Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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How do you elect a president for a democratic and complex country like Nigeria? Both the Yoruba and the Ibo cultural groups – Afenifere and Ohananze ndi Igbo say it should be by allocation.
The debate was recently reignited byi Mamman Daura. The mere fact that he is a nephew of the president made his pronouncement on the issue headline news. The man argued that this system of president by allocation has had its day.
“This turn by turn, it was done once, it was done twice, it was done trice…
“It is better for this country to be one… It should be for the most competent and not for someone who comes from somewhere,” he said in an apparent vote against rotation of political power.
It was the National Party of Nigeria, NPN that brought what was then a novel idea of power rotation in the run up to the second republic in 1978. For doing that, the party with its dominant base in the north was laughed out of court particularly by southern politicians. The Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, its arch rival, founded and funded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo readily conceded the chairman and presidential candidate to him. Then the propaganda machine of the UPN poured scorn on the NPN calling it a party of illiterate northerners. Tai Solarin, the social crusader and prolific columnist wrote in his column in the Nigerian Tribune that Shehu Shagari, the NPN flag bearer had not read four books since he passed out of Teachers College as a grade two teacher.
When Waziri Ibrahim tried to copy what Awolowo did in the UPN – by monopolizing both presidential and chairmanship positions – he created a political upheaval. He had spent a fortune, particularly in the east, building up the Nigerian Peoples Party, NPP. At the crucial hour, he was told by his followers either to accept the position of national chairman or presidential candidate. When he insisted on having the two, the party split into two, giving birth to the Great Nigeria Peoples Party, GNPP.
The NPN experiment in zoning political offices appeared to have worked well for the party, much to the dismay of her opponents. The presidential candidate came from the north, the national chairman of the party from the south west, the vice-presidential candidate from the south east and the senate president from the southern minorities. It was a near perfect arrangement which gave the impression that the party was carrying the whole country with it. Where it failed, the party worked out an alliance with the NPP and then conceded the House speakership to the party.
How long that experiment would have successfully worked is an open question. The military take-over of power in 1983 did not allow it to run its full course. The combination of Shehu Shagari/Alex Ekwueme was so perfect that it was expected to yield an Ekwueme presidency in 1987. If that were to happen, he was expected to pick his Vice from the north, going by the zoning formula of his party. At the end of the presidential elections in 1983, northern politicians of note were already jockeying for the vice presidential slot in 1987. Then the military struck.
Today we are back to where we were more than forty years ago, trying to solve a problem the NPN thought they had sorted out forty long years ago. We have now gone full circle. The southern politicians who saw little credit in zoning political offices by the northern dominated NPN in 1978 are the ones on the roof tops, shouting themselves hoarse that zoning is the name of the game in the 2023 presidential race.
Spokesman for Afenifere, a pan Yoruba sociocultural/political group, Mr. Yinka Odumakin said Maman Daura’s statement was a veiled attempt by the north to once again occupy the presidential seat come 2023. He called for a united south to confront and frustrate the north’s plan to retain power and frustrate the imminent emergence of a southern president. Other southern based organisations, the Ohanaze ndi Igbo, the Niger Delta groups have all taken stands similar to that of Afenifere.
The most amazing stand to me personally is that of John Nia Nwodo, the president general of Ohanaze ndi Igbo. In the seventies, a few years after the civil war came to an end, he contested for the presidency of the University of Ibadan students union. There was no zoning at that election. Those of us who were students at the university looked at his personality and felt he would make a better student union president than his closest opponent. The fact that he was Ibo, a tribe whose members took arms to torpedo Nigeria’s first democratic experience and put the country on a slippery road to disintegration and fiercely fought to secede from Nigeria was immaterial to us. What mattered was his competence for the office. Today, in an ironical twist of fate, the same Nwodo is arguing for zoning of the president’s office as against competence.
Nigeria is indeed a strange country. When you think we have made progress, we turn round and engage the reverse gear. In 1999, the north promoted, sponsored and funded Olusegn Obasanjo to emerge as the President of Nigeria. Obasanjo is not a northerner but from Ogun state. In fact he was roundly rejected at the polls by his people from the ward to the state level in all Yoruba dominated states. Still he emerged as president of Nigeria on his own merit with the north behind him.
Strangely the argument by a single northerner that the election of the president of Nigeria should be based on merit is suddenly being viewed as a plot by the whole north to hold on to presidency in perpetuity.