Nigeria: Zoning And Southern Opportunism: The Dangers Ahead

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There is a popular parable that “what an elderly man can see sitting down, a young man cannot see standing up”. This parable is instructive to the short-sightedness, lack of tact and crass opportunism being exhibited by the South in the ongoing debate on zoning.  With the accidental emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan following Yar’Adua’s death, there has been a sudden and sustained campaign against the zoning arrangement by Southerners who see it as an opportunity to have President Goodluck Jonathan continue in office beyond 2011.

The problem however is not President Goodluck Jonathan continuing beyond 2011 as I personally have no problem with that, the real problem is that in their haste to cling to the opportunism of Jonathan’s  presidency, many characters from the South who should know better,  now argue that zoning as a concept of nation building and national cohesion should be dumped altogether.  Except there is a collective amnesia in the South, the characters now arguing that zoning should be dumped could not have forgotten that it was the South who as a result of Nigeria’s peculiar history and pattern of Northern domination stridently advocated the principle of zoning.

In 1994, due to the deafening complains of Northern domination and strident calls for a sovereign national conference and power rotation by Southerners, the then General Sanni Abacha convoked a national constitutional conference which produced a draft constitution that recommended the creation of the six geo-political zones and the rotation of power amongst the six zones as a nation building  strategy.  Gen Abacha’s draft constitution thus became the first official seal of the concept of zoning in Nigeria’s political history through the efforts of the same Southerners who now argue out of opportunism and  short-sightedness that zoning should be dumped.

Many of the later day anti-zoning Southern proponents have never bothered to ask themselves the fundamental questions; what happens after Jonathan completes his tenure and power returns to the North? What happens if President Goodluck Jonathan being mortal falls down dead tomorrow and power returns to the North?  What happens if President Goodluck Jonathan becomes incapacitated out of illness or an accident and power returns to the North?  And indeed what happens if he loses the PDP primaries or the elections and power returns to the North? These are fundamental questions that the present day Southern anti-zoning opportunists have never bothered to ask nor answer.

If the latter day anti-zoning opportunists dare to ask or answer the fundamental questions above, they would realise that the new strategy of campaigning against zoning by the South portends grave danger  for the future when and if the North returns to power.   Power in Nigeria has always been subject to manipulation and in the absence of zoning as many Southerners now argue,  the danger lies in the North manipulating the process to prevent  Southerners   from  coming to power as they have done successfully in the past.  The fact of Northern manipulation and domination of power to the exclusion of the South is a historical reality that the South has lived with which led to the strident advocacy for rotational presidency. It will be foolhardy for those who now out of opportunism argue that zoning should be thrown away to assume that the North cannot and will not continue their well oiled scheme of manipulation and domination if they return to power in the absence of zoning.

Like the Aburi accord negotiated in Ghana in 1967, which was a constitutional masterpiece that settled all the issues of resource control and regional autonomy, but was scuttled by the greed, opportunism and short-sightedness of the so called Southern permanent secretaries and other notable Southern leaders, the arguments by some Southerners to dump zoning might yet come back to haunt the South as the Aburi accord that was truncated by Southerners continues to haunt us all.

Decades after the truncation of Aburi accord, the same Southerners who truncated it, are now in an ideological trench campaigning for a sovereign national conference and resource control. In other words, they are campaigning for a constitutional arrangement they wilfully threw away decades earlier out of sheer opportunism. If the Southern  anti-zoning opportunists do not take time, they will end up returning to the trench to campaign for the zoning they are now out of opportunism wilfully dumping decades later, but by which time it might too late.

As I have previously written, Nigeria’s peculiar post-independence history of long years of Northern domination requires a rotational system based on the subsisting six zones that would serve as a strategy for nation building.  For those who argue that zoning will deprive Nigeria of the emergence of the best candidates, empirical evidence in our chequered history provides evidence that the best candidates have never emerged when elections were conducted without zoning. Instead,  it heightened ethnic tensions and produced winners or alleged winners through a manipulated process or through tribal and religious allegiance.

In the 1st and 2nd republics, Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo contested against Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Alhaji Shehu Shagari. While it could easily be concluded that Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo were better candidates than the other two, none of them won. This clearly provides evidence that ethnic and religious considerations has in most cases always trumped the choice for a better candidate in Nigeria’s elections, and in a nation  which has increasingly become an ethnic jungle, this trend is not about to change soon.

Thus a rotational system which would  be a peculiar though not exclusive Nigerian solution and strategy for nation building would most likely guarantee the emergence of better candidates as the removal of  the ethnic tensions and ethno-religious considerations that go with an election involving candidates from different tribes would give way to Nigerians making their electoral choices only on merit. Since every zone has more population than Ghana and indeed most African countries, there will be no shortage of good candidates and most importantly every group including minorities will have the opportunity of ruling Nigeria. The rotational system itself is not a new concept as many diverse nations and institutions around the world already practice variants derived from it.

