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It is exactly 14 months to Nigeria’s highly anticipated election, but very few have publicly declared their intention to contest the presidency even as consultations and low key electioneering begin. With President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner, almost at the end of his tenure, the question on which region will produce the next president has started dominating the political discourse in Nigeria, a nation deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines.
Nigeria’s north has 19 states out of which 15 are predominantly Muslim, while the south, which is much smaller geographically, has 17 states out of which 13 are Christian dominated. In a bid to ensure fairness, the PDP introduced a system in 1999 known as zoning, which allows for rotation of power between the north and the south every eight years.
However, the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010 altered this equation. Then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan completed Yar’Adua’s first tenure and ran for a fresh term of four years. In 2015, Jonathan again contested for another four years, a move which pitted him against the north, which felt cheated and alienated.
This discontent among the northerners was exploited by the All Progressives Congress in 2015 and its candidate, Buhari, would eventually bring an end to the PDP’s 16-year rule. Many in the PDP still believe that had the party picked a northern candidate in 2015, it would have been able to split Buhari’s massive votes in the north and retain power.
A new game
With President Buhari’s tenure now over, the belief is that a southerner should produce the next head of state, but the PDP now has a new game. A committee set up by the PDP to review the party’s 2019 election loss recommended that the party should not zone its presidential seat, but allow everyone to contest.
With the north known to have a higher voter turnout than the south, the belief is that a northern candidate could easily give a political party an edge over another party that picks a southerner as its presidential candidate. They also argue that as an opposition party, their ultimate goal should be how to win elections and nothing else. Zoning the presidential ticket, they claim, would limit the party’s chances.
The PDP leadership also argues that during its 16-year rule, a northerner was in power for only three years, from 2007 to 2010, while two southerners – Olusegun Obasanjo and Jonathan – were in power for a combined 13 years. They argue that it is within their right to put a northerner forward as their presidential candidate in 2023. To this end, the PDP zoned its party chairmanship position to the north and decided to leave its presidential ticket up for grabs. This gives northern hopefuls like Atiku Abubakar, Bukola Saraki, Aminu Tambuwal, Rabiu Kwankwaso and Bala Mohammed the opportunity to contest.
Speaking earlier in the week to local media, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, who is one of the most influential politicians in the PDP, however noted that the presidential candidate of the party could be from any part of the country. He said while this could cause a bit of rancour within the party, the PDP would be able to calm the storm, but the APC would not survive it.
Wike said: “The fact that the PDP national chairman is from the south and the one that just left came from the south does not in any way mean that we have chosen where our presidential candidate will come from.
“We will choose a candidate that is prepared to face the APC and their government. We are praying to God to help us, guide us to arrive at that choice, but that does not mean in arriving at this, there won’t be turbulence.
“There are two types of turbulence: the one that leads to [a] crash and the one that you pass through and it does not lead to [a] crash. Our own turbulence will not lead to [a] crash because we will come out of it but APC’s turbulence will lead to [a] crash.”
The initial plan of the APC was to zone its presidential ticket to the south since President Buhari would have served for eight years by 2023. To this end, the Strategy and Contact Committee, headed by Governor Mohammed Badaru of Jigawa State, was set up in March to look into the issue of zoning and make proper recommendations.
… The only thing we want […] is […] the generational zone, which is young people. We want certain positions zoned to us as young people.
The 61-member committee, which also included 11 governors, failed to submit its report nine months later due to a lack of consensus. With the PDP’s manoeuvre, the APC now finds it difficult to come up with a position on zoning. Even so, having given the north the presidency for eight years, what would be the APC’s excuse for not handing its ticket over to a southerner next year?
The bigger picture
The ultimate goal of politics is to win elections. To this end, some argue that although it would only be fair for a southerner to emerge as the presidential candidate of the APC, the need to satisfy the south should not override the more important goal which is victory.
Historically, the north has always had a larger voter turnout than the south. Moreover, the Muslim states of the north have been voting for a Muslim northerner since 2007. Aware of this trend, a southwest party – Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) – led by Bola Tinubu in 2014, teamed up with Buhari and others to form the APC. The strategy was that Buhari would bring the votes from the Muslim north, while Tinubu would ensure that the southwest brings the needed votes to secure victory. This masterstroke led to the PDP’s downfall.
Today, with Atiku, Tambuwal, Kwankwaso and other prominent northerners in the PDP seeking to contest again in 2023 against southerners in the APC like Tinubu, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and others, the question now is, would the Muslim north vote for a southerner if another prominent Muslim northerner is on the ballot? With this in mind, top politicians in the APC say the party might just throw its presidential ticket open and allow the most popular candidate to emerge.
Some in the APC argue that zoning is a creation of the PDP and has never been a common practice in the ruling party. They recall that even during the APC Presidential primary in 2014, which produced Buhari as winner, other candidates from the south, like Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, were allowed to contest without any hassle. They believe that this would be the best approach since the Nigerian constitution says all eligible persons should be allowed to contest and no one should be denied such an opportunity on account of gender, tribe or religion.
Speaking with journalists earlier in the week, a member of the APC caretaker committee, Ismaeel Ahmed, said the APC would not be adopting zoning ahead of 2023.
It is a PDP thing. […] Nigeria should focus on competence and merit. Anyone who is interested in the presidency should begin consulting with others just the way Tinubu is doing…
Ahmed, who is the national youth leader of the APC, said: “[…] APC has never been big on zoning like that […] it has always been big on balancing, not necessarily zoning [….] In [the] 2014 primaries [where] President Muhammadu Buhari emerged [as the top candidate,] five people contested for the president, [but] only two were from the same zone.”
He further explained that the only zoning they seek at the moment is the type that would make concessions for the youth and women who are both relegated from Nigerian politics.
“We discussed the issue of zoning, the only thing we want […] is […] the generational zone, which is young people. We want certain positions zoned to us as young people,” said Ahmed.
Zoning a PDP creation
Speaking to The Africa Report, Buba Galadima, who is a founding member of the APC and one of the signatories to the party’s merger in 2013, says indeed, zoning was only a PDP creation and never an APC thing.
Galadima, who was a close associate of President Buhari before they parted ways in 2018, says zoning was antithetical to the spirit of the Nigerian constitution, which gives everyone the right to contest.
“I was there from the beginning. Zoning was not part of APC. It is a PDP thing. […] Nigeria should focus on competence and merit. Anyone who is interested in the presidency should begin consulting with others just the way Tinubu is doing. That is how you build support. MKO Abiola also did it, and even as a southerner, he defeated Tofa, a northern candidate in 1993,” says Galadima.
His position corresponds with that of the most prominent northern groups in the country like the Northern Elders Forum, the Arewa Consultative Forum and the Coalition of Northern Groups.
Nevertheless, prominent socio-cultural groups in the south believe zoning must be retained, especially now that they feel it is their turn to produce the next president.
The spokesman for Afenifere Yoruba socio-cultural group, Jare Ajayi, tells The Africa Report that although merit remained the most important factor in choosing leaders, it would only be fair for a southerner to emerge as the next president after Buhari’s exit.
“Afenifere believes in merit, but then in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Nigeria, there are some things that may not be in the constitution, but should be by consensus. There is nothing wrong with power rotating between the south and the north so that no group will feel neglected or marginalised. Let the south produce the next president in 2023,” he says.
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