The Case Against Rotational Presidency

In November last year, I posted an article on President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to convene a national conference, hereafter referred to as “the conference” or “the confab” (http://balogunjide.net/people-driven-constitution-nigeria-yes-open-ended-dialogue/). The conference has since settled down to business. To give the delegates the breathing space they needed to, as they say, “jaw-jaw”, I took a break from my regular blogging activity. I maintained a studied silence since most of the issues to be addressed on my website had been listed on the confab agenda. Even though I had strong reservations about the confab sponsors’ motives, the method for the selection of delegates, and the fitness of some nominees, I decided to give the exercise the benefit of doubt. I had planned to wait until the conference winds up its deliberations, submits its report, and educates us on how its recommendations would be legitimized and implemented. I even considered extending the wait-and-watch stance for as long as necessary, and certainly up to when the Presidency (which virtually handpicked the delegates and bankrolled the deliberations) showed its hands.
However, something changed in the interim. An outrageous proposal emanating from the conference changed my calculations and compelled me to break my silence. What might that proposal be? It is this little matter of ‘rotational presidency’. I had, in my book, The Route to Power in Nigeria (published by Palgrave-Macmillan, NY, in 2010) equated the concept with the rotation of mediocrity. I had thought that the issue was dead and buried. I was under the impression that Nigeria, having been liberated from the yokes and decades of military rule had finally emerged from the shadows of authoritarianism, and was now ready to embrace the tenets of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
How wrong I was! From the look of things, I had given our country (and especially its elite) too much credit for broad-mindedness and commitment to democracy. As is increasingly becoming obvious, the civilian elite has not left the praetorian mindset where it belongs, meaning, in the past. It has instead chosen to perfect the regimentation methods bequeathed by the military. Far from being determined to build a modern state–a state that acknowledges the sovereignty of, and respects the choices made by, its own People–our leaders seem hell-bent on imposing their will on the rest of us. Unless we stand firm, a self-seeking group is poised to halt our democratic advance and take us back in time.
How else does one interpret the confab’s decision to throw its weight behind “rotational presidency”? The idea is founded on basically two premises, both of them false. It starts with the assumption that power has for too long resided with a particular section of the country, a section that has consistently lorded it over the rest. Without subjecting their “ruling race” (or is it “birth right”) hypothesis to rigorous logical and empirical tests, the advocates of rotation conclude that it is only by enshrining power rotation in our constitution that all the federating units would have a “sense of belonging” and the country’s peace and stability would be guaranteed. Applying subtle blackmail, proponents of rotation argue that the Nigeria would never see an end to the do-or-die mentality among the ranks of politicians or the violent struggle for power among the various nationalities unless the constitution guarantees every federating unit’s right to occupy the highest executive office at predictable intervals.
Milking ethnic diversity for political gain is not a recent practice. It has been with us since the dawn of independence. For politicians that are desperate to capture power but bereft of sound mobilization ideas, exploitation of ethnic or religious antagonism appears as the most effective strategy. For instance, when cornered by his opponents in the run-up to the 1964 regional elections, the late Premier, Chief S L Akintola, launched a vicious attack on the Igbo and berated the group for seeing itself as “a race anointed by God Almighty to lord it over other races”. During the military era, the southern press coined the term “Kaduna mafia” to depict a group that allegedly ruled Nigeria by remote control. Not long thereafter, the public started hearing about the “Lantang mafia”. At yet another time, it was “the North” that was out to conquer the South and colonize the whole of Nigeria. Right now, the limelight is on the “Hausa-Fulani”– never mind the group’s split along diverse political lines. This raises the question which “mafia” will be named and demonized next!
Unbothered by the fragility of the foundation on which their “ruling race” argument rests, advocates of power rotation have canvassed power rotation as an effective and lasting solution to Nigeria’s governance predicament. There is no doubt that the allegiance of the constituent parts is essential to the peace and stability of Nigeria. What is not clear is where power rotation fits into the equation. Where is the connection between allegiance to Nigeria and the rotation of the highest executive office between or among the constituent parts? If by constituent/federating parts the advocates of power rotation mean the “geo-political zones”, they need to think again. For a start, the “geo-political zones” are products of imaginative minds. They emerged recently, almost spontaneously, arbitrarily, and without the knowledge and consent of the peoples directly concerned. The term is totally alien to our constitution. Nowhere in our country’s fundamental law is there a reference or even an allusion to it. Above all, and this is probably why the constitution never acknowledges the queer creature’s existence, the average “geo-political zone” is united only by geography, not by any logically defensible, historically supported, or politically significant consideration. Where a “geo-political zone” is united by language and/or ethnicity, it is likely to be divided by faith and culture. Where, by all the standard measures, it appears pretty much homogeneous, it may be torn apart by recurrent, sometimes deadly, struggle for power, positions and riches.
This then is the question: if allegiance to Nigeria rests on all interested parties taking their turns at the presidency of the country, what precisely is the interest which the proverbial “geo-political zone” needs the office of the nation’s president to forcefully assert and vigorously defend? Is the case for presidential rotation founded on the proponents’ will to combat and subdue corruption, secure the life and property of the people, cage violent criminals and check anarchy, rehabilitate the decaying infrastructure, anticipate and respond to the growing demand for electric and other energy products as well as for potable water, improve the quality and standards of education, create gainful employment for the teeming youth, provide affordable health care, confront the challenge posed by drug addiction to mental health and to community peace, enhance the general quality of life, and proffer solutions to problems of daily concern?
It is rather odd that none of the preceding issues–or other issues of concern to the average citizen–has so far featured in the advocacy of presidential rotation. This raises another question. If the pursuit of zonal or national interest is not the underlying consideration in the advocacy of presidential or power rotation, then precisely what interest is at stake–that is, precisely the interest that power rotation is expected to serve? This question, awkward as it may sound, deserves an honest, unequivocal, answer.

