Beyond Ethnic Presidency
GUARDIAN, February 10, 2006
group, or geopolitical zone, will produce the President of the Federal Republic
of Nigeria after May 2007? This is currently the dominant political question in
the country: a question made dominant by the ruling classes whose leading bloc
is in control of the Nigerian state. Mind you: I did not say "after President
Olusegun Obasanjo," but "after May 2007," because the incumbent president is in
the probabilistic equation.
This dominant question has been made to hide the more critical and decisive
questions before the country, but, as my Urhobo friend used to say, "the small
pickin wey put him face inside water", believing he is hiding, is deceiving
himself because "him back dey show". We cannot however, ignore the dominant
question for at least two reasons. In the first place, large segments of the
masses have been drawn into this question as a result of the ideological
hegemony which the ruling classes continue to exercise in the country.
In the second place, if "katakata" does not take over before then, the
resolution of the dominant question - one way or the other - or its deflection,
will significantly if not tragically, affect the development of what I have
called "critical and decisive questions" (the national question, including the
upsurge, in the Niger Delta, among others). It is then this dominant question
will vanish overnight. If a man is consumed by fire you don't start asking about
his beard, for this will be the first to go. Anyone who is struggling for a seat
in a sinking boat cannot be described as wise.
In discussing the "problems in Nigeria" - of which the location of the
presidency is said to be one - or invoking the "interests of the nation", it is
necessary, at each stage, to remind ourselves implicitly or explicitly -
depending on the context - of a simple, but critical socio-political thesis
which the rulers and their ideologues try strenuously to obfuscate, since they
cannot refute it. This thesis is that sociologically and ideologically, and at
times politically as well, and in spite of shades of coincidences, there are
fundamental differences which are not merely quantitative, but also qualitative,
between the nation, on the one hand, and the state and the ruling classes, on
the other; and between the state on the one hand and the ruling classes on the
Approached differently, we can say that at each point in time, the problems that
these social categories - the nation, the state and the ruling classes - face,
and the interests that drive them, are different. Applying this thesis to the
subject under discussion, we can propose that the interests of the Nigerian
nation, the Nigerian state, and the Nigerian ruling classes do not coincide on
the question of location and movement of the Presidency.
Although, subscribing to this simple thesis, and employing it, cannot guarantee
a complete understanding of the Nigerian political theatre, any political
analyst who rejects or ignores it can be likened to a blindfolded footballer.
Every politician appears to be taking positions on the future of the country. It
is possible however to take a complete inventory of the stronger and more
significant political positions on the specific question of location (and
movement) of the presidency. The Northern power bloc wants the presidency to be
returned to the North after Obasanjo's tenure which should end in May 2007.
This, according to the bloc, will be in conformity with a gentleman's agreement
reached before Obasanjo was anointed as president in 1999. After this return,
the presidency, or federal power, should rotate, or rather alternate, between
the North and the South. These two regions appear to the bloc to be the natural,
or at least historically confirmed, units between which federal power in Nigeria
The Southern Forum, and the groups that make up this "confederation," want the
presidency to remain in the South after May 2007. Obasanjo's successor as
president, should preferably come from the Southeast or Southsouth geopolitical
zone. There is no consensus of opinion on whether Obasanjo, who is from the
South, should run for a third term, that is, succeed himself in May 2007.
Ohanaeze Ndigbo, one of the groups in the Forum, wants the presidency for the
Southeast; the Southsouth group wants it; and Afenifere, representing the
Southwest, would support either of the two.
The National Assembly which is initiating a constitutional review on
presidential location and tenure, and other matters, says it will be guided by
the wishes of Nigerians. It has provided several options in a draft. In
particular, the Assembly proposes the creation of two vice presidential
positions (one from the North and one from the South) and the alternation of the
presidency between the North and the South. The leadership of the House,
battling with loss of credibility, denies that it is in the campaign to extend
President Obasanjo's tenure beyond May 2007.
The Patriots, a group of eminent elder statesmen (in the literal sense, for I
don't think there is a woman in their ranks) advocates a single presidential
term of five years. But they insist that any draft constitution must be
submitted to a referendum. Once led by Chief FRA Williams, a prominent lawyer
(now deceased), The Patriots is currently led by Professor Ben Nwabueze, another
There are those politicians I would call "true democrats", if I may borrow a
perspective from Karl Marx. These politicians say they do not believe in the
zoning of political offices. They say it is undemocratic, among other defects. I
think, to be consistent, the "true democrats" should also reject the concepts
and practice of "federal character" and "quota system", and the "resource
control" campaign. Some segments of the Nigerian population including, in
particular, politicians and religious leaders, are in support of the exclusion
of ethnic origin and religion from the questionnaire for the forthcoming census.
I would, expect "true democrats" to be in the
forefront of this position. What I would love to see is a development of these
positions into a coherent and internally consistent political platform, complete
with clear standpoints on the economy and imperialism. This may show us a way
There is another group of anti-third term campaigners who I may call, for lack
of a better name, "constitutional democrats." Their key argument is that those
who are campaigning for the retention of the presidency in the South after May
2007 may actually, even if unwittingly, be assisting the plan to extend
President Obasanjo's tenure, for the latter is from the South. My comment here
is that if politicians are making ethnic and regional claims to the presidency,
and this is accepted, or tolerated, as legitimate politics, then it makes no
sense to persuade a particular ethnic or regional formation to drop its claim on
the grounds that their own campaign would
strengthen Obasanjo's alleged third term agenda.
The position of the presidency headed by President Obasanjo rests on three
planks. First, that the President has performed well and will continue to do his
good work for the country. Secondly, that those who are alleging that the
President has a "third term" plan are political enemies and saboteurs.
And thirdly, that the President will never act against the constitution of the
country. The presidency has therefore affirmed nothing, and has denied nothing.
But the campaign for a "third term" has not been repudiated. The minimum
charitable deduction that one can make from this position, against the
background of the ongoing campaign and the abuses from the presidency, is that
President Obasanjo would seek a "third term" if the constitution is amended
constitutionally to permit an extension of current presidential tenure which
expires in May 2007. This deduction provides sufficient grounds for the
intensification of the campaign against the alleged "third term"
These are the significant positions on the subject - significant in the sense
that, to varying degrees, significant political forces can be rallied to defend
each of them; or, put differently, each of them can be used by individuals
behind it to rally political forces for any objective whatsoever, including
blackmail, sabotage and bargaining for concessions from desperate
power-perpetuators and power-seekers. The positions embody in the main, the
diverse immediate interests of the factions and blocs of the Nigerian ruling
classes; and minimally the immediate interests of the popular masses of Nigeria.
To a certain degree, the dilatory and diversionary position of the presidency
embodies the interests of the Nigerian state as an underdeveloped and thoroughly
dependent neo-liberal capitalist state.
These positions and the interests they embody cannot move Nigeria forward, to
use the current ruling language. To get to the road forward you have to
abandon the problematic of "presidential location", go beyond it, so to say.
Radically different perspectives are called for. And if they are already in
display, they must become dominant or be made dominant. If you shine your
searchlight on Chief Anthony Enahoro or the Niger Delta militants, you will see
elements of alternative perspectives - including "collective presidency" - on
the organisation and distribution of federal power in Nigeria. I shall look at
these alternative perspectives in the following weeks.