Nigeria 2023: Will the PDP’s northern chairman signal the end of the road for Atiku, Tambuwal?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Monday, 4 October 2021 16:42

Former vice-president and People's Democratic Party presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar. 19 February 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigeria’s main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), will be allocating its national chairmanship seat to the north this time around, casting doubts over the 2023 presidential ambitions of northern elements in the party.

Against expectations, the committee set up to consider the zoning of offices in the National Working Committee (NWC) – the engine room of the PDP – has zoned the chairmanship of the party to the north. Zoning is the practice of sharing out positions between people from the north and south of Nigeria so as to avoid the marginalisation of a region.

However, the PDP NWC resolution is subject to the approval of the National Executive Committee, the highest decision-making organ of the party which comprises governors, lawmakers, former presidents, former ministers and other notable leaders.

North versus south

With the 2023 presidential election on the horizon, the PDP is now on the verge of choosing a new leadership for its party. The committee that has been set up to look into zoning of offices includes all 13 governors and one deputy governor. Eight of the governors are from the south, while five are from the north.

All the southern governors voted for the chairmanship seat to be zoned to the north, while all the northern governors – except Samuel Ortom of Benue State – voted for a southerner to be chairman. Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State abstained from voting because he presided over the exercise.

With the national chairmanship seat of the PDP now being zoned to the north, going by historical antecedents, it follows that the presidential ticket may be zoned to the south. This could mean that prominent northern presidential aspirants – like former vice-president Atiku, Sokoto State governor Aminu Tambuwal, former governor Rabiu Kwankwaso, governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State and governor Ahmadu Fintiri of Adamawa State – could be out of luck.

The north still remains our surest path to victory in the PDP. The north has the majority of votes and will easily support its own at the polls especially if the APC presents a southern candidate as we expect them to do.”

However, two things that could work to the advantage of these northern presidential hopefuls. First, there is no law that says they cannot contest. In practical terms, this means they can still run regardless of where the chairman is from.

Secondly, although the committee zoned the chairmanship to the north, it remained silent on whether the PDP presidential ticket should be zoned to the south, thereby keeping all possibilities on the table.

This refusal to zone the presidency seems to tally with the position of a previous committee headed by governor Bala Mohammed, which was set up to examine why the party was defeated at the presidential poll in 2019. The committee recommended that the party open its presidential ticket and jettison the zoning arrangement. This was seen as an attempt to ensure that the north represents the party in 2023.

Douse current tensions

Sources within the PDP tell The Africa Report that the decision of the party to zone the chairmanship seat to the north was strategic and was done to reduce tensions, which has led to a rise in irredentism. Many southern elements – including the 17 southern governors – insist that in 2023, the next president of Nigeria should be from the south since President Muhammadu Buhari, from the north, will have completed his eight-year tenure.

However, insiders in the PDP tell The Africa Report that the party is likely to pick a northern candidate at its presidential primary next year, as this would be the surest path to victory and winning elections should be more important than zoning.

Zoning is an internal party arrangement that is not backed by any law. It is mentioned once in the PDP’s constitution: in Section 3(c), where it states it will promote unity amongst others by “adhering to the policy of the rotation and zoning of party and public elective offices in pursuance of the principle of equity, justice and fairness.” Nowhere is it stated in the PDP’s constitution that the chairman of the party and the presidential candidate must not be from the same zone.

Besides, when it comes to political power, rules are often bent. For instance in 2007, when Obasanjo, a southerner, was on the verge of completing his eight years in office, the PDP zoned its presidential ticket to the north for eight years as well.

However, when Yar’Adua died barely three years into office and Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded him, the argument on whether he should run for a fresh term became a big issue. In the end, the PDP threw zoning out the window and endorsed Jonathan for a fresh term of four years.

The PDP ruled for 16 years: from 1999 to 2015. Within that time, the south held the presidency for 13 years, while the north held the position for just three years. PDP members are already arguing that since zoning is an internal arrangement, the PDP ought not to take Buhari’s eight-year tenure into consideration because he is not a PDP member.

Going forward

Politically too, many in the PDP believe a strong northern and Muslim candidate could help the party regain power in 2023. This is because the PDP has won the 11 states in the South-South and South-East regions in all presidential elections since 1999.

With Buhari not contesting in the 2023 elections, the massive votes he received in the north since 2003 may not pose a threat to the opposition. Hence, a northern and Muslim PDP candidate might just be able to gain the needed votes from the north, South-South and South-East to win the election.

This calculation favoured the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 when Buhari, from the north, forged an alliance with former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu, from the south-west. Except in 1993, the north has voted for a northern candidate in presidential elections.

Never forget that the ultimate goal in politics is to clinch power. The party will not pass on the opportunity of gaining power just because of zoning.”

A top member of the PDP who wishes to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak, says the zoning of the chairmanship seat to the north was strategic. “The north still remains our surest path to victory in the PDP. The north has the majority of votes and will easily support its own at the polls, especially if the APC presents a southern candidate as we expect them to do.”

“However, since the nation is currently tense, what the PDP did was to give the southern governors a false sense of control on the issue of chairmanship while the presidential ticket remains up for grabs. Never forget that the ultimate goal in politics is to clinch power. The party will not pass on the opportunity of gaining power just because of zoning,” he says.

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