El-Rufai: Fishing in troubled waters

Though the journey to the 2023 general election seems far away, politicians are gradually returning to the starting blocks for the election year, writes KUNLE ODEREMI

While the dust triggered by the conduct of the 2019 presidential election still hangs in the air, political gladiators are already about power shift with fever pitch. It is in sync with the way, the American preacher, James Freeman Clarke distinguishes a politician from a statesman. According to Clarke: “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

That indeed is the emerging scenario in the Nigerian political space. Individuals and groups are already taking positions on where the next president of the most populous black nation should come from in 2023. In the South-East geopolitical zone, the issue has caused a crack among the Igbo political elite. Though a preponderance of pressure groups from the zone want power shifting to the Igbo in 2023, there seems to be no consensus among the main political gladiators on the matter. Even the umbrella organisation of the Igbo, Ohanaeze Ndigbo is more preoccupied with the agenda that Nigeria be restructured to the status of proper federation. It shares the agenda with the South-South, South-West and the North-Central geopolitical zone because of the existing convoluted federal arrangement that remains the veritable source of unending political instability and frightening contradictions in the country.

Nonetheless, within the aforementioned four geopolitical zones are forces that are already leading the advocacy for power rotating to their areas in four years’ time. They predicate their campaigns on the political expediency otherwise called zoning,  which became a popular in the Second Republic by the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The principle dovetailed into the Fourth Republic, with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) entrenching it in its system such that power has oscillated between the North and the South since May 29, 1999 when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the first civilian president and beneficiary of power rotation between the North and the South after a prolonged military interregnum in the country.  Though the practice witnessed some hiccups and frictions at various times, it has served as a relative stabilising valve in the polity, especially on power sharing in the last two decades.

With the next election year far away, the concept of power shit has come under threat. The latest of such threat, in the opinion of some political actors, is the outburst of the diminutive governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. He has been receiving verbal assaults from various quarters for flying a kite through his advocacy that zoning should not be applicable in 2023. The general interpretation being given to his advocacy is that the North should have an unimpeded opportunity to seek the presidency rather than the contest being the sole business among the power blocs in the South.

If incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari triumphs at the ongoing sitting of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, the North would have had the maximum two terms of four years each since 2015 to pave the way for a president of Southern extraction in 2023 based on mutual agreement called zoning. By the next election year, the North would have ruled the country for more than 10 out of the 20 years of civil rule in the country since 1999. The South-West had eight years of Obasanjo as president, who was succeeded by the late Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007, whose deputy, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, from the South-South had six years, including two years as acting president, following the demise of his boss.

The thesis of El-Rufai has not gone down with a lot of other stakeholders in the Nigerian project. They have variously faulted his position on the ground that it seemed a deliberate attempt by some power brokers in the country to shift the goal post in the middle of a football match. In effect, it is a ploy to shortchange other zones of the country after the North would have had ‘more than its fair share of power’ since 1999. Others believe the governor was only trying to hide behind one finger because of speculations that he has a presidential ambition. Others alleged that the governor was only grandstanding because of the various challenges he has had to contend with as the governor of the political headquarters of the North. Another school of thought has it El-Rufai just looking for ways to settle a political score with an influential power bloc in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), led by the party’s National Leader, Chief Bola Tinubu. Both APC stalwarts have been involved in a battle of wits, sometimes through proxies over sundry issues. Speculations are rife that the APC national leader might have short at the presidency in 2023. Therefore, the governor is perceived as drawing the line for a titanic battle. Generally, however, the call for the jettisoning of zoning, by El-Rufai is seen as a smokescreen by a powerful clique in the North to alter the existing political calculus in earnest, with el-Rufai as the face of the shadowy group determined to retain power in that part of the country. The narrative as espoused by the governor is that competence should take a pre-eminent position in the criteria for determining the next president. But his view on competence is perceived by his critics to have been adroitly coined to shortchange the South from taking its turn at the presidency.

One of the prominent lawyers that spoke on the raging debate is Chief Mohammed Fawehinmi. He is vehemently opposed to the proposition of El-Rufai. He warned the governor against trying to deny the South from having its turn at the expiration of the tenure of the current president. Fawehinmi said: “I don’t subscribe to the position of Governor Nasir El-Rufai. There should be zoning/power rotation in 2023. It is the turn of the South. Everybody and the region must have its own turn. We have millions of extra- ordinary competence in qualified individuals in the South. The North has had its turn through President Buhari; the next president must come from the South.”

Another legal practitioner, Comrade Femi Aborishade faulted the governor on his thesis, even though the activist did not totally agree with the concept of zoning of elective offices. Describing the position of El Rufai as absolutely misleading, one-sided, individualistic, elitist and egocentric, Aborishade said El-Rufai set a wrong precept through his leadership style as the governor of Kaduna State. “With the ‘competence’ of el-Rufai in governing Kaduna State, about 40, 000 public officers in different departments and ministries of government were sacked, prematurely retired, terminated and persecuted in 2017, thus throwing ordinary people into misery and sorrow, which have transformed Kaduna State into one of the dangerous states to live, visit or work in Nigeria,” Aborishade stated. He added that the ‘competence’ of the “elitist leader counts for nothing within the context of a pro-rich philosophy of governance.”

In the North, the debate over adherence to zoning for political convenience in the next political dispensation is equally generating ripples, as some elements, especially under the Coalition of Northern Youths are diametrically opposed to the position of the radical senator, Shehu Sani in his advocacy that the South-West deserve to produce the president of the country in 2023. While the coalition accused the zone of double-standard under the Buhari presidency, the senator that represented Kaduna State in the eighth National Assembly, said the North needed to reward the South-West for its unalloyed loyalty and support for the North in making the Buhari presidency in 2015 and sustaining it power through the 2019 elections.

An opinion piece written by a commentator, Matthew Adeleye is quite instructive on the wide interest being generated by the thesis of the Kaduna State governor. Adeleye insisted: “El-Rufai’s postulation cannot work under the current political dispensation in the country. The informal zoning arrangement that allows power shifting back to the South should be respected and not jettisoned. El-Rufai’s non-zoning formula is nothing but an invitation to chaos. We should give peace a chance. Any idea of proposing cancellation of zoning arrangement at the moment will provoke and instigate people particularly the minority to demand regional governments, resource control, restructuring and what not. It is important we analyse the significance and gravity of our utterances before speaking them out. The unity of Nigeria is of paramount importance. We should maintain the status quo by ensuring power comes back to the South after eight years of the incumbent.”