Explainer: The Impact of Zoning on Nigeria’s Democratic Process

Posted on

As we countdown to the upcoming elections, it is clear that there are significant considerations being faced by the country’s main parties: the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). One of those considerations is the small issue of the zoning of offices within both parties. To a reasonable degree, zoning has been omnipresent in the genes of Nigeria’s Politics right from the First Republic and influences the formation of governments, both military and civilian.

History of Zoning in Nigeria

Zoning is a political practice in Nigeria under which political parties agree to split their presidential and vice-presidential candidates and also alternate the home area of the president between the north and south of the country. The principle of zoning is designed to ensure that neither the north nor the south of the country is ever permanently excluded from power and that no one party is seen to monopolize power. The concept of zoning was initially introduced in the Second Republic, following the Biafran Civil War of 1967–1970.

The key factor which necessitated zoning was the need to ease inter-ethnic tensions following the massive conflict- the Biafran Civil War. The National Party of Nigeria (NPN) initiated the operation of a zoning system to select party officials. NPN was the first political party that was accepted universally nationwide in Nigeria as everybody’s party. It was as a result of this NPN thought of developing the concept and assuring every member and every segment of Nigeria that the exotic office of the president could one day be theirs. 

Later, during a National Constitutional Conference that was assembled following the annulment of the 1993 elections and the takeover of power by General Sanni Abacha (1994/1995), a number of prominent leaders suggested the rotation of the Presidency between Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones (North-Central, North- East, North-West, South- East, South-South, and South-West)

Though the principle was widely supported by many, the proposal was turned down in favour of a more straightforward technique of rotating the executive between the North and South. This division was particularly selected to reflect the country’s religious cleavage between the mostly Christian south and the mostly Muslim north, though notably, neither region is homogeneous. 

The idea of balancing power between the North and the South has also been codified by a number of parties. The Federal Military Government accepted the zoning arrangement for administrative convenience but zoning is still yet to be enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. Thus, unlike the federal character principle, which is a constitutional provision that can be enforced in a court of law, zoning remains a matter of tactfulness.

1993 Elections: The Birth of Zoning

The Fourth Republic zoning format stems from a unique historical antecedent. Its origin can be traced to June 12, 1993, when the elections which Moshood Abiola is largely believed to have won were annulled. This annulment led to a major political upheaval and at the same time gave rise to a deep sense of injustice on the part of the South West geo-political zone section from where the winner emerged. To sate the ensuing sense of unease, the two major political parties that appeared to lead the transition from the military to civilian rule in 1999, reached an agreement that gave room for the presidential candidates from the two major parties to emerge from the South-West geo-political zone.

Consequently, zoning in its current incarnation was birthed. However, a precursor to the arrangement arose. During the Second Republic, an informal, nonetheless determined effort to zone high elective positions —President, Vice President, Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Deputy Speaker —to the various geo-political zones in order to reflect the federal character and inclusive politics came about.

The practice was also duly adopted by the Fourth Republic in its early years. The purpose of the introduction of the federal character principle was not to appease any group but to ensure the promotion of national cohesion and a sense of belonging for citizens from all parts of the country. Although the federal character is embedded in the 1999 Constitution and zoning is not, both are predicated on the same central organising principle, namely, political inclusivity and national cohesion in a secular, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious mosaic, in order to achieve reasonable and unbiased representation.

1999 Elections

In 1999, Nigeria transitioned from military to civilian rule. The transition stemmed from a bargain struck by an elite cabal over 1998 and 1999, right after the death of General Sani Abacha. Listed among the principal points was that the presidency would alternate every eight years between the south and the north. An analogy was that if the presidential nominee was Muslim, then the vice presidential nominee would be Christian, and vice versa. This provision despite not being a matter of law was still incorporated into the rules of the soon-to-be-governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The other major political party, All Progressives Congress (APC) on the other hand, never formally adopted the principle. The 1999 presidential elections marked the beginning of the use of the zoning format as it was practically applied under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo was a South-Western Christian, with his vice being Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a North-Eastern Muslim and this respectably adhered to the zoning strategy.

2007 & 2011 Elections

In 2007, Obasanjo and Atiku were succeeded by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, and his vice president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, a southern Christian still in light of the zoning procedure. However, when Yar’Adua died in office, his term was completed by his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. This brought about a certain downturn of events as the expectation in the North was that Jonathan would not run in 2011 as his time in office was viewed as occurring during the turn of the North. However, Jonathan did run for the presidential office and was victorious. This, in effect, shattered the 1998–1999 zoning bargain. Following the announcement of the 2011 presidential election results, widespread violence broke out in the North. Notwithstanding, zoning was still applied as the South-south Christian president Jonathan had for his vice president a North-west Muslim, Namadi Sambo.

APC Coming into power and the Effects of Zoninin

The All Progressives Party (APC), formed in February 2013, is the product of a merger of Nigeria’s three biggest opposition parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). The resolution was signed by Tom Ikimi, who appeared to be a representative of the ACN; Senator Annie Okonkwo on behalf of the APGA; Ibrahim Shekarau, the Chairman of ANPP’s Merger Committee; and Garba Shehu, the Chairman of CPC’s Merger Committee. On 31 July 2013, the party was approved by the nation’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to become a political party and subsequently withdrew the operating licenses of the three parties that merged (the ACN, CPC and ANPP). Less than 2 years before the party’s historic victory in the 2015 elections, Tom Ikimi, Annie Okonkwo and Ibrahim Shekarau resigned from the party and joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

In 2015, the South-West led by Tinubu contributed immensely to the political success of APC at the national level. Consequently, it is believed that an implied agreement was reached that upon the expiration of President Buhari’s two-term tenure, power will shift to the South-West. The body language of ‘the powers that be’ since Buhari’s re-election in 2019, however, suggests otherwise. 

Through the primary elections, APC has made guidelines, rules and regulations which involve taking into consideration and the upholding of the principle of Federal Character, gender balance, geopolitical spread and rotation of offices, and to as much as possible ensure balance within the constituency covered. This was done in order to reduce hostility and promote inclusion as almost all other political parties have within their constitutions a provision stating that the President and the National Chairman of the party should not come from the same zone. Following this, where the national chairmanship position of any party is zoned to is an indication of where such a party is likely to zone its presidential ticket.

Direct primaries involve the participation of all party members in the selection of candidates and APC seems to believe that zoning will only limit the party’s ability to choose their desired options. A limitation in the selection of candidates will result in the party having to pick from a smaller tray and that, in APC’s view, can reduce the chances of emerging victorious as candidates with higher potential of winning will be made to sit out of the race in accordance with the zoning strategy.

%d bloggers like this: