El-Rufai’s call for zoning triggers break-up fears

FEMI MAKINDE examines Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai’s call for zoning to be dropped and the attendant controversies across the country

The suggestion of Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir el -Rufai, that zoning of the presidency and other key political offices should be de-emphasised in future elections especially that of 2023 has elicited some reactions.

The governor is not new to controversy and his comment, as expected, has generated debate across the country.

Those who disagree with the governor say the time to jettison zoning has not come, citing mutual distrust especially between the North and the South as their reason.

El-Rufai’s party, the ruling All Progressives Congress, had made so many promises during the 2019 presidential election campaign and to mobilise support from the South, the ruling party promised to back the South-East and the South-West’s bid for the presidency in 2023.

Leaders of the party made the promises when the party desperately needed votes to return President Muhammadu Buhari to power in the 2019 election.

While the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, solicited the South-West’s support for Buhari promising that the APC would support the region’s presidential bid in 2023, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Boss Mustapha, told some Igbo delegation that voting the incumbent President was the South-East’s shortest route to presidency in 2023.

The doublespeak of the leaders of the party was seen as a ploy to gain the two regions’ support for Buhari who is from the North.

But almost immediately after Buhari won the poll, a former SGF, Babachir Lawal, said zoning was neither in the nation’s constitution nor the electoral law.

He said this while rejecting zoning formula and some analysts said such a statement was the signs of what might likely happen to the arrangement eventually.

So, when el-Rufai came up with the suggestion that emphasis should be placed on competence rather than zoning, some people claimed that the governor was only trying to test the waters.

Others said that El-Rufai was only paving the way to realise his 2023 presidential ambition and stop Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s alleged presidential ambition.

The Kaduna State Governor had said, “Even with our success in the 2015 elections, there is room for improvement. Barriers to political equality, such as our seemingly entrenched though informal rule for  zoning candidacies according to regions of origin, need to be de-emphasised and ultimately abandoned in favour of an emphasis on qualification, competence and character.”

However, some analysts argue that jettisoning zoning in 2023 will be tantamount to moving the goalposts halfway into a match.

They stress that this will likely heighten tension in the country and cause political disequilibrium in a country that stands precariously on a tripod of mutual suspicion.

According to them, there is constant suspicion among the various ethnic groups that form the country, especially in power sharing .

Zoning is meant to take care of the interests of the various ethnic groups in a heterogeneous nation where politics of ethnic loyalty stokes the fire of division.

To ensure that every ethnic group has a fair representation and to reduce acrimony, the doctrine of Federal Character was introduced years back in the country.

This explains why the South has produced two elected presidents since the country’s return to democracy about 20 years ago.

Reacting to the governor’s call, the Secretary-General of the Yoruba Council of Elders, Dr Kunle Olajide, told Saturday PUNCH that el-Rufai’s suggestion was an invitation to a crisis, which he said the nation should avoid by all means.

Olajide said, “Governor el-Rufai has to be checked. I hope he is not mouthing the agenda of other people or a particular ethnic group in the country. Zoning has sustained Nigeria’s democracy thus far and any attempt to tamper with it can lead to a political crisis.

“Zoning is between the North and the South and it is not among the regions. In other words, the presidency has been rotating between the North and the South. Anybody who attempts to jettison that for whatever reason is trying to undermine the integrity of this country.

“I have no doubt in my mind that such an idea will definitely fail. We must appreciate that we don’t have a nation yet in Nigeria but we have a country with various people and cultures and unfortunately, none of our leaders has made any conscious effort to make us a nation.”

He added, “We are still tottering and that is the reason for the relative instability you see. There is mutual suspicion that one ethnic group wants to dominate others. So, anybody who is trying to throw away what has been holding the nation together now is an enemy of the nation.

“It will not happen and while the South will produce the next president, the person must be competent and must have character.”

A former Director of the Institute of African Studies, the University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University, Prof Banji Akintoye, also told Saturday PUNCH in an interview that it would be disastrous to drop zoning which he said had a modicum of holding the country together.

