Nigeria: Does the north have the numbers to retain power beyond 2023?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 18:22

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari waves at the crowd during a celebration ceremony marking Democracy Day in Abuja
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari waves at the crowd during a celebration ceremony marking Democracy Day in Abuja, Nigeria June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

With President Muhammadu Buhari – a northerner – completing his tenure next year, there are fresh attempts by several top northern politicians to retain power. Will they be able to pull this off?

The controversy reached a climax some months ago when the governors of the 17 southern states in Nigeria converged in Delta State where they – among other things – demanded that the next president of the country be a southerner. 19 northern governors, who felt slighted, jointly issued a statement rejecting their counterparts’ demand, insisting that they would not be dictated to.

The Northern Elders Forum (NEF), which comprises some of the most respected northerners in the country, also responded saying that the north had the numbers to determine the next president.

“We have the majority of the votes and democracy says ‘vote for whom you want’. Why should we accept a second class position when we know we can buy a form and contest for first-class and we will win? Why does anybody need to threaten us and intimidate us?” said Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, the group’s spokesman.

In 2003, when General Buhari first ran for president against President Olusegun Obasanjo – a southern Christian – 11 out of the 12 core northern states voted for Buhari

However, Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu, who is also the chairman of the Southern Governors Forum, recently said any party that picks a northern candidate will lose woefully.

“Only a party that is determined to lose will field a northern candidate… What we stand for is fair and equitable power rotation. The only thing fair is that after eight years in the north, it should come to the south. Some of us believe in One Nigeria that’s fair and equitable. We have a reason for it and it can be defended,” said Akeredolu.

Zoning vs Constitution

Although Nigerian law says no one ought to be denied political office on account of ethnicity, race or sex, Nigeria has – in the last 22 years – rotated power between the south and the north, an informal arrangement that was introduced by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to give every part of the country a sense of belonging.

There is no zoning in the constitution; there is none.

President Buhari, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), will be ending his tenure in 2023 after serving for eight years. Many believe that the south should produce the next president.

Even so, with the PDP desperate to gain power next year, the party now argues that winning should be the ultimate goal and that it would be unwise to prevent strong candidates from emerging, merely for the sake of honouring an unconstitutional arrangement. Consequently, the southern PDP governors who issued a joint statement with their APC counterparts and demanded for zoning have begun to soft-pedal.

Having seen the writing on the wall, about five strong northern aspirants in the PDP have all but indicated interest in the presidential elections. They are: former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar; Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State; Bauchi State Governor Bala Mohammed; former Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano State; and former Senate President Bukola Saraki.

Speaking at a recent event, Atiku reiterated that zoning is not recognised under Nigerian law. He recalled that he and other PDP leaders were the ones who introduced the practice ahead of the 1999 presidential election.

“Fundamentally, the constitution says all of us can run. The constitution has not barred any one of us. There is no zoning in the constitution; there is none. I was a member of the constituent assembly that drafted the current constitution and there was nothing like that,” he said.

Politics is not won based on fairness, but strategy since it is a “game of numbers”.

Similarly, Governor Mohammed of Bauchi State, who is also seeking to succeed Buhari, argues that zoning is an internal party issue.

He says when the PDP was in power for 16 years, the south held the presidency for 13 years while the north only produced President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was in office for three and half years before his death. According to Bala, since zoning is an internal party arrangement, it would only be fair for the PDP to give its presidential ticket to a northerner.

Does the north have the numbers?

The north has 19 states and the Federal Capital Territory while the south has 17. According to the National Population Commission, the north has a birth rate of seven children per woman, while the south has an average of 4.5 births per woman, an indication that the north’s population is higher.

The core north, which refers to the 12 Muslim states in the northwest and northeast, permits underage marriage and promotes polygamy, which also adds to the population boom. Although not homogenous, they generally speak the Hausa language and have always voted massively for a Muslim northerner since the presidential elections in 2003. The only exception is Adamawa State, which swings both ways. Overall, the core north holds about 33.5% of the entire voting population and is the largest voting bloc in the country.

In 2003, when General Buhari first ran for president against President Olusegun Obasanjo – a southern Christian – 11 out of the 12 core northern states voted for Buhari. They are: Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Kebbi, Jigawa, Yobe, Borno, Zamfara, Gombe and Bauchi. Adamawa State voted for Obasanjo, thanks in part to his running mate, Atiku, who is from the state and wields a large influence.

In 2007, the core northern states split their votes between Buhari and the PDP candidate, Yar’Adua, who was also a Muslim northerner. In 2011, the 12 core northern states, except Adamawa, voted overwhelmingly for Buhari, who polled some 12 million votes, but a complete absence of a base in the south remained Buhari’s albatross.

In 2013, the APC was formed with the sole purpose of ending the PDP’s rule by exploiting the bloc votes in the core north. Buhari would bring in the votes from the region, while Bola Tinubu would ensure that the southwest voted massively for him. The strategy paid off.

How the north can retain power

Desperate to return to power, some in the PDP now believe the party can win by adopting the APC’s 2015 strategy. The plan would be to pick a Muslim northerner to win the 12 core northern states, while also leveraging on the support that the party has always had in the 11 states that make up the southeast and south-south region. These two regions, which are Christian dominated, have always voted for the PDP at presidential elections since 1999.

Should the PDP win in the 12 core northern states and the 11 south-south and southeast states, it would be able to defeat the APC at the poll, especially if the APC picks its presidential candidate from the southwest.

Speaking to The Africa Report, Professor David Aworawo, who is the head of the History and Strategic Studies Department at the University of Lagos, predicts that the core north will continue its voting trend in 2023.

“That is the pattern and there is nothing to indicate that it will be different in 2023. What people should have fought for all this while is to make zoning constitutional. If it were, it would be a matter of law and not a matter of convenience, but as long as it’s a political party matter, this controversy will continue,” he says.

Atiku’s team led by media mogul, Raymond Dokpesi, argues that only a northerner can guarantee victory for the PDP at the poll.

“At the age of 70, and with my experience in organising campaigns in this country, I can tell you that unless there is a candidate from the north, […] the PDP will not stand a chance of winning the election,” Dokpesi told local media.

Even so, the APC is not leaving things to chance. If the ruling party believes that the PDP could win based on the strength of a northern candidate, the APC may also be forced to pick a northern candidate, hence the decision of the party not to zone its presidential ticket just yet.

Activist and political analyst, Deji Adeyanju, who is the Convener, Concerned Nigerians, tells The Africa Report that the north could certainly retain power next year if the PDP picks a northerner. Adeyanju argues that politics is not won based on fairness, but strategy, since it is a “game of numbers”.

“The politics of the core north is that once their son is on the presidential ballot, nothing else matters and they vote for him massively. If the APC picks a southern candidate and the PDP picks a northern candidate, the PDP will win, but if both the APC and the PDP pick southern candidates, the APC will win.

“The APC is now doing everything to ensure that the PDP also produces a southern candidate. That is why it is mainly the southern governors in the APC that are in the forefront of the zoning demand,” he says.

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