2023 presidency and zoning brouhaha

Governor Lalong, Chairman, Northern Governors’ Forum and Governor Rotimi Akeredolu, Chairman, Southern Governors’ Forum: at the vanguard of controversies over zoning of the 2023 presidency

By Michael Jegede

Ahead of the 2023 general election, the raging debate as to which region between the north and south should produce the president appears to be getting hotter, with the resolution of the northern governors rejecting zoning and describing it as unconstitutional.

The northern governors after a meeting with the traditional rulers in the region, at the Executive Council Chamber of the Kaduna State Government House, on Monday, said power shift is not backed by the 1999 Constitution (as amended). They are therefore wondering why their southern counterparts would insist that power must move to the south in 2023.

In a Communique issued at the end of the meeting and read by the Northern Governors’ Forum Chairman, Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State, the governors said: “The Forum observed that some Northern State governors had earlier expressed views for a power shift to three geo-political zones in the South, with a view to promoting unity and peace in the nation.

“Notwithstanding their comments, the Forum unanimously condemns the statement by the Southern Governors’ Forum that the Presidency must go to the South.

“The statement is quite contradictory with the provision of the Constitution of the Republic of Nigeria (1999), as amended, that the elected President shall score majority votes; score at least, 25 per cent of the votes cast in two-third states of the federation. In the case of run-up, simple majority win the election.”

The southern governors had at three different meetings this year – in Asaba (May 11), Lagos (July 5) and Enugu (September 16) – maintained that the next president of the country must emerge from the south upon the expiration of President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term in 2023.

Speaking in a television programme, a day after the Enugu meeting, Ondo State Governor, Olurotimi Akeredolu, said: “If we have anything that we have agreed, that we have unanimity, it is the issue of president in 2023. All of us, irrespective of our political party; there are three political parties that are in the Southern Governors Forum. We have the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and the All Progressives Congress (APC) and we all agreed on this.

“Any party that picks any candidate from the North will have to face all Southern governors because they will not support. But it has to come from the South. We are saying that there must be rotational, justice, and fairness in it, that is what we are pushing.”

Akeredolu, who is equally the Chairman of the Southern Governors Forum, further stated that “If my President, Muhammadu Buhari has ruled for eight years, then it cannot be from the North again. The next president must come from the South. We have not got to the stage where we will say let us give it to somebody who is competent. There are many people that are competent. We have competent people in the North as we have competent people in the South.

“So, the President can come from any part of the country. But if you have occupied the position for eight years, then it has to rotate back to the South. We can continue to do that until it gets to a point where the issue of zoning becomes an anathema. But for now, zoning is it and those of us from the South are determined that the next president comes from the South.”

Notwithstanding that there is no clear-cut provision for zoning in the country’s constitution, many have opined that Nigeria as a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous and plural nation, should adopt power rotation for the purpose of promoting national cohesion and peaceful co-existence. The thinking is that with the zoning arrangement every region will have equal representation and a sense of belonging in the scheme of things, thereby addressing the issue of dominance by any section of the country.

It was the zoning agreement reached prior to the 1999 general election that made the three surviving political parties at that time field southerners as their presidential candidates. The PDP had Olusegun Obasanjo as its presidential candidate. Olu Falae was the Alliance for Democracy (AD) presidential flag bearer while Ogbonnaya Onu had emerged the presidential candidate of the then All People’s Party (APP).

APP which was then the second largest party formed an alliance with AD for the presidential election. Falae was endorsed as the coalition presidential candidate of APP/AD to confront the PDP that was the dominant party. PDP won the presidential election and its candidate, Obasanjo was sworn in on May 29, 1999.

Reacting to the Kaduna declaration by the northern governors, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide confirmed that there was indeed an understanding between the north and south for power to rotate between the two regions in the interest of peace, unity, equity and justice.

In a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo reproached the northern governors while standing firmly in support of their southern colleagues. It said: “The position of the Southern Governors (that power must move to the south in 2023) is simply restating the obvious. A gentleman agreement was reached at the NUC Conference Centre, Abuja in 1998 between the North and the South. The Late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo spoke for the entire South and Alh. Abubakar Rimi, also of blessed memory spoke for the North. It was agreed that after Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar as the Head of State, that the presidency should shift to the South. That accounted for the emergence of the presidential flag bearers of the mainstream political parties from the South West.”

In 2007, at the end of Obasanjo’s two terms of eight years, the zoning formula favoured the north and paved the way for the late Umaru Yar’Adua to become the President under the umbrella of PDP. In 2010, Goodluck Jonathan, as the then Vice President, became the President after the death of Yar’Adua in line with the provision of the Constitution. He completed Yar’Adua’s tenure and had one full term of his own.

Buhari emerged as president in 2015 on the platform of APC, a party founded in 2013 from the merger of a number of opposition political parties that united to loosen PDP’s 16-year grip on power. There were indications that the APC from the onset of its formation agreed to keep to the zoning arrangement.

The Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola, revealed last year that there was an accord (though unwritten) that power should alternate between the northern and southern wings of the country, warning that it would be treacherous to now ignore the agreement. The APC top brass and ex-Lagos governor was quoted as saying: “The truth is that what makes an agreement spectacular is the honour in which it is made, not whether it is written.”

A prominent PDP stalwart, Comrade Patrick Abba Moro, who is a serving northern senator from Benue State, representing Benue South Senatorial District, had argued in a recent interview that “Those people who are saying it doesn’t matter power could go anywhere are not just being fair to Nigerians. Whether you like it or not, Nigeria stands on two legs – the north and the south. And so because of lack of understanding of ourselves, the fragile political democracy that we have now, the sensibilities of the people and how sensitive people are as to who occupies what position, it can only be fair that after eight years of President Muhammadu Buhari administration, power should shift to the south. Somebody from the south should become the president of this country in 2023. That is my position. That is my take.”

Continuing, Moro, an erstwhile Minister of Interior and strong advocate of power rotation, added: “I predicate my position on the fact that when Yar’adua died, President Jonathan took over, completed Yar’Adua’s tenure, went for his own tenure, coming from the south-south and completed his tenure. All arguments to the effect that he only completed Yar’Adua’s term in the first term and therefore should be given his own rightful second term fell on deaf ears and everybody said no! It can’t happen. It has to go to the north. Power has gone to the north and the north is going to have it by 2023 for eight years. And then some people are saying the north should still produce the next president. That is unfair. That is unjust. That is not in tandem with the law of equity.”

A human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), said the northern governors were insensitive in their description of zoning as unconstitutional while pointing out that the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has various provisions indicating that it is against power domination by one region, tribe or ethnic group.

He wondered why the governors are heating up the polity with the needless controversy over zoning when even the constitutions of the two main political parties – the APC and PDP – have provisions for power rotation in the spirit of unity, peace and fairness.

The legal luminary, on a TV station, remarked: “If you look at Section 14 (3), it will be a little insensitive when you consider that President Muhammadu Buhari is from the northern part of Nigeria and when it is time for election in 2023, having spent eight years and exhausted the maximum two-term period, what Section 14 envisages is that you would have to balance the power in such a way that other sections of Nigeria won’t feel any marginalisation.”

Michael Jegede, a journalist writes from Abuja