Northern Governors And The Quest For Power Rotation


Zoning and rotation are enforcement tools for political equity, argues Adebiyi

At the end of its meeting last Monday, the Northern States Governors’ Forum issued an 11-point communique on several issues of national interest. Yet only two or so made the headlines of national newspapers and broadcast networks: Rotation of presidency and the appropriate collecting agency for Value Added Tax. This is understandable because the two have been on the front burner of national discourse in the last few months. Both have been expressly pronounced upon by the Southern Governors’ Forum, which argues for the rotation of the nation’s presidency to the South, the North having occupied it in the last six years, and pushes for states’ collection and utilisation of VAT.

The southern governors’ persistence on these apparently drew a response from their northern colleagues who took more measured positions that are essentially tactical as well as strategic.
Expectedly, reactions to the northern governors’ positions from southern political interest groups have been swift and searing, manifesting the increasingly sharp divide in the country. Obviously based on an uncritical interpretation of the communique of the northern governors, the southern critics warned of the potential negative consequences of their presumed positions. But what is the position of the northern governors on power rotation for instance?

“The forum observed that some northern states governors had earlier expressed views for a power-shift to three geo-political zones in the South with a view to promoting unity and peace in the nation. Notwithstanding their comments, the forum unanimously condemned the statement by the Southern Governors’ Forum that the presidency must go to the South. The statement is quite contradictory with the provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) as amended…” (Emphasis mine).
In many ways the media must accept responsibility for the backlash that the northern governors have received from their position. For it was the media that gave the interpretation that gave the impression that the states’ helmsmen from above the Niger are opposed to power rotation. “2023: North rejects Southern govs’ demand for power shift,” the Daily Trust headline read on Tuesday. Both Leadership and Blue Print had similar headlines. THISDAY was more temperate, “Northerner Governors: Power Shift Not in Constitution.” Apparently based on these headlines the critics berated the northern governors, charging them with insensitivity to the yearnings of southerners who want power shift. “They are entitled to their opinion,” Rotimi Akeredolu, a senior advocate of Nigeria and SGF’s chairman, replied. Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide was less diplomatic. “Attempts to jettison the rotational presidency in 2023 will be unfavourable… it will favour the declaration of Oduduwa and Biafra nations by 2024,” it said in a statement by its Secretary-General, Okechukwu Isiguzoro, warning: “If another northerner succeeds President Buhari in 2023, he or she might not be able to superintend over the affairs of the country as Nigeria may face brutal challenges from secessionist groups.” More diatribes and threats have been hurled and many are in the offing.

But as Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State, has correctly pointed out, the media headlines did not accurately convey the spirit of his forum’s position, and the reactions to it, therefore, misconceived. What the northern governors condemned was the use of the word “must” and not the quest for rotation. To say must, is to seek to impose rather than persuade, in a charged polity that no one wants to be bullied or seen to be weak. And the reference to the contradiction between rotation principle and the threshold for the declaration of a president as stipulated in the 1999 Constitution as amended, does not necessarily amount to a foreclosure of the application of the principle that is essentially a moral rather than a legal tool for political persuasion. After all, rotation is a corollary of zoning, another principle that is founded on the constitutional mandate of federal character, which is engendered to promote adequate and equitable representation of every part of the country in its governance structure. The principle of federal character was first inserted into the 1979 Constitution. And it stipulates that no part of the country should be dominated by the other. So important to the management of the diversity of the country is this principle that it was not only retained in the 1999 Constitution as amended but a commission was also established by the supreme law to enforce it.

So, to the extent that the constitution requires that no part of the country should be excluded from the decision-making and governance processes of the country, it is inconceivable that anybody, particularly those sworn to protect the grundnorm, would oppose any applicable principles enunciated to achieve equity. The president and the governors, including their deputies and all officials of government at all levels are, therefore, especially enjoined by the constitution to ensure equity in the governance of the country. If that is the case, how can the requirement of equity be met if the highest office in the country is dominated or accessed by only one section?

It is perhaps in an attempt to restrain the domination of the commanding heights of the political space that political parties since 1979 have adopted the principles of zoning and rotation in the selection of their candidates for elective positions. While some, like the Peoples Democratic Party, formed in 1998, enshrined them in their constitution, even those who did not apply them in their leadership selection process. This explains why in 2007 when President Olusegun Obasanjo was exiting after his second term, the PDP sourced its presidential candidate from the North and was eventually succeeded by President Umaru Yar’Adua, who eventually died in office.

In compliance with zoning and rotation Obasanjo’s deputy came from the North while Yar’Adua’s deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, came from the South. When Jonathan succeeded Yar’Adua, his deputy, Namadi Sambo, came from the North. When Jonathan lost the election in 2015, the party made a decision in 2019 to apply the rotation principle in zoning the presidency to the North while the vice-presidency was allotted to the South.
Even in the All Progressives Congress that does not have these principles enshrined in its constitution, they have, however, been diligently applied. This was why its presidential candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, was paired with Yemi Osinbajo, a southerner. If those principles were not at play and enforceable, why did Buhari not pick his deputy from Kaduna State, another northern enclave? And why is it that there is the clamour for a southern presidency in the party even by northern governors, including el-Rufai and Borno State’s Babagana Zulum, if the rotation principle is perceived as unlawful policy?

The bottom line is that zoning and rotation are essentially political principles used to enforce the reversed discriminatory policy of federal character that is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution as amended. No one in the political space can seriously seek to repudiate them without significant political consequences, positive or negative.

▪︎Adebiyi, managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, wrote from