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There are three dimensions to the August 12 declaration of the National Executive Council of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) on zoning: the party’s internal dynamics, implications for 2011 general elections and opposition parties, and finally, the common good. Zoning suddenly became a re-discovered subject of intense debate in Nigerian politics about 100 days ago. The trigger was the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, the emergence of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as President and the rise of "it is our turn to eat" politics with Jonathan’s supporters and aides insisting that now that a South South man had emerged as President, he should be allowed to keep the seat in the next general elections. Nobody queried the right of the South South or Dr. Jonathan’s to be President of Nigeria, but the snag was an existing agreement within the PDP on rotation and the zoning of offices at all levels as expressly stated in the party’s constitution.

There was such a diversionary debate over the subject now laid to rest, temporarily, with the outcome of the PDP NEC meeting in Abuja where a position was taken on zoning. The PDP NEC announced that it is committed to the principle of zoning at all levels and that President Jonathan and other aspirants are free to seek the Presidential ticket for the 2011 elections. The party’s Chairman then added with regard to President Jonathan that he is free to remain in office till 2015, to complete the eight-year tenure meant for the Yar’Adua and Jonathan ticket in 2007, and that a precedent had occurred in Adamawa when Abubakar Atiku became Vice president in 1999 and his Deputy, Boni Haruna remained as Governor till 2007. He also added that the party will conduct free and fair primaries. The PDP position as thus expressed is not only ambiguous, it smacks of double-speak, contrary to the spin that some have tried to put on it.

The current loser in this emerging game is President Jonathan and those who had hoped that by pushing for the end of zoning as a PDP guideline, Jonathan would automatically win the PDP Presidential ticket. The party’s position, as stated, does not amount to an endorsement of the President as a flagbearer. The winners of the argument are the pro-zoning Northerners: the 10 Northern Governors and their supporters in the larger community who in July insisted that Presidential power must remain in the north till 2015 in accordance with the PDP’s constitution. What the PDP has done is to uphold its constitution and traditions and give in to the Northern lobbyists.

When therefore the PDP Chairman, Okwesilieze Nwodo says President Jonathan can hold the PDP ticket till 2015, he diplomatically overlooks the fact that the zoning principle is not meant for individuals but geo-political zones. Jonathan not being a Northerner cannot automatically inherit the 2007 zoning of the Presidency to the North. Nwodo’s Adamawa analogy is misplaced. What Jonathan has just been told is that if he wants the Presidential ticket for 2011, he has to work for it, or better still, wait till the presidency is zoned to his part of the country. Telling him that he can contest in the primaries does not guarantee anything: in 1999, 2003, and 2007, PDP candidates from other parts of the country were also allowed to participate in the PDP presidential primaries, but only the zone to which the position had been allocated won, and in the 2003 primaries, the point was even well conveyed that incumbency does not automatically guarantee an eight-year tenure, as then President Olusegun Obasanjo almost lost the ticket to his Vice President but for a last minute reconciliation meeting where Alhaji Atiku Abubakar conceded to him: a costly mistake that Atiku made. If he and the Governors had stood their ground, the course of Nigerian history and Atiku’s own political career would have been different.

In the context of the power play within the PDP, President Jonathan now appears more vulnerable. One of the reasons why former PDP Chairman, Vincent Ogbulafor ran into trouble was, in part, because he insisted that the party’s zoning principle is sacrosanct. Ogbulafor can now feel vindicated. If the PDP NEC meeting was meant to be an endorsement of Jonathan for 2011, why did he lose out on all the issues he had supported? It is noteworthy, for example, that all the proposed reforms by the current PDP Chairman, Okwesilieze Nwodo, which enjoy the blessing of President Jonathan, were rejected by the party leaders. The rejection of online registration or e-registration is particularly instructive. Nwodo had hoped to introduce this mode of registration in order to prepare a reliable party membership data base to reduce rigging in party primaries. His second proposal had to do with a review of the party’s delegates system. Both measures would have encouraged transparency and also reduced the powers exercised by the Governors over the party machinery at the grassroots level. Nwodo has been a long standing member of the party. But the Governors do not trust his proposals, a section of the party consider him a Jonathan agent, seeking the most scientific way to get Jonathan through the party primaries.

Before the PDP NEC meeting, the Governors not only rejected online registration which the President and Vice president had flagged off, they also wanted Nwodo removed. At the NEC meeting, the Governors got nearly everything that they wanted (expect Nwodo’s removal); Nwodo was not even allowed to respond to their objections to e-registration, and he never got the chance to bring up the subject of delegates system or reform. Instead, the Governors further succeeded in reversing the dissolution of the party executives in Ogun and Anambra by the national party secretariat. They also got the party to suspend the constitution with regard to the rule on persons who have not yet spent two years in the party and who wish to stand for election in 2011. With that meeting, the PDP lost the opportunity for reform, and has resolved to continue with business as usual; although it upheld its constitution in one breath, it ignored it in another: what greater evidence does anyone need about the crisis within the party?. A party in urgent need of reform which votes against transparency!

