Chamberlain S. Peterside, Ph.DMonday, September 20, 2010
[email protected]
New York, NY, USA



…Let the Game Begin

he battle-line is already drawn for the highly spirited presidential race in Nigeria slated for January 2011. Though other elective positions are up for grabs the most intensely watched (locally and in the international arena) is the presidential election for obvious reasons. First, it is coming on the heels of the untimely demise of former President Yar Adua who died in May this year. Secondly, the election might run against conventional wish of the ruling elites that power must rotate (zoning formula) between the Northern and Southern regions every so often. Were the late President alive today, it might have been a whole different story.

Aside from the current President Goodluck Jonathan that comes from the minority South-South region and has declared his intention to run there are other frontline candidates in the arena, who come from the majority Northern region, (within the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and opposition parties). All this is happening on the backdrop of heated debate about zoning and the timing of power shift.

Going by recent feelers, President Goodluck Jonathan and former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida by all indications might emerge to slug it out in the PDP primaries, though other candidates are gearing up, including former Vice President Abubakar Atiku. The fact that the candidates within the ruling party are from various sections of the country should actually be applauded as one of the beauties of democracy at least in the Nigerian context rather than causing such derision.

Instead of trying to exclude any candidate (above all, a sitting President) from exercising his inalienable constitutional right to run for the highest office on the altar of zoning, every contender ought to be encouraged to forge ahead and test their mettle through the ballot box. That is all better for the long-deprived Nigerian masses. The current groundswell of polemic as long as it remains civil, makes the contest quite exciting. Only under such circumstances can we bring out the best (and sometime the worst) in the candidates.

…To Zone Or Not To?
Over time, I have listened very carefully to different views on this zoning question and come to the conclusion that it is quite incongruous. If you imagine that people go into private arrangements all the time (as in the case of PDP henchmen agreeing on power shift in 1999), the crux of the matter however is that when such arrangements evidently contravene the highest law of the land, then it is a matter of time before you run into serious problem like the one PDP has on its hands now.

As a quick illustration, if we went into an agreement to take turns in looting the treasury and you didn’t share the proceeds of the loot as we anticipated (because of what we call Force Majeure in business) if I decide to sue you, will my case stand in any civilized court of law? Zoning might not have been too much of an issue if it didn’t go against the grain of constitutionality – which declares that everyone has the right to contest an elective office if he/she meets the criteria – pure and simple. The question becomes - what should prevail as overriding premise for a party to decide a candidate’s fate? Including for a sitting President who himself must now choose between the constitution (that he vowed to defend) and private political party arrangement? This is exactly why viable democratic system is built on solid institutions and clear-cut rule of law that professes primacy of the constitution above everything else, so that no politician or citizen can say he wasn’t aware.

This confusion makes for internal high-octane horse-trading, which seems the only way out for PDP. It might be too late to blame the foolhardiness of the PDP stalwarts who entered into such an arcane agreement in 1998, unbeknown that at some point down the line an unusual situation may arise (as we have today), when unexpectedly a sitting President dies and his successor (who is an innocent insider of the supposed gentlemen’s agreement and comes from a different region) is thrust into the limelight and must make very difficult choice. Maybe 2010 is the year we start facing new realities in Nigeria.

…What Would You Do?
What would you do if you were in President Jonathan’s shoes, (particularly when the letter of law is quite succinct on his right to seek an office not withstanding under which party)? Most reasonable people might take their case directly to the electorate as opposed to pandering to bunch of political bigots and so–called godfathers that have laid siege on Nigeria for decades.

In a diverse and federal makeup like Nigeria, there is validity to the fact that power ought to rotate in some fashion between citizens and regions cohabiting the society, to make for balance, equity and fairness. It is natural to build political alliances across regional and ideological divides as wining strategy in a democratic system. Power-sharing is a rational tactical-approach for persuading the electorate in one region to vote for a candidate from another as practiced here in United States, thanks in part to the Electoral College system.

The unwritten rule of thumb and acceptable practice in presidential elections is that if a leading candidate comes from an area and has certain ideological leaning, it behooves that leading candidate to select a running mate from another region that can attract votes, while complimenting the ticket. You might say Nigeria is not quite there yet, but how it might get there is what we are witnessing.

Nigeria’s experience today is made complex by the fact that the political and democratic process is nascent and still growing. Despite the existence of 36 states, the situation is compounded by entrenched psyche of geographical dichotomy (between North and South that was amalgamated by the British in 1914) and ethno-religious heterogeneity (of predominantly Moslem North and Christian South). Even at that, it is inconceivable that any presidential ticket can win elections without two-third majority of the votes (as the constitution prescribes) from several regions.

From a historical standpoint when the country was under prolonged dictatorship, except for an interlude in 1966 (under Aguiyi-Ironsi) and again in 1976-1979 (when Obasanjo was the military head of state), all the military heads of government were from a particular region – the North, whereas other members of the ruling clique were spread across every geographical area. Ironically, even governors in the different states (in the Southern, Eastern or Western regions) were also predominantly of Northern origin. That wasn’t such a big deal at that stage because Nigerians constantly yearned for change, so each successive military coup was greeted with euphoria – but not anymore. In hindsight military governance has been rather a curse than blessing to Nigeria.

…New Times, New Thinking
With the advent of popular democracy in an information age, citizens nationwide are becoming increasingly enlightened, what’s more, the historical failure of leadership and resource-mismanagement by both military and civilian administrations in Nigeria has taught everyone very harsh lessons. Despite your ethnicity or religion, majority of Nigerians have fared extremely poorly over the past 50 years since independence.

Thus the fundamental concern is – of what bloody consequence is the region where a president comes from or what his religion is if there is obvious practical evidence of underperformance and abject poverty across board? When the argument is made about the region that should produce the next president the underlying trust is that such president will represent the interest of his region, sadly the candidate caters to the selfish needs of few cohorts and rent-seeking politicians, as underdevelopment and deprivation fester in all regions.

