By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor
Given the confusion over the zoning of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, presidential ticket, a founding father of the party, Sen Chris Ekpenyong, in this interview, provides historical reasons a presidential candidate of northern extraction should emerge this time. Ekpenyong, a former Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State, attributes the zoning conundrum to what he describes as the hijacking of the party by those without a sense of vision.
There were reports that some senators are working to ensure the Senate President, Sen Ahmed Lawan, emerges as the consensus candidate of All Progressives Congress, APC. You may know a few things about the reported moves in the senate…
The Senate President is quite close to me. He was a member of the House of Representatives when I was the Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State from 1999—2005. He had enormous respect for me. Most of the time, we talk intimately.
At the last meeting we had before going on recess, I asked him about the reported moves to draft him into the race, and he said he wasn’t sure of what they were talking about. He said it is just a rumour. I believed him, but politics being what it is, anybody can offer himself for the service of the nation.
On the issue of zoning, and whether his emergence would scuttle the interest of the South, Nigeria’s constitution didn’t prescribe zoning or micro zoning. I want to take Nigerians back to how the PDP came about zoning.
In the defunct G-34 which had the late Alex Ekwueme, Solomon Lar, a former CBN governor, myself and others agreed to have a power-sharing arrangement to reflect the character of Nigeria. Because of the clamour by the media to ensure the South-West is compensated because of the fate of June 12, the PDP resolved inwardly that the South should produce the President in 1999. I was a major player in G-34 , which metamorphosed into PDP.
Are you saying you were involved in the deliberations that birthed zoning in PDP in 1998?
I was a strong player. I was in Sheraton as a member of G-34 the day the group metamorphosed into PDP. Abacha had died then and Gen Abdulsalimi Abubabakar,retd, was overseeing the transition programme. People like the late Solomon Lar, Prof Jerry Gana , the late Bola Ige, myself and a few others were part and parcel of G-34.
At the time, people had thought that a southerner like Don Etiebet would emerge as a presidential candidate. Etiebet sprang a surprise during the Abacha transition programme. Etiebet was in a good position to win the presidency.
The intrigues we are seeing today didn’t start today. At the time, the West was not comfortable with a southern minority emerging as the President of this country after they had lost their son. Abiola. They were thinking Etiebet was in a good position to win. Etiebet was asked at Sheraton if he would run for President if it was zoned to the South.
We asked him not to respond because we hadn’t seen the constitution of Nigeria to know whether there was zoning or not. When we got to the Jos Convention in February 1999, several people contested the election. When we got to Jos, Obasanjo from the West, Ekwueme from the East, Jim Nwobodo from the East, Graham Douglas from the South-South and Chief Don Etiebet from the South-South contested.
The late Abubakar Rimi from the North contested. There was no statement that it had been zoned to anywhere but there was horse-trading. A large number of people voted for Obasanjo. Jim Nwobodo, Etiebet and Douglass contested till the end. Rimi withdrew. In effect, zoning is always the desire of the party. When a party looks at where its strength lies, it agrees to zone its ticket. I haven’t seen a written agreement on zoning.
But a section of the PDP constitution says power should rotate between North and South…
Our party constitution says the Presidency should rotate between the North and South. If it is going to come to the South, the North must agree with the South. It had to be that way because there was an agreement that allowed Obasanjo to emerge as the candidate of the party at the Jos Convention. Zoning is a party affair. You don’t just arm-twist the party for you to have zoning.
Since zoning is enshrined in the PDP constitution, why is the party in a dilemma over it to the extent that it is overheating the polity?
The PDP is not in a dilemma. It was because the party believes in zoning that Obasanjo ensured that a northerner succeeded him after eight years. That was irrespective of so many people who had an interest from the South, especially from the South-South.
Former Rivers State governor, Dr. Peter Odili, went around the country to see if he would be given the opportunity. Ex-Governor Donald Duke also did the same thing but when we got to the Old Parade Ground in Abuja, the game changed. And that was normal in politics.
It was decided that it was the turn of the North, making Umar Yar’Adua emerge as a candidate. The next morning, then Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, Goodluck Jonathan, was announced as the running mate to Yar’Adua. For me, the focus should be on getting the right material for the job. But whether it is going to the North or South, I haven’t seen it yet. I can’t speak for the APC because I am not in the party. And I don’t understand their body language.
Obasanjo, from the West, was the first President to emerge on the platform of PDP. Yar’Adua, a northerner, succeeded him but didn’t complete his tenure. Jonathan completed the tenure. He ran for tenure, giving the impression that he usurped the power-sharing arrangement in the PDP.
