Sam Amadi, Senior Lecturer, Baze University

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Subjects of Interest

  • Commercial Policy
  • Economic Governance
  • Electric Power
  • Law & Economy
  • Public Sector Reform

Zoning, presidential politics and the future of Nigeria 07 Oct 2021

The leadership of Nigeria’s opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is agonizing about whether to zone its 2023 presidential candidacy to the south. A committee of the party has recommended to its National Executive Committee (NEC) that the chairmanship of the party be zoned to the North. The committee said this should have no bearing on which zone gets the presidential candidacy.

The permutation is that if the chairman of the party is from the south, the presidential candidate would come from the north. But this is just permutation. Some entrenched power players in the party wants to take the presidency to the north. The word is that realpolitik will force the party to go North. The reckless boast of a leader of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) that the north will always have its way on account of its population plays to this script and further escalates the geopolitical fight for power in 2023. It looks like the leaders of the party will respond more to the calculus of power than political justice.

It is troubling that Nigerian leaders are so caught up in the game of thrones that they are not paying attention to how this low intensity warfare damages the prospects of political stability and economic growth in the future. Nigeria is much stressed. Its economy is in utter ruins. Last month, the Central Bank of Nigeria reported that foreign exchange revenue from both official and autonomous sources fell by 59.8 percent in April. About 10 million citizens have become poor because of the failure of COVID-19 mitigation plans.

Insecurity is now generalized. Significant portion of northern Nigeria is in control of terrorists. The southeast, hitherto Nigeria’s most secured region, now reels under the jackboot of violence by non-state actors. Insurgents and secessionists roam freely in the south and north of Nigeria. By all relevant indicators, Nigeria is, at least, a failing country.

As Nigerians groan under the weight of poverty, insecurity, and bad governance, its politicians are scheming about 2023. Nigeria’s usually unruly political contest takes a dangerous turn as the social compact that holds the incongruous federation together has almost snapped under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration. Today, the country is more divided than ever, becoming more ungovernable as a result of winner-takes-all politics of the last six years. This has imbued geopolitical contest for power with exaggerated existential risks.

The rise of ethnoreligious warlords and the resurgence of Biafra agitation create a pressing crisis of stability. Buhari’s six years have heightened agitation for equity from southerners, especially south-easterners, who point to political marginalization and the need for political justice.

By the unwritten rule of political succession, power should shift to the south, especially southeast in 2023. But Nigerian politics is trapped in whataboutism. The case for justice is countered with all sorts of arguments, including a self-serving claim that because politics is a game of number, power should go to where the votes are. This linear logic is really dangerous. It fails to attend to the need for a sense of justice, which is the basis of stability in a plural society with a history of ethnoreligious conflicts and resentments.

Nigerian leaders cannot be indifferent to the demand for power shift. It is true that there is an overriding need for visionary and competent leadership after Buhari. But the search for competence should factor geopolitical equity. The nation needs to be preserved before it is developed. We see across Africa unstable polities resulting from the neglect of ethno-nationalism. Unmanaged ethnoreligious agitations tend to swallow best-in-class policy choices of reformers. As the World Development Report, 2017, argues, the most urgent imperative for reform in fractious plural states is to have the right kind of elite bargain.

It is hard for PDP to strike such a bargain because it is trapped in the conflict between principle and realpolitik. Principles suggest power should shift to the south. But realpolitik urges otherwise. Balancing idealism and realism, requires getting the basics right. The first law of politics is to conserve the base. The party must ensure that the fight over power shift does not further destroy its power base: its governors. They must pull together against the tugs of personal interests. They seem to be doing that much by unanimously not zoning the party’s presidential candidate but zoning its chairmanship.

The second rule of politics is to reach out. As the party conserves its base, it has to reach out to losers of majoritarian politics. It must listen to them; it must do its best to meet the demands of justice. It is true that in politics, you don’t win the argument and lose the votes. But winning the votes and losing the argument is not how to sustain power. It is also not how to stabilize the polity.

But presidentialism makes it difficult to have such a bargain. It deepens incentive to win at all costs. But winning against political justice is political loss. PDP can eat its cake and have it. If it denies the south the presidency in 2023, it should share power in a manner that the presidency becomes less narrowly beneficial than it has been. This will also be a less raucous form of restructuring. Enlarge the pie, so no one goes to war because it lost the presidency.

Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.