In Switzerland, the presidency rotates among the various ethnic groups and in the European Union; the presidency rotates among the member states. The rotational system is quite remarkable in Switzerland where the German ethnic group with 65% of  the population constitute an absolute majority capable of perpetual political dominance, but yet subscribed to the rotational system in order to accommodate the minority ethnic groups. Switzerland is consequently one of the world’s most stable, democratic, harmonious and prosperous nations just as the European Union is one of the most functional and prosperous institutions in the world. Together, Switzerland and the European Union are notable examples in the successful application of  the principle of  rotation along ethnic and national lines, all designed to suit the peculiarities of their geo-political realities.

For those anti-zoning advocates in  the South who may be suffering from bouts of amnesia, a quick look and reminder of  Nigeria’s history would reveal that minorities and Southerners with the exception of Olusegun Obasanjo’s 2nd coming have only ruled Nigeria by accident. General Aguiyi Ironsi from the East became the first to emerge through such a system after the assassination of the then prime minister Tafawa  Balewa in the Jan 1966 coup. General Yakubu Gowon a Northern minority from the middle belt became the 2nd beneficiary after the assassination of General Aguiyi Ironsi in the July 1966 counter-coup. General Olusegun Obasanjo from the West also became a military head of state after the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed in 1976 and lastly President Goodluck Jonathan who ascended the throne in 2010 after Yar’adua’s death.

Indeed, it is also noteworthy that  Moshood Abiola who as an exception won in 1993 was nonetheless denied his victory on an ethnic premise, and Olusegun Obasanjo’s 2nd coming in 1999 as a civilian president which was another exception was nonetheless facilitated by the accident of General Sanni Abacha’s sudden death and the zoning arrangement. Nigeria’s chequered history thus lends credence to the fact that political power has overwhelmingly concentrated in the Muslim North and only moved to minorities or non-Northerners by accident. A heterogeneous nation with such a peculiar history rightly deserves to have a specially designated and structured rotational system that would be a strategy for nation building and inter-ethnic cohesion.
The overwhelming evidence of  historical   injustice and domination in no way supports the arguments of the anti-zoning advocates who because of President  Jonathan’s accidental emergence now indulge in the opportunism of advocating the dumping of zoning without reflecting on the long term consequences of  their logic.  In reality,  zoning in no way affects president Jonathan’s bid for the presidency as he is the beneficiary of  a joint mandate with a late president, and there is no constitutional  provision that forbids him from contesting.

However,  while  we acknowledge the flaws,  breaches  and imperfections  so far in the zoning arrangement which is not president Jonathan’s fault and which should not prevent him from running for the presidency, he can now use the period of his presidency  to consolidate the zoning arrangement  as proposed below, by fine tuning and enshrining it in the constitution  to prevent a relapse into the domination of the past and the kind of acrimony and power struggle that has trailed his bid for the presidency as a result of  the absence of  a well spelt out constitutional process for power rotation.

Constitutional Review Options Of Power Rotation And Succession
(1) The present structure of six zones with three each in the North and South presents a perfect match for the purposes of rotation. In a practical and common sense way, the presidency could be rotated in alternation between the North/South and among the zones in alphabetical order preferably for a 6 year single term or alternatively for an 8 year double term as the case maybe. In the case of an 8 year double term, all political parties will also be obliged to field candidates only from the designated zone for the subsequent election of  the remaining 4 year tenure.

In the event of another political party and candidate winning the subsequent election, he or she can only serve the remaining 4 year tenure for the designated zone. The introduction of rotation in alphabetical order will remove every confusion, make it possible for all existing political parties to field candidates from the same zone and prevent acrimonious power struggles between different zones.
In case of death and succession, there is the option of a constitutional review to introduce the office of a deputy president in addition to the already existing office of the vice president. The vice president should continue to be from other zones as is presently the case, but the new office of the deputy president should be occupied by someone from the same zone as the president for the sole purpose of  completing  the presidents tenure in case of  incapacitation, impeachment,  resignation or death.
(2) Another option is to have a constitutional provision that stipulates the organization of another election within three months in case of incapacitation, resignation, impeachment or death to elect someone from the same zone as the president to complete the constitutional tenure of the exited president.

Instead of throwing away zoning as we threw away the Aburi accord, we should move to consolidate it because of its potential for nation building and national cohesion. A well structured and successful rotational system in Nigeria could in time be a model for other heterogeneous nations in Africa and around the globe struggling with the challenges of nationhood. As has been the case in Switzerland and elsewhere, rotational presidency amongst a cocktail of other measures will prevent protracted and acrimonious power struggles in future  and potentially usher in a more harmonious, stable, democratic and prosperous nation. Achieving this feat would surely be President Jonathan’s greatest legacy.


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