Zoning controversy and restructuring debate – Punch

Deploying the usual repertoire of brickbats, verbal acrobatics and selective back-stories, Nigeria’s elite have stepped up arguments over the thorny choice between zoning and meritocracy in selecting the next national leader. The cacophony of mutually hostile voices condemning or supporting the suggestion by Mamman Daura, a reputed northern power broker, that merit alone should determine the choice of president in 2023, reflects the regional and other centrifugal fault lines of the country that nurture the fragility of the union. They mostly miss the point: tensions over zoning and rotation of power arise solely from the current deformed political structure; restructuring the country into a truly federal system is the only road to national survival.

Hypocritically advocating merit in the choice of president in 2023, Daura neither addressed the palpable despair of ethnic nationalities who feel alienated from the system nor the rising clamour to return to the federal system that delivered development across the country in the run-up to and shortly after independence. He arrogantly said, “This turn-by-turn, it was done once, it was done twice, and it was done thrice… It is better for this country to be one…it should be for the most competent and not for someone who comes from somewhere.” He was immediately supported by the Arewa Consultative Forum, which argued that zoning and rotation were not in the 1999 Constitution. This is a deeply dishonest way of consolidating and entrenching ethnic domination. But the Presidency claims Daura was exercising his right as an elder statesman. This is an intrigue and a perfidy taken too far.

Not surprisingly, southern and Middle Belt groups have pushed back against the merit kite as a ploy by the northern elite to hang on to power. Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Middle Belt Forum and the South-South Elders have pointedly recalled how the Northern elite perpetually cried, clamoured and sought at every turn to undermine the respective administrations of Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, demanding that they must not seek second terms, but stand down for northern candidates on the grounds of pre-agreed zoning arrangements. Those who vociferously swore by zoning, even threatened to “make the country ungovernable” if zoning was not respected, have today, having secured power through Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), become the vocal advocates of “merit and competence”, two virtues that the regime demonstrably lacks. Buhari and his party reneged on their campaign promise to back restructuring. A panel headed by Governor Nasir el-Rufai made recommendations, but the report has been ignored.

The decisive moment, long postponed, is however closing in with possible cataclysmic impact. Haldun Çancı, associate professor of political science, Eastern Mediterranean University, North Cyprus, says Nigeria is synonymous with deep divisions, which cause major political issues to be vigorously and violently contested along the lines of intricate ethnic, religious and regional divisions. He is right. Nigeria has never been a nation and it can never be one until the contraption is reworked.

Ordinarily, merit and the ability to persuade a majority of the electorate based on programmes and policies should be the ideal qualities to win office and the very essence of democracy. But unlike other democracies where the diverse people have a sense of belonging, of shared nationhood and have put appropriate political arrangements in place to allow robust autonomy and effective self-determination for their different nationalities, Nigeria’s elite continue to live in denial of the country’s plurality. This dangerous pretence has failed to forge a common national identity among its over 250 ethnic nationalities 106 years after the British cavalierly amalgamated the diverse territories and 60 years after flag independence.

The carefully constructed federal system based on four autonomous regions that had considerable autonomy, was overthrown by the military in 1966 and since then, the country, a natural federation, has become more unitary in practice, with the 36 states as beggarly appendages of the all-powerful centre. This forsters laziness and enables some parts of the polity to dominate others, deprive them of the bulk of revenues generated in their territories and confers advantages in political offices, in the security services and the bureaucracy on a few.

It is this anomaly that informed the informal adoption of rotating the presidency between the North and the South to preserve the country’s fragile unity. This became compelling after the northern-dominated military annulled the free and fair presidential election of June 12, 1993 won by a southerner, Moshood Abiola, provoking tension and threats of a break-up.

There is little doubt that zoning, rotation and quota system deny a country the best and most acceptable, a lazy approach to solving problems, but the question is: Can Nigeria survive in its present form without zoning? Or are these latter-day advocates of meritocracy ready for a just federal system anchored along the 1963 republican constitution? This is the big worry.

The powers concentrated in the centre are so huge and those of states so hamstringing, fostering a patronage system from Abuja that alienates those kept outside the power matrix. The minorities are particularly disadvantaged. Such alienation has provoked self-determination agitation, distrust among the nationalities and violence since the end of the military rule. Apart from the economic ruins, Nigeria is ranked the world’s 14th most fragile state, and according to Olu Fasan, a Visiting Fellow at the International Relations Department at the LSE, “through the prism of the taxonomy of basic development conditions, it failed virtually all the conditions for development; it hasn’t ascended the path of prosperity because it has failed to do the needful.”

Nigerians must speak blunt truth to themselves.  Differences in culture, aspirations and worldview are disparate and wide. Over a century of shared space has not transformed a heterogeneous society to a homogeneous one because of the unjust federalism. The United States launched its independent nationhood based on the rights of the federating colonies to autonomy and became a melting pot. While other forward-thinking multi-ethnic countries continue to nurture their unions, Nigeria indulges in the delusion of forcing “unity in diversity.” It will not work.

On the contrary, it is when diverse people and states have considerable autonomy, generate their resources, compete for investments and markets and are able to actualise their aspirations, each at their own pace, that shared pride, and sense of belonging is forged. Canada’s greatness is anchored on diversity that does not deny the uniqueness of provinces like French-speaking Quebec that retain distinct identities. The seven emirates of the UAE offer a splendid example of what autonomy and true federation can accomplish for the economy and national integration.

As this newspaper has repeatedly argued, Nigeria is negotiable, a geographical expression that is definitely not cast in stone in perpetuity. It is the inalienable right of all who reside in it to forge mutually acceptable arrangements that meet their aspirations. It is equally their right to opt out of the union if they so desire based on agreed protocols. Said a Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, “People have the right anytime to say, ‘We want to leave this union, whatever it is’, any kind of union, politically or whatever type of union. People have the right at any time to say, ‘Let’s have a referendum in this area’, that is, for me, part and parcel of democracy. Look at what is happening in even England today – Scotland wants independence.” He is right. Singapore had to detach itself from federal Malaysia in 1965 to create a separate identity, transforming from a backwater into a highly developed market economy with the world’s seventh highest per capita income.

Daura’s statement is nothing but a brute machination designed to sow division in order to keep a section of the country perpetually in power. Much has gone wrong with Nigeria. It can get worse. The centralised, anachronistic system has failed. The United Kingdom, a unitary state, has 43 police forces for its 67.88 million people; Nigeria absurdly has a patchy one for its 200 million persons with insecurity rising to distressing and wholly unacceptable levels.

The consequences of the present contraption can be deadly. The sole agenda now should be to peacefully overthrow this unjust system that facilitates indolence; a culture of sharing instead of production, entitlement instead of contribution. Separatism is just dormant, only a political restructuring based on justice can eliminate it. Continuing with the status quo offers only the prospect of endless conflict that may eventually end in disaster.

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