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The zoning of the presidency under a principle of rotation between North and South is the most contentious issue in the PDP going into the 2023 general elections

A 37-member committee set up by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to advise it on whether or not to “zone” its ticket for the 2023 presidential election concluded its assignment on Tuesday. Later that day, reports emerged in the media that the committee, headed by Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom, had recommended that the party should abandon its policy of zoning and throw its presidential primaries later in May open to contestants from every part of Nigeria.

However, Mr Ortom, while appearing on the ‘Morning Show’ programme of AriseTV on Wednesday, angrily denied the report and insisted that the committee had been “quoted on what it did not say.”

 “I want to clear the insinuation that the zoning committee has thrown open the presidential ticket. I did inform the media yesterday (Tuesday, April 5, 2022) that the committee has adopted a unanimous position to be presented to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the party. Where did I say that the committee has thrown open the presidential ticket?” he quipped.

He continued: “As the chairman of the committee, we did not say that. So it is very wrong for anyone to insinuate that we have thrown the presidential ticket open. I am still repeating that, whatever we did, we have submitted our report to NEC. So it is wrong for the media to come out with a position despite the fact that they were not members of the committee.”

He then stressed, “it is NEC (of the party) that has the final authority on the zoning of positions.”

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Mr Ortom’s angry rebuttal underscored the gravity of the issue in the universe of Nigeria’s main opposition party. Media reports before Tuesday had indicated that the committee had been unable to find a common ground on zoning because of the high stakes involved.

According to the governor, “there were arguments that the presidential candidate should go to the South, while some said it should go to the northern part of the country. There were others who were of the opinion that it should be thrown open for the best candidate who will be able to deliver good governance and make Nigerians feel like human beings again.”

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The party had picked members of the committee from across the country to allow all its state chapters to participate in making a decision that many fear may make or mar the party’s chances in next year’s presidential poll. On the face of it, the committee had been asked a simple question: Should the PDP stick with its tradition and zone its presidential ticket or take a new expedient course by throwing the race open to all who may be interested, irrespective of where in Nigeria they may come from?

Zoning as a principle

While inaugurating the committee, the National Chairman of the party, Mr Ayu, had reiterated that the principle of zoning stands. He said the PDP would maintain its custom of rotating political offices among geopolitical zones in the country, and asked interested aspirants whom the rotation arrangement may not favour this time around to wait for their time.

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PDP National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu
PDP National Chairman, Senator Iyorchia Ayu

“PDP has a history of rotating our offices. Anybody who doesn’t get it this time should wait after the tenure of whoever will be our next president.


“There should be no rancour whatsoever, remain focused on the bigger picture. Because that is what we want. I believe that by the time we have the big prize in our hands, we will share it, and we will rotate it the way we want. If we had not been interrupted on this journey, about six years ago, we would have started the same process.

“We believe PDP is going to produce the next President once we start this journey. This time, we will ensure it goes round. And it will go round with justice, fairness and the interests of Nigeria.”

But the comment had not gone down well with many party leaders. Two of the presidential aspirants, former vice president Atiku Abubakar and Sokoto governor Aminu Tambuwal, had advised the committee and the party to focus on producing a credible and worthy candidate rather than focusing on the zoning principle.

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Contentious issue

The zoning of the presidency under a principle of rotation between North and South has been the most contentious issue in the PDP going into the general elections. It has pitted the South against the North of the party, at least on the surface, as presidential hopefuls on both sides salivate at the prospect of running in an election where the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari will not be a candidate.

Southern PDP governors were first to light the fire of controversy when in July last year they joined their colleagues from the other parties in the Southern Governors Forum in demanding that Mr Buhari’s successor should come from their region. The agitation has been echoed by socio-political groups from the region, such as Ohanaeze Ndigbo of the South East, Afenifere of the South West and PANDEF of the South-South, with the Middle Belt Forum also lending a shrill voice of support from the North.

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Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike has since become the face of the agitation, recently attacking Mr Abubakar, former Senate President Bukola Saraki and others from the North who have both bought the nomination forms for the PDP ticket.

Rivers State Governor, Nyesome Wike
Wike

If the party decides to zone, it will likely allocate the ticket to the South, principally because its last candidate, Atiku Abubakar in 2019, is from the North and also because President Buhari has kept the seat in the same region since 2015, albeit on the ticket of the rival All Progressives Congress (APC).

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Such a decision will automatically shut the door on the faces of some of the party’s most prominent and enduring aspirants like Mr Abubakar, Mr Saraki, Mr Tambuwal, and Bauchi governor Bala Mohammed, all of whom have been up and about with their current campaigns.

