As 2023 general elections approaches, the issue of zoning is once again central and, as usual, contentious. Why zone the leadership of the country to a particular region when any qualified Nigerian from any region is eligible to contest? It is pertinent now more than ever to discuss this as the Nigerian polity has never been this divided with several secessionist agitations, ungoverned spaces due to terrorism and unprecedented economic hardship. This is not unconnected from the fact that Nigerian politics over the years have been played on the basis of ethnicity.
In a country made up of a polyglot populace like Nigeria, politics of ethnicity unequivocally breeds ethnic chauvinism. However it will be ahistorical to discuss ethnic chauvinism in the present day Nigeria without making references to her colonial epoch. Much schorlaly works have gone into dissecting and analysing the impacts of colonialism in Africa. Critics of the African colonial projects accentuated in several diegesis of the Colonial experience that the Colonial Masters administered colonies on the basis of ethnicity. This exacerbated the fragile relationships between people of different history, ethnicity, language, culture and religion.
In his book ‘Path To Nigerian Freedom’ 1947, Chief Obafemi Awolowo made this often quoted statement “Nigeria is not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression”. Awolowo’s assertion is largely interpreted as the absence of unity, history, vision and commonalities among the diverse ethnic groups in Nigeria. He alluded that ‘Nigeria’ is just a nomenclature assigned to a former British colony in Africa.
Along the same line of reasoning, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa at the legislative Council in 1948 said that “the Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country”.
Against this backdrop of pessimism, mistrust and mutual suspicion Nigeria would become an independent nation to be governed by these same leaders who have ostensibly expressed their opinion regarding the Nigerian project as a non-starter.
By 1966 Awolowo was already spending his third year in incarceration and the polity was already heated up with bedlams rocking the Western part of the country. This prompted January 15 Coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
Analysis of the coup took ethnic dimensions and six months later a counter coup took place which led to the death of the then Head of State General Aguiyi Ironsi and also the gratuitous Killings of igbos in the northern Nigeria and that unavoidably led to the 1967 Civil War of seccession.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote in his book ‘My Command’ that “the British had always wanted the north to rule because it was more amenable and less radical and refractory than the south” he continued “the second coup was actively encouraged if not assisted by the British officials and University lecturers working and living in the North”. Obviously the Colonial Masters were once again instrumental in the ossification of the already worsening relationship between various ethic groups of Nigeria.
The war ended in 1970 with Igbos being reintegrated back into Nigeria. General Obasanjo as the Head of State in 1979 conducted the election that produced Alh. Shehu Shagari as the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. By 1983, Shagari was a few months into his second term when another coup took place. MKO Abiola who supported Shagari’s first term with the hope of succeeding Shagari as the next president after 4 years was disappointed as Shagari decided to run for 2nd term and went to join the opposition. The military struck with the simple excuses of a heated polity steeped in corruption and took over the country in a bloodless coup. With this coup General Muhammadu Buhari became the Head of State.
The Buhari regime carried out the incarceration of about 600 politicians both ruling and opposition. The lonesomeness and boredom, both cognate conditions of incarceration forced upon the inmates critical assessment, self-reflexive, and deep disillusioning view of their actions and inactions and from there realised their mistakes. Former Minister of Youths and Sports Development Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, in his book titled ‘On A Platter Of Gold’, wrote that “they needed to come to the realisation that their real enemies were not fellow politicians but the men in uniform. In the future they would build a political party so big and so inclusive that no part of the country would be left out…… and thus the earliest seeds of what eventually became the PDP were planted during those dark days at Kirikiri prison”
The PDP came on board in 1999 with the unanimous decision to zone the presidency to the South (southwest precisely) to unite the country as the southerners were agitated over the complicated and unfortunate demise of Chief MKO Abiola the winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election. Obasanjo thus emerged as the beneficiary of that arrangement.
