By Olu Fasan
THERE is an intellectual dishonesty at the heart of the opposition to rotational presidency in Nigeria. The advocates of “meritocracy” conveniently forget that Nigeria is, politically, not a meritocratic country, and that zoning is a political imperative that speaks to this country’s deeply flawed political structure that creates recurrent inter-ethnic conflicts over power. Thus, those calling for meritocracy must also, invariably, support political restructuring. You cannot have one without the other!
Yet, the most vociferous in rejecting power rotation are also the most visceral in opposing restructuring. But Nigeria’s political structure, which entrenches a historical power imbalance in which one ethnic group dominates the rest, is incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of fairness fundamental to democratic societies.
But that hasn’t stopped the cacophony of noises against power rotation. For instance, a few months ago, Mamman Daura, a Northern leader and President Muhammadu Buhari’s influential nephew, told the BBC in an interview: “This turn-by-turn, it was done once, it was done twice, and it was done thrice. It’s better for this country to be one… It should be for the most competent and not for someone who comes from somewhere.”
Well, first, let’s call out the utter hypocrisies of the latter-day advocates of meritocracy, who are mostly from the North. Memories may be short, but some will remember how they tried to delegitimise President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration from 2010 to 2011 because they believed a Northerner should complete President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s term after his death. Why are the advocates of meritocracy strong defenders of the Federal Character, which is anything but meritocratic and has the same aim of “promoting national unity” as zoning?
Now, I’m an ardent believer in meritocracy. I subscribe to Cicero’s rule that “those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land.” I share Socrates’ view in Plato’s The Republic that for a political community to be governed well, “those with the most intelligence should rule it”. And I agree with Plato that the philosopher-king must have specialised form of knowledge (gnosis).
But, let’s face it, is Nigeria a meritocratic nation where those with the qualities described by Cicero, Plato and Socrates can emerge as a leader? Barack Obama went from being a local legislator in Illinois in 2000 to becoming America’s first black president in 2008. Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte, formed his own party in 2017 and went on to beat the two traditional parties to become the president of France. That’s what meritocracy looks like!
The closest story in Nigeria is that of President Jonathan, who once said: “In my early days in school, I had no shoes, no school bags. There were days I had only one meal…” Yet, he went on to become president. But, unlike Obama and Macron, Jonathan owed his political ascent to godfatherism.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, who handpicked Jonathan as President Yar’Adua’s vice president, paving the way for him to become president after Yar’Adua’s death, said that he made that direct intervention because, if he hadn’t, no one from the Niger Delta could ever, in his or her own right, become president of Nigeria.
But why? What about the so-called meritocracy? Well, the political structure of this country is so skewed in favour of the North that it has political hegemony. Think of it: to become president, a candidate only needs to have the highest number of votes cast at the election plus one-quarter of the votes cast in two-thirds of all the states in the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory, that is, in 24 of the 36 states, plus the FCT, Abuja!
Now, only the North can achieve that. And here’s why. The North has 19 states against the South’s 17. All the North needs to do to gain power is to speak with one voice and vote the same way – which it always does when it serves its interests.
Then, it only needs to find just one willing ally among the South’s three geopolitical zones. Given that the South rarely votes the same way, the North will always find one geopolitical zone as a willing ally. In the past, it used to be the South-South; in 2015 and 2019, it was the South West.
In a “meritocratic” system, without zoning or power-rotation, no Yoruba or Igbo or Ijaw has a chance of becoming president without securing large votes across the North, whereas a Northerner can become president by simply amassing large votes in the North and then securing sufficient votes in just one of three geopolitical zones in the South. Take 2015. Buhari secured miniscule votes in the South East and the South-South and still won.
But, despite amassing large votes in the South, Jonathan lost the election because he only won, marginally, in three of the 19 Northern states: Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba. So, electorally, the South needs the whole North, but the North just needs one of the South’s three geopolitical zones and can ignore the remaining two. That structural imbalance entrenches the North’s political dominance. It is incompatible with the meritocratic values and engenders political instability.
Of course, with a winner-takes-all political system and over-powerful presidency, which has enormous power of patronage often used to favour narrow group interests, Nigeria, a multi-ethnic country, is crisis-prone, with recurrent inter-ethnic conflict over power and resources. Scholars say one of the solutions is power sharing.
Yet, as we are seeing, zoning is a major source of tension in Nigeria. Regional and ethnic identities are strong and mutually hostile. The enduring solution is restructuring. Nigeria doesn’t need an overpowerful president, who, as Buhari recently showed, could snub an invitation from the National Assembly; it needs a collegial and accountable prime minister. Also, Nigeria doesn’t need overconcentration of power in the centre; it needs regional political and economic powerhouses.
With proper restructuring and rebalancing of powers in Nigeria, zoning will become pointless. Until then, it’s an imperative!