July 11, (THEWILL) – Clearly, the road to the 2023 general elections in Nigeria might turn out to be bumpy and laden with political landmines. THEWILL has authoritatively gathered that the resolutions of the 17 Southern State Governors at their second meeting in Lagos, penultimate week, are further pointers to the fact that preparations for the next general polls may not be as smooth as expected.
“Signals of the big battle ahead has already been sent,” a source close to the Southern Governors Forum, which has just chosen Lagos as its headquarters, told this newspaper on Thursday.
Without any iota of doubt, echoes of the two regional meetings of the 17–member Forum, held eight weeks apart, first on May 11, 2021 in Asaba, capital of Delta State, and on July 5 in Ikeja, the Lagos State capital, are still reverberating throughout the political landscape and sending jitters across political divides in the country, ahead of the 2023 general elections.
Attended by all 17 governors from the three dominant political parties in the South, namely the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) with eight governors, the All Progressives Congress (APC) with eight governors and the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) with a governor, issues raised at the two meetings were at once regional and national.
The main source of the fear and discomfort in the political landscape, THEWILL further learnt, is that apart from the novel idea of the 17 Governors setting aside their political differences to forge a common front, driven by what a government source called “perceived injustice, lack of equity and severe security concerns,” national issues were equally raised at the meetings around security and, recently in Lagos, power shift to the South in 2023.
“It is true federalism they are asking for. The issues they are concerned with have blurred party lines. They now realise that one region is dominating the other in terms of equity. Many Nigerians have come to realise that the country is no longer one and I think the governors are with their people on that score,” the source, who craved anonymity, told THEWILL.
This line of thought was corroborated on Thursday, July 8 in Ibadan by Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, while receiving the report of the Olagunsoye Oyinlola-led PDP Southwest Reconciliation Committee at the Executive Council Chamber of the Governor’s Office in Agodi, Ibadan. Governor Makinde said, “The governors from the southern parts of the country came together and without looking or thinking about party affiliations, took far-reaching decisions in the interest of this country and in the interest of fairness, equity and justice, for everybody in this country.”
At the Asaba meeting, hosted by Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of the PDP, what is known as the Asaba Declaration articulated burning national issues, which were further elaborated upon alongside developing topical affairs at the Lagos meeting hosted by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of the APC.
SOUTHERN GOVERNORS TALK TOUGH
At the Lagos meeting, the governors agreed to make Lagos State the Forum’s secretariat, thereby sending a strong message that they have come to stay. Far reaching decisions that further united the governors in their demands were taken alongside new developments whose impact they felt would shortchange the region inequitably and unjustly. They also set aside September 1, 2021 as the deadline for a region-wide ban on open grazing.
Unlike the Asaba meeting, which focused on the worsening insecurity in the country, agitations for self-determination and restructuring, which were well articulated for inter-state collaboration and partnerships, the Lagos meeting, which extended the first set of demands, focused on current affairs dealing with lingering insecurity, constitutional amendment and Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).
The governors re-affirmed their commitment to the unity of Nigeria on the pillars of equity, fairness, justice, progress and peaceful co-existence between and amongst its people and stated that the Presidency be “rotated between southern and northern Nigeria.” They also resolved that the next President of Nigeria “should emerge from the South.”
The governors also re-emphasised the need for State Police and resolved that “if for any reason security institutions need to undertake an operation in any southern state, the chief security officer of the state must be duly informed.” They frowned at the selective criminal administration of Justice and resolved that arrests should be made “within the ambit of the law and fundamental human rights.”
On open grazing, they set Wednesday, September 1, 2021 as the timeline for the promulgation of the anti -open grazing law in all member-states and resolved that funds deducted from the Federation Account for the Nigeria Police Security Trust Fund should be distributed among the states and Federal Government to combat security challenges.
The Forum faulted certain clauses in the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) Law, namely the proposed three percent, and supported the five percent share of the oil revenue to the host community as recommended by the House of Representatives. It rejected the proposed 30 percent share of profit for the exploration of oil and gas in the basins and the ownership structure of the proposed Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC).
The Forum also demanded that the company should be held in trust by the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) since all tiers of government have stakes in the profitable investment vehicle.
