In Nigeria’s two major parties, the issue of which zone should produce President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor in 2023 is on the front burner.

The recent defection of Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) has raised fresh concerns over who succeeds President Muhammadu Buhari in 2023 and indeed the zoning of presidential power in Nigeria.

Giving reasons for his defection, Mr Umahi claimed the PDP was not planning to pick its 2023 presidential candidate from the Southeast, which has yet to produce a president since democracy was restored in the country in 1999.

The governor, who described the party’s action as insensitive and insincere, argued that for the sake of justice, equity and fairness, the region should be allowed to take a shot at the presidency since, according to him, other regions have done so.

Mr Umahi, who is the Chairman of the South East Governors Forum, denied harbouring plan to be a beneficiary of his agitation, but claimed that he was prepared to be the “sacrificial lamb.”

“It is absurd that since 1999 going to 2023, the Southeast will never be considered to run for presidency under the PDP. And this is my position and will continue to be my position. It had nothing to do with me or my ambition,” he said.

“I want to clear the air that I never sought PDP presidential ticket and I will not. So whoever said that I moved to APC because they refused to zone the ticket to me is being very mischievous.”

Mr Umahi’s demand was expectedly trailed by criticisms and applause.

Although, the presidential poll is over 24 months away, the issue of rotational presidency has returned to the front burner as it always does around election periods.

In the APC, where Mr Umahi moved to, its members are at daggers drawn over an agreement allegedly reached to rotate the presidential slot between the north and the south.

Agreement on power shift?
Those who claimed there was an agreement are of the view that since Mr Buhari, a northerner, would round off his second term in 2023, power should shift to the south.

Last month, one of the party’s prominent members, Babtunde Fashola, the works and housing minister, said at the inception of the party seven years ago, there was an agreement that power should rotate between both regions and demanded that it should be respected. Mr Fashola warned that it would be dangerous to abandon the agreement.

“The truth is that what makes an agreement spectacular is the honour in which it is made, not whether it is written,” he said.

“If it was written there would be no court cases of breach of contract because it is a document that is written and signed that goes to court. But the private agreement you make with your brother and sister should not be breached, it must be honoured.

“All parties are clubs where you write agreements just like a social club and we can decide that it is the youngest person who will be the chairman of the club or we can decide that it is the oldest person or the next female or the next male. That is the matter of agreement between people.”

A founding member of the APC, Osita Okechukwu, spoke in the same vein and noted that the “gentleman agreement” predated the birth of APC.

Mr Okechukwu, a member of the manifesto committee of the defunct merger committee of APC, explained that at the commencement of the current political dispensation in 1999, the political class agreed that the presidential power should rotate between the north and the south.

“There is a convention. It is a convention. From 1999, the convention of zoning was adopted. It is not written in black and white. It is a convention which provides guidance in liberal democracies. So, nobody can come out and say there was no agreement”, he said.

“In time past, some politicians were persuaded not to run for president for the sake of equity, fairness and justice.

“So after President Buhari’s eight years, it should go to the South. The good thing is that there is no part of the country that does not have competent people.”

But another founding member of the party and presidential aspirant, Ahmed Sani, disagrees.

“I don’t think there is anything like agreement,” Mr Sani, a former governor of Zamfara State, said. “You can ask Mr President, he led the group. Asiwaju (Bola Tinubu) was there. I was part of it. There was no meeting I didn’t attend or any meeting that I attended that there was such agreement.

“(Such) agreement can’t be verbal, it has to be written. In any case, any agreement that is contrary to laws of this country is not an agreement. The constitution is very clear, the constitution of the political parties, the Electoral Act. We are in a democracy and democracy is governed by processes and procedures and by laws.”

Stirring debate on rotation.

Mamman Daura, Mr Buhari’s nephew, stirred controversy months ago when he canvassed competence instead of geography as the deciding factor in the choice of Nigeria’s future presidents.

Mr Daura, allegedly a member of the president’s kitchen cabinet, argued in a media interview, that “This turn-by-turn, it was done once, it was done twice, and it was done thrice…It is better for this country to be one…It should be for the most competent and not for someone who comes from somewhere.”

