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The wahala in a fluid political system, By Dan Agbese

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The two major political parties, PDP and APC, are engaged in a titanic struggle to prevent their implosion over the lingering and complicated issue of the locus of power in 2023. We used to know this as power rotation; now it is zoning. Rotation would be between the north and the south; zoning would be among the six geo-political zones. It is not an easy decision for the parties. A wrong step by one political party will be the gain for its rival.

            In a rigid political system, this should be a settled matter by now. But ours is a fluid system in which nothing is settled. We have had power rotation between the north and the south four times since 1999. This should be the fifth time, but the fluidity of our political system intrudes to redefine and reconfigure the locus of power. And the struggle, as my good friend Haroun Adamu would say, continues.

I am sure you do recognise this as our famous political shuffle. One step forward, four steps backward. Each time we make some progress, we march right back. Long years of military rule taught us the benefits of marching rather than walking. It is frustrating because it is at the root of our political instability. Political instability is not that bad, really. I am not being cynical. The more politically unstable a country is, the more it finds itself engaged in the creative business of finding solutions to old problems, new problems and recircled problems, thanks to our politicians. It is their lot to worry about these things.

The lack of decision by political parties is heating up the polity, as indeed, it should. There is a lot riding on where the next president comes from and which of the two parties produces him through the ballot box. It is a zero-sum game. I do not envy the party leaders. However each party resolves its preference between rotation and zoning, something must inevitably give. There will be minor or major haemorrhaging, one party will lose power, which is not really a sad thing because the two parties are composed essentially of recircled refugees fleeing from the inclement political weather in one party to the other. Defections have become the rule of the game.

            I thought I should lend them a helping hand gratis. What did our egg heads and politicians think of power rotation during the making of the 1979 constitution? I consulted what has become my bible on political thinking in the country – the great debate that attended the impressive draft constitution by the 49 wise men in 1975-77. It is always a good thing to listen to the quiet voices from the past. To know what the past thought of issues that troubled us then, and trouble us still, is to appreciate how much we throw up solutions only to turn them into problems; and begin again in search of solutions to the new problem. We call this moving the country forward.

            Letting my fingers do the walking, I sauntered through the 718-page volume titled The Great Debate, edited by Dr Walter Ofonagoro and published by the Daily Times of Nigeria Limited in 1977. I wanted to know what the thinking on power rotation was and how it could guide our current party leaders to make some sense of a problem that grows nastier with each passing day. I found four contributors to the debate on power rotation, as it was known at the time: there being no zoning then. Each of them addressed in the affirmative the simple question: should there be power rotation? All of them thought more or less alike. Each contributor offered views that we would find rather bizarre today because they are clearly impossible to get us anywhere. But I present them here because this being a fluid political system, what they thought then, could be the solution to the current confusion in PDP and APC now. 

            My first contributor is P.O. Ekwerekwu. He wrote: “How do we guarantee that for the next 100 years Nigeria’s executive presidents will not be coming from a particular area of this great nation. There is no need deceiving ourselves all the time. We still practise sectionalism in our everyday life. I suggest the rotation of our presidents among all the states of the federation alphabetically or otherwise.”

            At the time he offered this illuminating suggestion in furtherance of the fairness doctrine in the locus of presidential power, we had 19 states in the federation. Now, we 36 states. A problem multiplied is clearly a problem solved.

            From Obi J.I. Onyia, comes an identical suggestion. He wrote: “Executive president should rotate from state to state if we do not want to deceive ourselves provided that states are created on linguistic basis, or alternatively on five linguistic zones, namely, (1) Hausa-speaking zone; (2) Yoruba-speaking zone; (3) Igbo-speaking zone; (4) Kanuri and other ethnic groups of Bauchi, Benue, Plateau Niger states zone; (5) ethnic groups of Kwara, Bendel, Rivers and Cross River states…

            Tayo Olafioye believed that “One way to eliminate the problems concerning presidential system is to have the president on state-by-state rotational basis. Every three or four years we should vote for candidates with national appeal from a particular state whose turn it is to provide us a president. Every state will be more loyal and integrated to Nigeria knowing that it has an opportunity to share power at the top.”

            Dr. J. Ogbonna argued that “This rotational principle is being emphasised to avoid concentration of power in the hands of a few or sectional group. Taken into consideration is the need to replace ethnic politics with politics that is national in character. In order to achieve this purpose, the nation has been divided into 4 zones and later re-grouped into zone A and B. In the arrangements if Zone A elects the president, Zone B will at that point in time elect the vice-president and vice versa.”

            I have gone to this length to drag history to the debate on the locus of presidential power as we approach the 2023 election at which there will be the change of baton from President Muhammadu Buhari to a new president in order to make a few points about this very important subject. As the contributors quoted here demonstrated, this issue has played on the national stage for a long time. While everyone recognised that power rotation was the panacea to the myriads of our national problems, no one seemed to know then, and no one seems to know now, how it should be done. This remains the thorny problem over which our current political leaders are cracking their heads. 

I had expected to find some elevating thoughts on how each tribe or section of the country could have a fair shot at the presidency. I found none. Instead, I found mediocre thoughts that are clearly impossible to put into effect. It makes no rational sense to think of rotating the presidency among the 36 states of the federation.

But I can understand why the suggestions were made. The contributors wanted to be fair and ensure that while not everyone can become a Nigerian president, every state can produce a Nigerian president and must, therefore, be allowed to do so without prejudice to other states on the basis of an agreed formula. Politics is a game of numbers. If some allowances are not made to bring the tribes with poor performances in the labour wards within a harpooning distance of the presidency, short of a political accident or miracle, it will be their lot for ever and anon to fetch the wood and draw the water. Power is so sweet that those who hold it insist on holding it and can advance convincing reasons why they must not let go. Nature and the colonial authorities conspired to make political conflicts the defining characteristic of our country. Nature imposed on the country a rainbow collection of big tribes, medium tribes, small tribes, and small-small tribes. All 350 of them. The colonial authorities, either by accident or design, grouped the medium, small, and small-small tribes under the three big tribes – Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba. Should they be allowed by reason of their numbers to dominate power at the centre to the exclusion of the other tribes? Should the other tribes continue to hope for a political accident that would produce a Goodluck Jonathan at unknown intervals? It is unrealistic to hitch the wagon to a political accident and watch it clutter down the unpaved path of our unreconstructed political thoughts. 

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