If on the other hand, the opposition party accedes to the pressure to throw the race open to all contenders, the aspirants from the southern region will feel shortchanged at having to contest against their more experienced and better connected northern rivals, when that was not the case in the previous electoral cycle in 2019 when all the options were northern.

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PDP and Zoning

The PDP had adopted the concept of zoning from inception, saying this was to promote national unity. Section 7 (2) (c) of the party’s constitution states “In pursuance of the principle of equity, justice and fairness, the party shall adhere to the policy of rotation and zoning of the party and public executive offices.”

To be sure, PDP did not invent the policy. At the dawn of the Second Republic in 1978, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) had introduced zoning as a power-sharing arrangement between the North and South. It nominated Shehu Shagari from Sokoto State as its presidential candidate, who went on to nominate Alex Ekwueme from Anambra State as his running mate.

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Although the four other parties did not proclaim the same policy, they all also balanced their presidential tickets with North and South nominees, except the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) whose candidate, Obafemi Awolowo, chose to run with Philip Umeadi from the old Anambra State in the only South-South ticket in the 1979 presidential election.

The PDP adopted the policy at its inception, which has since seen its presidential ticket oscillate between the two regions. In 1999, prominent northern aspirants like Adamu Ciroma, Bamanga Tukur and Atiku Abubakar stayed out of the race to allow the new party choose principally between a former military head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Second Republic Vice President, Mr. Ekwueme. Radical Kano politician, the late Abubakar Rimi, who rebelled against the decision, was eventually persuaded by his northern colleagues to drop his nomination form.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
Obasanjo

Coming after the political impasse and brutal dictatorships of the Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha years that had taken the nation to the edge of the precipice, northern leaders who had inadvertently laid the first blocks for the formation of the PDP when they formed a group of 18 to openly oppose Mr Abacha’s self-transmutation agenda, agreed that the South should produce the first president of the Fourth Republic.

The concession was essentially pragmatic, the preceding 17 years had been under northern rulers, from President Shehu Shagari (1979-83) to the three military generals that followed him. That and the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election had concretised the fear of the northern monopoly of national political leadership.

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In 2003, President Obasanjo survived a masked challenge from his deputy, Mr Abubakar, to be renominated but he then exhibited the first serious act of infidelity to the power rotation policy of the PDP, first by scheming to stay beyond his allowed terms and then by encouraging aspirants from the South to seek to succeed him after his scheme crumbled at the Senate.

The next serious challenge to the policy emerged following the death of Mr Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, in May 2010. The northern wing of the party demanded that power revert to its region to enable it to conclude its turn abbreviated by the death of Mr Yar’Adua.

Thus, when Goodluck Jonathan, who had stepped up from the vice presidency to take the top seat after his principal’s demise, asked the party to nominate him for his own first term, he met a furious reaction from the northern wing of the party, reflected in the legion of aspirants from the region who challenged him for the PDP ticket.

The northern aspirants in the race were so many, including former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, his military intelligence chief, Aliyu Mohammed, Mr Abubakar and Mr Saraki, that they eventually saw the need to present a consensus candidate to challenge the president at the primaries. Mr Abubakar, who emerged as their flag bearer, was resoundingly defeated and Mr Jonathan went on to win his election handsomely.

However, when Mr Jonathan sought another term in 2015, his northern rivals were not even allowed to participate in the primaries as the party infamously announced that it had produced only one nomination form for the event. From the convention where Mr. Jonathan was renominated at the Eagle Square in Abuja, seven governors who had formed a splinter new PDP, and Mr Abubakar announced they were pulling out of the party. They later joined the newly registered APC, followed there three days later by at least 11 senators and scores of members of the House of Representatives.

The development contributed largely to the defeat of Mr. Jonathan in the 2019 presidential election that ended PDP’s 16 years hold on the presidency. Mr Wike referenced this in his attack on Messrs Abubakar, Saraki, and Tambuwal, who were among the defectors but are now seeking to fly the flag of the party next year.

Thus, in seeking for the party to altogether jettison zoning this time around, the northern aspirants have argued that their southern party people had not always shown fidelity and unconditional love for the policy, that they only cite it when it favours them.

