Demands for Presidential Power Rotation in Nigeria - and Present Dangers

Mobolaji E. Aluko, PhD
Burtonsville, MD, USA

December 19, 2005


In the wake of the tragedy of the death of over 100 passengers (including about 60 innocent children) in the Sosoliso plane crash in Port Harcourt of December 10, it continues to be an embarrassment to many of us citizens, commentators and watchers of Nigeria that our political class are now haggling loudly over what zonal "kingpin" should rule the country as president come 2007, rather than what type of country should be ruled over. Disclosures that certain zonal arrangements were agreed in smoke-filled rooms in 1999 (as the military departed) and re-ratified in 2002 (just before ahead of the widely rigged 2003 elections) show that a certain small group of people REALLY believe that Nigeria belongs to them, and that they can make decisions for the entire country without regard to their feelings, and that they can deliver matters to us as "fait-accomplit." Even the recent formations of "democracy-defending" groups such as the MDD and MRD give one a queasy feeling that these are more out of desperate attempts to regain presidential power than a principled opposition to third-term agenda - which must be understandably resisted by all means necessary.

If our political class is not careful, its latest actions can irretrievably split the country along regional (North-South) or zonal (SW, SE, SS, NW, NE, NC) lines and drive us to avoidable violence, strife and possible separation.

There will be enough blame to go around.


The SE-SS argument is that since the inception of Nigeria as a country in 1960, their two regions have not produced a substantial, if not substantive head of state. In the case of the military Aguiyi-Ironsi, his tenure (from South/SE; for six months January 16 - July 29, 1966) was too short to be considered "countable" towards the SE, nor did Nnamdi Azikiwe (South/SE; October 1, 1960 - January 15, 1966) as ceremonial governor-general/president have any substantive power. This is to be compared with parliamentary prime minister and civilian Balewa (North/NW) who ruled from October 1, 1960 to January 15, 1966 (assassinated), during the same period as Zik. Other Nigerian heads of state/governments have since included military Yakubu Gowon (North/NC) from July 29, 1966 to July 25, 1975; military Murtala (North/NC) ruled from July 25, 1975- February 13, 1976 (assassinated); military Obasanjo (South/SW) from February 13, 1976 to October 1, 1979 (handed over power); civilian Shagari (North/NW) from October 1, 1979 to December 31, 1983 (couped); military Buhari (North/NW) from December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985 (couped); military Babangida (North/NC) from August 27, 1985 to August 27, 1993 (stepped aside); [Civilian Abiola (South/SW) had his June 12 1993 presidential election cancelled by Babangida]; "interim" civilian Sonekan (South/SW) from August 27 - November 17, 1993 (couped); military Abacha (North/NE but culturally NW) from November 17, 1993 to June 8, 1998 (died in power); military Abdusalami Abubakar (North/NC) from June 8, 1998 to May 29, 1999 (handed over); and civilian Obasanjo from May 29, 1999 to date (December 2005, headed for May 29, 2005, God willing.]

Thus over a period of 549 months between October 1, 1960 and May 29, 2007, as far as the 12 executive heads of state or government go, the North as a region would have contributed 8 of them (67% of the total number) for 400 months (73% of the total length of time) to the South's balance of 4 executives over a period of 149 months. On a zonal basis, that makes 211 months for 4 executives from the NC, 118 months for 2 executives from the NE, 71 months for 2 executives from the NW, 142 months for 3 executives from the SW (Obasanjo twice), 7 months for 1 executive from the SE - and nobody ever from the SS.

