By Joseph Jibueze, Robert Egbe, AbdulGafar Alabelewe, Kaduna, Raymond Mordi and Musa Odoshimokhe
KADUNA State Governor Nasir El-Rufai came under fire on Monday over his suggestion that zoning of political offices should be de-emphasised.
Senior lawyers and rights activists believe that El-Rufai is flying a kite so that the North will retain power after the expiration of President Muhamamdu Buhari’s two-term tenure in 2023.
Senator Shehu Sani, who took on those mulling the idea of the North retaining power in the post-2023 era, said it would amount to ingratitude not to allow power to return to the South.
He spoke during a Sallah visit to elder statesman and Second Republic Governor of Old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa.
El-Rufai stirred controversy last week when he said Nigeria could not continue on the same path of zoning political positions based on regions.
The governor made his position known in a prologue titled: “Defeating a determined incumbent – The Nigerian experience”, which he contributed to a book – “Power of Possibilities and Politics of Change in Nigeria” – written by the Director-General of the Progressives Governors’ Forum (PGF) Salihu Lukman.
He writes: “Even with our success in the 2015 elections, there is room for improvement. Barriers to political equality, such as our seemingly entrenched though informal rule for zoning candidacies according to regions of origin, need to be de-emphasised and ultimately abandoned in favour of an emphasis on qualification, competence and character.”
Those who spoke on the issue in separate interviews include former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Chief Emeka Ngige (SAN), a constitutional lawyer Ike Ofuokwu, and a group of Igbo lawyers, the Otu Oka Iwu (Law Society).
Sani recalled how the support of southerners, particularly the Southwest facilitated President Buhari’s victory in 2015.
Sani said: “My view on that is very simple; it is an act of ingratitude for any northerner to think that by 2023, he or she should aspire for office in the view of the fact that, Southerners, particularly the southwest did everything possible to support the northern candidate to emerge as the president in 2015.
“It will amount to changing the rules of the game at half time, when you are leading two zero. It can also be likened to removing the ladder after you have plucked the fruit.
“The North should appreciate the support of progressive-minded nationalists from the southwest or the southern part of Nigeria who worked tirelessly to remove the PDP from power in 2015.
“We have not forgotten that President Buhari had contested three times without becoming President and on the fourth time, with the support of people from the South, he emerged the President of the country.
“It would be unfair after eight years, for us to think of continuing to hold the grip and levers of power in Nigeria.
“Another point is that, in an ideal society where ethnicity, religion and other interests play no role, we can think of that in the farther future, but where all these issues continue, in a political scheme of Nigeria, we can’t shy aware from them.
“What we need to put into perspective is the fact that it will be a serious threat to unity and peace of our country if one part of the country will continue to dominate the political sphere of the country due to its demographic majority and land size.
“I’m a socialist and I believe that the one who should preside over the affairs of the country should be competent, but is it competence that brought the ruling party to power in 2015?
“I think we should be very frank to ourselves and it will also be good for the President that he should rein in people in his party, to caution them against dropping such kind of discourse while at its infant stage now, before it overheat the polity.
“After President Buhari, power needs to rotate to some of these major geopolitical zones; you cannot close the door after you have gone inside. SouthWest has helped us to be where we are today.
“You can’t talk of competency when you have not produced an Igbo president. Are they not Nigerians? You cannot continue to punish them for the offence which they are not architect of? That is my view.
“And for the North, it is important for the President to set a policy agenda in the next four years to address the socio economic and security problems facing the northern part of Nigeria.
“The president must invest in the North in agriculture, education, infrastructure for us to prepare for a restructured Nigeria. Northern governors must complement that.”
Elder statesman Tanko Yakassai, said: “It is up to the APC, because neither Nasir El-Rufai nor Shehu Sani can speak for the APC and the North.
“They are expressing their individual opinions, because they do not have the locus standi to speak for the North on the issue of zoning. But one thing I can say is that they are members of the APC, which has embraced the zoning arrangement since President Buhari came to power. So, it is up to the party whether to retain the zoning arrangement in 2023 or abandon it.
