– THE ILLUSIVE OPEN PRESIDENCY AGITATION IN PDPTHISDAYLIVE – THISDAY Newspapers
Possibility of the North producing PDP’s national chairman and presidential candidate is illusory, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
Vice President Atiku Abubakar said nothing new when he told the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party at its National Executive Committee meeting a couple of weeks ago that the problem of Nigeria is not where the president comes from. Neither is his submission that there is nothing like a regional president but a Nigerian president novel. The trouble, however, is the self-serving nature of these propositions coming from a man who has been a beneficiary of several policies of reversed discrimination.
Atiku’s position needs to be situated within its proper context though, and many perceptive political observers do not fail to understand where he is coming from. He wants to be the president of Nigeria on the platform of the PDP, the same podium he stood in 2019 when he contested the general election and lost to President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress. That was his fifth attempt. The current struggle would be his sixth on the party’s platform. And he would appear to be giving it his all.
But the former vice president has a major hurdle to cross: the zoning and rotation policy of the party. As discussed elsewhere, the PDP’s constitution mandates its leaders to ensure equitable distribution of elective political offices in such a way that no section of the country dominates the other. This policy, as it has been equally argued, takes root from the federal character principle enshrined in the 1999 Constitution as altered. The party since its inception in 1998, therefore, has applied this policy religiously by balancing the allotment of dominant elective positions in the party between the North and the South. Under the rotation leg of the policy, it also ensures that the positions are alternated at each electoral circle.
Consequently, hefty elective positions like president, vice president, president of the Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives and national chairman of the party are distributed along the North and South geo-political divide. Once this is done lesser positions are allotted across the sub-regions, namely North-west, North-east, North-central, South-west, South-east and South-south. The two main positions, however, are president and national chairman. And the tradition has been once one is allotted to one zone, the other would go to the other zone.
This explains why President Olusegun Obasanjo, from the South and elected in 1999, had Chief Barnabas Gemade, from the North, as his national chairman. In fact, so significant was the need for geo-political balance that Obasanjo opposed the attempt by a Yoruba from the North, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, to hold the position. After Obasanjo’s two terms of eight years in 2007, the policy of rotation kicked in. Alternating the two positions, the party chose its presidential candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua, who won the election, from the North. His chairman, Chief Vincent Ogbulafor, came from the South. Upon the president’s death, his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, who succeeded him, inherited Ogbulafor.
Although the circumstances of the change of guard briefly disrupted the balancing arrangement, the party leadership seized the nearest opportunity available to it to rebalance the equation. Shortly after Jonathan took office, Ogbulafor’s position, for reasons that need not detain us here, was no longer tenable. He was replaced by Okwesilieze Nwodo, the founding national secretary of the party. He too soon ran into trouble as Jonathan prepared for the 2011 presidential bid. He was removed at the presidential nomination convention ground. The party could have selected another person from the South, as stipulated in its constitution, to serve out his term. But it did not. Rather, it appointed his deputy, Mohammed Bello, as acting national chairman.
Bello led Jonathan’s campaign in 2011, winning the presidential battle for the PDP. With the president coming from the South, there was no debate about where the national chairman would come from. So, Bamanga Tukur, a former governor of Old Gongola State took the party’s mantle of leadership.
Without a doubt, Atiku’s cliché-like comment at the Abuja NEC meeting came with a clear knowledge of this historical background and its implication for his presidential ambition in relation to a decision the party was about to make. Before that meeting were two reports: The Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi Committee on Zoning of Party Offices, and the much earlier one, the Bala Mohammed Committee on Zoning of the Presidency. Ugwuanyi had recommended that the national chairman position be zoned to the North noting, for effect, that its job did not include zoning of general elective offices. Someone has since pointed out that the note was nothing but political mischief because the Mohammed committee had dealt with that matter, recommending that the presidential slot be thrown open.
Atiku’s comment was, therefore, a pre-emptive strike meant to persuade the meeting to retain the chairmanship in the South in order to brighten the chances of his presidential bid. But the strike would seem to have backfired badly as not only was the party’s top post pushed to the North, he has also attracted to himself a lot of criticisms from even his erstwhile supporters who complained that he had “fallen their hands.”
For them, he could have marshalled a more robust argument for the retention of the chairmanship in the South, after all, a strict interpretation of the party’s constitution with relation to zoning and rotation could suggest that the two committees’ recommendations offend its spirit and letter. Specifically, the Ugwuanyi committee report, zoning the chairmanship to the North cannot be implemented without violating the constitutional provision on the right of first refusal of the South to a second term. As for the Mohammed committee report throwing open the presidency, it is a clear violation of the constitutional provision which mandates the party to zone its offices to ensure equity. Meanwhile, by the policy of rotation, the presidency, it could be argued, should be retained in the North because the last PDP president came from the South.
Interestingly, other northern presidential hopefuls have joined the open presidency agitation albeit by proxy. Abubakar Baraje, an accomplished acolyte of Bukola Saraki, first argued for the chairmanship to be shifted away from the North-central sub-zone in order not to jeopardise the ambition of his mentor. When that failed with the emergence of Iyorchia Ayu, a former president of the Senate, he embraced the open presidency option. There is a written agreement, he said, that the geo-political location of the national chairman will not affect the zone’s desire to bid for the presidency. He probably forgot that he left the APC two years ago, and that he is back in the PDP where there are established constitutional conventions. Incidentally, he was not only a former national secretary but has also held the position of acting national chairman of the party. So, no one can accuse him of ignorance of the working of the system. What the northern presidential hopefuls and their promoters are saying in effect is that both the national chairman and the presidential candidate of the PDP can come from the North. This cannot happen without a massive implosion in the party.
But time will tell.
Adebiyi, managing editor of THISDAY newspapers, writes from email@example.com