Group Political Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU highlights the obstacles against the Igbo’s quest for power shift in 2019.
Ahead of the 2019 presidential election, some Igbo are agitating for power shift. The tonic was provided by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has urged them to try their luck. But, Obasanjo’s motivational speech was defective. The former leader gave his backing to power shift to Igbo, not the Southeast, thereby creating the impression that the formula for presidential rotation is anchored on tribalism. He may have also suggested 2019 without much thought.
Yet, Obasanjo’s advice has merits. In the South, only the Southeast has been left in the cold, as it were. It is also the only zone that has five states. The Southwest has seven; other zones have six. While the Southwest produced Obasanjo, who ruled from 1999 to 2007, and the Southsouth, through an accident of history, produced former President Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015), the position has eluded the Southeast, or the region is still on the queue waiting for its turn. Like other regions, the Southeast is blessed with Nigerians who are eminently qualified to lead the country. The argument that merit may be sacrificed on the altar of zoning does not hold water. Human talents abound across the six regions.
The agitation has thrown Ndigbo into a frenzy. Some over-zealous politicians are now indulging in self-promotion on the borrowed platform of power shift. Scores of Southeast ‘leaders’ are defecting from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Gladiators have started scheming for the ticket as if there will be vacancy in Aso Villa in two years time. It is doubtful if they had given thought to its timing. Is the Commander-In-Chief, who is enjoying the Northern slot, not entitled to two terms? Even, if he steps down after his first term, which is doubtful, will the North not legitimately insist on additional four years? If the president steps down in 2019 and another northerner succeeds him, will the successor not insist on two terms of eight years? Or can the South stop a northern candidate the way Jonathan was stopped in 2015?
So far, Igbo elements are silent on what they want to use power for, if it is zoned to the Southeast. Equity, justice and fairness are advertised as the motives. They want to have a sense of belonging with justification. But, what principles and ideology are driving Igbo presidential hopefuls? Will a president of Igbo extraction resolve the national question?
Is 2019 feasible for Igbo presidency? While zoning has been based on the six geo-political zones or the North/South divide, the geographical factor has not been the only reason for rotation. For example, Obasanjo from the Southwest got the slot in 1999 because the Southwest/Yoruba made a sound case for compensation for the ‘June 12’ tragedy. After eight years, the North pressed for power shift, claiming that it had been excluded for eight years. The agitation led to the emergence of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua from the Northwest, but as the candidate of the whole North. It is instructive that while three regions in the South may be agitating for power shift to three zones, three zones in the North clamour for zoning to one larger Northern Region.
Yar’Adua was expected to spend two terms of eight years. However, he died in office. Jonathan’s emergence was not based on the agitation for zoning to the Southsouth, but by democratic succession based on the constitution. His elevation was even temporarily blocked by a cabal, which insisted that the North should produce Yar’Adua’s successor. In 2011, a combination of power of incumbency and serious clamour for zoning to the Southsouth kept Dr. Jonathan in office. He later lost power, based on the counter-agitation for zoning (to the North) as enshrined in the PDP constitution.
What are the factors that may warrant zoning to the Southeast in 2019? The argument for zoning appears weak. The claim of marginalisation may be off the point. It is a generalised term employed by partisan interest groups to protest real or imagined injustice. Igbo has produced a vice president, many ministers other top functionaries in the past. In the First Republic, the race dominated the Balewa administration. Igbo ministers held powerful portfolios. The President, Dr. Nnamidi Azikiwe, reigned. An Igbo Acting President, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, handed over an Igbo General Officer Commanding, Nigerian Army, Gen. Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, who abolished federalism and imposed a unitary system.
Neither is the commitment by Igbo restless youths to secession an added advantage as it may fuel the fear or prospect of the balkanisation of the country under an Igbo presidency. The resurrection of the Biafra’s agenda is that Igbo is seeking for an international passport to travel from Onitsha to Asaba, Port-Harcourt and Kogi.
There are five states in the Southeast. Anambra is the stronghold of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA). Enugu, Ebonyi and Abia are PDP states. The only state with an APC governor is Imo. Besides, many prominent Igbo politicians are not in the APC, the recent defections notwithstanding. Generally, APC structures are very weak in the Southeast. There is no evidence that a more formidable zonal structure would have been built before 2019.