“I doubt if the APC as a party would subscribe to El-Rufai’s view. In fact, the position of El-Rufai would not auger well for the APC as a party in 2023, because it would undermine the party’s standing in the South. It would be counter-productive for the party to adopt such a position, given the interest of its members from the South who supported the North to grab power in 2015 and retain it in the last general elections.
“Though it is not backed by the constitution, zoning is a reality of the Nigerian situation, so sooner or later it has to be adopted as part of our laws, because it provides for the stability of the country.”
He noted that El-Rufai’s statement had sent a wrong signal, because APC members in the South would think twice on whether to continue supporting the party or not.
“This is because APC members in the South will not see it as a statement by an individual; they would regard it as those of a clique in the North determined to hold on to power. Therefore, it would be a danger signal for the South to continue supporting the APC”, he said.
The National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, said the idea of a northern president in 2023 will not fly.
He said: “I have always had the position that Nigeria does not have constitution that has provided for rotation of power. But, at the same time, the rotational arrangement has become conventional. It is that rotational convention that made it easier for President Buhari to defeat a sitting president in 2015, because 2015 was widely perceived as the turn of a northerner to become president. Since President Buhari towered above every other person from the North, he won.
He added: “In the build up to 2019, the UPP as a party – the party I lead – we knew that any person running for president from the South would be swimming against the tide. So, we decided to allow the North to complete its eight years, by not fielding a candidate for the presidential election, and that was what happened.
“It is that same convention that Nigeria would observe by 2023. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop any person from the North wishing to run, but the person will never be able to win the presidential election. Such persons will be like those southerners who ran in 2019 and never stood any chance of winning.
“Owing to the fact that it is not a law, anybody can run. The likes of El-Rufai can run, if they wish to do so. But, if El-Rufai is able to win Kaduna State, he should thank his stars. Buhari with all his qualities and following in the “North was not able to win on three previous occasions. But when Nigerians said it is the turn of the North, forces came together to mobilise support for him. In the South, the Southwest especially played a key role in making sure that he won.
“If for anything, the contest for leadership in 2023 will be between the Southwest and the Southeast. But, if equity has anything to do with politics, it should be the turn of the Southeast, considering the fact that the region has not produced any elected leader since independence.
“Anybody who believes that the next president would come from the North, based on what El-Rufai is insinuating, is indulging in wishful thinking. I can tell you categorically that the idea of a northern president in 2023 will not fly.”
Lagos APC chieftain Lanre Razaq dismissed El-Rufai’s comment as divisive and undermining Nigeria’s unity.
He said nobody should toy with the unity the country was enjoying through the political arrangement put in place.
Razaq said: He said: “Some people don’t know the value of Nigeria being together. A situation where you consider some segment of the country not entitled to the presidency is the most vicious act that can befall the country.”
Agbakoba is of the view that zoning does not matter in ideal societies, adding that it will take time for Nigeria to attain such democratic maturity.
He said: “In a truly organised state, the ideal is to place competence and character at the heart of the minimum standards for public service.
“Unfortunately, we are far from an ideal Nigeria and we will have to struggle to get the balance right as this policy is entrenched in the Constitution and designated federal character.”
Ngige said while El-Rufai is entitled to his opinion, he should have canvassed such position in 1999.
The senior advocate said: “Ordinarily, his view is supportable where all things are equal, but in the peculiar circumstances of our political evolution, the three or four major ethnic groups should be allowed to have a feel of that office before abolishing the concept of zoning.
“To do so now will be most unfair. For now, rotation of the presidency is still vital for our national unity, cohesion and equity.
“In so doing, the zone or section whose turn it is to produce a President must ensure that their first eleven are presented as candidates for the office, thereby giving Nigerian voters multiple choice of capable candidates to pick from.”
Ngige noted that since the return to civil rule in 1999, no Nigerian has been precluded from contesting for the highest office in Nigeria on account of where he comes from.
