At each election season in Nigeria, there is a lingering issue that is sure to come up. It is the conversation around zoning. To those who don’t know, zoning is simply a power rotation arrangement amongst the constituent groups in Nigeria. The idea of zoning and the federal character principle bears some similarities which I will try to explain.
Our founding fathers came up with the federal character principle in deference to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural nature of our society. The federal character principle was meant to prevent the dominance of one ethnic or religious group over the other and to build a sense of national unity. To ensure that this principle is not abused, it was deliberately enshrined and clearly defined in the constitution of the country as seen below;
The 1979 Constitution states as follows; “the composition of the government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or any of its agencies” (Section 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution). Pursuant to this, the appointment of Ministers, shall reflect the Federal Character of Nigeria…the President shall appoint at least one Minister from each state who shall be an indigene of such state. (section 147 (3) 1999 Constitution). Appointment to the offices of the Secretary to the Government, Head of Service, Ambassadors, Permanent Secretaries shall have regard to the federal character (section 171 (5) 1999 Constitution).
From the above, it is clear why and how the federal character principle came about. Those who argue that the principle is meant to promote incompetence are just trying to be clever by half. The principle never said that incompetent people should be favoured over competent people. If we say that the principle has been abused over the years, then there is a point in that line of argument. But to ensure justice, equity, and fairness in a pluralistic society like Nigeria, then a principle like this was sure to come about. Nigeria is a unique country in several respects. Most countries in the world are usually formed along 3 key natural homogeneous lines; language, culture, and religion. That is why some countries are even defined by their language. It is common to hear statements like; are you French? Spanish? English? Portuguese? And so on. All these are predominant languages in these countries.
In Nigeria, we do not have these natural homogeneous lines because of our unique diversity. Hence, our founding fathers created the federal character principle to make up for the absence of natural homogeneity. Again, the thinking was to foster unity and a general sense of belonging. I have taken the time to explain the federal character principle because I will draw a nexus between the federal character principle and zoning.
Zoning is a political arrangement that is meant to ensure that power rotates between the North and South. Though not explicitly stated in the constitution, most political parties and pundits agree that a country like Nigeria needs some form of power-sharing arrangement so as to continue to co-exist peacefully, without some sections feeling that they are left out. Those who argue that zoning robs us off the opportunity of having the best candidate also miss the point. When a position is zoned to any part of the country, that part of the country owes us the duty of ensuring that they put forward their best foot.
Since 1999, there has been some sort of zoning in Nigeria. To compensate the southwest for the June 12 debacle, the two major parties at that time fielded candidates from the southwest. This ensured that whichever way the election went, someone from the southwest will emerge as president, to assuage the hurt that followed the June 12 1993 election. Obasanjo eventually benefitted from that election and went on to rule for 8years. At the expiration of his tenure, Peter Odili was a strong contender to succeed him. But along the line, the party settled for Umaru Yar’adua from the north instead of retaining power in the south. Unfortunately, Yar’adua died before he could complete his first term in office. This led to Goodluck Jonathan taking over to complete the remaining part of his term.
After the death of Yar’adua, the question was; should the north be allowed to complete their 8 years as Obasanjo did, or should Jonathan be allowed to contest the 2011 election? It was a politically tensed period in the country, as many from the north felt that they were shortchanged. Truth is, the death of Yar’adua caused some sort of tsunami in the political power-sharing equation in Nigeria. Eventually, Goodluck won the 2011 election and became president for 4 years.
In 2015, Buhari contested a very divisive election against Jonathan and won. By next year, he would have spent 8years in power as president. The conversation currently going on as regards the 2023 election is where power should be zoned to? Buhari coming from the north and completing his 8years should automatically shut out any candidate from the north. The north has had its fair share. The clamour now is for power to be zoned to the south. Now, which part of the south should get the shot? The southwest has had Obasanjo for 8years as president and Osinbajo as vice president for 8years by next year. The south-south has had Jonathan as vice president for 3 years and president for 5 years. The southeast hasn’t produced either the president or the vice president since 1999. Why then should power not be zoned to them if it comes to the south?
It is my belief that zoning should be constitutionalized to avoid these cyclical debates and agitations for power shift. Good enough, both the north and the south have 3 political zones each. When it is the turn of the north, they determine if it is the north-east, north-central, or north-west that will produce a candidate. When it becomes the turn of the south, they will also do the same along their geopolitical lines. Zoning should not be discarded. It is part of what will guarantee unity, peace, progress, and a sense of belonging in this country.