BY DR. POGU BITRUS
Nigeria’s political history has been a turbulent one. Many commentators blame the 1914 amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates of Nigeria by the British colonial masters for the turbulence. According to this school of thought, the 1914 amalgamation brought together disparate peoples in cultural and religious terms. Additionally, the Nigerian Constitution at Independence did not provide a mechanism for forging a nation. It, simply, copied the Westminster style that had been perfected by the British. This incongruity of packing disparate peoples together in one polity, without safeguard mechanisms account for the two coups of January 15 and July 29, 1966. The January 1966 coup, which witnessed the assassination of leading lights of the north (including Middle Belt sons) was seen as a ploy by the Igbo nationality in the military to shake off an incipient overlordship of the Hausa/Fulani North, while the July coup was one of crass revenge. Things degenerated very fast and a civil war ensued. At the end of the war, Nigeria remained one and the Head of State of Nigeria, at that time, General Yakubu Gowon declared that the war produced “no victor, no vanquished”. This sentiment seemed to have won the day as an Igbo, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, emerged as Vice President just nine short years after the war.
The military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo, while inaugurating a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) in 1977, headed by the renown Chief FRA Williams, a foremost Nigerian lawyer, counselled that the draft constitution to be produced need not follow the Westminster line, and that safeguards for national unity be inserted. The major argument that led to discarding the Westminster-style constitution was the fact that the leader of the country was elected from his narrow constituency and emerged as leader of Nigeria only because he was leader of his party. The American-style presidency was adopted because the whole country participated in choosing who the leader would be. The additional safeguard that was inserted in that draft, which was retained by the Constituent Assembly, mandated that the leader of Nigeria would not just be the candidate with majority votes in an election to choose the president, he/she must also score at least a quarter of the votes in at least two-thirds of the states of Nigeria. This was intended to ensure that any leader that emerges would be one with widespread popularity, and not just a sectional leader. This insertion was novel as this requirement did not exist anywhere else. It was a homegrown solution to a local problem.
As novel as the “at least one quarter of two-thirds” was, it did not cure the malady that produced it. This malady is known as the fear of domination. All parts of Nigeria have schooled themselves to think they would be short-changed in participation and infrastructure and amenity terms, unless one of their own is President. The National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that was the first beneficiary of Nigeria’s transformation into presidentialism, had an Igbo Vice President that could have succeeded the first Executive President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, but was thwarted by a coup d’etat that installed Major General Muhammadu Buhari as military Head of State.
Late General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s former Head of State, it was who came up with the subsisting six geopolitical zones. It was also Abacha that argued that the presidency should rotate among the six zones, one after the other, to cure this malady called fear of domination.
Military interruptions of the democratic process have not helped the process of nation-building in Nigeria. It did not help that the military leaders, particularly from December 31 1983 to May 29 1999 were all northern Muslims. They created additional states and local governments to favour the Muslim north, delineated constituencies to favour the Muslim north, and before leaving the stage bequeathed to the country a constitution that is skewed in favour of the Muslim north and is unworkable.
At the twilight of military rule, in 1999, the political class was of the consensus that presidential power had to shift to the southern part of the country. It was felt that the palpable tension in the country, at that time, had to be doused. The perception in the southern part of Nigeria that the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election, that was adjudged free and fair by all observers, because it was won by a southerner had to be addressed. It was the consensus then that should the departing military hand over power to any northerner the country would splinter. The winner of the 1993 election had died in detention in hazy circumstances. Again, in the collective wisdom of the departing military and political class, it was thought that handing over presidential power to a south westerner was the most expedient thing to do. At the end of the day, two south westerners in the persons of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, representing the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Chief Olu Falae, representing an alliance of All Peoples Party (APP) and Alliance for Democracy (AD), slugged it out at the polls. Obasanjo won and served out two terms of four years each.
