The argument that raged between geo-ethnic groups in Nigeria last week in the wake of Malam Mamman Daura’s comments about power shift in 2023 brought out in sharp focus the opportunistic character of Nigerian politicians and geo-ethnic leaders in matters of federal character, quota, zoning and power shift.
All four have the same underlying principle. In some societies it is meant to assist minority groups to overcome inbuilt disadvantage. In the Nigerian federation, the main concern is to ameliorate some regions’ disadvantage due to demography or history. Ideally, a person either believes in these policies as a principle/expediency, or he does not.
The best argument in support of such policies in diverse polities and societies is that they create a sense of belonging in different components. The main argument against is that it creates reverse discrimination. In Nigeria for example, cut off points for university admission vary widely between states.
Federal character, quota, catchment area, zoning and power shift have the same political and psychological basis. I expect a person, a political party or a section of the country to either support them wholesale or to reject them. What we have in Nigeria instead is a pick and choose situation whereby one person or region supports some of these policies but not others. In other words, we opportunistically pick and choose in matters of principle.
Northerners, for example, tend to support federal character but not power shift while Southerners generally support power shift but not federal character. Northerners like federal character to make up for their 100 years’ lag being the South in Western education. The North’s first medical doctor, lawyer and engineer graduated nearly 100 years after their Southwestern counterparts.
Partly as a result, southerners were preponderant in all federal ministries and agencies up until the 1990s. On the other hand, the North doesn’t want power shift because it has a strategic demographic advantage. In the South, power shift is popular while federal character is derided.
Federal character as a constitutional principle made its debut in Nigeria in the 1970s, during debates of the Constitution Drafting Committee and Constituent Assembly. Military regimes did practice some form of it.
At the insistence of Northern delegates, federal character made it into the 1979 Constitution. It was soon applied in school admissions, civil service employment, appointment of political office holders and location of projects. In truth, Profs Godwin Sogolo and Eghosa Osaghae defended federal character at a 1980 NIPSS seminar. Sogolo’s paper, which I read 12 years later, argued that it was wrong to say that federal character lowers standards because any worked out standard that enables the country to achieve peace and stability is our ideal standard and there is no standard higher than that. I suspect the same rule applies to competence that Mamman Daura raised.
Zoning, on the other hand, debuted in Nigeria in 1978. At the start of Second Republic politicking, newspapers reported that NPN leaders had adopted a zoning formula. Other parties and the media assailed NPN for adopting zoning, saying it was unfair and undemocratic. NPN zoned party national offices to regions, then zoned its presidential candidate to the North.
Six Northerners [Shagari, Maitama Sule, Adamu Ciroma, Joseph Tarka, Sola Saraki and Iya Abubakar] contested for the ticket. NPN zoned vice presidency to the East and zoned Senate President and House Speaker. It couldn’t deliver on all of them because it didn’t win a National Assembly majority and had to enter into the NPN/NPP accord.
Even though zoning initially received hostile media reception, it soon became the norm in Nigerian politics. At the national, state and local levels, major political parties always zone party and political offices. How offices are zoned, depends on the peculiarities of a state. Some states are neatly dichotomized along ethnic or religious lines while some states are relatively homogenous. In which case politicians must find other forms of division such as senatorial zones, emirates or chiefdoms.
Zoning has had a chequered history in Nigerian politics. In 1978/79 NPP, PRP and GNPP reflected the North-South divide in their presidential tickets. UPN did not. Its presidential candidate Chief Awolowo picked Barrister Phillip Umeadi as his running mate. So, there was really no national consensus because five people contested for president in 1979, three of them Northerners, two of them Southerners.
In 1983, three Northerners and three Southerners contested for president. After President Shehu Shagari was re-elected, there was talk that NPN would rotate its presidential ticket to the South in 1987. We will never know if that was the case because some NPN leaders fretted in 1983 that M.K.O. Abiola wanted to contest for president despite the zoning formula.
In the Third Republic, neither NRC nor SDP zoned their presidential tickets. Twenty three aspirants from all parts of the country sought their parties’ tickets in 1992. After IBB banned all of them, Bashir Tofa contested against Joe Nwodo and Perry Ajuwa at NRC’s Port Harcourt convention in March 1993 while Abiola had a very keen contest against Babagana Kingibe and Atiku Abubakar at SDP’s Jos convention. Chief Abiola did not win the 1993 election due to power shift. Nobody formally conceded the seat to the South, even though IBB’s wholesale decapitation of Northern aspirants probably aided Abiola’s victory.
In 1999, Southern politicians and the newspapers orchestrated a loud clamour for power shift. The North was psychologically defeated because of the June 12 debacle and also because three Northern Generals ruled the country from 1983 to 1999, except for Ernest Shonekan’s brief Interim National Government. Even though PDP zoned its presidential ticket to the South in 1999, the agreement was unenforceable because Mohammed Abubakar Rimi contested at the Jos convention. Power shift was however delivered because PDP’s Northern power brokers rallied behind Chief Obasanjo, who at that time was very popular in the North.
The consensus became national when APP’s Northern leaders backed Ogbonnaya Onu at their Kaduna convention even though Olusola Saraki contested. APP then dropped its candidate and aligned with AD to create Falae/Shinkafi ticket. This was partly because of power shift but also because of reality of the situation because PDP won 21 governorships in 1999 while APP had 9 and AD had 6. In 2003 too, there was no clear shift policy because Rimi and Alex Ekwueme contested against Obasanjo.
In 2007, candidates from all over the country sought PDP’s presidential ticket, with Dr. Peter Odili being a clear favourite but the overwhelming Obasanjo personally effected power shift back to the North through Umaru Yar’adua. The unplanned power shift back to the South with Yar’adua’s death in 2010 soon exposed the lack of consensus in PDP. In the run up to 2011, Northerners clamoured for the North to complete its two terms under a 2002 “agreement” brokered by Chief Tony Anenih. Anenih refused to stand by the deal he brokered. Many Southern politicians then ran to the media and monotonously said “Jonathan has a right to contest.” He won in 2011, contested again in 2015 but lost.
Buhari did not become president in 2015 due to any consensual power shift because he contested against Jonathan. In 2019, Buhari was unopposed in APC but PDP clearly zoned its ticket to the North. All 12 contestants at its Port Harcourt convention were Northerners. In 2023, there will be a strong clamour for power shift within APC after Buhari’s two terms. Trouble is, the North is APC’s main support base, though it could never have won without its Southwestern wing. No one knows if APC will still be popular in the North in 2023.
As for PDP, its main base of support is in the South. PDP leaders will argue that they conceded to their Northern mates in 2019 and want the ticket in 2023. Both major parties must however watch what the other does. The worst outcome for the country’s peace is to pitch one Northern against one Southern candidate. Mamman Daura’s argument for competence is hard to defend because there is competence as well as incompetence, mostly the latter, in both North and South.