2023 Presidency: Between quota system and zoning

After the initial arguments over the zoning of the presidency, Nigeria seems to be facing the reality that the president of Nigeria from 2023 will be from the southern part of the country. The ruling All Progressives Congress has zoned the chairmanship of the party to the North and the presidency to the South. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party has zoned the chairmanship of the party to the North, which is seen as a fait accompli that the presidency will be zoned to the South.

In the South, there are three zones: South-East, South-South, and South-West. There has been no clear-cut message that the presidency will be narrowed to any of the three zones. It may be too early to do that. However, there have been arguments that “merit” should be allowed to play out, so as to get the best candidate for the country in 2023. The argument has been that zoning promotes mediocrity.

But there is an angle that those who make this argument do not look at. Since competence is so important, why does Nigeria have the quota system and federal character policies enshrined in its constitution? Quota system stipulates that admissions into government schools and universities should be done in a way that will ensure that pupils and students from all parts of Nigeria are admitted. There are some states that are categorised as educationally disadvantaged states. These states are given low cut-off marks while other states are given higher cut-off marks. A typical example is the 2013 Unity School admission.

Seven states were given cut-off marks of at least 130: Anambra – 139, Imo – 138, Enugu – 134, Lagos – 133, Delta – 131, Ogun – 131, Abia – 130. Conversely, these seven states got the lowest cut-off marks of less than 50: Zamfara – 2, Yobe – 2, Taraba – 3, Kebbi – 7, Sokoto – 9, Bauchi – 35, Borno – 45. This is the pattern every year.

The import was that a child from Anambra State who scored 135 did not gain admission into the Federal Government colleges, but a child from Zamfara State who scored two gained admission. To gain admission into the university too, similar discriminatory cut-off marks apply every year.

Similarly, the Nigerian Constitution stipulates that employment into government agencies should reflect federal character. This means that merit or competence is not used for employment. If merit is used, very few candidates from the educationally disadvantaged states will be employed. Promotions and appointments to positions of authority must also reflect federal character.

What this means is that merit is compromised in the training of those who eventually become leaders in Nigeria. Ironically, after they have been produced based on zoning and non-application of competence parameters, some people start to argue that zoning should not be used in deciding who becomes the president of Nigeria.

Let us look at how Nigerians have ruled Nigeria since this Fourth Republic began in 1999. Our analysis covers from 1999 to 2023 when the tenure of those in power now will expire. Based on the number of years people from the different zones have led Nigeria since 1999, the North-West comes first with 11 years as president (Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua – three years, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari [retd.] – eight years) and five years as vice president (Alhaji Namadi Sambo). The South-West takes the second position with eight years as president (Chief Olusegun Obasanjo) and eight years as vice president (Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who is the incumbent). In the third position is the South-South, which has occupied the office of president for six years (Dr Goodluck Jonathan) and the office of the vice president for three years (Dr Goodluck Jonathan). The North-East occupies the fourth position with eight years as vice president (Alhaji Atiku Abubakar) and zero years as president.

The last two positions are jointly occupied by the South-East and North-Central with zero years as president and zero years as vice president. Any person who thinks about justice, fairness and equity should be focused on these two zones for now as the probable zones to produce the next president. But because the current president is from the North, the South-East has a better stake than the North-Central. The way to go should be that the South-East should produce the president between 2023 and 2031, while the North-Central should produce the president from 2031 to 2039.

The argument about competence does not hold water. If the South-East states usually get the highest cut-off marks for school admissions, it means that they have competent manpower for the office of president. In fact, there is no zone that does not have competent people to occupy the office of the president. Zoning does not mean that the worst from a zone be made the president.

Zoning has been used since 1999 to produce all the presidents and vice presidents in Nigeria. In 1999, as the leader of the G-34, which morphed into the PDP, Dr Alex Ekwueme was the front-line candidate to become the president. He had been a vice president. He had a PhD. He was rated as corruption-free by the military tribunal. He proved that he was a man of ideas, vision, and leadership during the 1994-95 National Constitutional Conference. But because of the injustice of the annulment of June 12, 1993 election, which Chief MKO Abiola was poised to win, Ekwueme was bypassed for Chief Olusegun Obasanjo from the South-West. To ensure that nobody from another zone won the election, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, who had won the primaries of the All Peoples Party, stepped down for Chief Olu Falae of the Alliance for Democracy. Obasanjo later emerged president. Even when Ekwueme tried to contest against Obasanjo in 2003, the narrative was that the South-West should be allowed to complete its tenure of eight years.

In 2007, the most visible candidates for president were from the South: Dr Peter Odili and Mr Donald Duke. For the sake of zoning, Yar’Adua from the North-West, who showed no interest in the presidency, was brought in as a presidential candidate. Jonathan, who also showed no interest in the presidency, was chosen as his running mate. Jonathan was chosen from the South-South to assuage the feelings of the people from that area that despite producing the bulk of Nigeria’s crude oil, they were usually sidelined in the leadership of Nigeria.

With the death of Yar’Adua, Jonathan emerged president in 2010. In 2011 when election was due, the North argued that it should be allowed to complete the tenure of Yar’Adua in line with the zoning principle, but it was told that the South-South, which had never ruled Nigeria, should be allowed to rule for the first time since Jonathan was already in office by providence. By 2015 when Jonathan wanted a second term, the North mobilised forces and insisted that since Jonathan had spent six years as president, the presidency should go back to the North, especially to the North-West, where Yar’Adua came from. Buhari was the beneficiary of that.

Last week, Mr Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, who lived in Nigeria for some years during the apartheid era, told the United Nations Security Council that the failure by Nigerian leaders to manage the country’s diversity is the cause of the festering separatist crisis. It is the height of hypocrisy for Nigeria to have quota system and federal character policy enshrined in its Constitution on issues relating to school admission, employment and political appointments, but then turn around to talk about using competence to choose its leaders. Which merit? Which competence? It is true that the place where a Nigerian president emerges from will not determine if Nigeria will be transformed into a great country, but it will help to give all parts of Nigeria a sense of belonging, which was what Mbeki was talking about. The way Nigerians determine who becomes their president in 2023 will show if they are concerned about building an inclusive country or not.

Azuka Onwuka is a thorough-bred communications strategist, trained robustly in the various fields of communications – public relations, journalism, advertising, and brand management.