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Nigeria: Zoning and 2011 elections

By Chidi Amuta

With his eyes half open, President Goodluck Jonathan may end up leaving a legacy he neither bargained for nor anticipated.  In spite of his numerous expressions of good intentions, it ought to concern the president and his handlers that every step he takes points in only in the direction of one annoyingly repeated question: to run or not to run in the 2011 presidential election? 

Inherent in that is a clear and present fear. No matter what else the president tries to achieve in the limited time he has, he will be mostly judged by his handling of this matter. And unless great care is taken, Mr. Jonathan may graduate, perhaps unintentionally, into the most divisive leader in recent Nigerian history.

The reason is simple. He has allowed a band of desperate political destitutes to place the things that divide us over and above his immediate governance challenges.  Literally, from the venue of his oath taking ceremony immediately after Yar’dua’s long anticipated expiration, a tenure elongation campaign for him was launched. I

n less than 72 hours thereafter, posters for his presidential campaign rolled off the presses and flooded the major streets first of Abuja and later other centres of the nation. Thereafter, his own ready replacement for the infamous cabal that held both Yar’dua and the nation hostage in his final days came into being and swung into action.

Largely self appointed but sanctioned by presidential silence and collaborative indifference, the new cabal has been quite busy -press releases, advertorials,  disinformation manoeuvres,  paid rallies in the most unlikely places, commissioned statements of support etc. Soon enough, commercial prophets and mercantile pastors will come up with visions and ministrations.

Ironically, the president, as late as the last one week, insists he has not made a decision because, either way, it will overheat the polity and distract from governance. We have heard that before. While former president Obasanjo was busy plotting his disastrous third term agenda, he warned aspirants for the 2007 presidential ticket not to overheat the polity with the same silly arguments.

In the end, we got bad governance and tragic transitional politics. The terrible consequences are still haunting us all.  Therefore, Jonathan’s simplistic ambivalence over the matter is unhelpful.  To tell us you are yet to decide on whether to run or not is shorthand for saying you are running.

There is nothing in a decision either way that poses a danger to either governance or political stability. In a democracy, nothing stops anyone from declaring his intention to run for any position four, eight or twelve years ahead of the scheduled election. A would be president, incumbent or otherwise, who is afraid to say he wants to rule the country will quickly join the ranks of  ‘reluctant leaders’ who have brought us to this sorry pass.

Ordinarily, there is nothing in the books that stops Mr. Jonathan from seeking to run for the presidency. However, the matter would have been much simpler if he was not flying the flag of the PDP.  Even with its imperfections, the PDP was being faithful to our national historical experience and reality by adopting a north-south zoning formula for presidential succession.

If there is any lesson that Nigeria took out of its bitter civil war, it is the realisation that at every level, power and privilege can no longer be monopolised by any single group. The zoning arrangement may not be the best arrangement in a truly meritocratic democracy. But it remains the strongest reassurance of fairly peaceful national continuation in a compromise federation with an allocative political mechanics.

In adopting the zoning formula, the PDP was not only being pragmatic but also patriotic. The party probably realises one basic fact of our political reality. The Nigerian political ‘system’ is not a meritocratic democracy. It is at best an ‘allocative’ system of compromises and accommodations.

We may troop out periodically to ratify these compromises and arrangements through an electoral process.  But the fact remains that the basis of order here is the deliberate creation of a system of mutually reinforcing geo-political and sectarian accommodations.

In a meritocratic democracy, we would have a right to insist that the president should reflect the best in us.  But in the context of the allocative paradigm, zoning, federal character, affirmative action, fair representation, power sharing or whatever name we call it becomes part of the architecture of social peace and political harmony.

Consistently in our national history, trouble comes only when those in authority begin to scheme to use the power of incumbency to re-write the rules of allocative politics either by changing the rules mid game or shifting the goal post of political expectation.  We have been there several times before.

When Gowon began to tinker with the handover date from military to civil rule, he found himself stuck in a hotel room in far away Kampala, Uganda, unable to return home. When Babangida developed cold feet about exhausting the logic of the June 12, 1993 elections, he was compelled to beat a hasty retreat to Minna and cede power to Mr. Shonekan, a man who never partook in a coup nor vied for election under a party.

When Sani Abacha decided that the cap of succession fitted only his tiny empty head, he was not even allowed the luxury of an indecent farewell. The same fate befell Mr. Obasanjo when he sought, tragically, to convert his eight year presidency into a life project. In all this, the lesson is clear: when at the apex of power in Nigeria, do not re-write the rules mid stream. Nigerians and Nigerian history are never nice to such people.

