Politics Nigeria — June 14, 2010 at 4:25 PM

Are we there yet?

The nation of Nigeria has an interesting political history. It got independence from Britain in 1960 and became a republic October 1, 1963. All seemed well in the First Republic with Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister and Dr. Nmamdi Azikiwe as President. Then came January 15, 1966 when a bloody military coup d’état swept away actors of the First Republic like a tsunami, and put the country in a political tailspin.

During the initial stages, the coup leader Major Kaduna Nzeogwu  and his collaborators were hailed as national heroes. But the goodwill did not last long because of the coup plotters’ pattern of killings, which gave it a partisan appearance. killed were the Prime Minister, a Northerner, the Premier of the Northern Region, and highest ranking Northern army officers. Also killed was the Premier of the Western Region who was closely allied with a political party from the Northern region called Northern People’s Congress (NPC). Only one Igbo officer lost his life. Since that first coup the Nigerian military has always had its footprint in the nation’s politics, sacking the Second Republic December 31, 1983 in a bloodless coup.

So, when a national altercation recently broke out due to former President Umaru Yar’Adua’s controversial medical trip to Saudi Arabia November 23, 2009, Nigerians got apprehensive and wondered if the events of January 1966 or December 1983 were about to repeat. The bone of contention was Yar’Adua’s refusal to transmit a letter to the Nigerian Senate President and Speaker of the House about the trip. The said letters would have paved way for then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to become Acting President. As a result Nigeria, for a while, suffered from leadership vacuum, resulting in an atmosphere of sever political instability. The fear of a military coup was everywhere, hanging over the nation like an ominous overcast from a hurricane. The world watched, waited, and hoped for the best.

Then tragedy struck as Nigerians were told May 4 that President Umaru Yar’Adua was dead. To the surprise of Nigerians and world political observers the news did not result in a political upheaval instead, in its place, a peaceful swearing-in of Dr. Jonathan as President and commander-in-Chief of Nigeria’s armed forces. World political observers heaved a sigh of relief as the country’s political future suddenly turned from bleak to promising. Who would have thought in January of this year, in the thick of the Yar’Adu saga, that things would turn out as peaceful as it did. Nigeria, indeed, has taken a giant leap to joining the world’s club of politically civilized nations.

The elevation of Jonathan as President presented another challenge vis-à-vis who will become the nation’s Vice President (VP). Suddenly Nigeria was awash again with all sorts of political permutations. The North felt that they were entitled to producing the Vice President because the late President was from the North and as such their entitlement mentality was appropriate. The rest of Nigeria (meaning the East, West and Southern regions) seemed to agree because no one from those regions vied for the VP slot. Although the various sections of the North schemed for someone from their respective parts to get the job, in the end it all went peaceful. Alhaji Muhammed Namadi Sambo, a Northerner and governor of Kaduna state was chosen for the job. He was sworn in as Vice President, May 19, 2010.

Meanwhile, in the background, while all the political jockeying took place, rumours and speculations as to whether Jonathan will or should run for the upcoming 2011 presidential election became talk of the town. The majority of Nigerians want him to run for a second term in 2011 although, and understandably, most in the North oppose the idea. Ordinarily, whether Jonathan should take part in the 2011 presidential election should not be a problem, but the issue has become a hot button topic because the ruling party, Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which Jonathan belongs to has a zoning philosophy for the presidency.

As background, Nigeria is practicing the presidential system of government which comprises of blocks of four-year terms. A president can only serve a maximum of two terms, bringing the maximum years that anyone can serve as president to eight. PDP’s zoning policy logically divides the country into two halves: North and South. According to the policy, the North and South should produce presidential candidates on a rotational basis such that whomever that is nominated as the party’s flag bearer can only serve a maximum of two terms after which the next flag bearer must come from the other region. Consequently, the political calculation by some PDP Northern chieftains is that the party’s next presidential flag bearer should come from the North because the late president, Umaru Yar’Adua, was from the North and he did not serve two terms before he died. Yar’Adua had one more year left in his first term before his death. Jonathan, the current President, was Vice President in the Yar’Adua administration and he is serving out the last year remaining in Yar’Adua’s first term. Jonathan is from the South. Olusegun Obasanjo who handed over to Yar’Adua is also from the South. You get the picture?

