NIGERIA AND THE 2023 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

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Jide Akintunde canvasses an urgent need to pass and sign a reformed electoral law

In Nigeria, one general election simply leads to the next. Therefore, there is already much anticipation of the 2023 general election cycle. But fewer people have been voting in the presidential elections since 2003. The more we have elections, the poorer the people get, and the more unstable the country has become.

This is why a focus on the 2023 general election now – especially the presidential election – is foolhardy. There are two pressing issues the country needs to address first. One of them is electoral reform. This was left till late the last time. President Muhammadu Buhari, who was seeking re-election in 2019, decided not to sign the amended electoral bill passed by the National Assembly into law, on the basis that it was already too close to the election. In effect, he allowed the election that returned him to office to be marred by flaws, which could have been prevented by law.

Although Buhari is not eligible to seek re-election in 2023, that does not mean he would be disinterested in the election. It would be important to the president who his successor would be. For an administration whose alleged misdeeds may be uncovered by its successor, the current president might be very vulnerable in his retirement after office. Therefore, the same old tactics could be used to forestall a free and fair election in 2023 to have an administration that would be loyal to its predecessor.

Nevertheless, the support of the president is key for moving the electoral reform agenda forward. But it should not be left up to him. Nigerian citizens must press for changes to the law guiding the conduct of our elections. It is crucially important that substantive electoral reform be passed and signed into law within the next 12 months. It should not be delayed.

Who the major presidential contenders would be in three years’ time is also very important. This is more likely to be predetermined by likely consensus on which part of the country should produce the next president. It is a bizarre permutation in a democracy, where the free contest for power is one of the ethos. But this is a key practical calculation, not only for the current presidential aspirants, but more so for the country. But this requires explanation.

The Nigerian Fourth Republic was founded on the basis of power rotation. After the northern oligarchy sabotaged the election of the presidential candidate from the southwest, M.K.O. Abiola, in 1993, the country descended into anarchy. Five years of agitation and negotiation of a truce, under a transitional government and three military heads of states, culminated in the political consensus that the next election to usher in a new democratic dispensation in 1999 should necessarily produce a Yoruba president to replace the then-military head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a northerner. As a result, the major presidential contenders in the 1999 presidential election were Chief Olu Falae and retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, with the latter as the winner.

Subsequently, the principle of power rotation has been vigorously asserted by the political establishment. Buhari, a northerner who was impatient for President Obasanjo to serve two terms by running against the incumbent in 2003, and wanting the north to take back power, was ultimately propelled to office in 2015 on the crest of power rotation.

But there is a loose definition of Nigeria’s power rotation. Is it the rotation of the presidency simply between the north and the south as the major power blocs in the country? In which case, anyone from the multiple ethnic nationalities of the north can have a shot at the presidency during its turn. Ditto the south. This would appear to be a neat argument. But the over 400 ethnic nationalities spread across the country are also divided by River Niger and Benue River. Indeed, three major ethnic nationalities have long been recognised in Nigeria. They influenced the country’s regional structure before and at independence. Each of the regions – northern, western and eastern Nigeria – had constitutional regional autonomy.

As Nigerians define themselves first and foremost by their ethnicities and not by their nationality, the three major ethnic divides of the Hausa-Fulani of the north, Yoruba’s southwest and Igbo’s southeast have hardened. The political posturing that excludes Igbo from the centre of gravity of Nigerian politics after they fought the civil war in a bid to secede, and lost, has become a major test of the inclusiveness of Nigeria’s power rotation going forward.

Is the power rotation between the Fulani and Yoruba? This has not manifestly been the case. The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Ijaw-man, preceded the current administration, even if it was because of the accident of the death of then-incumbent President Musa Yar’Adua, who Jonathan served with as Vice President and succeeded as laid down in the constitution.

The Igbo have not ruled themselves out as a bona fide claimant to the presidency. While it is uncertain if President Buhari would support power rotation to the south in 2023, the Igbo are now eager to take their turn. They have never produced an elected executive-president of the country. However, there are already a few Yoruba and northern presidential aspirants. Therefore, the geopolitical power play going into 2023 is currently dangerously stalemated. There is need to resolve it in an orderly fashion.

The orderly resolution of the political impasse caused by the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, following the initial chaos, enabled the longest run of democratic rule in the country. Never since independence has civilian rule lasted as we have had since 1999. Not only should the country learn from its unpleasant history. We should be able to learn from our national experiments that worked.

The current political deadlock, unlike the impasse over the 1993 election, is multidimensional. Not only is the north pitted against the south, a Yoruba presidential aspiration sets the south-west up against the Igbo. Everyone is aggrieved, surprisingly the north too – because of the grand failure of the Buhari administration to secure the region, thereby exacerbating poverty there. Under the scenario where everyone is upset, everyone should be pacified. The way to achieve peace would be to bring everyone to the table for peaceful negotiation.

Igbo president in 2023 is a major point to be negotiated, but it is not the only one. Indeed, Igbo presidency in 2023 is not a well-rounded argument in itself. Except it is a carefully determined presidency, different from the incompetent ones since 1999, it could result in ghastly outcomes for the country. Why Igbo presidency cannot be the only matter for resolution is that everyone needs to win. A winner-takes-it-all will not work.

There is no better framework for good outcomes for the disparate groups than to grant them autonomy over their affairs in the Nigerian state. Currently, the north does not want to entrust its progress to the south. The south feels its progress is being impeded by northern political dominance that has abjectly failed to develop the region. The Yoruba and Igbo have mutual political distrust towards each other — although not mutual antipathy as some exaggerate, sometimes mischievously.

Therefore, a system that makes each region to be responsible for its progress should be agreeable. With regional autonomy, the presidency would remain prestigious, but it would not be a repressive, or an overbearing, force. An Igbo president under this scenario is less difficult to accept and not too hard to let go as the country resets for open electoral contests.

To put it succinctly, the government needs to kickstart the process of restructuring the federation. This is also very urgent. A national conference should be convoked by the end of March 2021, to agree a new structure for governing the country. The resolutions of the conference could be used to amend the current constitution. But a new constitution would be more symbolic, and it does not mean nothing in the current constitution would be retained.

A new electoral law that comprehensively reforms the electoral processes and a constitutional restructuring of the country are very urgent matters the Nigerian state should seriously attend to beginning from now. Together, they would guarantee the best outcome for the 2023 general election. Without these, we could be chasing the wind.

Akintunde is the Managing Editor of Financial Nigeria magazine