The next general elections may be two years away, but the debate about which part of the country should produce the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate has begun to heat up the polity.
While some members of the party have hinted of a possible return of the presidency to the southern part of the country, others are insisting that there is nothing that stops qualified persons from other parts from contesting the election to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari. With the main opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) still toying with the idea of throwing the ticket open to all aspirants — a euphemism for retaining the ticket in the North, the stakes have become higher in the APC.
Some Nigerians following the development within the APC are quick to argue that the quest for the 2023 presidential ticket was at the heart of the crisis that culminated in the ousting of former National Chairman Adams Oshiomhole. Those who engineered his removal, it was said, did so because of the perception that he was too close to National Leader Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and would hand the ticket to him. The exit of Oshiomhole has however thrown up several debates on whether the ticket should go the South or remain in the North. While the debate rages on, several northerners have started angling to take over the position of National Chairman, a development that would automatically cede the presidential ticket to the South. But, the party has been largely silent on the issue of zoning.
Since the advent of civil rule in 1999, no political party has ever ceded the position of the president and that of the national chairman to the same region. Even though the party’s proposed special national convention where a new National Working Committee will be elected is supposed to hold between June and July 2021, the party has been silent on arrangement for the exercise, thereby heightening tension as to its real intention on the issue of zoning.
This, perhaps, explains why Minister of Works and Housing Babatunde Fashola asked party leaders to respect its zoning formula in picking its presidential candidate for the 2023 elections, saying the decision was one of the core agreements reached by its founding fathers prior to the 2015 elections. The former Lagos State governor was quoted as saying “the truth is that what makes an agreement spectacular is the honour in which it is made, not whether it is written”. He added: “If it was written, there would be no question of breach of contract because it is a document that is written and signed and that can be taken to court. The private agreement that you make with your brother or your sister should not be breached. It must be honoured.” While all political actors from the South who have spoken on the matter are insisting on the agreement, some northern leaders favour the ticket being thrown open to all Nigerians because zoning is not recognised by both the APC Constitution and Nigeria’s Constitution.
The lawmaker representing Borno South at the Senate, Senator Ali Ndume, is one of those canvassing that the APC should respect the subsisting agreement by zoning the ticket to the South in the spirit of fairness, equity and justice. But, he is not particular about the geo-political zone in the South that should produce the candidate. To him, that debate was not necessary as the entire South should be given the opportunity to produce the candidate. He told The Nation that the APC agreed in principle to ensure power rotation between the North and the South.
He said: “I am one of the founding members of the APC. In principle, we agreed that the North should produce the President 2015. That was why Buhari, Kwakwanso, Atiku and late Sam Nda Isaiah contested. However, Rochas Okorocha insisted that he must exercise his constitutional right and, of course, the Nigerian Constitution is superior to the APC Constitution. So, he was allowed, even though he knew that he was not going to win. That was why he was holding onto his governorship ticket which he gave to his in-law to keep for him. I am against the APC allowing the North to produce its presidential candidate. The APC presidential candidate should come from the South.”
Ndume said: “If you have the presidential candidate of the APC coming from the North, it is tantamount to a third term bid and, to me, it is not constitutional. The constitution says the president should serve two terms and we say the North should serve two terms. If you say the North should produce the president again, it means you are going for a third term which is not fair. I believe in fairness, justice and equity. Let the candidate come from the South.” The former Senate Leader believes that the growing secessionist agitations from the South and the rise of ethnic militia in the region could be traced to the insistence by the North to hold to power.
He said: “You cannot say you want to be the head of the house, and at the same time, calling for the division of the house. That is what is giving the northerners the opportunity to say they want to be the president again because if you want to be the president of Nigeria, you must believe in the unity of Nigeria. If you want the country to be divided, which Nigeria are you going to be president of? So, for me, I support a candidate from the South, anywhere in the South. If you ask me, I will say each of the three zones should bring one or two candidates and let us go to the convention for Nigerians, especially the APC to decide and whoever emerges will be given the support to win the election. I am speaking for the APC and not the other parties.”
