2023: Governor el-Rufai’s statement On zoning threatens APC, PDP consideration on Igbo presidency


More than two years to the next general elections, the debate over the rotation of power between the North and the South has returned to the front burner of national discourse, following the recent defection of Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State from the the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC). Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI reports

The dust is yet to settle over the recent defection of Ebonyi State Governor Dave Umahi from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) on grounds that the former had treated the Southeast geo-political zone shabbily, despite the region’s loyalty to it since 1999.

Though 2023 general elections are more than two years away, Umahi’s claim has compelled the two major parties to begin to discuss the issue of zoning of their presidential ticket.

Hitherto, the PDP and the APC have been playing a hide and seek over the zoning of 2023 presidency. Since President Muhammadu Buhari, who is from the North, is serving his second and last term as allowed by the Constitution, it is generally presumed that power will shift to the South in 2023.

There has been subtle anxiety across parties and the political class in the past couple of weeks about the issue of zoning between the North and South come 2023.

There had been reports that some chieftains of the ruling APC were plotting to thwart the rotational transfer of power between the North and the South. In other words, they were scheming for the North to retain the presidency beyond the expiration of President Buhari’s second term.

A crisis is believed to be brewing within the ruling party as a result of the quest by respective power blocs to grab the soul of the party ahead of 2023 general elections.

Similarly, the PDP had earlier insinuated that it might jettison the idea of rotation in 2023 by fielding a candidate from the North. This, it is said, was part of the strategy the party is considering, its bid to return to power at the centre as quick as possible.

The idea of jettisoning power rotation at this point, which will rob its members from the Southeast the surest opportunity of becoming president, was what Umahi alluded to as his reason for dumping the opposition party.

Although the 1999 Constitution does not provide for zoning of political leadership, key political offices are often ‘zoned’ at the federal and state levels by the political parties to allow for fairness within regions and among ethnic groups.

From the outset, the PDP enshrined the idea of zoning or rotation of power between the North and the South in its constitution.

Though the APC has no such principle in its constitution, there was believed to a gentleman’s agreement among its founding fathers at inception in 2013 that power would shift to the South after the North has governed for a maximum of eight years.

In over 21 years of civil rule, two southerners have occupied the presidential seat. Olusegun Obasanjo, from the Southwest, was president between 1999 and 2007, while Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from Bayelsa State in the South-South, was at the helms for about five years (April 2010 to May 2015).

The late Umaru Yar’Adua from the Northwest state of Katsina was at the helms from May 2007 till March 2010 when he died and Dr. Jonathan took over in acting capacity. By the time President Buhari completes his second term, by convention power ought to shift to the South.

It is against this background that the Southeast has been clamouring for the two parties to give politicians of Igbo extraction the chance to contest the presidency on their platforms during the next election cycle in 2023.

This is in spite of the fact that the zoning arrangement is between the North and the South; it does not say anything about micro zoning among the geo-political zones in the two regions.

Indications are that the two parties do not want to make a categorical declaration about the zoning of the presidency until late 2022. Each of them would prefer to take a position after the other party has decided, to exploit the matter for political gains.

But, Umahi’s defection to the APC has brought the issue back to the front burner. While reiterating that nobody in the APC has promised him any position, Umahi nevertheless emphasized that his movement to the party was as in protest against the injustice being done to the Southeast zone by the PDP.

He said: “Since 1999, the people of the Southeast has been supporting the PDP in all elections; and at a time, all the five states in the zone were all PDP. More so, one of the founding fathers of the PDP, His Excellency, the late Vice President Alex Ekwueme is from the Southeast.

As a result, it is absurd that since 1998 and going to 2023, the Southeast zone has never been considered to run for the President under the PDP. It is absurd.”

He believes the ruling party is more likely to appreciate the contributions of the Southeast to its electoral fortunes than the PDP. His words: “I think the APC is more amenable to working with the Southeast than the PDP, from all indications.”

As if to play down the significance of zoning as a factor in determining who picks the APC’s presidential ticket for 2023, Umahi’s Kaduna State counterpart, Nasir el-Rufai stated in the wake of the Ebonyi governor’s defection to the party that rotating the presidency between the North and the South will not solve the country’s economic woes.

El-Rufai who spoke at the Nigerian Economic Summit said “everyone should be given an equal opportunity” to run for office, and that ethnicity should not be a criterion for selecting candidates.

The governor who spoke at a plenary session on “Rethinking Sub-National Competitiveness” said: “Zoning in political parties cannot solve the economic problems we are facing. Selecting the best person to get the job done will benefit everyone.

The best we can do is to give everyone an equal opportunity.”

While Governor el-Rufai’s statement may not be far from the truth, observers say the timing of the pronouncement suggests that the controversial Kaduna State governor who is believed to be nursing presidential ambition after he leaves office as governor in 2023 was merely exploiting the matter to pave the way for the North to retain power.

This is not the first time the Kaduna State governor would be calling for an end to zoning in recent times.