Goodluck Jonathan
Jonathan

But that is not their only argument for an all-comers race. A major point they are raising is that the South has held power more than the North under the PDP. In the 16 years that the party ran the country, the South, through former Presidents Obasanjo and Jonathan, were in office for 14 and a half years. On the other hand, the only northerner elected president under the PDP, Umaru Yar’adua, was in office for only two and a half years before he became infirmed and eventually died in May 2010.  Therefore, the argument goes, that taking the ticket to the South in 2023 would only worsen the existing imbalance that has the North at the receiving end.

They have also argued that the PDP should take advantage of the APC seemingly ceding its ticket to the South by nominating its own candidate from the North where there are more votes.

This position had been canvassed by a committee that reviewed the 2019 elections for the party. The 14-member committee, headed by Bauchi State Governor, Mr Mohammed, noted that the PDP has an “unwritten conventions” of power rotation between North and South, but warned that “the exigencies of the moment demanded that nothing should be compromised in choosing the leader with the attributes to disentangle the country from the present quagmire.

“Therefore, we think that every Nigerian from every  part of the country should be given the opportunity to choose the best candidate through a credible primary election, as a way of institutionalising a merit-based leadership recruitment process for the country.”

A PDP northern candidate in 2023 brings the prospect of the region holding power for an unbroken 16 years, and perhaps ad infinitum should the APC lose in 2023 and 2027 and decide to copy from the PDP strategy book by nominating northern candidates in subsequent elections. That is exactly the scenario that the PDP founding fathers had adopted the policy of zoning to avert. But some of the current leaders of the party in the South are now not bothered by that scenario. The most important thing for them, they said, is for the party to regain power and come out of the wilderness.

This may be the reason why Mr Wike’s appears to be the only strident voice among the PDP governors in the region demanding fidelity to zoning, even when he is not the only one who is running for president.  Another aspirant, Peter Obi, attended the ceremony in Abuja where Mr Abubakar formally declared, before hurrying to Awka in Anambra to make his own declaration. There are speculations that he and some other southern aspirants are also angling to be the running mate if the ticket goes to the North.

Mr Wike himself has lately been sounding a reconciliatory tone, saying he would accept whatever zone the party decides to give the presidential ticket. But implicit in that statement is a reiteration of the demand that the PDP must not jettison zoning.

While the committee was still on its assignment, the party had begun the sale of nomination forms for the different positions, including for the presidential candidate.

The presidential nomination form is going for N40 million and so far, 13 aspirants have obtained the form in expression of their interest in the 2023 presidential election.

Former Nigeria Vice President, Atiku Abubakar
Former Nigeria Vice President, Atiku Abubakar

The aspirants who have purchased forms are Mr Abubakar, Mr Saraki, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation Pius Anyim, and Governors Bala Mohammed, Nyesom Wike, Aminu Tambuwal and Udom Emmanuel of Bauchi, Rivers, Sokoto and Akwa Ibom respectively.

The other aspirants are Mr Obi; publisher of Ovation magazine Dele Momodu, Nwachukwu Anakwenze, Sam Ohuabunwa, Mohammed Hayatu-Deen and Diana Tariela, the only female aspirant.

These hopefuls who have obtained the nomination forms have done so without waiting to know whether the ticket will be zoned or if it will be thrown open.

A fait accompli?

Some observers said some of the aspirants bought the form and launched their campaigns to force the hands of the party on the issue. Many believe the party will throw the race open because it has thrown the sale of nomination forms open.

Others also cite other factors that have made an all-comer primary a fait accompli. Mr Momodu, for instance, said it is practically and legally impossible for a political party to disqualify an aspirant on account of zoning having collected N40 million for the nomination form.

He also described as a fallacy, the notion that a southern candidate cannot win the 2023 presidential election. Mr Momodu was suggesting that the party does not need to pick from the North to win, even if it allows all to contest, and that it is only an inferiority complex that will make a southern aspirant think he has no chance against the northern aspirants.

Dele Momodu [Photo: ThisdayLive]
Dele Momodu [Photo: ThisdayLive]

The fear of mass defection of members in the North, if their aspirants are shut out through zoning, may also push the party further in the direction of an open race. The PDP is evidently sick and tired of its role in the opposition and may persuade its leaders to accept whatever position if it has the prospect of helping them regain tenancy at the Aso Rock Villa.

Note that Mr Ortom on Wednesday did not categorically deny that the committee recommended an open race. What he said was that he had not told the media what the decision of the committee was, all he said was that the decision was unanimous.

What is clear is that those who led the media into reporting the recommendation of an open race did so to force the hands of the party. That desperation is what has brought the PDP to a crossroads on a policy its founding fathers had fabricated as the Open Sesame to national unity.

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