As the 2023 electoral year draws close, political parties in Nigeria are strategizing. Politicians are strategizing on how to hold relevant positions in the political parties and how to make their parties win elections. For instance, the All Progressives’ Congress (APC) is said to have finally settled to hold its national convention on March 26 after several meetings and initial postponements. New national party leadership is to be elected at the convention and the campaign for such positions is in top gear. There is nothing spectacular in all these.
What is worth noting, perhaps with a tinge of sadness, is the place which zoning has taken in all these. Both within the parties themselves and nationally, what seems to matter the most in determining who will hold the various offices is the geopolitical zone of the contestants. The arrangement by which political power and privileges are shared or rotated among zones is an invention of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – the party that formed the national government at the return of democracy in 1999. It was an arrangement to rotate the presidency among the regions in the country in order to make each region feel fairly treated.
Since then, the arrangement has stuck and has become the yardstick for allocating political power and resources even at the lowest level. While zoning achieved some level of stability for the polity at the beginning, it has since become a liability which even its originating party has had difficulty shouldering. For instance, ahead of the 2023 presidential elections, various voices within the PDP have been opposing that the presidency be based on zoning.
Keen observers of the Nigerian leadership misfortune are quick to lay the accusation at the feet of the leadership recruitment process. They argue that Nigeria has citizens who can turn her fortunes around if given the opportunity to govern. However, these individuals are kept on the sidelines because of arrangements like zoning that relegate merit and capacity to the background, focusing instead on rewarding those who had been asked to wait for their turn in the past – whose turn has now come to occupy office. They view zoning simply as a self-serving arrangement in which a clique of predatory politicians merely queue up and take turns at supporting one another in the game of destroying the country unchallenged.
Supporters of zoning try to argue that qualified persons still emerge as leaders at the end. They suppose that everyone contesting for office is already equally qualified and capable of leading. Therefore, regardless of who emerges via zoning, merit will not suffer – that zoning is not a replacement for merit but the appropriation of already-existing merit. They’re not saying the truth. We know that the candidates don’t share uniform abilities, except the ability to share money – which for far too long has been the fulcrum of our politics.
They also argue that with zoning in politics, political positions are shared more equitably among aspirants, reducing the bitterness and rancour that would otherwise characterise the process. This argument is wrongly based. It supposes that political positions must go round, but they don’t have to. This assumption – that once you hold party membership you must occupy an office one day – precisely creates an entitlement in politicians, who in turn view political office as reward for their loyalty to their party rather than an opportunity to serve the people. The assumption that offices must go round is also responsible for politics of bitterness and money politics – both which must give way for progressive, patriotic and service-based politics and politicians to emerge.
How many of those who support zoning will be happy to learn that the person attending to their health or flying them by air is not necessarily the most qualified but one who is doing so because it is the turn of his zone? They are likely to insist that regardless of ethnicity and zone, the most qualified person should be the one attending to their health or flying them. Why, then, does merit matter more than zoning in choosing which doctor takes care of us when we are sick, but the same merit no longer matter in who leads the whole country as president, for instance?
The reason we don’t see any problem with zoning political offices is that we underestimate the influence of politics on the outcome of our lives. While we can readily track the consequences of being under a quack doctor, for instance, we don’t easily think about being under a quack leader. This is tragic because quack leaders – by having control over public policy – affect the outcome of everything including the quality of care we can get even from qualified doctors. We have to realize that if we don’t insist on qualified leaders, our nation will continue to fail regardless of who else is qualified in their place of work – doctors, engineers, lawyers and so on.
To the average Nigerian battling the immediate difficulties of life – how to raise school fees, house rent or hospital bills – this debate may sound far removed, but the ultimatum on our generation is drawing close. Our political clock ticks once every 4 years. It’s about to tick again and the question of zoning is no longer a mere philosophical one but one at the heart of our future – do we want change now or should it come another day?