August last year, he made a similar statement when he suggested that zoning of political offices should be de-emphasised in future elections and that competence should be the yardstick.

At the time, senior lawyers and rights activists who spoke to The Nation said el-Rufai’s statement was a plot to ensure the North retains the presidency in 2023 when President Buhari completes his tenure.

Senator Shehu Sani, for instance, said it would amount to ingratitude not to allow power to return to the South in 2023, considering the role the Southwest played to facilitate President Buhari’s victory in 2015. Ironically, the same el-Rufai had insisted in August this year that the presidency should be zoned to the South in 2023 because there was a standing agreement that the presidency should be zoned to the South after Buhari spends eight years in power.

Indeed, the recent visit by some APC governor to Jonathan has elicited speculations that some APC chieftains close to President Buhari are trying to woo the former president to run on the party’s platform in 2023. The reasoning is that since he handed over power peacefully in 2015 he would be harmless to their group interest and as such the right person to take over if power were to shift to the South. The other reason that makes Jonathan the best option, in their opinion, is the fact that he is only entitled to one term. Thus, after four years, the North can return to power. It sounds plausible, but the former president has denied any interest in contesting the presidency in 2023 or any other time.

The APC has no rotation in its constitution. But, apparently, in response to the growing concern that some chieftains of the APC were scheming to thwart the zoning arrangement, the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola said it is imperative to respect the agreement reached during the formation of the party for 2023 elections, by allowing the South to produce the presidency. He said it is necessary to respect it, even though it was a gentleman’s agreement. Besides, the issue of rotation of power in Nigeria has become more conventional than constitutional.

He said: “The truth is that what makes an agreement spectacular is the honour in which it is made not whether it is written. 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 go to court. But the private agreement you make with your brother and sister should not be breached, it must be honoured.”

Umahi’s claim has also put the national leadership of the PDP under pressure to declare its stand on zoning. The PDP ambivalence on 2023 zoning of the presidency had given the impression that the party may allow the North to retain the presidency beyond 2023.

In its bid to reassure aggrieved stakeholders that the party is still committed to its zoning arrangement in 2023, the Uche Secondus-led national leadership convened a National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in Abuja recently. At the meeting, governors, National Assembly members and other stakeholders from the South urged the party leadership to take a categorical stand on the matter. The aggrieved chieftains said they are uncomfortable with the silence of the party on the matter.

Indications are that the APC and the PDP will not take a decision on the zoning of the presidency until late 2022. Given the fact that the PDP has enshrined rotation of power between the North and the South in its constitution, a chieftain of the APC in Abia State, Chief Chekwas Okorie said it is long overdue for the PDP to make a categorical statement on it. He added: “Not taking a decision on zoning by now means one thing: that the party is reluctant to give the Southeast what is rightly due to it. In 2015, a few months after losing the presidential election to the APC’s President Buhari, the PDP’s National Executive Committee immediately set up a committee led by former Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu to deliberate on zoning. Shortly after it submitted its recommendation, the party’s NEC zoned 2019 presidency to the North.”

The APC chieftain said the PDP has shown its disdain for the Southeast through its body language. he said: “It would be a 360 degrees turnaround and a miracle for the PDP to pick its presidential candidate from the Southeast. As far as I am concerned, I don’t think the Southeast has any chance of getting the PDP presidential ticket.”

Okorie said it would be a difficult thing to market to the Nigerian people that after eight years of President Buhari on the saddle, the presidency would not move to the South. He said if the APC wants to remain in power beyond 2023 and the PDP is serious about its intention to return to power at the expiration of the tenure of the incumbent president, then they must listen to the yearnings of the people. He advised his party to look beyond the voting strength of the Southeast states, because “there is no state you visit in Nigeria where you will not find a huge population of Igbos”. He added: “In most cases, they are usually second to the indigenous population.”

President and Convener of the Nigeria Voters Assembly VOTAS), a non-governmental organization, Comrade Mashood Erubami said those that are raising dust about zoning, two years away from 2023, are distracting President Buhari’s government from concentrating on governance.

Nevertheless, Erubami said since power rotation has become a tradition that it would be unfair to the zone that is waiting to reap from the arrangement to scrap the idea without a general consensus. He added that it would be absurd for the North to hold on to power beyond 2023, “if we are talking about fair play, justice and peaceful coexistence”.

He added however that, for the APC, only those geo-political zones in the South contributed to the success of Buhari’s election in 2015 and 2019 can enjoy the support of the North in 2023. He said: “By the zoning formula, the South should come next for consideration to occupy the presidency after the North must have concluded its term in 2023.

However, since democracy is a game of numbers, the quantum of votes recorded from the Southwest and Southeast and the predisposition of each to the unity of the country will definitely determine their support from the North.”

Erubami also dismissed the expected massive dumping of the PDP for the APC by governors from the Southeast, saying they are merely trying to reap where they have not sown. He said: “The defection has to be well-intended and genuine, not just for the advantageous acquisition of power. If there is unity it must be generally believed and known to all.”

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