Akintoye, who was a senator on the platform of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria and an associate of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, said, “If you cancel that ( zoning), then it becomes a rough  and tumble scramble without any rule. If you do that, you will only add to the enormous instability Nigeria is suffering now. Nigeria is going through hell in terms of inter-people relationships and in terms of the quality of life and the people’s expectations. We are treading very close to the dissolution of Nigeria as it is today.

“What our brother from the North is saying is what some of his people have been saying. They are saying, ‘now we have the presidency and we will have it forever.’ That is the hidden meaning of his statement. That is why they are saying let us cancel zoning but it won’t happen.

“Whether zoning is efficiently executed or not, it gives a certain feeling to other ethnic groups that they could be president. So what our brother from the North is saying is that we should cancel it and let it be up for grab. A certain spirit of bravado and disregard for the feelings of other people is coming on the North and if they don’t curb it, there will be no way anybody can preserve Nigeria.”

A former governorship aspirant in Bayelsa State, Amagbe Kentebe,  who is also a former Executive Secretary, Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board, told Saturday PUNCH that jettisoning zoning might disrupt the relative peace being enjoyed in the nation.

According to him, there is no part of Nigeria that does not have competent people who can be voted for as the president, arguing that zoning should be adhered to until the nation is mature to cancel it.

Kentebe said, “The country is at a precipice right now and we have to do everything to bring peace. While zoning is not constitutional, it is an arrangement that was introduced to bring some level of trust and unity between the North and the South.  If something is meant to bring unity and it is doing that gradually, I don’t understand why we should jettison it.

“In the last election, the major political parties in the countries had their candidates from the North which means that the southerners had respect for that unwritten law; and in that regard, when 2023 presidential poll comes, the North should also respect the unwritten law by ensuring that presidential candidates from the major parties come from the South.”

“That is only fair and we should not drop zoning until our democracy grows to the level where it can be dropped.”

The Ohanaeze Ndigbo has also warned that dropping zoning may prove to be disastrous if implemented in 2023.

The Publicity Secretary of the pan-Igbo socio-cultural association, Uche Achi-Ukpaga, said in an interview with Saturday PUNCH that the situation in the nation was not ripe for el-Rufai’s suggestion.

Achi-Ukpaga said, “What el-Rufai is saying is that zoning should be dropped so that the North can take over everything just like what is happening in the presidency now. The presidency is taken over by the North as we speak and key positions in the nation are occupied by northerners. That is what he wants to achieve by saying that. The top security positions in the country are occupied by northerners.

“It is an open secret that el-Rufai has presidential ambition and he wants to take over from Buhari. Because Buhari is from the North and he is also from the North, he knows that zoning will not favour him and that is why he is calling for it to be cancelled.  The implication of this is that they want to put the nation into a severe political turmoil by their selfishness.

“Things are not in good shape in the country now, there is distrust and there is ethnic chauvinism and if zoning is dropped, it will be ‘to your tent O Israel.’”

A former Commissioner for Regional Integration in Osun State, Mr Bola Ilori, who is one of the political associates of the National Leader of the ruling APC, Tinubu, also warned that jettisoning zoning in 2023 might lead to the disintegration of the country.

Ilori, who is also a formal chairman of the Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos State, spoke in an interview with Saturday PUNCH.

The former commissioner said although emphasis should be on competence, due to the situation in the country, the zoning arrangement should be adhered to until the nation was mature to place emphasis on competence.

Ilori said, “My take is that el-Rufai is saying the right thing at the wrong time. Considering the political temperature and temperament of Nigeria today, only the enemy of Nigeria will canvass that the North should retain power after Buhari.

“That (retaining power in the North) may sound the death knell for Nigeria as a corporate entity. It may be the end of corporate Nigeria. Those in the East are aggrieved, the West will surely join the aggrieved party and that will be terrible for Nigeria.”

The ruling APC has yet to speak on the matter just as most pro-North groups have yet to make open comments on the matter.

The Presidency has also not said anything on this matter. The coming days will reveal the position of the North on El-Rufai’s comment.  Until then, the South appears to be waiting.

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