Balance of Power: Southern unity is crucial to Nigeria’s stability

By Olu Fasan

THE sensitive issue of presidential zoning is an albatross around the neck of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. The party is split down the middle, with its anti-zoning Northern and pro-zoning Southern blocs pitched bitterly against each other. Yet, unless the PDP unites on this delicate issue, it will pay a heavy price at next year’s presidential election.

The irony is that PDP, in good faith, introduced the concept of zoning into Nigerian politics to promote national peace and unity. Section 7(2)(c) of the party’s constitution says: “… In pursuance of the principle of equity, justice and fairness, the party shall adhere to the policy of rotation and zoning of party and public elective offices.”

This singular act has been recognised internationally as a good example of how to achieve inclusivity in multi-ethnic countries. In a report entitled: “Escaping the fragility trap”, jointly published by Oxford University and the London School of Economics, the authors, Professor Sir Paul Collier and Professor Sir Tim Besley, wrote: “In Nigeria, the dominant party had a rule that required the Presidency to alternate between three regions in a complex formula.” The report was referring to the PDP’s zoning arrangement. 

But the zoning provision in PDP’s constitution is not justiciable. The court is unlikely to enforce a provision that deprives any eligible Nigerian from running for a public elective office as that would be deemed discriminatory and contrary to section 42 of the 1999 Constitution. Therefore, a zoning arrangement in a party’s constitution requires consensus and goodwill among the party’s leaders to be effective.

Unfortunately, there’s no consensus or goodwill in the PDP to ensure adherence to its zoning policy. Rather, the party’s Northern and Southern groups have entrenched sectional positions, driven by self-interest, that make it difficult to agree on the way forward. 

Take the argument of PDP’s Northern leaders, adduced by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. It’s based on a predilected interpretation of the party’s constitution and goes thus: PDP ruled Nigeria for 16 years, from 1999 to 2015; out of these 16 years, the South governed for 13 years, the North for only three years. After President Goodluck Jonathan, a Southerner, the party’s next president should be a Northerner. Thus, in 2023, PDP can’t zone its presidential ticket to the South.

Now, if you consider the above reasoning superficially, there is some merit in it. Put simply, with respect to the presidency, the South has been more privileged than the North in the PDP: South, 13 years; North, three years! But look deeper, the reasoning is fundamentally flawed. 

Surely, if the PDP had ruled Nigeria for 60 years, as it vowed it would, the Presidency would have alternated seamlessly between Northerners and Southerners in the party. But something happened. 

In 2015, a Northerner, Muhammadu Buhari, from another party, All Progressives Congress, APC, defeated Jonathan, a Southern PDP president. That defeat upended PDP’s zoning arrangement, which, all things being equal, would have produced a Northern PDP president after Jonathan’s tenure. 

But all things were not equal. Yet Atiku and his fellow PDP Northern presidential aspirants, such as Bukola Saraki and Aminu Tambuwal, who helped cause PDP’s defeat in 2015, are behaving as if a Northerner has not been ruling Nigeria since 2015. 

They want another Northerner to succeed President Buhari in 2023, presumably serving for eight years!

Given that, since independence, the North has ruled Nigeria, under both military and civilian regimes, for 41 years out of the country’s 61 years, anything that stretches that political advantage is bound to be utterly divisive. That’s not mentioning the affront of a Northern president succeeding a Northern president!

Yet, the PDP is submitting to the whims and caprices of its Northern oligarchs, particularly Atiku, who is determined to become the party’s candidate come hell or high water. He has bought the presidential nomination form, even though the party’s 37-man panel on zoning was yet to decide on the issue. Atiku has pursued his life-long ambition to become president under different parties since 2007; however, he reckons his best chance is in 2023.

But the South is angry. Southern leaders and governors, joined by their Middle-Belt counterparts, have vowed that the South and the Middle Belt would not vote for a Northern presidential candidate in 2023. 

Here’s the quandary. If PDP gives its presidential ticket to a Southern candidate, would an aggrieved Atiku and other disappointed Northern presidential aspirants enthusiastically support the candidate? 

The likelihood is they won’t; rather, PDP supporters in the North may reject the Southern candidate as they did Jonathan in 2015. 

Of course, if the South votes against a Northern PDP presidential candidate and the North votes against a Southern PDP presidential candidate, the winner would be APC. The PDP, which ruled Nigeria for 16 years, would be out of power for at least 16 years.

But the biggest loser would be Ndigbo. For if a Yoruba APC president takes over next year, the Igbo won’t, pragmatically, get a chance to produce president until 2039 after power has returned to the North, then the South. Rationally, assuming Ndigbo didn’t get PDP’s presidential ticket, they would still be better off with a PDP victory, perhaps as vice president to a Northern president, rather than a Yoruba APC presidency. 

Which brings me to the position of the Southern leaders and governors. It’s intellectually timid and incoherent. They said the Presidency should come to the South, but where in the South? They said they would not vote for a Northern presidential candidate, but who will they vote for? A Yoruba candidate? A Bola Tinubu?

The same moral argument against a Northern presidential candidate in 2023 extends to a Yoruba candidate. Fairness demands the Presidency be zoned to the South-East. If not, it should be open to all geo-political zones in Nigeria. 

In last week’s column, I referred to the new Olubadan of Ibadan as Oba Lekan Salami. He is Oba Lekan Balogun. My apologies!

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