So why should ordinary folks give a hoot who the president is, if he can’t deliver? It is indeed time to cut through the nonsense and toe a different path from the self-centered political process to chart a new course on how to promote the interest of majority electorate. There is not a more auspicious moment to break the jinx of regionalism and ethnicism than now. It is laughable to assume that the current scenario was concocted through a preconceived plan or intellectual masterstroke, so let’s cease the moment to deal with issues constructively.

Providence has dealt a swift blow on Nigeria’s corrupt political class and they are fighting hard to maintain the status quo. Now is the time to systematically shed the ugly legacy of regionalism and religious sentiments in presidential politics. Blatant annulment of 1993 election convincingly won by late Abiola slowed (but didn’t stop) the march to de-emphasize sectionalism in Nigeria’s presidential contest.

Look closely at the current slate of contestants and their supporters, each of the leading contestants, namely - Jonathan, Babangida, Atiku and Buhari boast of ardent supporters from all ethnic coloration and regions. That makes for a vibrant open contest. So to shout that any candidate must quite the race will mean depriving legions of supporters their rightful voice in the electoral process.

The center of gravity should rather shift to the issues and ideas. Candidates ought to be queried and assessed based on their antecedents, character, integrity, outlook, commitment, political agenda and approach to solving the multitude of problems plaguing Nigeria. The country has enough social and economic dilemmas to keep the candidates awake throughout the campaign season and during their tenure (if they are truly well meaning). So it will be a great disservice and completely unfair to the country and its people to mandate that certain persons shouldn’t contest. Rather than remain fixated on zoning formula, serious candidates must tackle challenges head-on or leave the race altogether.

…Power of Incumbency
In the crowded field of contestants President Jonathan definitely has certain advantages thanks to power of incumbency, but that does not necessarily guarantee that he will win? Realistically, chances are that unless he canvasses for support effectively and proffers novel solutions to perennial ailments of Nigeria he might well be beaten at the primaries or general election. None of the contenders in the race within PDP are neophytes for that matter; they are all seasoned politicians in their own rights. Even outside PDP serious challenges portend from Buhari or Ribadu.

Ongoing squabble in PDP actually provides unique opportunity for the opposition parties to strategize, align and present one formidable candidate that can give PDP a run for its money. It might also be that if the opposition candidates can target key issues, which would endear them to the electorate (who are very frustrated and fed-up with PDP) then their chances will improve significantly. Nigeria is undergoing a very bumpy democratic ride and it is downright naive and biased to envision that this will lead nowhere else but anarchy (not unless some disgruntled elements consciously decide to foment trouble). Unlike what the pundits (both local and foreign) have tried to insinuate, not since the civil war has Nigerians learnt their lessons about fighting nonsensical war.

Though potential losers in the upcoming election are already predicting mayhem if the current incumbent wins, I don’t imagine pandemonium as the singular outcome despite the fact that recent religious uprising in the North, militancy in the Niger Delta, crime wave and lawlessness are all tell-tale signs of mass social discontent. Fear of possible disintegration is far-fetched and taking the paranoia a bit too extreme. To be sure, insecurity, pervasive thuggery and growing cottage industry of kidnapping are serious stumbling blocks that cannot be ignored on the path to conducting free, fair and peaceful elections.

…What Armageddon?
In over three decades of military rule and inconsequential dictatorship, Nigerians experienced and contended with severe difficulties that haven’t abated, yet the country is still standing. It leaves you wondering why chaos is the only option today, simply because the trajectory of politics is shifting in the country.

No region should have the sole prerogative to power in Nigeria and modern history is replete with federal models that have flourished (USA) through the preeminence of rule of law and equal opportunity or disbanded either peacefully or by violent means (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively) owing to authoritarianism and quest for domination by few power-mongers. The upcoming referendum in January 2011 after 30 years of prolonged civil war between Northern and Southern Sudan may offer a vivid case of eventual disintegration in Africa. That is definitely a signpost Nigeria needs to avoid by treading very carefully to get this democratic experiment right.

The difference in these countries vis-à-vis Nigeria today is that there wasn’t such vibrant dialogue in a democratic dispensation. Even with the often vociferous legal battles waged by political and civic groups coupled with desolate economic conditions in the midst of plenty, Nigerians are still talking and ought to remain in constant discourse, vigorously engaging each other in debates on the suitable formula for socio-political change and economic progress within the federation. The collective destiny of any nation and generations unborn is paramount and reckon far more than parochial interests of political aspirants, particularly when those wishing to make the contest a do-or-die affair are already in their twilight years.

The electorate should be the final arbiter in the quest to install the right people to represent them. That is why the effort to transform the electoral process and ensure that every vote counts is extremely crucial. The process must be closely monitored by representatives of every political party and civic organization for it to succeed.

Ultimately a country does not cease to exist merely because a candidate lost an election. That is very self-serving, backward and barbaric, there’s no civilized country where such mentality has prevailed - Nigeria should be no different. If recent experience of United States is any guide, George W. Bush became the 43rd president by a vote difference of less than 500 in Florida, where his brother was the sitting Governor.

Some observers adjudged the election as unfair, yet the Democratic Party contender; former Vice President Al Gore conceded defeat after the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the result of the ballot count. President Bush then spent 8 years (re-elected for a second tenure) in office as permitted by the constitution and vacated. If we believe that the future of all Nigerians (regardless of their region, religion or ethnicity) is entwined then the contestants must be civil, stay keyed on the issues and allow the game to go on. Let the people decide and may the best candidate win!

Chamberlain is a New York based financial professional and member of Rivers State Economic Advisory Council.