yoruba are scared because they have benefitted so much over time in the crises of the Nigerian state and are naturally concerned about securing what they have got.
The Igbo are scared because the rest of the people are scared of them and do not even want them to have a foothold anymore.
The minorities of the North and South are scared of what they believe the majorities are capable of doing to them, or have done to them. They easily get confused to boot.
Political leaders, past and present, are scared because they have poached deeply in the commons and are not sure of what the people might do to them, given the chance. The armed forces, even them, are scared now. Within their own camps they no longer know who is on which side. The rest of the citizens are simply scared. Of everything.
Unless you properly understand this situation and how pungent a factor fear is in propelling political decisions and actions, it will be quite challenging to understand the forces behind a lot of the noise and fluid permutations on the 2023 general election, especially with reference to the all-powerful office of President. Fear, of course, breeds mistrust.
Nigeria came into being carrying the seed both of strength and fragility. As a loose heterogenous state, its constituent parts have never hidden their resolute determination to retain their respective identities. This in itself is not bad. The fear of political domination among the constituent parts, however, engenders a rather high level of mistrust, which constantly constitutes a serious threat to the country’s corporate existence. The state has not been oblivious of this danger.
The policies of federal character principle and quota as well as zoning and rotation are all attempts to promote inclusiveness while reassuring all of their equal stake and safety within the crucible of one Nigeria. It is true that zoning and rotation of prime political offices have not found their way into the castigated Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but their place as part of an expanding outlay of initiatives to foster unity and inclusiveness in the country has never been in doubt.
Now comes a challenge. And where else will it spring from than Southern Nigeria, a people permanently living in the shadow of treachery and mutually destructive distrust? And there is no trace of light on the horizon.
Zoning, as an unwritten national policy developed to reduce tension and mistrust among the constituent parts of the country, has served Nigeria well. Of course, it has not come without its own rough edges. Within the stretch of years that it has been applied, however, zoning has ensured relative peace and a prospect for better political order and less bad blood among the parts of the country.
It was zoning, anchored on a national notion of fairness, that led to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo of the South West emerging President in 1999, Chief Moshood Abiola of the same zone having been prevented by the military from assuming the office he won in the 1993 election. It was zoning and an understanding of the demand of equity that led to Musa Yar’Adua becoming President in 2007 after the Obasanjo tenure. Governor Peter Odili of Rivers had almost everything it took for him to get there, but the North kicked about the inequity that an Odili presidency would represent after eight years of Obasanjo, a southerner. Then President Yar’Adua succumbed to ill health and his Vice, Goodluck Jonathan, succeeded him. That was a constitutional situation that could not be short-circuited.
Jonathan’s emergence definitely came with its own problems. Even as the Constitution already forced his succeeding Yar’Adua, the North was not happy at what they saw as being shortchanged. Jonathan proceeded to run in 2011 as an incumbent. And he won.
It is on record that Jonathan’s decision to contest again in 2015 was criticized and opposed by many prominent southerners, chiefly among them Obasanjo. The President’s ambition was against the spirit of the arrangement of rotation. The total disapproval of Jonathan’s candidacy by the entire North, including top members of his own ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) found justification in the fact that Jonathan was breaking a national understanding and thereby denying the North its turn. So he ran and lost. Thus did Muhammadu Buhari emerge.
For the 2019 presidential election, it was essentially between two northern candidates in the two parties of reckoning. President Buhari was returned for a second term by the Independent National Electoral Commission. Now Buhari is rounding off the turn of the North. The South East is rightly standing up to lay claim to its turn under equity and fairness and, lo, the destructive spirit of double-standard and inequity in Nigeria is afloat. Suddenly, Nigerians have discovered the pre-eminent value in democracy that prescribes fair chance for all and no zonal preserve of the common stool for anyone.
The South West is predominantly leading the assault against zoning and the claim of the South East. This is interesting. For many in the South West who are urging on their multiple prime presidential contenders, the attitude appears to be that of ‘let us trample on the right of the South East and deny them what they yearn for, later on we can meet them to re-open talks about southern solidarity.’ Very instructive.
Will any politician from the North be aspiring to run for president in 2023, if the South West respected the zoning arrangement and conceded to the South East what should be its turn? Most likely.
Will denying the South East their fair turn to provide political leadership for Nigeria mark the end of Nigeria? Certainly not. The country will wobble on under the weight of its injustice. But will Nigeria pay a deep price down the line for one more treachery against its own rules of engagement? It surely will.
The claim by the South East that it is its turn under the zoning arrangement to provide the next Nigerian president in 2023 has thrown up all manner of entertaining arguments against zoning and rotation. First is the case ebulliently held up these days by Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed that zoning does not promote merit and quality. He just made this earth-shaking discovery. Obviously as it implies,the South East cannot provide that sublime high quality personality Nigeria is looking for. Then there was an earlier charge in the ruling All Progressive Congress [APC] that the South East did not embrace the party sufficiently to be allowed to present the party’s flag bearer. The reference to Obasanjo having no political footing in the South West when he was anointed the flagbearer of the PDP in 1999 is of course, very much there to take care of that point. Even at that, the charge died promptly with the strong emergence of the APC in the South East through what the Late K.O. Mbadiwe had referred to in a different circumstance as means “known and unknown”.
Nigeria does not keep fate with itself. That is the point. It is a fatal flaw for a country. A people that whimsically repudiate the very provisions and arrangements that hold them together can expect to live in constant grief.
The truth is that Nigeria still needs zoning and rotation of power. One hundred and eight years after Nigeria became an administrative entity and 61 years after it became a politically independent State, the country is still fractious and marred by distrust and fear among its constituent peoples.
Rotation of power remains a critical factor in reassuring the diverse people of the country that they have a stake in it. The pervasive fear in the land among various parts and interests are being sustained by inequity and injustice.
Until justice begins to run down like water in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther king Junior, and Nigeria begins to abide by an uncompromising sense of fairness and equity in its dealings with all of its own people, its lingering status as a country living with disability will persist.