In an interview with Premium Times on November 15, 2013 former Vice President Alex Ekwueme said “You know the format was that presidency was just a single term. Now if I had won in 1999, by 2003 I would have served one term and it goes to the Northeast with a vice president from South-south to serve one term. By 2007 a south-south man would have served as a president and he would have someone from Northwest as his Vice so by 2011, a person from Northwest will be president with a VP from Southwest. By now we would have the opportunity for every geopolitical zone to produce a president”.
With this formation, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar already saw himself as the president in waiting or so he thought. In 2003 Obasanjo, like Shagari, would run for a second term. Atiku was furious but Obasanjo was able to convince him. Two terms as Vice President and another two as President, Atiku agreed only for him to discover another plot by OBJ to run for a third term in 2007. Atiku became an open enemy and fought the third term agenda. In retaliation, Obasanjo made sure Atiku never made president.
The zoning issue was raised again and the Northerners made it vividly clear that anything less than a northern successor would not have their support, they would rather vote for Atiku. This made Obasanjo settle for Yar’adua as his successor.
Yar’adua did not complete his first term in office before he died and Jonathan had to be sworn in as Nigeria’s president. The Northerners were not happy but patiently waited for 2011 General elections.
The issue of zoning once again reared its ugly head and again quite contentious. The Northerners wanted Jonathan not to contest but cede the PDP ticket to a northerner even if he (Jonathan’s successor) will be of his (Jonathan) own choosing. But Jonathan would contest. The Northerners became so furious that one Lawal Kaita was quoted in many newspapers to have said that ” the North is determined to make the country ungovernable for President Goodluck Jonathan or any other southerner who finds his way to the seat of power on the platform of PDP against the principle of the party’s zoning policy”.
Jonathan contested and won with the promise of a single term presidency but his victory soon became sanguinary as both his inauguration and Independence Day anniversary were rocked with bomb blasts in Abuja leaving hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
Boko Haram became more daring in Nigeria that even Jonathan couldn’t believe it wasn’t as a result of the jettisoned zoning arrangement. He couldn’t trust the northern elites. Bombings and killings became incessant till the unprecedented Chibok kidnapping happened on the 14th of April 2014.
“As a principle of inclusion and equity,” writes Bolaji Abdullahi, emphatically stating the usual complications of the zoning policy, “zoning seems like a great idea until it came up against practical politics and naked ambition”. Like Shagari, like Obasanjo, Jonathan soon reneged and decided to run for a second term in 2015.
He lost the 2015 presidential elections to his major opponent General Muhammadu Buhari. Six years of Buhari’s administration and the country is already plagued with secessionist agitations, numerous forms of terrorism and economic hardship.
The above brief peek into Nigeria’s political records offers rich historiographical references to the subject of discussion and serves as a pedagogical opportunity in comprehending the intricacies with zoning over time. Owing to our history of disunity, zoning was prescribed as a panacea to all Nigeria’s problems but in the face of ambition, it is usually jettisoned and the polity becomes excessively heated. Because of their own ambitions, politicians employ the use of canards all over the country to widen the existing cleavages of disunity, mistrust and suspicion. Zoning has also proven to be a limitation in terms of quality leadership delivery to the Nigerian people.
As for 2023 general elections, the country will have to walk a tightrope. It will do the country much good for the ruling party to zone the presidency to the South since they were extremely instrumental in the ascendancy of Buhari and most importantly to put an end to the several calls for seccession. This choice of president must be competent enough to handle the security challenges bedevilling the country most especially the north. He/she must also possess the intellectual capacity to turn this economy around.
Beyond 2023 elections, Nigerian leaders must begin to realise that the zoning policy is not a lifetime replacement for the missing unity in the Nigerian state. They must desist from widening the existing cleavages, be sincere with the people and truly unite the country so that we all can look beyond the limitations of region, ethnicity and religion. Then and only then can we begin to truly assess the components of competence. Then and only then can we begin to progress. If Singapore, a country with multiracial and multireligious populace can unite and progress, it’s definitely not impossible for Nigeria.
It only begins with sincerity of leadership.
Comrade Esinrogunjo Ibrahim Damilola.
Public affairs analyst.