The grounds may well have been prepared for its eventual implosion. For Jonathan to win the ticket, he will need the support of the PDP Governors who seem to be effectively in control of the party machinery; and if he wins truly, this will trigger the rebellion of Northern power-mongers who have been speaking up loudly since the Thursday NEC meeting, the most robust intervention being that of Mallam Isyaku Ibrahim in The Sun newspaper, yesterday. Mallam Ibrahim’s interview may be full of historical inaccuracies with regard to relations between the North and the South South, but it does a good job of articulating a mainstream Northern position on 2011. If Jonathan loses the PDP ticket, however, his South South supporters may protest, ever more loudly, about marginalization.

This in total is a reflection of the poverty of the political party system in Nigeria. Five months to the elections, there is no debate of issues and party manifestoes and the people’s interest, rather there is an obsession with who takes power at what level. But if all of this leads to the dismemberment of the PDP, so let it be. The PDP Chairman remarked in passing that it seems as if other political parties and Nigerians have conceded victory in the 2011 elections to the PDP. The PDP crisis should provide other political parties an opportunity to seize the moment and present credible alternatives. They can only do that if they are better organized. Over ten years of PDP failure should translate into necessary change but only if other parties seize the initiative. The overriding objective should be the common good. What do the people stand to gain? How will 2011 make a difference in their lives? In 2011, Nigerians want, not the same old, corrupt brigade of politicians but men and women of quality who can make a difference, and due protection of the people’s right to choose.

Jonathan’s seeming marginalization at the PDP NEC meeting under review shows the limits of his own politics. He and his strategists while pretending to be focusing on the assignment of the office have been more busy playing the politics of 2011 and zoning; whereas if their focus had been on the former, the momentum for a Jonathan Presidency could have been generated outside the party, by the people themselves. If the PDP abandons Jonathan eventually (except he manages to work out a deal with the Governors and he wrong-foots the political North), there isn’t likely to be any feeling of sympathy. When President Jonathan assumed office fully on May 6, about 100 days ago, he had promised Nigerians he would ensure good governance on four major fronts. In paragraph six of that speech, the President focused on electoral reform and credible elections in 2011, and the Niger Delta/"security of life and property around the entire country." Not much difference in terms of quality has been made in these regards. On the issue of elections, there has been a change of personnel at INEC, there is a new INEC Chairman and new commissioners, the National Assembly has amended the Constitution/Electoral Act and money has been approved for INEC to get on with the job. But INEC remains a troubled institution facing enormous difficulties; the best that we can rely on is the INEC Chairman’s promise that he and his team will try their best under the circumstances.

The so-called reform by the National Assembly has been a joke with the lawmakers focusing more on self-serving amendments while ignoring the principal recommendations by civil society and the Uwais Committee on Electoral Reform. On the Niger Delta and national security: violence remains an issue in the Niger Delta, and "around the country" lives and properties are insecure. In paragraph seven of the same speech, the President referred to "the socio-economic situation which we face through improved access to electricity, water, education, health facilities and other social amenities… and the welfare of our teeming workers and the unemployed youths (which) would also be accorded a new impetus." There is no sign of improvement in access to social amenities, instead the cost of electricity has increased, even when it is not provided; health facilities are still in a poor state, unemployment is rising. The minimum wage for workers has been increased though and the government has been busy awarding contracts, including the contract for the supply of three new jets for the Presidential fleet, coming by the way weeks after the Presidential jet developed a fault in Uganda - in retrospect that looks like a conveniently contrived situation to justify future action.

Earlier in April, while inaugurating a new cabinet of Ministers in his capacity as acting President, President Jonathan also told his team that he expected them to "hit the ground running" (well, they haven’t). He asked each Minister to come up with a blueprint of "targets and milestones" (was that ever submitted?). There was additional talk about code of conduct and a promise that the Ministers will periodically offer the public progress reports on their targets (we are still waiting!). As President Jonathan reflects on his 100 days in office and the outcome of the last PDP NEC meeting, he should reflect further on the following, taken from his own speech: One- "No longer must we tolerate the triumph of centrifugal forces whose main agenda is to distract and defeat the march of our people to the summit of economic self-sufficiency and political maturity." Two: " …we will not hesitate to take whatever action necessary to protect the bond of trust, which must always exist between the government and the governed. We will frown at undue politicking and the promotion of needless friction in the polity." Correct. But has this been done?

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