Many perceived Mr Daura’s suggestion as the thinking of the presidency. For the critics, he was not merely flying a kite but was working in a subtle manner to ensure the retention of the presidential power in the North where Mr Buhari hails from.

But the presidency said Mr Daura’s views were personal to him and did not, in any way, reflect that of either the president or his administration.

However soon after, the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, who is allegedly eyeing the nation’s number one political office, re-echoed Mr Daura’s views. He canvassed the abandonment of the zoning arrangements for political offices as adopted in the country.

The governor, a member of the APC, argued at a forum that the zoning process among political parties would not solve the economic problems facing the country and therefore “everyone should be given an equal opportunity” to run for office, and not based on ethnicity.

In the PDP, Nigeria’s main opposition party, the controversy over power rotation is no less fierce.

The Oyo State governor, Seyi Makinde, said it does not matter who is the president in Abuja, rather what matters is a restructured Nigeria where every corner of the country will feel the impact of the president.

But a former national deputy chairman of the party, Bode George, disagreed with the governor and warned that the nation’s democracy may be scuttled and its unity jeopardised if any attempt is made to dump power rotation.

Flurry of aspirants

Regardless of the disputation over power sharing, some politicians drawn from the nation’s two major political parties, the APC and PDP, are already warming up to take a shot at the topmost political office in the land.

In the main, they are from both regions. Among those believed to be positioning themselves for the APC ticket are a former Lagos governor, Bola Tinubu (Southwest), Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State (Northcentral), and ex-Zamfara governor, Ahmed Sani (Northwest). Apart from Mr Sani, none of the aspirants has formally declared their interest in the race.

Only recently, Kogi lawmakers asked Mr Bello to run for president in 2023. The lawmakers, in a motion moved on behalf of all the members by the Majority Leader of the House, Hassan Abdullahi, predicated their call on the “sterling performance” of the governor since he assumed office in 2016. Mr Bello is currently in his second term in office.

Mr Tinubu’s loyalists have also begun a subtle campaign for him.
Last week, some of his loyalists, stormed Ibadan and Oyo to seek the support of the traditional rulers of the two cities for the former governor whose presidential ambition has long been touted.

Led by Dayo Adeyeye, a former senator, the loyalists who styled the campaign ‘The South West Agenda (SWAGA ’23), said Mr Tinubu “is the only politician who has what it takes to succeed Buhari in 2023.”
There was a similar campaign in Ekiti State last week, asking Governor Kayode Fayemi to contest.

There are speculations that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo will also throw his hat in the ring at a convenient time based on certain calculations. Mr Osinbajo is a political ally of Mr Tinubu under whom he served as attorney general.

In the PDP, although he has not made his interest known publicly, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar’s son, Adamu, disclosed in June that his father would run in 2023.

That seems to be coming into reality. Last week, the former vice president, who is currently outside the country, reportedly inaugurated his support groups across the 36 states.

Christened “Atiku Support Group”, the organisation is meant to project Mr Abubakar’s vision of sustainable national development.

On his part, the governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal, is also reportedly planning to run. The former House of Representatives speaker is believed to have commenced underground campaign for the race, especially with his visits to some prominent people.

The last time both squared up at the PDP primaries in 2018, Messrs Abubakar trounced Mr Tambuwal and others to pick the presidential ticket. Mr Abubakar however lost to Mr Buhari in the 2019 presidential poll.

What is rather curious is that, as in the recent past, none of the aspirants is paying attention to the possible zoning of the presidency in their parties.

Origin of zoning

Except in 1999 when Nigeria returned to democratic rule, zoning of political offices, particularly the presidency, has never been respected by the country’s politicians.

That year, politicians of different persuasions, agreed that though the Constitution does not recognise zoning of political offices, the presidency should be rotated between the nNorth and the South.

Apart from addressing the delicate ethno-religious challenges in the quest for political power, the political class of that era believed it would also heal the wounds created by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election by the Ibrahim Babangida military regime.

Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba from the Southwest region, was on the verge of victory when the election was annulled. The businessman cum politician died in detention in 1998 during the military regime of Abdulsalami Abubakar while fighting for the actualisation of his mandate.