On the surface, the PDP Northern politicians’ argument seems logical except that most Nigerians don’t buy it, including voters from the North.  Supporters of Jonathan rightfully argue that he should run for a second term because that is his right as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, and that the PDP zoning arrangement cannot supersede the constitution. Since the debate began most Nigerians have openly urged PDP to abandon the policy and allow every member of the party, regardless of his/her geographical affiliation, to freely vie for the highest office in the land.

Although PDP has not issued a statement that it will abandon the controversial zoning ideology, the body language of the party’s officials suggests that it will soon do so. If it does then Nigeria has one more feather to add to its political hat. This may not be a big deal in a democratically advanced western country, but in Africa where political parties seldom listen to the will of the people, this is huge.

Also, though Jonathan, like his party, has not made a statement as to what he will do regarding the 2011presidential bid, signals coming out of his political camp suggest that he is poised to grant opponents of the zoning policy their wish by declaring to contest for a second term. Several trial balloons have been floated by his camp to gauge the feelings of Nigerians regarding the matter. For example, his adviser on National Assembly matters, Cairo Ojuogboh, reportedly said Wednesday May 12  that there was general consensus in support of his seeking re-election and that he (Jonathan) would likely contest on PDP’s ticket. According to the report Ojuogboh, who made the statement to reporters in the capital Abuja, said he believed Jonathan would stand in presidential polls due by April next year.

Ironically, Ojuogboh later made an about-face and recanted his statement saying that the statement he made was his personal opinion. I find it hard to believe that a man of Ojuogboh’s stature would make such a powerful and sensitive statement without the knowledge of his boss. Every political observer worth his/her salt knows that Ojuogboh’s initial statement was a trial balloon and that his recanting was a mere formality. So far, based on media reports and opinion polls, the majority of Nigerians seem to want Jonathan to exercise his constitutional right as a bonafide Nigerian by contesting the 2011 presidential election.

An important thing worth noting is that Jonathan is siding (or seems to be siding) with the people and not with his party’s unpopular “zoning” strategy. I understand the sentiments which may have driven PDP to formulate such a policy. It had to do with the controversial annulment of the 1993 presidential election by General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s then leader and military junta. That election is widely believed to be Nigeria’s fairest elections and won by Moshood Abilola from the South. The unpopular and controversial annulment resulted to political insurrections in the streets of Nigeria. Soon, the heat of the insurrection became unbearable for Babangida. He resigned and handed power over to his deputy General Sani Abach who ruled with a wrenching iron fist. Abiola fought back to reclaim his mandate but his efforts were no match for Abacha’s vicious clampdown. He was later imprisoned by Abachaa and died in prison under a suspicious circumstance.

Obviously, PDP introduced the zoning paradigm so that its first presidential candidate would come from Abiola’s Yoruba tribe which is in the South. It was a mark of respect and a sympathy gesture to compensate the Yoruba tribe and the South for the loss of Abiola. So, if the party decreed for its first presidential candidate to exclusively come from the South then it must have reasoned that it was only fair for the next presidential candidate to solely come from the North. Hence, the South-North-South-North… rotation policy. At that time Nigerians understandably did not see much wrong with the decision because they were still in shock and mourning the death of Abiola. However, this is a new era and looking back it is clear that the zoning model was born out of emotion rather than intellect, and that’s okay because it reflected the mood of the nation at that time. What is not okay is for PDP to be stuck in the past, parading yesterday’s ideologies for today’s challenges. PDP must evolve and embrace new ideas if it wants to remain relevant. Presidential zoning is undemocratic, period.

The notion that Jonathan and/or his party are fixing to abandon the zoning doctrine is victory not only for Nigeria but for the entire continent of Africa. It is rear for an African political party or Politician to abandon party credo and side with the people. Most Nigerians now feel that based on the recent political gains that a new and viable Nigerian political ship is afloat again, and sailing away from the troubled waters where the first ship was torpedoed on January 15, 1966. They argue that they see light at the end of Nigeria’s political tunnel.

I am an optimist; therefore, I share the sentiments of those now cheering that the current political gains signal the return of political stability in Nigeria. However, I will not go as far as stating that Nigeria has arrived politically. Things are looking good, no doubt. Nonetheless, a part of me is wary and I dare to ask: Are we there yet?

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