…President Jonathan emerged in a context of uncertainty over the continuation of the arrangement when he contested the following general election. The victory of President Buhari for a second term means this time the North would have its full eight-year term. In this context, opposing power shift to the South can only be described as dangerous political mischief.
Political manoeuvres are currently at an advanced stage as the political class position themselves for power through the 2023 election. The political crisis in the country is, however, so severe that Nigeria may not reach that fatidic date in one piece. The problem, as we know, is that politicians are the most focused people on earth – they seek to get power only, and therefore spend little time on issues of collateral damage that might be caused by their modes of engagement. The current demand is for power shift to the South and the Northern forces are positioning themselves on the Yes/No axis.
For the past seventy years, Nigerian politics has been strongly marked by the question of ethno-regional domination and the control of political power and its instruments. The second concern of the political class pertains to the control of economic power and resources. Both are formidable instruments that are used to influence the authoritative allocation of resources to groups and individuals. It is therefore not surprising that whenever political elites believe their interests are at stake, they have not hesitated to play the trump card of threatening the territorial integrity of the country.
Nigeria’s short post-colonial political life has been riddled with calls for secession, confederation or other ways of breaking up the country. What we are seeing today is not new. Whenever the interests of a political elite have been threatened, they have floated the secession banner, and all major political groups in the country have resorted to the tactic at some point. It was the Sardauna of Sokoto, leader of the Northern Peoples’ Congress, who first referred to the amalgamation of the Nigerian provinces as “the mistake of 1914”. That was in the early 1950s, when he flagged the secession banner because he felt that Southern politicians were unwilling to understand the attitudes of the Northern elite towards independence. The Sardauna’s position was that the Northern elite would not rush for independence if it meant replacing European domination with Southern domination. In the 1950 Ibadan Constitutional Conference to review the Richards Constitution, a representational ratio of 45:33:33 for the North, West and East was proposed. Northern politicians felt threatened by this arrangement and the Emir of Zaria stated clearly that the North must have 50 per cent of the seats or secede from the country.
In more recent times, the battle over ethno-regionalism has expressed itself in epic battles for the control of the presidency. The first of these battles was the June 12, 1993 presidential election. The election was annulled mid-way through the announcement of the results, just at the moment when it had become clear that M.K.O Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim, had won a landslide victory…
In the 1954 Lagos Constitutional Conference, it was the turn of the Action Group (AG) to demand that a secession clause should be inserted into the Constitution. The move was opposed by the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). In 1964, following the census and election crises, Southern politicians were getting disenchanted with their future in Nigeria. Michael Okpara, Premier of the Eastern Region, then threatened in December 1964 that the East would secede and the Northern Premier responded that there was no secession clause in the Constitution. Okpara went ahead to establish a committee under his Attorney General to work out the modalities for a declaration of secession by Eastern Nigeria. When Ojukwu finally decided to embark on the course of secession three years later, he had a ready-made plan waiting for him.
Calls for secession were also being expressed within the Regions themselves. In February 1964, Isaac Sha’ahu of the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) declared in the Northern House of Assembly that the Tiv people felt unwanted and threatened “To pull out of the North and the Federation as a whole.” He added that, “We shall be a sovereign state; we shall be joining nobody. We are 1,000,000 in population, bigger than Gambia and Mauritania.” He was reacting to perceived marginalisation of the Tiv elite from the formal political process and excessive state repression in Tiv land. The transition from threats to an actual attempt at secession was made on February 23, 1966 when Isaac Boro decided that he was not ready to live in a Nigeria ruled by the Igbos. He therefore declared the Independence of the Niger Delta Peoples Republic, following the first coup and the establishment of the Ironsi regime. Boro had become very disturbed by the perceived Igbo domination of Eastern minorities since his days as a student activist at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His Republic lasted for only twelve days, the time it took the police to round-up his rag-tag army of 159 volunteers. Isaac Boro was eventually released at the onset of the Nigerian civil war, when he joined the Federal side, and was killed in battle in 1968, fighting for the liberation of Rivers State.
In more recent times, the battle over ethno-regionalism has expressed itself in epic battles for the control of the presidency. The first of these battles was the June 12, 1993 presidential election. The election was annulled mid-way through the announcement of the results, just at the moment when it had become clear that M.K.O Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim, had won a landslide victory over Bashir Tofa, a Hausa Muslim from Kano. Even if the truth of the matter was that General Babangida, the then Head of State, was a dictator who wanted to rule for as long as possible, the Yoruba, and indeed the Southern elite, were convinced that the annulment of the 1993 election was a Hausa-Fulani plot to keep them out of power. The election was considered to have been relatively free and fair and a good opportunity to start rebuilding confidence in the Nigerian nation-state. The cancellation however led to strong ethnic and regional fears that the Hausa-Fulani ruling class was not going to allow a Southerner to rule, even if he wins a democratic election. It was at that time that the Southern press led a massive media campaign, the main tenet of which was that the Hausa-Fulani will always sacrifice democratisation so as to maintain themselves in power. There is nothing new in Nigerian politics. It was in this context that the debate over power shift to the South grew very loud.
What is on the agenda today is that the North agreed to power shift to the South in 1999, to address the strong feelings provoked by the power elongation antics of Generals Babangida and Abacha, and the result was the emergence of General Obasanjo as president on the platform of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which accepted the principle of power shift.
The argument at that time, according to Charles Ibiang (ThisDay, 11/2/99), was that out of the twelve Heads of State Nigeria had been ruled by at that point, only four were from Southern Nigeria and that the Southern rulers were in power for only six, of the thirty-eight years that the country had been independent. The occupant of the seat of power, Aso Rock, should then therefore be from the Southern geographical zone. According to Alex Ekwueme, former Vice President during the Second Republic (The Guardian, 26/1/99), the term ‘power shift’ was invented as an alternative to the concepts of ‘zoning’ and ‘rotation’, which had dominated the National Constitutional Conference of 1994-95. Section 229 of the 1995 Draft Constitution had stipulated that the presidency should be rotated between the North and the South, gubernatorial power rotated between the three senatorial districts in each state, and the chairmanship of local governments between three zones to be created in each of them. These constitutional proposals were however completely discredited when it became clear that General Abacha was going to continue as “elected president” and that the zoning was therefore going to start from the North, the region that had monopolised power for a long time. It also brought back memories from the Second Republic. The then ruling National Party of Nigeria had adopted a zoning and rotation policy for the presidency, but when M.K.O Abiola tried to compete for the party’s presidential nomination for the 1983 election, he only received insults from the party hierarchy. The concept of power shift therefore arose to remove the ambiguity associated with zoning and rotation. The idea was to focus on what was presented as the essential issue of a Southerner taking over power.
What is on the agenda today is that the North agreed to power shift to the South in 1999, to address the strong feelings provoked by the power elongation antics of Generals Babangida and Abacha, and the result was the emergence of General Obasanjo as president on the platform of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which accepted the principle of power shift. Obasanjo, however, precipitated a crisis with his third term bid, which put a spanner in the works. Thankfully, he did not succeed and was stopped by the struggle of Nigerians and power shift to the North happened with the emergence of Yar’Adua, who died before his tenure ended. Then President Jonathan emerged in a context of uncertainty over the continuation of the arrangement when he contested the following general election. The victory of President Buhari for a second term means this time the North would have its full eight-year term. In this context, opposing power shift to the South can only be described as dangerous political mischief.
A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.