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NASS leadership: Fair representation matters still

Political leadership in Nigeria is about to come full cycle. On the eve of self-government in the late 1950s through early independence period to the…

Political leadership in Nigeria is about to come full cycle. On the eve of self-government in the late 1950s through early independence period to the collapse of the First Republic in 1966, regional, ethnic and religious considerations found little structural room for their expression in the composition of our national leadership.

Three factors accounted for this. It was not that these considerations mattered less to politicians or voters at the time. They mattered much then as they do today. But the parliamentary political system of the day, inherited naturally from colonial Britain, imposed its own limitations on how Nigeria’s national leaders were recruited or selected from different parts of the country.

In the first place under that parliamentary system, national leaders like the Prime Minister or the President (formerly Governor-General) were, like all Members of Parliament (MPs), elected by no more than a few thousand voters from their own immediate constituencies, unlike the president in our current system who is elected by a nation-wide electorate.

Second, the government and its cabinet could only be formed from among those who won parliamentary elections. Third, and most importantly, the political parties of the day were themselves regional or ethnic enclaves in membership, leadership and agenda, and sometimes even in name.

Unlike in the presidential system of today, you could not be appointed a minister of government, or could not become head of government (prime minister) or head of state (president) unless you were already a member of parliament. But to become a member of parliament, you only needed the votes of a few thousand people from your own immediate neighbourhood. And on top of all that, you would be elected to the national parliament by a party that had no membership or representation beyond your own regional neighbourhood.

In the end, we had national leaders who were elected only directly by members of their own immediate communities, rather than the national vote, and yet who had little room for recruiting others into cabinet positions beyond those in parliament.

That parliamentary structure was transplanted from Britain, but it was still very different from what the British themselves had at the time and still have. At least in Britain, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party were all national parties, very much unlike the regional enclaves that were the Action Group (AG), the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), or the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in Nigeria. Moreover, Britain had a head start of over 300 years in forging a sense of oneness, of Britishness, which Nigeria did not have in the 1960s, or today.

In other words, the parliamentary political structure of the First Republic had little recognition for the issues of inclusion and fair representation for all Nigerians at the leadership table that dominated our politics, then and now. This is why, when the First Republic collapsed, quite tragically, nearly all the constitutional developments and innovations in Nigeria since then have been designed to address some or all of the perceived structural deficits of that early phase of our self-government. Among these are the shift to a presidential system, the creation of more states and a federal capital territory, the requirement that a president must win a quarter of the votes from two-thirds of the states, the principle of federal character.

All these were designed to ensure fair representation and a sense of inclusion for all, regardless of voting strength or location. And to date, those core values of fair representation and belonging under the same Nigerian canopy still beat in every political heart, of the politician or the citizen alike. Those values guided the composition of our national leadership during the Second Republic at both the executive and legislative levels. They guided us even throughout the long years of the military in political leadership. And they have guided us since return to democracy in 1999.

And where laws are silent, the long-held conventions have been loud and clear. In fact, even in that -ill-fated parliamentary system of the First Republic, there was a saving grace. None of the largely regional parties could win an outright majority, providing the country with an opportunity to have the head of government from one part of Nigeria, and the head of state from another, thus giving the leadership a more national composition.

That saving grace came from the demographic reality that no single regional or ethnic group can dominate Nigerian politics in a winners take all scenario, but will require a handshake across The River to achieve.

That geopolitical and demographic reality remains true today as it was in the 1960s, as the election of President Tinubu demonstrates more than any other election before it.

But today, we are on the cusp of uncharted political territory. On the one hand, Nigerians are being told that our familiar balancing act for regional, ethnic and religious considerations should not now matter in the composition of our political leadership. What matters, or should matter, we are told, are competence, experience and contribution to the national vote tally. On the other hand, it would seem that those same considerations matter more than ever before for the composition of our national leadership, and precisely for the same reasons they have always mattered: unity, fair representation, and a sense of belonging.

After all, during the presidential primaries, the battle cry, across both major parties, and even with the insurgent third, was that power must shift to the South. And if that made sense, and it did, why should the Senate Presidency or the Speakership not also shift to the South East now? It is, I think, dangerous to have a national leadership composition in which the South East has almost no seat at the table, precisely at a time when a sense of fair representation and inclusion matters the most for them, and for the rest of the country.

As we write, there is a secessionist agitation going on in southeast Nigeria. And no doubt, some of these agitations are no more than the machinations of criminal elements there and across the country who seek to profit from conflict. But many in the region still harbour genuine feelings of exclusion at Nigeria’s national political table over many years, whether these be true or not. It will matter then that the composition of Nigeria’s leadership in this dispensation does not lend credence to the false narratives of criminal elements in the name of “marginalisation”.

No one knows which of the birds of the same feather will carry the day later this week during the selection of the National Assembly leadership. I have no interest in the particular details of the race, I do wonder about how the outcome might be perceived in terms of Nigeria’s national unity.

Of the four great offices of state up for election in this dispensation, two (President and Vice-President) have been decided by the general election of February 25, 2023. The remaining two will be decided when Nigeria’s 469 lawmakers-elect convene to choose their leaders (President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives). But I can only hope that all concerned will remember that fair representation and inclusion of all parts of the country still matter in the composition of our national leadership.

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