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Nigeria’s power rotation controversy causes gridlock for Atiku, Tinubu

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 9 April 2021 11:54

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks after security forces rescued schoolboys from kidnappers, in Katsina, Nigeria
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks after security forces rescued schoolboys from kidnappers, in Katsina, Nigeria, December 18, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigeria's ruling party and main opposition are both stumped: each have heavyweight contenders whose shot at the presidency is stymied by an informal political arrangement, which holds that power should rotate between the north and the south. Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar, Yahya Bello... the list of politicians kicking against zoning taboos, grows by the day. Already, there are fears of a faction of the ruling APC breaking away if it does not get the candidate it wants.

The current gridlock had been foretold in October 2019 by a former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “Nigeria’s politics is an old men’s club. The next election (2023) will be a challenging one because of a gentleman’s agreement to rotate power,” she had said.

With Buhari’s second term coming to an end in two years, the zoning issue is back on the front burner and may well determine the success or failure of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which is the ruling party.

Key southern politicians — some of whom include Bola Tinubu (APC chieftain); Yemi Osinbajo (vice-president); Rotimi Amaechi (minister of transportation) and Kayode Fayemi (Governor of the South-West state Ekiti) — have subtly begun campaigning for the 2023 presidential elections.

Will power return to the south?

The absence of a written agreement on whether power would return to the mainly Christian south has led to a heated debate.

“At this point, I am calling on the national leadership of the APC to rise to the occasion and take a decisive step in affirming the much cherished unwritten code for our party’s 2023 presidential ticket to be zoned to the south. That is the right thing to do,” says Dayo Adeyeye, a former minister who now runs one of Tinubu’s campaign organisations.

Another ally of Tinubu, Mr. Olusegun Osoba, who is also a former governor, says there was an unwritten agreement before the 2015 elections that the south would produce the next president once Buhari’s tenure had come to an end.

“Part of the understanding in the case of rotation is a conventional understanding that the presidency will move between the north and the south … I don’t want to use the word zoning because we definitely did not put zoning.

“We know it may go in conflict with the Nigerian constitution, which says anyone who is a Nigerian, who has read up to school certificate, can contest – at the age of 35 I believe – for the presidency of the country.

“But there was a clear gentlemanly understanding that the northern part of the country will produce the president when we did the merger in 2013 and the chairman of the party will then come from the South,” he said.

Some northern governors like those in Kano, Borno, Katsina and Kaduna — some of whom are rumoured to be eyeing the vice-presidential seat — have also expressed support for zoning.

What does the group around Buhari want?

But others are pushing back. Buhari confidante Mamman Daura’s view that meritocracy should count for more than region (which is seen as a rationale for the north to hang on to APC leadership) triggered outrage in the party and beyond.

“An agreement can’t be verbal. It has to be written. In any case, any agreement that is contrary to laws of this country is not an agreement. The constitution is very clear. [It] doesn’t recognise anything called zoning,” says Senator Sani Yerima.

He was not alone. Other northern elements in the APC have argued that there was never such a gentlemen’s agreement and every Nigerian who is qualified has the right to contest the Presidential seat.

Governor Yahaya Bello of the northern state of Kogi, who has been campaigning across the country, strongly believes zoning should be jettisoned.

“There is nothing like zoning in our party. In 2015, there was no zoning; many aspirants, including former Governor Rochas Okorocha (from the South) contested. In 2019, there was no zoning; people in the APC were not courageous enough to contest with President Muhammadu Buhari,” Bello stated.

Another presidential hopeful, Senator Sani Yerima, a former governor of the northern state of Zamfara, said there was never an agreement to zone the presidential seat to the south.

He argues that even the APC’s constitution makes no provision for zoning.

“I don’t think there is anything like agreement. You can ask Mr. President, he led the group, Asiwaju (Tinubu) was there, I was part of it, there was no meeting I didn’t attend or any meeting that I attended were there was such an agreement,” says Yerima. “An agreement can’t be verbal. It has to be written. In any case, any agreement that is contrary to laws of this country is not an agreement. The constitution is very clear. [It] doesn’t recognise anything called zoning”.

Northern Nigeria, which has 19 states, has a higher voting population than the country’s south which has 17 states. However, Nigeria’s constitution states that a presidential candidate can only be declared winner after gaining at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. This makes it difficult for anyone to become president without winning some states on either side of the divide.

Will the PDP gain the North but lose the South?

With northern Nigeria having a bigger voting bloc, analysts believe that putting forward a northern candidate who is accepted by a few southern states could boost chances of winning. This option may be exploited by the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which may just be throwing its presidential contest wide open to also give a northerner a chance to emerge.

This move by the PDP became more evident last month when a committee set up by the party to review the 2019 elections, recommended that the presidential candidate in the 2023 election should be chosen through a merit-based system, which suggests that the opposition party may not favour zoning but a wide open contest.

It is believed that the PDP, which already has a large support base in southern Nigeria, could stand a better chance of winning if it picks a northern Presidential candidate.

But this move by the PDP could alienate its strong southern base which would have been out of power for eight years by 2023. A south-east cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo, has opposed the recommendation.

“For the avoidance of doubt, Nigerians agreed on the rotation of the presidency between the north and the south; in which case it is the turn of the south after the tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari,” the group said.

In a bid to forestall a crisis, both the APC and the PDP have begun deeper consultations to look into the controversial issue of zoning. Already there are threats within the APC that a faction could break out to form a new political party if the zoning issue isn’t well addressed, according to Tinubu’s PAC organiser, Adeyeye.

How did we get here?

In 2014, the PDP — which was Nigeria’s ruling party at the time — was hit by a crisis that would eventually contribute to its exit from power following the 2015 elections. The then President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, had by providence been inaugurated in 2010 after the death of his principal Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner. This development altered the power rotation dynamics that had characterised Nigeria’s politics for years.

The power rotation, commonly called zoning, though not constitutional, was conceived by Nigeria’s political parties to prevent marginalisation and give each region a chance to produce a president. Under the arrangement, a president from the south would be allowed to serve two terms and then hand over to a successor from the north.

According to several accounts, Jonathan had agreed that he would serve just one more term and hand over to a northern president in 2015. However, there was no written agreement to this effect and by 2014, Jonathan had made it clear that he was going to run for office a second time.

This decision alienated the northern politicians in the PDP leading to mass defections to the newly created party, APC, by several key northern politicians. Ultimately, Jonathan was defeated by a northern Muslim, Buhari, who won re-election in 2019.

From the beginning of Buhari’s second term, it had become obvious that power would have to return to the south. However, with no written agreement backed by law, the race for the top seat in the country still remained an open competition that could tear the party apart.

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