by Raymond Eyo
“The 2011 presidential elections were quite fractious and divisive, and the fabric of Nigeria’s nationhood [was] sorely tried.”
– Sun News Editorial, May 17, 2011
In the light of the recent high frequency of Boko Haram’s heinous and atrocious acts of terror against the Nigerian state, and as stakeholders seek to decisively quell the sect, it is important, at least for posterity’s sake, to pinpoint a significant remote factor that fuelled the sect’s violent campaign.
Many analysts, as well as eminent and ordinary Nigerians and even officialdom have, at one time or another, directly or indirectly, blamed Boko Haram’s devilish ‘success’, especially since 2011, squarely on the unpatriotic political backers of the group, largely alleged to be mainly politicians and other bigwigs of Northern Nigerian extraction. There can be no justification for such a diabolic scheme but there is one remote cause behind those individuals’ involvement that has not been talked about as much as it should. Forget the sect’s so-called anti-Western education drive. Forget the extrajudicial killing of the sect’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf that backlashed. Arguably the most pertinent remote cause of Boko Haram’s campaign of terror was President Goodluck Jonathan’s selfish and ill-advised decision to run for president in 2011, in disregard of the People Democratic Party’s zoning arrangement that brought him to office, as vice-president, in 2007.
Zoning is not exactly as bad as some postulate. Nations devise measures peculiar to their experiences to safeguard their stability as they evolve, and, in Nigeria’s context, zoning constitutes one of such measures. Whilst many Nigerians, including myself, ideally want Nigeria’s political selections and elections to be based strictly on competence, we have to be realistic that there’s unfortunately the lingering feeling, among a wide spectrum of Nigerians of all walks of life, of first belonging to a tribe, then a region, before Nigeria as a whole. That is the reality on the ground from which zoning derives and as educated people, however passionate about ultimate positive change as we may be, our advocacy should always take such realities into consideration.
Nation-building is never a walk in the park! It takes plenty of time. As Nigeria evolves and our civic education improves, Nigerians will know better not to be bothered about which zone or region the next president or governor should come from. We have definitely not reached that ideal yet but I believe we will get there soon.
Meanwhile, I find it hypocritical that Jonathan undermined zoning so that he could become president in 2011 after he accepted and rode on it to become vice-president in 2007. If Jonathan did not believe in zoning, why did he not condemn it and decline when he was chosen as vice-president based on it? In fact, it is funny that, shortly after the 2011 elections, the same Jonathan insisted on his party respecting zoning when it was time to choose its candidate for the House speakership.
Zoning is not an end in itself. Zoning is a stopgap to sustain Nigeria’s existence in a way that harnesses Nigeria’s ethnic diversity by giving every region and zone the assurance that they will have their turn in power and should therefore support, for Nigeria’s collective good, those who get the nod per time.
Zoning is not an ideal but realistically and honestly, Nigeria has not attained such a level where ideals become the norm. Societies evolve over time, in pursuit of ideals, and one way in which they do so is by carefully factoring in, and building on, some relatively helpful attributes in their present.
At the moment, and until such a time when it will comprise of more good people than bad, Nigeria’s body politic unfortunately stems largely from a system where tribal, regional and zonal patronage and support make for great political capital, with all the “benefits” that go with it. As such, the various competing tribes and regional and zonal forces would not take it lightly whenever they are “cheated” out of “their turn” in office. The repercussions of such a letdown, for any of those tribes and zonal forces, would naturally be greater if they are drawn from, say, missing out on the all-important and powerful Nigerian presidency.
This is precisely what happened when Goodluck Jonathan ran for president in 2011, ‘cheating out’ the North, at least as per the PDP’s zoning arrangement, from what was supposed to be a second term for one of their own. The thinking among Jonathan’s Ijaw kinsmen in the Niger Delta was probably that they had a glorious opportunity to have one of theirs in the presidency for the first time ever. The issue, however, is that this ran against the spirit and letter of zoning at the time and therefore constituted a huge gamble that could always turn disastrous as has been the case.
Also, those who argue that the Niger Delta had every right to take advantage of Jonathan’s strategic placement to run for the presidency in 2011 as a step towards sorting out their grievances with the Nigerian state should note that deep-seated injustices and prejudices against minorities or majorities are not eradicated by having one of theirs in office. South Africa has had four successive black presidents but the plight of its black majority, vis-à-vis economic empowerment, has hardly changed for the better. Barack Obama became America’s first black president in 2009 but racism in that country, against blacks, has not waned. Similarly, the Niger Delta people’s quandary will not be ameliorated by having their son (or daughter) in the presidency. It will only be solved by a sustained tide of good leadership and governance that can hardly be guaranteed in an atmosphere of instability such as which Jonathan’s zoning breach has brought upon Nigeria.
In its annual human rights report to the American Congress in 2011, the United States government acknowledged that President Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency upset the PDP’s rotational zoning policy. The Nigerian section of the report, which was released by the US State Department in Washington DC, on April 8, 2011, states: “Jonathan’s transition from vice-president to president after the death of former President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, upset the prior rotational scheme.”
Upon completing the late President Yar’Adua’s first term as he did between May 2010 and May 2011, if Jonathan was a savvy politician and a patriotic statesman, he should have struck a deal to continue as vice-president under another northerner from 2011 to 2015 and to be supported to run for president thereafter. That was a clear and politically expedient possibility. In South Africa, in 2009, Kgalema Motlanthe stepped down to serve as Jacob Zuma’s vice-president after almost a year as president, turning down many calls for him to run for a full term in the top job.
If Jonathan had acted as Motlanthe did, all parties would have benefitted. Nigeria would have known peace and stability, not the regrettable politically-instigated Boko Haram carnage we have since seen. The North would have rightfully had its second term as per the zoning policy and even Jonathan would have had a better preparation for the presidency by 2015 and hence a chance at a truly productive two terms than the mess he is currently grappling with. The ball was in Jonathan’s court. Unfortunately, he sorely lacked the foresight to play it well and now, sadly, Nigeria is paying a high price for it.