Zoning: The Problematic Solution

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Nigeria is an adversarial federation nurtured by multilateral suspicion. The country was created in 1914 in such a way that the more politically endowed North is dependent on the politically disadvantaged but more economically endowed South. Since the North has the power to allocate resources and control the economy to which she contributes scantily, there has always been the tension of the economically weak appropriating the resources of the economically strong. By areal size and a population that is well in dispute, the North is the master of joint deliberations. Post-independence politics is characterized by the struggle to bring equilibrium to North-South relations.

There was also disparity in the educational endowment of the two regions which is a product of a deliberate British policy to protect the North against the South. The effect of this is the preponderance of the South in the national bureaucracy. The North solved this problem partly before and after independence.

The North delayed national independence on the ground that she was not ready in order to avoid the southern domination of the bureaucracy. The national bureaucracy was divided up in 1954 and the northernization policy ensured that the Northern Civil Service was a preserve of the North. It cleared what remained of southern grip of the bureaucracy through what it termed the Non-Exclusion Principle that came to be christened the Federal Character Principle in the 1999 Constitution.

The clause ruled against the preponderance of a particular group in government institutions. This therefore neutralzed the educational advantage of the South. Although the North resisted southern domination of the national bureaucracy, it jealously guarded its political advantage.

It is in the attempt to create equity and equal access to the commanding heights of politics that the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), and later the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), adopted zoning and rotation of executive and political offices. But the more it solved the problem the more problems remained.

There are two reasons for this paradox. The first is that as critical as the fear of domination is, zoning and rotation were not entrenched in the constitution. Second, zoning and rotation were just meant to be an election game changer rather than a power redistribution mechanism. It is an example of political doctrinal convenience. Even Abacha who initiated the division of the country into six zones did not intend to rotate power. He established five political parties all of which unanimously nominated him as the sole Presidential candidate.

He died in the process. Abubakar Constitution of 1999 provided the opportunity to implement zoning. The South-West which had been denied the Presidency by the annulment of the 1993 election by Babangida became the obvious choice to produce the President. Babangida had surreptitiously planned to elongate his tenure and found a clumsy reason to annul an election that was the pride of the nation and the golden achievement of his regime. He undid the successes of his tenure by that singular act. In 1999 the two major parties nominated their candidates from the South-West. The Peoples Democratic Party nominated Gen Olusegun Obasanjo while the coalition of the Alliance for Democracy and the All Nigeria Peoples Party nominated Chief Olu Falae. Gen Obasanjo won the election and was President from 1999-2003.

By 2002, Nigerians were told that Obasanjo had signed a pledge to serve only one term and relinquish power to Atiku Abubakar his Vice President following what was called the ‘Mandela Option’. Obasanjo eventually got the nomination allegedly by stooping.

Midway through his second term, he was fascinated by what others called the ‘Mugabe Option’ and set in motion plans to elongate his tenure.

For some observers, even Obasanjo who was a beneficiary of zoning did not demonstrate support for it. The period preceding each succession has always raised doubts about zoning. Politicians either completely deny the zoning and rotation agreement or conveniently choose to forget that there was an agreement. Shortly before the end of Obasanjo’s second term, some southern politicians argued that there was no agreement that the presidency should rotate to the North after Obasanjo’s tenure. When that was finally resolved in favour of the North, Umaru Yar’Adua, who many suspected could neither withstand the strain of the office nor last the tenure distance, was nominated.

Analysts now believe that his nomination by Obasanjo was meant to frustrate zoning and rotation. Almost expectedly, Yar’Adua died barely half way through his tenure on 5 May, 2010.

Succession of the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan at that point was guaranteed by the constitution but it was still hotly contested by the North. The situation was not that clear after Jonathan served out the unexpired term.

The North canvassed the position that the presidency must remain in the North for the next four years. However, those who supported the Jonathan Presidency argued that the Yar’Adua ticket was one and indivisible. Therefore the demise of Yar’Adua does not terminate the ticket. In effect, Jonathan qualifies to serve the next four years.

This position raises two knotty questions. First, which zone will Jonathan be representing in the four years? Is it South-South where he comes from or North-Central where Yar’Adua was from? The second question whether Jonathan can contest election at the completion of the four years in 2015.

The first question was resolved by saying that Jonathan was standing election in 2011 in his own personal recognizance as a Nigerian citizen. This begs the issue of zoning and rotation. It is ominous because it then becomes his first term in his personal recognizance opening the possibility of a second term. The Peoples Democratic Party spoke from two sides of its mouth when it ruled in favour of a ‘free for all’ that the fact that Jonathan was contesting in the presidential primary does not stop any other candidate from contesting.

The second question was allegedly resolved by an alleged agreement between Jonathan and the Governors that he would serve only one term. This ‘agreement’ is now the subject of a heated debate.

The debate would boil down to the technicality of whether it was a signed agreement or an understanding. The essence of the foregoing issues is that the political actors do not subscribe to zoning and rotation except it is to their advantage.

Zoning is a convenient political doctrine which hardly binds the political actors. It is neither a settled issue nor is it heading towards a consensus.

The proponents of zoning often argue that it is an inclusive policy with great benefits to the people. It is difficult to agree with this position. In the first place, it distorts democratic principles through a pre-ordained pre-selection process presided over by a self-selected self-interested cabal.

The political party in a nocturnal smoke-filled room, partitions and shares out the national political fortunes without reference to the people who are then faced with a fait accompli. The political cabal writes its own job description and offers itself employment in the name of the people.

The people are irrelevant to the process. In the second place, it results in a paradoxical pursuit of unity by the process of division. The country is divided into six zones and the only way for citizens to be relevant is to put zone above country for no one comes to the country except by zone. Experience has shown that people are more vigorous in defence of zones than of the country. It is only logical that under such dispensations, the country is secondary. It is no surprise that the demand is that every zone must have federal presence. Universities are therefore sited in states and swamps that need help with elementary education.

This opens the country to ridicule and endangers even the previously acclaimed institutions. Thirdly, it is doubtful whether zoning benefits the zone.

Of recent, there are complaints from the South-South where the President hails from to the effect that only Bayelsa, the President’s state and the Ijaw, the President’s kinspeople are the beneficiaries of zoning the Presidency to the South-South. Rivers State complains that the power of the presidency is pitched against her in a dispute between Rivers and Bayelsa. Similarly, the Urhobo of Delta State in the President’s zone complained that none of their kinspeople is appointed a Minister. For them, they have not received the dividends of zoning. It is understandable but not excusable that the Yoruba of the South-West zone are complaining that they are being marginalized and being shown the way out of the Federation.

Even when people have been appointed to positions on grounds of zoning, it remains to be seen how the ordinary people have benefited from it. The percolation of benefits is strange to the process where the political actors do not see power as rightly belonging to the people but the product of struggle within the political class. This is more the case when and where the votes don’t count. The political class is busy negotiating away the future of the people as they continue to say that ‘everything is under control’ or on other occasions ‘we are on the same page’. Zoning, as presently operated, is a campaign hoax that the political actors deny or frustrate when their aspirations are at risk and fight to enforce when they stand to reap the rewards. Zoning abridges essential democratic choice, and the dividends neither accrue uniformly to the zone nor to the people.

•Comments by Prof John A Ayoade at the Presentation of the Book: John A. Ayoade & Adeoye A Akinsanya (Eds), Nigeria’s Critical Election 2011 at Howard University, Washington DC, USA on February 25, 2013.

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