Consequently, in deference to the unwritten pact, the then three major parties picked their presidential candidates for the 1999 election from the South, as a way of pacifying the zone over the annulment of the election result.

It was therefore a Southern affair at the Jos convention of the PDP primaries in February 1999. Former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, Philip Asiodu, Don Etiebet, Graham Douglas, Francis Ellah and Jim Nwobodo, all Southerners contested the party’s primaries.

Two other Southerners, Adisa Akinloye and Richard Akinjide, and a northerner, Abubakar Rimi (former Kano governor), dropped out ahead of the primaries, eventually won by Mr Obasanjo.

Ex-Senate President, Joseph Wayas, Bode Olajumoke, and Gamaliel Onosode, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and ex-Rivers governor, Rufus Ada-George, all Southerners, contended for the ticket of the defunct All Peoples Party (APP) ticket.

The party leadership stopped Northern aspirants, including former Senate Leader, Olusola Saraki (Kwara), Lema Jubril (Katsina) and Andreau Sawa, a retired colonel, (Adamawa) from running in the primary. The party later adopted the candidate of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) for the election, resulting in a two-horse race between the candidate and that of the PDP. Moves by Mr Saraki to contest the matter in court yielded no fruit.

In the Yoruba-dominated AD, all the presidential contenders were all Southerners. They were ex-Oyo governor, Bola Ige, former SGF, Olu Falae and ex-Anambra governor, Chukwuemeka Ezeife.

While the Southwest chapter of the party picked Mr Falae, Mr Ezeife emerged the choice of the South-south/Southeast bloc of the party.

However, Mr Falae who emerged the joint candidate of the AD/APP, was eventually defeated by Mr Obasanjo of the PDP in the February 27, 1999 presidential election.

In 2003, even though the unwritten understanding was still in favour of the south retaining the presidency, the 18 parties that presented candidates for that year’s election disregarded it and picked candidates from both north and south.

From the north came Mr Buhari; a former IGP, M.D. Yusuf; Sarah Jibril; ex-Kaduna governor, Balarabe Musa; and others who ran on different platforms.

Among the Southerners in the race were Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Gani Fawehinmi, Tunji Braithwaite, Ike Nwachukwu and Jim Nwobodo.

Ahead of the 2007 elections, although the unwritten understanding on power sharing was for the post of the president to go to the north, a flurry of contenders also showed up.

Aspirants who contested the December 2006 PDP primaries from the north were a former army chief, Aliyu Gusau, Buba Marwa, Sarah Jibril, Jerry Gana, Umaru Yar’Ádua, Mamman Kotangora and Mr Sawa.

Former military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, former Governors Ahmed Makarfi, Adamu Mua’zu of Kaduna and Bauchi states, respectively and others also indicated interest in the presidential post but later backed out. Mr Babangida, in a letter to Mr Obasanjo, cited personal reason for withdrawing from the race.

Southern aspirants such as Victor Attah, Sam Egwu, Peter Odili, Achike Udenwa, Donald Duke, all outgoing governors, were among the 20 aspirants cleared to contest the primaries, but withdrew from the race. They claimed they were not forced to do so. Mr Yar’Adua emerged winner in the primary election.

Mr Abubakar, a northerner from Adamawa State, who was deputy to Mr Obasanjo emerged the flagbearer of the defunct Action Congress (AC). Mr Buhari also emerged the standard bearer of the ANPP hitherto known as APP.

As in 2003, the minority parties presented candidates from different regions and zones of the country.

Mr Obasanjo exhausted his two terms totalling eight years and handed over to late President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007.

Analysts say the rotation of presidency between the north and the south could have progressed in the PDP without hiccups but for the death of Mr Yar’Adua, which altered the arrangement.

In the 2011 elections, President Goodluck Jonathan from Bayelsa State, South-south Nigeria, who had succeeded the deceased Yar’Ádua the previous year, ran alongside Mr Abubakar in the PDP primaries. Mr Jonathan picked the ticket.

By this time, Mr Buhari had left the ANPP with his associates to float the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) on which platform he ran for president. The ANPP ticket was picked by another northerner and former Kano governor, Ibrahim Shekarau.
They all lost to Mr Jonathan, the PDP candidate from the south.