There is also the danger of the agitation for power shift to Igbo, instead of zoning to the Southeast. If the agitators insist on power shift to Ndigbo, then, Igbos in Delta and Rivers state are qualified to throw their hats into the ring. Therefore, the call for an Igbo president will inadvertently translate into a crusade for power to both the Southeast and the Southsouth at the same time.
But, according to observers, 2023 may be feasible. This is when the North would have completed its two terms of eight years. But, power will not land on the Ndigbo’s palm on the platter of gold. While alive, Chief Bola Ige had called for a working relationship and political understanding between the Southwest and the Southeast. The advice has been ignored for too long. Prominent Northern actors, who have savoured the political harmony between the North and the Southwest for the first time in history, may be disposed to raising a successor from the Southwest in an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence. There is a pervading feeling that the Southeast has not positioned itself as a dependable partner or ally of either the North or the Southwest. This may have implications for the push for power shift to the Southeast. Building political calculations on the anticipated ruptured political relationship between the North and the Southwest by Southeasters may be an exercise in futility. It would appear that, while the Southeast needs the North for a solid alliance, it also needs the Southwest to support its agitation for power shift.
The North may be reluctant to concede power to any zone. But, the Southwest, which has tasted the presidency, may reject the posturing, based on principle and its avowed commitment to equity, fair play and justice. It is not likely that the Southwest will renew its bid for federal power, unless it is its turn to produce the president. The dominant opinion in the Southwest is that it can only be the turn of the Southwest after the slot has gone round. This is a worthy example that other zones should emulate.
But, will an Igbo president unify the country? Men of the old order may say no, based on their experience with the first Military Head of State, Aguiyi-Ironsi, whose six month-old administration promoted tribal sentiments and nepotism. The Southeast should be aware that entrenched forces outside the Southeast may hijack the nomination process in the ruling party in 2023. They may attempt to foist an Igbo president with a national outlook; a leader who may not represent the collective aspirations of the race, or an Igbo president in the image of the North. It will be reminiscent of the 1999 experience when the retired military bloc foisted Obasanjo on the PDP, and invariably, on the country. The only difference was that Obasanjo said he believed in Nigeria.
Is there any alternative to zoning? The indisputable fact is that it has become a permanent element of democratic elections. The division of the country into six geo-political zones by the Abacha administration has not really escalated the struggle for the presidency among the six regions. Rather, the arrangement, which was designed for the rotation of the highest office, instead of abolishing the North/South dichotomy, has given it more prominence. Also, the formula has not reduced the ethno-religious gulf between the North and the South.
According to the geo-graphical demarcations, the North has three zones-the Northwest, the Northcentral and the Northeast. The majority of the population are Muslims. Although frantic efforts are made to calve out the Middlebelt, which is domiciled in the Northcentral, it could be said that, on the agitation for the presidency, the North has often spoken with one voice. There is no tension among the three regions; either of the three zones in the North can fill the slot, when it is zoned to the North. Eyebrows have not been raised in the Northeast and the Northcentral that Yar’Adua and Buhari came from the Northwest.
In fact, there was never a time stakeholders agitated for zoning to the Northwest, the Northeast and the Northcentral. Whenever the presidency is zoned to the North, it is zoned to the monolithic North.
Not so for the South. The South has three regions-the Southwest, the Southsouth and the Southeast. The three regions are predominantly Christians. But, the ethnic divide is more pronounced. Although the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had popularised presidential power rotation between the North and the South, the South is usually confronted with zoning within zoning. Unlike the North, which is contended with sheer power rotation to the whole North, the concept of whole South or monolithic South is virtually non-existent. There are political differences among the three regions in the South.
While the North is perceived as the conservative feudalist Hausa/Fulani enclave because the majority of the northerners speak Hausa, it is a different ball game in the South. Apart from the Southwest/Yoruba, which enjoys a cultural identity, the Southsouth and Southeast are populated by myriad of tribes. The Southeast is predominantly Igbo. But, it has kith and kin in the Southsouth states of Delta and Rivers. The Southsouth is an amalgam of Ijaw, Igbo, Uhrobo, Itshekiri, Ogoni, Andoni, Ibiobio, Efik, Calabari, etc.
Zoning may have become a feature of political life, but it has no basis in the constitution. Politicians can exploit it when it suits a particular situation. But, when there is a conflict between zoning and some provisions of the 1999 Constitution, the constitution takes precedent.