He said: “In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo secured the ticket of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu secured the ticket of All Progressives Party (APP). Strangely, overnight the ticket was surrendered to Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi, who ran a joint ticket of AD/APP with Chief Olu Falae of AD.
“In 2003, more political parties were registered, enabling candidates like Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Jim Nwobodo, Arthur Nwankwo, Chris Okotie, Tunji Braithwaite, Gani Fawehinmi, Balarabe Musac Olopade Agoro, Pere Ajuwa and others to contest without let or hindrance. Obasanjo of PDP won that election, though in controversial circumstances.
“In 2007, more parties were registered and these same candidates also contested freely. In 2011, 2015 and 2019 candidates for the presidency also emerged from different parts of the country and Nigerian voters made their choice.
“So, in effect, realistically speaking, rotation is just in the minds of the electorate as nobody has been precluded from contesting for President on account of where he comes from.
“It is just one or two of the major political parties that promote the concept of zoning and has succeeded in doing so because they fielded popular candidates.
“If the other parties had fielded candidates more popular than the victorious candidates, they could have won thereby rendering El-Rufai’s views academic,” Ngige said.
Mike Ozekhome (SAN) believed the Kaduna governor was “flying a kite”, adding that El-Rufai was fronting for the “northern elite” which understand power better than “the southern establishment.”
According to him, northern power brokers would not be willing to give up power after President Buhari’s tenure ends in 2023.
Ozekhome said: “Southern politicians will have a shocker coming to them, because the north will not let go of power.”
Another SAN, Chief Emeka Okpoko (SAN) said the timing of El-Rufai’s call was suspicious. He wondered if “there wasn’t a selfish motive” behind the governor’s suggestion.
Okpoko said: “If it was said because they (the North) have exhausted their term, it becomes something else entirely. Politicians should be elected based on competence, no doubt about it.
“But is the call genuine? Is it bona fide? Is there anything behind it? Is there any intention that is unclear to us behind it? I don’t see him (El-Rufai) as a straight shooter. There could be something behind it.”
Okpoko suggested that if the call for abolishment of zoning of the Presidency is implemented at this time “without letting the Presidency rotate, without allowing it to go round” it would not make sense….”
He noted, for instance, that the Southeast had not tasted the Presidency.
“For me, he (El-Rufai) didn’t say it bona fide, he may have a selfish purpose.”
Ofuokwu, an Anioma leader of thought in Delta State, believes El-Rufai’s views were selfish.
He said: “Mallam El-Rufai is only laying foundation for his selfish desire to contest for president in 2023.
“I concede to the fact that qualification, competence and character should be the emphasis. However, due regards and consideration must be given to the other sections of the country.
“We the Anioma people are irrevocably committed to zoning of the presidency. To suggest otherwise as El-Rufai just did, is hopelessly quixotic.”
The Otu Oka Iwu (Law Society), in a statement by its President Chief Chuks Ikokwu, said the tussle for President will not be so fierce if power is devolved to the regions.
The group said it was instructive that El-Rufai chaired the All Progressives Congress (APC) committee that recommended restructuring as the best governance model for Nigeria.
“It is very disappointing that Governor El-Rufai has abandoned his committee’s report so soon after the national elections. This would seem opportunistic. His current preoccupation with the zoning formula is clearly a needless distraction.
“We urge Governor El-Rufai to focus on encouraging the Federal Government to revisit the restructuring agenda which was on the front-burner during the national elections, and which has virtually been endorsed by all zones of the country as the only way forward.
“A restructured Nigeria with devolution of power to the federating units will practically make the current fierce tussle for the centre needless.
“Nigeria needs a re-engineering of its foundation; otherwise any structure put on it will not stand. It is futile to talk of zoning of political offices or otherwise when the structure of the federation is faulty.
“It behoves on Governor El-Rufai to channel his efforts towards delivering the noble and all-important restructuring agenda,” the Otu Oka Iwu said.