The stage for an epic political battle is gradually being set. For a long time now, Nigerians have been apprehensive about the possibility of holding the 2011 election. For an election that should take place in January or March 2011 (depending on the much-awaited INEC timetable), there is no sign anywhere that there is going to be an election. Apart from the formal declaration of intent to run by former military president, Ibrahim Babangida and former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, mum has been the word across the country.
Aspirants at all levels, state and federal and across all the parties have maintained a wait-and-see attitude. It seems everybody is watching President Goodluck Jonathan and reading his body language to know the right steps to take. For members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), it is doubly important not to ‘mis-step’ considering the fate that befell former party chairman, Vincent Ogbulafor and former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, who are now fighting what is perhaps the greatest battle of their lives.
At issue has been the principle of zoning, the informal gentleman’s agreement that set out how power should be rotated between the north and the south. In the view of those who believe that there is a subsisting zoning arrangement, the north has to hold on to power till 2015 when the two terms that began in 2007 with the swearing in of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua will have ended. Yar’Adua’s death in May this year after a protracted illness disrupted that arrangement.
The northern elite are incensed. Reading Jonathan’s lips and body language, they feel that the president has betrayed the spirit and letter of the agreement. In order to checkmate him, the northern elders met in Abuja last weekend to strategise on how the north will capture power in 2011.
Already they are making frantic efforts to reconcile the warring factions and individuals from that part of the country like former military heads of state, Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida; former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, and Kano State governor, Ibrahim Shekarau.
When Jonathan appeared on the CNN when he went to the United States in April, then as acting president, he had told Christiana Amanpour, his interviewer, that nothing in the constitution precluded him from contesting the 2011 presidential election.
And at his maiden media chat on Sunday, much as he tried to parry away a question as to whether he would contest or not, he ended up leaving enough clue that he would run. One, he said there was no agreement on zoning and that if he would contest eventually, he would wait for the new chairman-designate of INEC, Attahiru Jega, to roll out the electoral timetable after clearance by the senate. He would declare his intention thereafter. The screening of Jega and other INEC commissioners by the Senate has begun. His clearance is just a matter of days away.
Last month, one of his aides, Cairo Ojougbo, had come out to say that the president would contest but retracted the statement a few hours later, saying it was his personal opinion. Apparently he had been reprimanded.
All indications point to the fact that Jonathan will run in 2011. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once said he was not aware of any agreement on zoning and that it was up to Jonathan to decide whether or not to run. Former chairman, board of trustees of the party, Tony Anenih has come out to say that zoning was not respected in 2003 and 2007. The late Abubakar Rimi and Barnabas Gemade, who are northerners, had contested with Obasanjo and second republic vice president, Alex Ekwueme for the party’s ticket at that time.
Already, a number of heavy weights of the party have lined up behind Jonathan for the 2011 race. The entire membership of the disbanded Reform Forum is with him along with Obasanjo and Anenih.
The north is livid with rage. What options do they have? Not all northerners believe that Jonathan should not run on account of zoning. What has become apparent is that those who are agitating against the president being in power beyond 2011 are only fighting for their individual and group ambitions and not necessarily for the north. For instance if either Babangida or Atiku fails to run in 2011, there is no likelihood that any of them will have the opportunity again. Babangida will be 69 on August 17 while Atiku is in his early 60s. Their desperation is, therefore, understandable. Besides, those very close to them from the north will benefit enormously from either a Babangida or Atiku presidency.
Many other northerners expressed the view that zoning should be discarded. These include Niger State governor, Babangida Aliyu; former minister of FCT, Nasir el Rufai; former speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Bello Masari. He is also a member of the disbanded Reform Forum of the PDP.
In a situation of near certainty that Jonathan will run for 2011, what options are open to the northern elite desirous of stopping him? Their options are limited. The experience of Atiku under Obasanjo is a clear indication that one cannot fight a sitting president. Babangida, as a former head of state knows as much. In the difficult days of the June 13 crisis in 1993, he once said that he was not only in authority but also in power. That is to say, being in office gave him absolute powers.
Besides, the recent travail of Ogbulafor is enough indication that one does not dare an executive president. Ogbulafor talked himself into trouble when, shortly after Jonathan was proclaimed acting president in February, he (Ogbulafor) played into the hands of the Governors’ Forum that was not comfortable with Jonathan and wanted desperately to whittle the then acting president’s powers. Ogbulafor, as party chairman, declared that Jonathan was excluded from contesting the 2011 presidency even if Yar’Adua, who was then sick, could not run. He said the presidency was zoned to the north till 2015.
The statement, made at a time there was no need for it because the main issue at the time, was how to stabilize the country given the damage that the Yar’Adua cabal had inflicted on the Nigerian nation, jolted the Jonathan camp. The rest, as it is commonly said, is history.
Also, both Atiku and Babangida have baggage they are carrying. Atiku’s own is the Halliburton bribery allegation in which he is linked to William Jefferson, former congressman in the US. As for Babangida, the Pius Okigbo panel report on how the Gulf War oil windfall was spent during his regime, remains his albatross. The government can dust it up as it tried to in the recent past if he (Babangida) tries to upstage the applecart.
In addition, the newly appointed chairman of PDP, Okwesilieze Nwodo, is Jonathan’s candidate for the position. His job is simple: deliver the ticket to Jonathan. Under his watch, there is no way Jonathan will fail to pick the 2011 presidential ticket of PDP.
Given the foregoing, the option open to the northern elite for 2011 is two-fold. One is to forget the 2011 presidential race on the platform of PDP and wait for 2015. The other option is to quit PDP and try to actualize their plan under another party’s platform. This option appears more plausible. Already, Buhari is entrenched in his newly formed Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). The All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) will most likely have a northern presidential candidate. The Action Congress (AC) is yet to pick a presidential candidate and can readily throw its doors open to a northerner to fly the party’s flag. Already there are indications that Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State, who is the main backbone of AC, is wooing Babangida to pick the party’s ticket so that he (Tinubu) would be his running mate.