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President Goodluck Jonathan’s opponents have cited the so-called zoning arrangement by the ruling People’s Democratic Party to rotate the country’s presidency between the North and the South as the basis of their objection to his 2011 presidential aspiration.

Last week, a group that identified itself as Concerned Members of People’s Democratic Party in a letter to the party Chairman, Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo, had argued that "Article 7, Section7.2(c) of our party’s constitution prescribes that in pursuant of the principles of equity, justice and fairness, the party shall adhere to the policy of rotation and zoning of party and public elective offices and it shall be enforced by the appropriate executive committee at all levels."

The group added that the clause is reinforced by Preamble (2) of the same constitution which states that the policy is meant "to create socio-political conditions conducive to national peace and unity by ensuring fair and equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, to conform with the principles of power shift and power sharing by rotating key political offices among the diverse peoples of our country and evolving powers equitably between Federal, State and Local Governments in the spirit of Federalism."

The group noted that in compliance with the arrangement the South, through former President Olusegun Obasanjo, led the country for eight years (1999-2007) while the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over the mantle of leadership in May 2007 on behalf of the of the North.

They said but for the demise of Yar’Adua on May 5, this year, barely a year to the end of his tenure, the North would have been in the saddle for 8 years. They argued that by virtue of his position as Yar’Adua’s deputy, Jonathan should only conclude the first term (2007-2011) and hand over to a Northerner to utilize the second term which terminates in 2015.

As logical as this argument appears, it overlooks certain procedural issues. For instance, the group is asking the PDP to look into a matter that its appropriate decision-making body had already settled. At its meeting of August 12, 2010, the National Executive Committee (NEC) decided that while retaining the zoning and rotation principle in the party’s constitution, it would respect the overriding provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which allows every qualified Nigerian to vie for the topmost office in the land as well as guarantee the right of an incumbent to seek a second term of office. This was why the NEC resolved that Jonathan being a part of a subsisting ticket would be allowed to seek to exhaust the unexpired tenure of the Yar’Adua-Jonathan mandate while permitting other Nigerians interested in the position to put up their bid.

What the group is seeking to do, therefore, is to reverse the decision of the NEC on zoning. This by the constitution of the party could not be done by the Chairman of the party but by the National Convention which is the highest decision-making organ of the PDP. It is only that body that can exercise the power of review over the NEC.

Beyond the technical hurdle in the way of the protesting group is the historical antecedent of the gentleman agreement among the party leaders. Following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election widely believed to have been won by Basorun Moshood Abiola, the South-West of Nigeria felt aggrieved.

Incidentally Gen. Ibrahim Babangida who annulled the election believed to be the freest and fairest in the nation’s electoral history is one of the aspirants now bidding for the PDP ticket. It was in an attempt to assuage the injured feeling of the region that there was a consensus among the political leadership in Nigeria to cede the presidency to the South-West.

This was why all the major political parties presented Yoruba presidential candidates in 1999. Many people have credited the quick recovery from that crisis and the ensuing stability of the country to that singular act of political engineering.

By 2004, however, a challenge similar to the pre-1999 situation that gave rise to the zoning arrangement had surfaced. The South-South from where Jonathan hails had been agitating for a fair deal from the Nigerian federation for years. The agitation arose from the fact that the greater percentage of the country’s oil earnings comes from the huge hydrocarbon deposits in the region yet the zone is the headquarters of poverty as its physical development had stunted and living standard remained low.

The otherwise peaceful agitation for a better deal boiled over by 2004 when the youths in the region took up arms against the state, bursting oil pipelines and taking expatriates as hostage. By the time Yar’Adua took the mantle of leadership in 2007 the agitation had turned the full circle of violence and was approaching a full scale armed struggle.

The impact on the economy was severe. Nigeria was unable to meet its oil production quota and lost considerable oil revenue. The pervasive climate of insecurity in the region also caused huge divestment in the oil sector. For a country dependent on oil as its main source of income, this no doubt impacted negatively on the country’s economy generally.

Indeed a recent report has also attributed the preponderance of arms, both heavy weapons and small arms across the country and the subsequent general sense of insecurity to the campaign of violence waged by the aggrieved Niger Delta youth against the Nigerian state.

And so, an agitation which started as a demand for the control of the natural resource in the region by its people had by 2006 developed into a demand for self-determination, posing a clear and present danger to the corporate existence of Nigeria. That the Niger Delta insurgency has come down to a zero level today is directly a function of the peace initiative by the Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration started shortly after it came to office in 2007 and its subsequent amnesty programme kick-started last year.

Many Nigerians know today that the peace in the Niger Delta is only sustainable if the confidence-building measures embedded in the amnesty programme are consolidated.

The point, therefore, is that just as the South-West anger against the rest of Nigeria over the annulment of an election of one of their own held the country at bay for more than a decade and had to be pacified before the nation could move forward, the anger in the South-South over several years of neglect had approached a war situation before the pacification by Yar’Adua.

What we have now, therefore, is a reprieve which could be torpedoed if the people feel taken for granted. That feeling may arise if President Jonathan is denied the PDP nomination. The Niger Delta would justifiably query: if they could do it for the South-West, why not us? The feeling would be that he has been so treated because he is a minority and the natural instinct would be the urge to return to the trenches. Is this what we want? The answer is no.

Jonathan leading Nigeria for at least the next four years will go a long way to strengthen the people of the region’s sense of belonging to the Nigerian project, which all Nigerians are being urged to partake in nursing to fruition.

Chukwuma Dike wrote from Enugu is at [email protected]

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