In 2015, the issue of zoning became tense in the then ruling PDP. However, despite the emergence of a northerner, Abduljhalil Tafawa Balewa, son of Nigerian’s first and only Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, as an aspirant, Mr Jonathan bulldozed his way and became the sole aspirant in the primary election. Mr Jonathan however lost the election to Mr Buhari.

In 2015, the newly formed APC did not have a clear cut zoning policy. As a result, aspirants emerged from different parts of the country.

Northerner presidential hopefuls who sought the party’s ticket in its primary election in 2014 were Mr Buhari, Mr Abubakar, Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano, and the late Leadership newspaper publisher, Sam Nda-Isaiah. From the South came the then Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha. Mr Buhari picked the ticket and went ahead to defeat Mr Jonathan in the main election.

In 2019, Mr Buhari was the sole candidate of the APC while Mr Abubakar picked the PDP ticket after defeating the former Senate President, Bukola Saraki, Mr Tambuwal, Mr Kwankwaso and others. Mr Buhari was re-elected that year thus providing the north another chance to rule.

The president, who hails from Daura in Katsina State, Northwest Nigeria, would end his constitutionally-stipulated two terms in 2023.

Although institutional attempts have been unsuccessfully made to ensure zoning becomes part of the nation’s law in the last 21 years of democracy in Nigeria, at least to reduce frictions over power struggle, it is presumed that the parties, notably the two major parties, would pick their presidential candidates from the south.

But will they do so?

Will APC, PDP respect zoning?
The APC says it has no problem with zoning of the presidency but it is yet to take decision on where to zone positions to.

“We don’t have any problem about zoning. At the appropriate time, stakeholders in the party will meet and decide on the issue of zoning. It is not a one man show,” Yekini Nabena, deputy spokesperson of the party has said.

It is not unlikely that the party would resort to zoning of the presidency if the provision of its constitution is anything to go by.

Article 20 (iv) (d) of the party’s constitution states that “……..The National Working Committee shall, subject to approval of the National Executive Committee, make rules and regulations for the nomination of candidates through primary elections. All such rule, regulations and guidelines shall take into consideration and uphold the principle of federal character, gender balance, geo-political spread and rotation of offices, to as much as possible, ensure balance within the constituency covered.”

The entire country is the president’s constituency. Zoning of the presidency may therefore be a fait accompli going by that constitutional provision.

On its part, the PDP does not want to be drawn into the issue of zoning now, according to its spokesperson, Kola Ologbondiyan.

“Our party is yet to reach a decision on zoning. It is not about maturity or pre-maturity,” Mr Ologbondiyan explained.

However, at another forum previously, the PDP spokesperson said the concern raised by Mr Umahi as it affects the Southeast were genuine but noted that the party would not be stampeded (into taking decision on the matter). The party’s constitution is silent on zoning of political offices.

Southeast/Southwest rivalry

Although it is not certain, in the event that the two major parties resolve to zone the presidency to the South, there will emerge a fresh controversy over micro-zoning, which in all estimations may not be a challenge in the North if it is zoned to that region.

The Southeast, Southwest and South-south zones make up the Southern region. There are no indications that the South-south will not be in strong contention for the presidential post this time.

The odd against the region is that Mr Jonathan, who hails from the zone, had been president for five years. He presided over the country between May 2010 and May 2015.

Yet there are those who believe that for equity and fairness, the oil-rich zone should be given the opportunity to conclude its two terms of eight years since Mr Jonathan spent a little over one term of four years in power.

Even so, there are those who would remember that Mr Jonathan did not allow northerners to produce the president in 2011 after the death of Mr YarÁdua the previous year.

If these arguments are sustained, the contest will be between the southwest and the Southeast zones.

The southwest produced Mr Obasanjo, from Ogun State, who ruled for eight years, yet it has not hidden its desire to return to Aso Rock Presidential Villa. Mr Obasanjo was president between 1999 and 2007.

Mr Tinubu, an indigene of the zone, comprising Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ekiti, Oyo and Ondo states, is already warming up for the race.