The linkage between order and zoning in our polity is strong. In times of instability, when the unity of the nation has been challenged or shaken we have utilised the sense of compromise implicit in zoning of national political power to assuage feelings and restore order. Inequity in matters of allocation of resources and positions has always been the source of conflict and disorder in our midst.

Therefore, there is also an overriding moral imperative in the entire zoning matter. In the post civil war era, Nigeria began to build a community of feelings, a subliminal sense of mutual compassion among the groups that make up this imperfect federation. Immediately after the war, there was an unstated consensus that the peoples of the former Biafra had been disproportionately traumatised by that conflict.

The urge to re-integrate the easterners especially the Igbos was a matter of national consensus. People were welcomed back to the places they loved but had to leave. It may not have been perfect, but the Nigerian post-war reconciliation remains a model that many war-struck nations still envy. No residual guerrilla movements, no explosives being denoted by former combatants.

When the June 12 annulment created confusion in the polity and Abacha came to deepen the confusion through a bloody dictatorship, a nation that was fed up with military rule felt that the people of the South West had been wronged and that the restoration of order depended on some form of reparation to that zone for the injury of the annulment. Nigeria made the relevant accommodation and compromises.

The Alliance for Democracy (AD) was registered without meeting the minimum conditions for party registration.  Two sons of the Yoruba South West- Obasanjo and Olu Falae- were ceded the entire national political space so that one of them would emerge as president. The rest is history.

Similarly, when in the middle of the Obasanjo presidency, the wounds of the Niger Delta became too deep to be papered over, our national sense of compassion and fellow feeling compelled that we all turn our attention to the Niger Delta.  A barrage of measures followed. The hand picking of Jonathan as Vice President, the establishment of the NDDC, the Amnesty project as well as the rise of a national information order based on the consensus that social and economic justice for the Niger Delta is a must.

In the specific instance of the present situation, it is unfortunate that Mr. Jonathan, himself a prime beneficiary of the zoning formula, is in the process of encouraging a questioning of the zoning arrangement.  There is even an embarrassing defect in the revisionist arguments questioning zoning. It is being restricted to the presidential ticket of the PDP.  The jettisoning should also apply to the chairmanship of the party, the leadership of the National Assembly etc. We should even go down to the state and local government levels and jettison zoning of political offices and see what happens!

I agree we should end the succession of incompetent leaders by insisting on certain minimal requirements of merit in terms of basic capacity and proven competence for critical public offices. Nigeria deserves the best.

The beauty of the country we have after the civil war years of affirmative action is that in nearly every corner of Nigeria today, you can find the most competent hands in nearly every field. Therefore, the broad Northern expanse to which the 2011 PDP presidential ticket has been zoned should present their best to the party.

The north-south rotational principle of presidential zoning is first and foremost a strategic imperative. Nigeria’s unique opportunity for international relevance and corporate longevity will depend on its ability to maintain the North-South balance of power. This balance also roughly coincides with a Muslim-Christian interface which has been cemented by decades of complex criss- crossings along trade, investment, marriage, cultural lines.

For the nation, there are clear and present consequences of shredding the PDP’s zoning contract at this point. First, it will divide the country along a North-South fault line. Second,  it may force the rest of us to get a map of Nigeria and figure out why the horizontal axis between South-West and South- South should monopolise presidential power for 18 years (Obasanjo’s 8 years and Jonathan’s potential 10 years if we count the Yar’dua tenure he is filling).

Thirdly, there is a clear danger that incumbency may compel a deployment of the coercive instruments of the state to achieve a predetermined electoral outcome. Fourthly, we will be back to the politics of intimidation, rigging, and mass bribery and electoral reform may die for all time. In the event of some gun boat victory, most of the initial tenure will be spent panel-beating legitimacy and groping for compromises that may not come.

Fifthly, the development process will hibernate again and the economy will go into a terminal depression.

Sixth, the current national security nightmares will worsen as instability takes on sectarian, geo-political and even class dimensions. Enter the war of everybody against everybody, the classic Hobbesian state, fuelled by economic hopelessness and an epidemic of poverty and hopelessness.

There are also geo-political troubles waiting in ambush if Jonathan insists on running. The people of the South- East will think very hard about the implications for their right to aspire to lead the nation at some point in the near future. A Jonathan presidency beyond 2011 will mean that all Igbos aged above 35 will not see an Igbo president for the rest of their lives.

That prospect is not likely to earn Mr. Jonathan the highest number of votes in that part of the country.

Even in his immediate South-South catchment constituency, there will be questions. The Ijaw versus non-Ijaw matter in the Niger Delta struggle may resurface. In the process, the gains of the Niger Delta struggle may be lost in the maze of internal squabbles and political bloodletting.