I shall of course not be surprised if different observers come up with answers that they consider adequate. However, the one that is most appropriate but which we have so far evaded is that suggested by the former Governor of the Central Bank and current Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. Drawing world attention to the mind-boggling sleaze in the administration of fuel subsidies in Nigeria, the irrepressible banker noted that oil thefts and creative book-keeping would persist unless the nation’s youth mustered the courage to take on powerful vested interests.
As is the case with the oil sector, confronting Nigeria’s perennial governance challenge warrants taking on both the entrenched and the aspiring vested interests. Nigerians need to realize that behind the fierce struggle for power rotation are the current and the aspiring rulers. The former would stop at nothing to hold on to power, the attendant privileges, and the prerogative to err without answering to anybody. The latter (the power seekers) have no plan beyond capturing the immense and intimidating powers of the state, and perpetuating the culture of misrule and impunity. In short, when both the incumbent and the aspiring rulers canvass for power rotation, their ultimate aim is the rotation of mediocrity. Certainly, an incumbent or an aspiring president lacks the motivation to excel once his “geo-political” zone’s turn at the presidency has been constitutionally guaranteed.

Rotation does not stop at the perpetuation of mediocrity. It goes much further. It directly assails a key provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to wit, the right to vote and be voted for. The right to vote and be voted for implies that the individual has a choice. The right further implies that individual choice matters at every critical stage, be it that of declaration of interest, submission of candidature for vetting at party and open primaries, votes solicitation, or actual balloting. By contrast, presidential rotation proceeds under the assumption that individual’s identity has been superseded, and his/her preferences have been obliterated, by group loyalty. Presidential rotation dispenses with all the democratic and electoral niceties. Instead, it places a few kingmakers, mostly political godfathers and party financiers, in a position to impose a “consensus candidate” on the electors, thereby substituting their judgement for that of the People.

Besides extinguishing the citizen’s suffrage rights, power rotation pre-empts party choices. A political party is, and must be, at liberty to decide to “zone” various elected or appointive positions to its ethno-religious constituencies. It is then for it to live with the consequences. It is a completely different story where the constitution ties the hands of all party officials and compels them to set-aside elective positions for specific zones. If such a constitutional “directive” creates disorder or generates controversy down the road, it is not just one political party that would bear the consequence, but the entire nation.

That is not all. Contrary to the proponents’ assumption, power rotation is, because of the numerous imponderables associated with it, an inherently unstable arrangement. The constitution may “guarantee” a zone’s future occupation of the president’s office quite alright. However, before that future arrives, several things may happen to upset the applecart and turn the zone’s dream into a national nightmare. To the ruling zone’s consternation, the party that brought its candidate to office may split into factions, and its candidate may be impeached. Another zone may produce a crafty candidate that specializes in organizing “solidarity rallies”, dipping into dedicated accounts to fund underground activities and buy legislative support, and manufacturing public demand for tenure elongation. Yet another zone may produce a candidate whose incompetence is so palpable as to trigger widespread discontent and popular demand for a return to common sense. None of these possibilities can be ruled out. None bodes well for peace and stability.

In conclusion, if allegiance to Nigeria rests on all interested parties having a shot at the office of president at predictable intervals, then we should be clear who the interested parties are. The incumbent and the aspiring leaders are no interested parties in the broad and true sense of the term. In so far as their interests are limited to the capture and/or retention of power, they can be no more than parties with vested interests. The really interested parties–those among whom power should rotate–are regrettably those without a voice. If the office of president should rotate, the candidates to consider will include the unemployed graduate, the peasant, the farm labourer, the slum dweller, the sick and the aged. However, since these individuals do not have the wherewithal to contest, they should not be denied the right to decide who should contest. The electorate should decide who to trust with power and who to recall.

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