But this SS/SE argument is specious. By adding and subtracting years of military rule (1966-1979; 1983-1999; 29 years) and comparing it and contrasting with civilian rule (1960-1966; 1979-1983; 1999-2005; 16 years) - and saying "Aha - no SS ruler ! See - the North has ruled for this long l And the SE has had only token power !" - we would be unfairly equating military rule with stolen constitutional non-mandates with civilian rule mandates. That would be a violation of democratic principles. Otherwise, one could argue that the SS and SE might as well just go ahead and organize a military coup to correct the imbalance !
Even the years of parliamentary rule (1960-1966) with a prime-minister and ceremonial president cannot be equated to the ONLY civilian rule presidential periods that matter: that is the periods1979-1983; the aborted civilian presidency of Abiola (leading to the June 12 crisis); and 1999 to the present.
So we are left only with the periods of Shagari (1979-1983); Abiola (June 12, 1993) and Obasanjo (1999 to present) to focus on if we want to deal with democratic ideals under a presidency with a national constitutional mandate. It is to those periods we now turn.

Formal rotation has never been entrenched into any of our constitutionals, so we are really talking about some INFORMAL rotation process.
Shagari was from the North and the NW zone and did four years as democratically-elected civilian president before being couped. Obasanjo is from the South and the SW zone and would have done 8 years as president if, God willing, nothing happens to him before 2007. If we are talking about North/South rotation, therefore, to be fair, it is the North's turn. If we are talking about zonal rotation, then it could be ANY of NE, NC, SE and SS's turn. If we are talking about length of time, maybe the NW should be invited back to complete their 4 years of civilian rule ? Maybe even Shagari should be invited back ? After all, he is still alive.
So when it comes to the issue of fairness, equity and justice that is often touted in support of the SS or SE's quest for the presidency, that is in the eye of the beholder, and no one can expect everybody to see those worthy concepts in the eyes of the SS and SE alone.
Let us now address the Abiola issue and the Yoruba/SW angle head-on.
The fact of the matter is that BEFORE Abiola won the 1993 candidacy for SDP - and went on to win the June 12 presidential election - one NEVER heard of the SW INSISTING that a Yoruba person must become president of Nigeria. In fact, before IBB cancelled Yar'Adua's presidential primaries in 1991 or so, Yar'Adua won HANDILY in the South-West. The records show that.
When at first June 12 was cancelled, one also NEVER initially heard that it was because Abiola was a Yoruba man, but that it was because he was a SOUTHERNER. In fact, Abiola was considered no Yoruba hero - an anti-hero actually - what with his previous deep anti-Awo stance and solid pro-establishment credentials.
It was ONLY after some prolongation of the strife, when it APPEARED that only the Yoruba people both in and out of Nigeria were in the main continuing to carry the brunt of of a NADECO-led opposition to an undemocratic and wasteful cancellation of June 12 did it begin to appear that it was because Abiola was Yoruba - or that the rest of the South was prepared to sacrifice his presidency because he was Yoruba - that the June 12 issue became a "Yoruba problem."
So the Yoruba said, "Ehen, se beyen ni ? Na so ? Okay o !" - and we tightened our belts for the rough ride.
After both Abacha and Abiola died, a recall of that vocal Yoruba opposition led to the concession of the presidency to the Yoruba by the outgoing military regime under one condition: "WE WILL CHOOSE THAT YORUBA PRESIDENT FOR THE YORUBA, and the YORUBA will not be allowed to make the choice, otherwise they may declare an Oduduwa Republic one fine morning !"
That is how the lot fell on Obasanjo in 1999 - whose nationalistic leanings were allegedly impeccable - without Yoruba support and with all of the ensuing things that have befallen the nation ever since. The 2003 elections saw the Yoruba at their cynical best: "you wanted him, you can have him for four more years ! S(h)e you know Oso's mother more than Oso? O ya then !"

The implication of the above is the following: if the SE and SS INSIST on rotation through the choice of their own man, then the SW too can complicate matters TREMENDOUSLY by INSISTING that it too should get to choose its own man or woman, because it did not do so in 1999.
In truth, however, the Yoruba are not complaining at all, and most of my reading of current Yoruba reaction is one of rueful cynicism about the present and future situation of Nigeria under this "turn-by-turn" thinking.
No serious Yoruba person besides Obasanjo himself is really thinking of winning a Presidential contest in Nigeria until certain understandable zonal concerns have been assuaged. Despite what many may think, the political sagacity of the SW is not that limited. :-) Na "siddon-look" den dey o !