Like Ndume, Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum and his Katsina State counterpart, Aminu Bello Masari insist that power should be allowed to shift to the South in 2023 when the tenure of President Buhari ends. Zulum who spoke at a book presentation said “the issue of power rotation is a covenant between us hence the need to shift the power to the South”. To him, every part of the country should be given a sense of belonging. He added: “The time has come for Nigeria to do the right thing.” He, however, believes that rather than debating which part of the country should produce the president, there is the need for a clear demarcation between competency and loyalty.
He said: “I would advocate as a starting point that good governance is the heart and soul of security and development. Bad governance will spread insecurity and destroy the possibility of development as trust is broken between the elected and the electorate. A weak system breeds corruption and in order to survive, people will try whatever means to circumvent due process and over time this will lead to insecurity. The search for alternative means of survival that is not legal constitutes insecurity.”
Masari said there is a need to allow rotational presidency to take root and that the South should be allowed the opportunity to produce the next president. The former Speaker of the House of Representatives said it is imperative for a non-northerner to succeed President Buhari in 2023 in the spirit of equity, fairness and justice. He said: “If you ask me as a person, I think we should move the presidency to the southern part of the country.”
Eseme Eyiboh, a chieftain of the party from Akwa Ibom State, also believes that the APC presidential ticket should be zoned to the South in the next election cycle. Eyiboh, a former member of the House of Representatives, however, believes that the country needs a detribalised leader. He was quick to dismiss the agitations for micro zoning being canvassed by some politicians for the next president to come from one of the three regions in the South. He said Nigeria is in a critical stage and in dire need of a leader who will set aside ethno-religious sentiment in administering the country.
His words: “The state that Nigeria is today I don’t mind anybody coming out from any part of the country if he has the right pedigree and capacity to drive the country because Nigeria is in dire need of a leader, in dire need of capacity and experience. However, the presidency should go to the South. But I don’t support the agitation for micro-zoning to the Southeast, the Southwest or the South-south. I want the South to present its best.”
But, former Zamfara State Governor Ahmed Sani, former Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau and Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello have contrary views. They said since the APC constitution does not support the zoning of the presidency, every part of the country should be given an equal opportunity to contest 2023 presidential election. Sani who is popularly known as Sani Yerima because of his traditional title of Yerima Bakura, however, became the first Nigerian to throw his cap into the ring to contest the 2023 presidential election. He dismissed claims of any zoning arrangement within the APC. Irrespective of the fact that he hails from the same Northwest as President Buhari, Sani Yerima believes that he should be allowed to take a shot at the nation’s highest office.
He said: “You may recall that in 2006, I declared my interest to contest for the presidency after having served Zamfara State for a period of eight years. However, I decided to withdraw from the race for the current president. Now that Mr President is completing his second term, I have decided to try again to see what God will have for me, having voluntarily decided not to go to the Senate again. Every politician knows what is stipulated in the constitution for anyone vying for the presidency. Besides, there is no zoning in the APC and I don’t think there is anything like a subsisting agreement. You can ask Mr President; he led the group, Asiwaju was there, I was part of it. There was no meeting I did not attend and in all the meetings that I attended, that there was no such agreement. The agreement can’t be verbal, it has to be written.
“In any case, any agreement that is contrary to the laws of this country is not an agreement. The constitution is very clear and the same applies to the APC constitution and the Electoral Act. We are in a democracy and democracy is governed by processes, procedures and bylaws. The constitution of Nigeria does not recognise zoning. The same thing goes for the APC Constitution. If there was an agreement, why didn’t we put it in the constitution? So, nobody will just come and say there is no agreement; take your constitution and amend it. Put that agreement there, so that nobody will come from another side and work against the constitution. As a democrat and as a citizen of Nigeria, I can aspire based on the laws of Nigeria. The Nigerian constitution has given rights and privileges to every citizen who believes he has something to offer to aspire for any office, irrespective of his state of origin, tribe, ethnicity and religion. You have the right to aspire for any office; the constitution has given us the guarantee to participate in the political process.”
