Nigerian Leaders Must Tame Ethnic Nationalism to Prevent a Looming Tragedy

While the primary objective of every electoral contest is victory, it should not be achieved at the expense of equity, fairness, justice and national unity

As Nigerians herald the twilight of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration in 2023 and prepare for the upcoming presidential election, ethnic nationalism is threatening to tear asunder the social fabric of the country.  In Nigeria, ethnic nationalism did not arise in a vacuum. It is a reaction to political and economic exclusion that successive leaders have failed to address. Therefore, peaceful elections require Nigerian political elites to put aside their quarrels and contribute to addressing the root causes of ethno-nationalism expressions.  

The return of civil rule in most African states has witnessed an upswing in ethnic nationalism, separatist agitations and the ascendancy of sectarian cleavages. In Nigeria, creation of sub-national states was intended to become a veritable measure for dealing with fears of ethnic domination and exclusion. Ethnic nationalism is commonly attributed to the widening of the civil space for open expression of views that were restricted during the heyday of military rule, but it largely mirrors reactions to perceived ethno-regional exclusion as well as compromised integrative and state-building capacity of the African post-colonial state.

In response to the clamour for ethno-national political representation, delegates at the 1995 Constitutional Conference (otherwise known as the Abacha Conference) recommended the division of Nigeria into six sub-national units known as geopolitical zones: North-Central, North-East, North-West, South-East, South-South and South-West. Although these zones are not codified in any Nigerian legislation, they have become well-entrenched in people’s consciousness as proper layers of political resource allocation in the country. However, these measures have not prevented political and economic exclusion. For instance, the South-East as one of the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria has continued to suffer undue exclusion in political representation and siting of critical infrastructure relative to other geopolitical zones in the country. The region is peopled mainly by the Igbo; one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria: others being Hausa, Fulani and Yoruba. The Igbo ethnic group constitutes the most populous community in every Nigerian city after the autochthonous groups. Despite ending the Nigerian Civil War on the avowed principle of “no victor, no vanquished”, the South-East exclusion reached its crescendo under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari whose lopsided political appointments leave the region with the shorter end of the stick.

Beyond the inequitable representation of the South-East, especially as heads of relevant security agencies, the region also lags behind in siting of physical infrastructure by President Buhari’s government. A typical case in point is the ongoing construction of a rail line in which the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri (which cuts across different states of the South-East) rail project was completely neglected. Similarly, Nigeria’s National Assembly approved a massive infrastructural development plan without allocating a single project to the South-East zone. Arising from the above, the clamour for power shift to the South-East has continued to resonate.

The foregoing suggests that political inclusion as a globally accepted principle for the promotion of national integration has been hardly observed in Nigeria. As a consequence, the federal character principle in the 1999 Constitution which clearly disallows any form of ethno-regional exclusion in the country has suffered its greatest onslaught under President Buhari’s government. In particular, Section 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states that the composition of the government of the Federation and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty. Thus, the federal character principle perceives equitable distribution of political and economic resources as a veritable pathway to national integration.

As political activities continue to intensify in different political parties as part of the journey to Nigeria’s presidential villa in 2023, one of the most topical political issues in the country is zoning. Also known as political rotation or power shift, zoning is a power-sharing practice in Nigeria under which principal members of political parties agree to split their presidential and vice-presidential candidates between the North and South of the country and also to alternate the home area of the president between the North and South of the country.

Although zoning was partly truncated as a consequence of the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010, it is widely perceived by prominent political parties such as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) as a mechanism for uniting and welding diverse ethno-regional and religious interests into a cohesive nation-state in Nigeria. The abandonment of this policy in the then ruling PDP during the build up to the 2011 and 2015 general elections provided grounds for a relapse into intense and abrasive ethno-regional political mobilisation through hate speech. Needless to say, this abandonment led to the escalation of Boko Haram insurgency since 2010.

As flawed as zoning might appear to proponents of a Nigeria in which national identity would supersede any other national sub-category, the threat abandonment of zoning in PDP and APC portends for national security and sustenance of the existing fragile peace across Southern Nigeria is significant. Moreover, most of the arguments advanced by anti-zoning politicians are fundamentally flawed and hypocritical.

Hypocritical because most of the critics of zoning, especially Atiku Abubakar, Bukola Saraki, Aminu Tambuwal and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, supported zoning and even left PDP in 2014 because of the party’s refusal to zone its ticket to the North. They now have become the most frontal opponents of the zoning principle. For the record, PDP zoned its presidential ticket to the South-West in 1999 in order to compensate for the ill-fated annulment of 12 June 1993 presidential election which was putatively won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Even Dr Ogbonnaya Onu (Igbo man from the South-East) of the then All People’s Party accepted to forgo his presidential candidature in support of the prevailing mood of the nation after a belated merger deal between his party and the Alliance for Democracy. Eight years after PDP zoned its presidential ticket to the North in 2007, the Northern political bloc also hailed the idea. Again in 2019 when the presidential tickets of both the PDP and APC were zoned to the North, the current anti-zoning politicians were very jubilant and freely contested to clinch the parties’ tickets.

Almost four years after, the common refrain among the current anti-zoning politicians is that within the 16 years of PDP in the presidency, the South was in power for 13 years while the North exercised power for only 3 years. First, this argument is reductionist because Nigeria did not achieve its independence in 1999. Between 1 October 1960 and 29 May 1999, Nigeria’s political leadership was dominated by Northern politicians (mainly the military). Second, the death of President Yar’Adua, which led to the temporary abandonment of zoning, was beyond any political machinations. Third, the current promoters of anti-zoning in both the PDP and APC are suggesting that their parties’ presidential tickets should be domiciled in the North until the region equals or surpasses the South’s 13 years presidency. Nothing could be more foolhardy!

While the primary objective of every electoral contest is victory, it should not be achieved at the expense of equity, fairness, justice and national unity which the PDP and APC constitutions fully subscribe to. Thus, the leadership of these two major political parties should be conscientious and toe the path of honour by respecting their zoning policies. Most importantly, the issue of political and economic exclusion of the South-East must be addressed as a matter of urgency if Nigeria is to tame ethno-nationalist sentiments and re-establish a sense of belonging within marginalised groups. The time to act is now!


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