Given that the last President produced by the party was a southerner, won’t it be right for the North to produce the candidate this time?
I am speaking as a founding father of PDP.
I think people who never built the party are just benefiting. And they are the ones causing the problem in PDP. For me, allowing the North to produce the presidential candidate is the right thing to be done.
There shouldn’t have been an argument on whether the North should produce the candidate or not. Our constitution says the Presidency should be between the North and South. The South had done so for eight years. Because of death, the North that benefited after the South could not finish its tenure.
I think people with a sense of justice could not have been agitating in PDP that the Presidency should come to the South. They should just allow someone from the North after which it comes back to the South. But when you have so many moneybags that is the result you get. Have you ever seen northern aspirants doling out money to the South?
How many have come to the South to share money the way southern aspirants are doing in the North? I give kudos to the governors of Bayelsa and Delta states for not acting like that. For those who are foundation members of the PDP, we know that a northerner should be our presidential candidate this time.
How well the PDP handles the zoning question this time would not only determine its performance in the elections, but also its future as a major political party.What are the foundation members doing about this?
The committee set up by the party has done its job even though the result hasn’t been made public. In the realm of speculation, people assumed the party has thrown the race open. If it should be thrown open, it means we are following the processes we followed in 1999.
In February 1999, the Presidency was thrown open at Jos Convention, but with the understanding that we had someone, we wanted as our candidate. Many party chieftains like the late Adamu Ciroma, powerbrokers like former President Ibrahim Babangida and other leaders supported that it should go to the West. That was the reason Obasanjo won the election. The National Working Committee, NWC, and National Executive Committee, NEC, would meet to decide on the findings of the zoning committee.
Whatever the party decides, we would concur. For now, it is impossible to talk to any of the governors contesting in our party. Maybe there is something they are looking for other than the Presidency.
Why would southern PDP governors be pushing for a southern presidential candidate when the position of the PDP constitution on zoning remains unchanged?
I am not too sure they are well informed. Some of them haven’t spent much time at the party. It also depends on how they came to the party. When I finished my National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, I joined a party even though I didn’t know the leaders.
I didn’t even know the then governor of Cross River State, Clement Isong. I just went to my community and told them I could represent them in the House of Assembly to replace an incumbent. I won the election because it was not a matter of money. But now the governors are the owners and drivers of the party.
At the time, It was not the governors that owned the party but the people. During the Second Republic, President Shehu Shagari didn’t sit on the podium during National Party of Nigeria, NPN, meetings. He sat with the people and allowed the National Chairman of the party, Adisa Akinloye, who was from the west and his executive members to sit on the podium.
But now the President is the commander in chief of the party. PDP governors should look inwards and understand the issues that made the party what it is. PDP was not founded because somebody had so much money. It was founded as a national party that belongs to the people.
That was why when we came to power in 1999, the President was from the West, the Senate President was from the East and the Speaker was from the North. Everybody had a bite, but now we have a different thing. The worst is the APC government where most key officials hail from the North.
In my state, my governor is interested in the Presidency but he doesn’t understand the basis upon which PDP was founded. PDP was founded for equity and justice. It was even equity that made it possible for my governor to emerge. Unfortunately, aspirants are going to the North where they dole out money, but northern aspirants haven’t done that in the South.
They may be “doling out money” in the North because the North appears as the beautiful bride in this race. Don’t you think so?
Obviously, in a democratic contest, numbers dictate the pace. They are taking advantage of the national census we have never conducted truthfully in Nigeria. I don’t think we have ever had a successful census.
Forget about the figures the United Nations, UN, that cannot solve the Ukraine crisis attributes to Nigeria. All we have been having about our population as a nation are speculations. The North is the beautiful bride that everyone has to go to. At the same time, they would call the shots.
Even when I saw my colleague, Sen Ali Ndume , saying that power should shift to the South, that is rational for his party. APC can zone the Presidency to the South because the North will spend eight years with Buhari. But in our case, the North didn’t do so for eight years.
Why should I preach against the North producing the presidential candidate of PDP when I know they haven’t ruled for eight years since 1999? When you add eight years of Obasanjo to the six years of Jonathan, it is 14 years. The North only had three years.
We should be talking about getting someone who would rule for four years from the North. After one term, it can go back to the South. If we deny the North the opportunity this time, we might witness the migration we experienced in 2014.
Jonathan insisted that he wanted to rule and we saw the repercussions. If we want to support any zone, it should have been the South-East because Nigeria was founded on a tripod. We had the North, West and East. Sadly, people without a sense of vision have hijacked the party. In the interest of equity and justice, I will support the emergence of a northern presidential candidate in our party.