‘No zoning in APC’:
Yerima has the strong backing of his former Kano State counterpart and the lawmaker representing Kano Central, Ibrahim Shekarau, who also maintained that there is no zoning in the APC. Shekarau who was a strong member of the merger committee that gave birth to the APC said rather than talk of zoning and rotation, the Nigerian electorates should always consider quality leaders during elections, instead of focusing on zoning. He believes that quality leadership is more important to the country than zoning. He said since there is no zoning in the APC constitution and also, in the Nigerian constitution, the idea only exists as a moral guideline. He said: “I want to tell you that there is no place in the APC constitution that the issue of zoning is mentioned. I think it is only being considered by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). All we need is quality leadership, fairness and justice to all, and carrying everyone along; that is what is called balancing of the equation.”
The Kogi State governor said besides the fact that the party constitution does not recognize zoning, there is also no written agreement to that effect. Bello who is believed to be nursing a presidential ambition in 2023 said, “there is nothing like zoning in our party”. He added: “In 2015, there was no zoning; many aspirants, including former Governor Rochas Okorocha contested. In 2019, there was no zoning; people in APC were not courageous enough to contest because President Muhammadu Buhari was seeking for his re-election.” Bello was however quick to add that the challenges facing the country have nothing to do with where the president comes from, as Nigerians are looking for young, vibrant, and responsible leaders, who can tackle the challenges facing the country.
Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai who was the Assistant Secretary of the interim leadership that brought the party into existence concedes that there was an informal agreement that if the North rules for eight years, power will shift to the South. He said in obedience to that informal agreement, the APC presidential ticket should be zoned to the South. He said even though the agreement was not enshrined in the constitution, leaders of the party are aware of it. The outspoken governor said “that is why I came out and said that after President Buhari’s eight years, no northerner should contest for the office”, to give a Southerner a chance to govern eight years. He, however, believes insists that competence should not be sacrificed on the altar of zoning. Headed: “If you look at the way I run my affairs, I don’t consider regionality of appointees. I rather consider their merit and commitment to public trust.”
However, former Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima believes that it is rather too early to bother about where the next president should come from. He believes that leaders of the party, including President Buhari, will resolve the issue of zoning of the presidential ticket in the interest of the party and the nation. He said: “Don’t forget that our party still controls the Presidency. We have a leader and other competent leaders that can manage every crisis situation. At the appropriate time, our leaders will sit and take the most appropriate decision that will resolve the issue. APC is a party that is united and nothing can break us. I am confident that we will win the 2023 presidential election. The APC still remains the party to beat because of the unity of purpose and togetherness, as well as the desire to deliver for Nigerians. So, I am confident that there is no cause for alarm. What you called controversy will be resolved in the fullest of time.”
Founding fathers will decide:
Minister of Labour and Employment Senator Chris Ngige shares the opinion. Ngige was quoted as saying that founders of the party who are still within the party will speak on the issue of zoning at the appropriate time. He said: “Nine of us are still in the APC. I can’t speak on the issue now. Most of us agreed that we are going to speak next year?, from Bola Tinubu to Chief Bisi Akande, Chief Olusegun Osoba, myself, Tom Ikimi, Yusuf Ali; Ogbonnaya Onu; Danjuma Goje and Senator Wamakko. We will speak after we would have done the APC caucus meeting on it. Caucus will agree that we speak on it publicly.”
The Director-General of the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF), Salihu Mohammed Lukman believes that the party has not foreclosed the chances of any zone producing the presidential candidate in 2023. To him, the issue, for now, is an open contest and a time for each zone of the country to show their negotiating skills. He said, “the pertinent point to make here is that nobody can say President Buhari has decided or there is a decision on the party”. He added: “That is why in the whole speculation out there in the public; you will see that there are so many names that are being put in the public space which means that in 2023 there would be a contest in the APC.”