The first hint of the plan by the Southwest to produce Mr Buhari’s successor came from Mr Fashola last year.

Addressing a town hall meeting, the works minister said Mr Buhari would hand over to a Yoruba in 2023 and urged them to vote massively for the president in the 2019 presidential elections, to guarantee a return of power to the region in 2023.

Is the region’s desire to take another shot at the presidency justified?

Mr Adeyeye, in a telephone chat said yes. “Southwest has the right to contest. rotational presidency has not been broken down to geo-political zones or states. That being the case, every zone in the south is assumed to have the right to contest. Nobody should expect that somebody will come to their house to tell them to be president,” the former senator said.

The fiercest agitation for zoning of the presidential power in 2023 is coming from the southeast, comprising the Igbo states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo. Undoubtedly, most indigenes of the five states are united in the agitation (at least for now) irrespective of their political leanings.

The last time the zone occupied the number one seat was in 1966. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, a major general, from the present Abia State, was military head of state for six months from January to July 1966 when he was killed in a military coup.

Nnamdi Azikiwe, from Anambra State, was first governor general from 1960 to 1963 and then ceremonial president between 1963 and 1966.

Thus, apart from Mr Umahi, other politicians and groups from that zone, have joined the fray demanding to be allowed to produce Mr Buhari’s successor.
Mr Okechukwu, director general of Voice of Nigeria (VON), said no other region deserves to produce the next president but the southeast.

“It (choice of president) should go by for the sake of equity, fairness and justice like others. The two regions have presided over this country. If you go by the same yardstick, it should go to the southeast,” he said.

Last year, like Mr Fashola, Mr Okechukwu and some members of the Southeast APC Caucus, had urged their kinsmen to vote Mr Buhari, saying it was the easiest route to get a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction.

The caucus received support from the SGF, Boss Mustapha, who assured the zone that the shortest route to producing a president of Igbo extraction was by supporting and voting for Mr Buhari and the APC in 2019.

It was a promise that caught the attention of Mr Obasanjo who told the zone not to trust APC because, according to him, the party would never honour its promise to hand over the presidency to an Igbo in 2023.

Will the former president’s prophecy come true?

The people of the zone are not leaving anything to chance in their current agitation.

Already the Igbo apex socio-political organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, has reportedly fixed rallies in the five states to campaign for Igbo presidency this December.

The group also said it would write Mr Buhari and the leadership of the APC and the PDP to notify them of the need to zone the presidential slot to the Southeast in 2023.

But beyond all these, a few other factors may determine where the presidency would be zoned to by the parties ahead of the 2023 poll.

Politics is a game of numbers, influence, popularity and structure.

To be sure, if these factors come into play in ruling APC, the southeast quest may become a mirage.

At present, the APC controls five out of the six states in the southwest. This contrasts with the situation in the southeast where the party is in charge of only two states, namely Imo and Ebonyi.

In fact, watchers of the nation’s democracy believe the two states are still dominated by the PDP despite their governors’ membership of the APC.

In the 2019 presidential election, APC garnered a total of 2,036,450 in the Southwest compared to a paltry 403,968 in the Southeast.

The PDP secured a total of 1,776,670 from the southwest and 1,693,579 from the southeast. Besides, the southwest more than the southeast, has more influential people in the APC. The latter has no personality who commands influence in APC as Mr Tinubu.

Until recently when Adams Oshiomhole was sacked as national chairman, for instance, the former Lagos governor’s allies ran the national working committee of the party.

Analysts say Mr Tinubu may not have completely lost grip on the party because of the ubiquitous presence of his loyalists in sensitive departments of the APC-led federal administration. Those loyalists are believed to be working in the background to actualise the presidential ambition of the party’s national leader.

As it is, the body language of the PDP does not suggest it will look the way of the Southeast to shop for a candidate even though the zone is a stronghold of the party, despite controlling only two states there – Abia and Enugu.

The party appears to favour the emergence of a northerner as its flagbearer to reclaim the presidency, thus justifying Mr Umahi’s claim.

Regardless, as Mr Okechukwu posited, the Southeast may rely on the demand for equity, justice and fairness to get one of its own to occupy the presidential villa, come 2023.

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