It rejected the purported removal of the electronic transmission of the election result from the Electoral Act and also rejected the conferment of exclusive jurisdiction in pre-election matters on the Federal High Court.
IT’S A CONSPIRACY AGAINST NORTH – NEF, CNG
But the North would not have none of what some the region’s groups have described as the “effrontery” of the southern governors to “rock the boat” by challenging the northern hegemony. Describing the Lagos Resolution as a “conspiracy against the North,” the political demands on power shift have so far attracted more reactions from northern groups, such as the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) and Arewa Youths Forum (AYF), as well as some prominent politicians from the region.
Voicing his opposition to the Lagos Resolution, the national chairman of the Action Democratic Party (ADP), Sani Yabagi, accused the southern governors of a gang-up against the North.
Yabagi, a presidential candidate in 2019, who spoke on a live television programme monitored by THEWILL, also described the southern governors’ meeting and decisions as a gang-up against the Muhammadu Buhari administration. “When you look at the grazing issue, insecurity and the issue of politics of 2023, how can we have elected officials, governors for that matter, coming in this manner to emphasise things that divide us? Not talking about things that unite the country beats my imagination. All the things listed in that communique from their meeting seems to be a kind of gang up against the North,” he said.
On its part, the Northern Elders Forum said it was not in opposition to the emergence of a southern president in 2023, insisting that this kind of leadership that has run Nigeria aground is what it is against.
Appearing alongside Yakubu Pam Gam, the Director, Publicly and Advocacy of the Middle Belt Forum, Hakeem Baba Ahmed of the Northern Elders Forum clarified his earlier position which had made it look like he was opposed to the governors’ demand for power shift from the North to the South.
In a television programme monitored by THEWILL on Friday, he stated that NEF had nothing against the South, but it was opposed to the emergence of the present crop of leaders that ran Nigeria into crises.
“Fairness, equity and justice must apply in whatever democracy. They are the pillars of our democratic system. In the interest of equity, justice and fairness Nigerian citizens must be granted the freedom to choose who should govern them.
“When the 17 southern governors were elected, they knew the value of allowing the democratic process to work. There are ways in which candidates emerge on party platforms and there are rules within party platforms. Political parties decide who to field for a particular office and then Nigerian citizens choose who to vote for,” Hakeem Baba Ahmed said, adding, “Words like ‘we must’ and ‘should’ or ‘giving ultimatums’ and threats completely negates the fundamentals of a democratic process.”
Continuing, he said: “The Northern Elders Forum never said it is against rotation or power shifting. What we have always insisted on is the respect for the fact that we are operating a constitutional system.
“Our constitutional system states that, irrespective of what the party decides, the Nigerian citizens eventually have to line up and cast their votes to choose their leaders.
“It is wrong and counter-productive for southern governors to take the position that suggests that the presidency must move to the South. This is dangerous. It is heavy politics and it is not going to persuade northern governors or northern voters to vote for a southern candidate simply because somebody sits in Lagos and wants the presidency to be taken there.
“Northerners are not opposed to voting for a southern candidate. What we are opposed to is being compelled or threatened to vote for a southern candidate simply because a few politicians are too lazy to do the hard work, which is to work with other politicians within their parties on the basis of fairness, equity and justice to allow citizens to vote. That is the position of the northern elders’ forum.”
Also the CNG, in a statement by its spokesperson, Abdul-Azeez Suleiman, accused the southern governors of ganging up against the North.
“The southern governors’ threat to impose and enforce this undemocratic leadership selection process on the North, irrespective of its advantage of numerical superiority and inherent political sophistry, is part of a calculated design to continuously weaken our region politically and pauperise it economically,” it said.
The group blamed the development on Governors Nasir-el Rufai of Kaduna State and former Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, who have both argued for power shift to the South.
“Inevitably, the immediate trigger to the Lagos pronouncements was the collaborative assurances by the former Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima and the Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai, given just two days earlier,” it said.
Also, the Arewa Youth Forum, in a statement by Gambo Gujungu, said the governors’ resolutions were not only unconstitutional but “unfortunate,” adding, “Our advice to the southern governors is that before we talk about the 2023 elections, they should work to settle the problems ravaging their states and region. It is only when some of these impasses are resolved that any one should begin to talk about the presidency in 2023 in an atmosphere devoid of rancour, bitterness and the present pronounced division.”