The recent claims by some Northern political elements of agreements of rotation back to the North - and massive defections by "democracy defenders" from the PDP to form MDD/MRD - bring up the age-old gripe that some people believe that the nation belongs to them to rule. As discussed above, at one level of analysis as we look at the Shagari-Obasanjo "rotation", there could be a point for oscillation back to the North.
However, the North should be careful not to over-dramatize its age-old hegemony, military-supported or otherwise, on the Nigerian polity. Much of the country now knows or strongly feels that it was based first on a rigged colonial census, and next then it is currently MAINTAINED by too feeble an attempt to EDUCATE enough Northerners (education in the Western sense, without necessarily abandoning their cultural or religious roots) in the passing years so that more can be fully aware of their political rights within the context of Nigeria. The present moves not to include religious information in an upcoming census is also suspected to be an attempt to maintain religious hegemony in the country using possibly rigged former population figures.
Again, the "North" has to be VERY CAREFUL, because the issue has the potential to cause a conflagaration in the country IF the SOUTH is TRULY UNITED and insist. Under the present economic (oil as a major mainstay), social (the comparative lack of educational advancement) and cultural (women and Almajiri matters) circumstances, the North will be the loser if that conflagaration leads to a North-South split of the country. It will be cut off from the ocean - and might have to use Tripoli (Libya) as its port !
For let the truth be told: if the SS comes up with a CREDIBLE candidate that the SW can support, and if the SE steps aside on this issue, then we may have a real South-North problem/battle in our hands. A substantial portion of the SW and SS will not be gung-ho on a majority SE candidate at this time - and the North could exploit that sentiment to break the ranks. That is the ONLY thing that the North may be counting on.
But the North will be making a big mistake if it thinks that all is cut and dried, and that whatever it wants, it will get. In fact, it won't get what it wants if the SW and SE were to agree on a SS candidate, and cement an unbreakable Southern solidarity.
One does not necessarily support such a gang-up.

In 1979 when there were five political parties, Shagari emerged as the president, with Awo, Zik, Aminu Kano and Waziri Ibrahim as contestants. In 1993, Abiola emerged from an election involving only two parties (Babangida's contrived "a little to the left, a little to the right" SDP and NRC) with Bashir Tofa as his opponent. Only in 1999 was there a contrivance which ensured that ONLY one political zone - the SW - would emerge in the presence of three major parties (PDP, AD and ANPP) and only two candidates: Obasanjo and Falae.
To believe that the Obasanjo/Falae episode can EVER be repeated again where ALL political parties will present candidates from ONE ZONE so that that zone is guaranteed the presidency is an exercise in political naivety when we presently have about 32 parties, 9 of which at least will be prepared to present their candidates at any given time.

The only option then is to size up the two or three parties MOST LIKELY to win a presidential contest - and then try to FORCE, PERSUADE or CAJOLE them into adopting ONLY the candidates of one's favorite zone.
If that is the plan, then the discussions should be going on STRICTLY within the party confines, and the whole national polity should not be heated up thereby, where even non-party-members join in chorusing their preferences for zones on the pages of the newspapers, in Internet chat rooms - or in their bedrooms.

The real issue is not who rules Nigeria but what kind of a Nigeria should be ruled over, as guaranteed by a consensual Constitution, a visionary collective leadership that invigorates a dynamic citizenry, and laws that enhance economic and social development, and in particular prevent rather than merely punish the large-scale corruption that is currently sapping Nigeria's vitality. After all, no region or zone can point to any gain based on its favorite son being at the helm of presidential affairs.
The real danger is that if certain issues are not amicably resolved by mid-2006 over this candidacy issue - and resolved in the direction of free contest in free-and-fair elections at all party and national levels - then we might enter into a serious crisis mode in 2007 which will see current president Obasanjo being projected as the ONLY person capable of stemming the national hemorrhage, and hence calls for elongation of his term will heighten.
One cannot rule out that unseen hands are currently stage-managing such an eventuality, even with international (foreign) assistance.
We must do all within our power to avoid that.