The Peoples Democratic Party went one step further by writing into its constitution that its presidential flagbearer would rotate from the south to the north, and back after every two terms of four years each, until all the geopolitical zones in the country has produced a president for the country. That arrangement suffered a force majeure, when the first northerner to enjoy the rotational practice died in office on May 5, 2010, just three years after assuming office. The northern political class cried stridently that it would be unfair to cut short the eight years of unbroken rule that was assured it by the PDP constitution. As a matter of fact, it took the National Assembly, under the leadership of Senator David Mark, to swear in the then Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as Acting President, under a “doctrine of necessity” when it was obvious that the substantive President, Umaru Musa Yar Adua, was too sick to perform his role as President. After Yar Adua died in 2010, the northern political class sought to block President Goodluck Jonathan from contesting the presidential election of 2011. Both the PDP, at its delegates convention, and the general voting public, at the polls, upheld Goodluck Jonathan’s right to contest the election as he won the contests at the primary and general elections handily.
When President Jonathan sought to contest for a second and final term, as he was entitled to in 2015, six serving governors from the north and Rotimi Amaechi from Rivers State, walked out of the PDP convention of 2014. Those governors joined the new All Progressives Alliance, APC, that was an amalgamation of four political parties to be the fifth partner as New PDP, nPDP. The contention, again, was that Jonathan was short-changing the north.
The APC did not write a zoning formula into its constitution in 2014, but to all intent and purposes, respected the zoning policy that PDP espoused. While the north produced the presidential candidate, the south produced the running mate and Chairman of the party. Towards 2023 APC has announced that all positions held by the north in the past eight years would be swapped with southern personnel, and vice versa.
2023 is another year in Nigeria’s four-yearly trek to polling booths to choose persons that will serve as president, vice president, members of the National Assembly, governors and their deputies, and members of state houses of assembly. Expectedly, when this four-yearly ritual approaches, all sorts of theories and opinions pervade the public space. One such opinion that has been thrown up recently is the one that says competence is the only criterion that Nigerians need to consider before choosing the next president in 2023.
It would be disingenuous for anyone, in 2022, to argue that where the president of Nigeria comes from does not matter. If it did not matter, northern governors, sitting governors, would not jeopardize the chances of their own party, and gift the presidency to the opposition. It is shocking that it is the same characters that had blood in their eyes in 2014, over zoning in PDP that are now arguing that the zone that produces the president does not matter.
Whether PDP or APC we have been very consistent in our position. By 2023, General Muhammadu Buhari would have spent eight years as President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. It is only fair and equitable that the position of President is occupied by a Nigerian not of Buhari’s zone. We have always said that the south should be left to decide which zone from the south should occupy the presidency in 2023, but we believe that it is clumsy and inelegant for the south west to seek the presidency at this time. Not after Obasanjo’s eight years as President and Osinbajo’s eight years as Vice President. By design, the zoning and rotation policy is supposed to make it possible for each of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones to occupy the seat of President for eight years over forty-eight years. For us, the debate should be a straight one between the south south, that has occupied the seat of President for one term, and the south east, that has never occupied it.
One argument that is persuasive says, like it happened in 2011, when both PDP and the Nigerian electorate validated Goodluck Jonathan’s claims in the election of that year, political parties and the Nigerian electorate will have to make a choice should candidates from south east and south south be thrown up by the major political parties. It is the north, that is presently occupying the number one position in Nigeria, and the south west, that has been served, that should not entertain any thought of throwing their hats in the ring. It is disingenuous to throw around a “competence only” tantrum after your own region has been served in a consensus that is meant to stabilize the Nigerian polity and give all of its people a sense of belonging, validating their worth as equal citizens. It would amount to taking the food tray away in a banquet after dishing enough into one’s plate. Of course, others on the queue would be well within their rights to chase and deal with such a selfish eater.
Nigeria cannot be the stable and prosperous country of our dream if some of its constituent parts behave as if they are the natural masters of everyone else and that everyone else exist at their pleasure, and to serve them. The one argument that I find most persuasive on this matter is the one that foremost patriot and Leader of the Afenifere, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, has consistently pushed. He argues that in the spirit of equity, justice and national rebirth the post of President, in 2023, should go to the south east. I align myself with this position.
We need healing in Nigeria. We need to forgive each other the sins committed by our forebears and truly love each other, as love covers a multitude of infractions.
Being a Keynote Address by the National President, Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr Pogu at the Greater Nigeria Conference, in Abuja.