The AYF believes that some of the resolutions, especially the Southern governors’ rejection of certain provisions of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), “do not engender peace, unity and fairness that the Southern governors said they want by asking for the Presidency in 2023.”
WE’RE NOT MOVED BY THREATS – AKEREDOLU
The opposition, notwithstanding, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, who is the spokesperson of the Southern Governors Forum, has declared that the governmors are fully committed to their resolutions. In line with the September 1 deadline for the promulgation of laws by the member-states to ban open grazing, the Ogun State Assembly, last week, passed the Bill proscribing open grazing in the state.
The southern governors have also received support from the likes of Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, with the Chairman of the Middle Belt Forum, Abuja Chapter, Pam Gam, declaring,”We will support the South and patiently wait for our turn because we want the progress of Nigeria.”
Pam Gam continued, “You will recall that in the history of Nigeria, the Middle Belt has been a region that has kept Nigeria together over time. Various examples abound during the military and in the democratic setting.
“The Middle Belt people believe in equity, fairness and justice. That is why the Middle Belt is at the centre of the divide between the North and the South and trying to balance both sides.”
“On the issue of 2023, the Middle Belt, in all honesty, is in tandem with the position of the southern governors that the 2023 presidency should go to the south. There is an informal understanding that power should rotate between the two parts of this country.
“Based on that, the North has had it for eight years. Naturally the south should have it in 2023. Looking at the way the southern governors presented it, that could be another thing, but the true position of the Middle Belt is that power should shift to the South now. After eight years, it will also come to the North.”
Ortom said the plan to legislate on the prohibition of open grazing is a bold and patriotic move that will bring to an end the lingering crisis caused by armed Fulani herdsmen.
In a statement by his media aide, Terver Akase, the governor praised the governors’ position on power shift. Ortom believes that only equity, fairness and justice can strengthen Nigeria’s unity, give all citizens a sense of belonging and reduce tension.
Meanwhile, members of the House of Representatives from the 17 southern states have also backed the governors’ resolutions.
In a statement by the Chairman of the Southern Caucus of the House, Victor Nwokolo, the lawmakers said, “We note that the demand that the next president of Nigeria should come from the southern region unambiguously represents the opinion of a majority of Nigerians across the board, in tandem with the already established rotation of presidency position between southern and northern Nigeria.”
They supported the governor’s position on the electronic transmission of election results in the Electoral Act, as well as its position on the conferment of exclusive jurisdiction in pre-election matters on the Federal High Court.
The lawmakers backed the rejection of the proposal that 30 percent of the profit from oil revenue should be dedicated to oil exploration efforts in the basins.
They also backed the governor’s recommendation that the NNPC should be controlled by the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA).
IT’S A GAME OF BRINKMANSHIP – OFEIMUN
From all indications, the prevailing developments really pose a big threat to the next general elections as the regional divide continues to widen with pundits wondering what effects this could have on the continued corporate existence of the country, even as the southern governors have restated their commitment to the unity of Nigeria.
“It is actually a game that two persons can play,” said Odia Ofeimun, thinker, poet, author and former private secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in an interview with THEWILL. “Many of the positions taken by President Buhari and his men are not backed by law or any rule. They believe the other side will fall. So far, the governors have not fallen back. But if they fail to push more, the executive will push at them. The executive will try and use federal power to show the governors cannot win. But, I tell you, nothing can stop them from winning.”
But asked how that could possibly happen, he explained, “Recall how President Obasanjo failed to pay the Lagos State Government its allocation because of the local government problem. Did Lagos crumble? So, if you say you will not give the 17 souther states their allocation because of the national demands they have made, then you are ending Nigeria. If the governors stick together, it is the Federal Government that will change its position. It is a game of brinkmanship. You push and see the other side moving, you push more. Look at the PIB thing. It is like pouring rubbish on the Niger Delta. If you are going to give three percent to people who have the oil and you say the people who are affected cannot talk, even slaves will not take that from you.”
Communication scholar and immediate past Head of Mass Communication Department at the University of Lagos, Prof Abigail Ndisika-Ogwezzy, agrees with Ofeimun.
“The governors are living up to the expectations of their people who have expressed worry over issues of insecurity. Everyone needs to be secure to maximise their full potential and given the opportunity to self–actualise, equality of opportunity in terms of citizenship, employment and the freedom to engage more with their compatriots across the country. The governors are the ones taking the heat. Look at what happened during #EndSARS protest, for example. So they have to take action now before the growing call for self-determination in their areas causes another problem,” Ogwezzy told THEWILL.
A source from one of the states, who had accompanied his governor to both meetings, expressed his fears. Speaking to THEWILL on the condition of anonymity, he said that although there is no sign of cracks yet among the governors and the demand for power shift to the south in 2023 is for the peace and stability of the country, the real problem is to “think the South is monolithic politically, just as the North is not monolithic, despite what people say to the contrary.”
Explaining that politicians are driven by interests and calculations of power, he said the power equation in 2023 can tempt some of the governors who are serving their second term in office.
“If a powerful and popular politician from the North dangles a carrot, say Vice Presidency, to some of the second-term governor, will they reject it?,” he asked rhetorically, saying, “They would accept it and rationalise it as a way to serve their people.”
According to him, that is how politicians reason. “You can call it selfish interest. It is not bad. It is called enlightened self-interest. Even Jesus Christ was concerned about his image. He asked his apostles who the people thought he was and when they answered, he in turn asked them what they thought of him. That is human nature,” he said.
Ofeimun somewhat agreed with the source when he too expressed his fears. According to him, two of the southern governors appeared to be shaky because of their dependence on support from the North. He declined to mention names. On the demand for power rotation, he submitted that negotiations may not give the governors what or who they want.
“The truth is that President Buhari has all the money and power to do so,” he affirmed.
Stating that the stand of the governors was for the good of the country, especially in the face of ongoing clamour for restructuring, constitution amendment and electoral reforms, he pointed out that one of the advantages of the meetings, especially the Lagos session, which is actually not yet talked about, is that fact that the 17 governors can “take a position and get support from one of the 19 governors of the northern states,” Samuel Ortom of Benue State said, “It shows that if the southern governors hold on enough, more states from the North may join them.”
According to him, the common call for state police and related issues are some of the reasons that may get that support from northern counterparts for the southern governors. But he was quick to warn that all the governors must be very watchful about the issue of state police, which is already receiving attention in the National Assembly, where the House of Representatives have moved to pass a bill.
“Every state wants state police. They have to read between the lines and be sure that what they are getting is state police. They must follow what happens to the Exclusive Legislative list. If it is left untouched and they are granted state police, they will not have money. That is where the Federal Government takes all the powers of the state. So, if they leave the Exclusive Legislative list as it is and give the states state police, the FG will continue to give them grants. That is why I insist that the southern governors must be ready for the long haul in their struggle,” Ofeimun said.
RESTRUCTURING IS THE ONLY WAY OUT – OZEKHOME
However, Chief Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, insisted that without restructuring Nigeria would continue to move from crisis to crisis. In a webinar held on Friday with the theme, ‘Restructuring Nigeria and Clamour for Self-Determination: Historical and Constitutional Challenges for the Midwest Region’ and attended by THEWILL, he said, “The union was not working and it is better we all do what will make it work or else there are examples of countries that have broken up peacefully and Nigeria would not be different.
“That is why we say restructuring must be done for the country to work. It simply means re-organisation, rejigging of jurisdictions in the country.
“Why should the Federal Government take 56 percent of revenue share, leaving the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, and 774 local governments with the balance? Today, all states have become suffocating units under a behemoth. That is why we must have fiscal federalism. The late Professor Otitu Onoge did a study that showed there are 374 national nationalities. Why should things revolve around the three major ethnic nationalities? Even the 1999 Constitution is a schedule attached to Decree 24 that General Abubakar Abdulsalami regime gave to Justice Niki Tobi to package what became the 1999 Constitution fraudulently called the Peoples’ Constitution, No. “
As things stand now, even a crystal ball may not offer ready answers to how far the 17 governors can keep their house standing as Nigeria is still in ferment and any push can tip the scale either way.
The game, however, continues.