Zoning Can Co-Exist With Merit —Odinkalu

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    Former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), policy advisor to world institutions, professor of practice by an American University, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, speaks to DARE ADEKANMBI on the presidential race and the plan by former president Goodluck Jonathan to join the All Progressives Congress, zoning and other matters.

    Governor Charles Soludo recently appointed you to chair the Truth, Justice, and Peace Committee saddled with the responsibility of unraveling the remote and immediate causes of armed struggle in the South-East region. How far have you set out on this onerous assignment?

    I presume you refer to the Truth, Justice and Peace Committee announced by Governor Soludo? At the appropriate time, I am sure, you will hear about what is being done or proposed in that regard. I am not sure of what you refer to as “armed struggle in the South-East region” though? So, I have no authority to hold forth on that.

    There are people who are saying since it is an assignment covering the entire South-East there ought to have been input from other South-East governors so that the objective can be easily achieved. Do you think so too?

    The governor did not exclude and has not excluded anyone from making inputs. What is there to say that those inputs are not there or were not received or have been excluded? Mind you, this is a tripartite process with community leaders, including traditional leaders, the clergy and faith leaders and then government. If you have looked at the documentation, you will see that there it has leading participants from all the states of the South-East and I am not speaking about the committee here. The tripartite process itself that ultimately birthed the committee has leaders from all the states of South-East Nigeria.

     Soludo appears to be enjoying a lot of goodwill across the country for the way he has started and the promises he is making, such as his avowed fidelity to made-in-Anambra goods and all that. Do you see him setting a new template on how a sub-national government should be run?

    Look, most ordinary people would like to see genuine success stories coming out of Nigeria. It is not merely Soludo who is enjoying goodwill; there is Professor Zulum in Maiduguri as well. It is not necessarily because Nigerians are in love with professors. As you well know, that is not the case with professors who rig elections. Yeah? And, don’t forget, there is also a professor in the government house in Calabar, my good friend, the Little Napoleon. But he is not necessarily in the same league of goodwill as Zulum and Soludo. It is not difficult to divine why Soludo has bought some honeymoon despite the existential challenges he confronts as governor. His mandate is legitimate; people trust him; they don’t think he is in government to steal or make money. And they have not seen him living ostentatiously. He is a made-in-Anambra governor. That does go a long way. In a country where government is the biggest business, having a governor who is willing to invest confidence in the productive abilities of his people is surely a good source of goodwill.

    Election primary season is upon us in the country and there is a multiplicity of presidential aspirants in the two major parties: APC and PDP. They are promising to do things differently if given the job. In your own assessment, do you see any of them with a messianic complex?

    I don’t know what you mean by “Messianic complex” and I don’t want to read too much into that. If the question is whether there is a magic bullet to Nigeria’s problems or anyone person can, with the snap of an electoral finger, sort it out, the answer is evidently no. The problem, however, is that in both leading parties, there is not even any effort to put forward ideas or envision plans that can trigger a search for new ideas on how to address Nigeria’s extraordinary challenges. The aspirants, all of them, are afraid of issues. It’s not hard to see why: if you table any idea that looks realistic, it will be seen as a criticism of Buhari. And people will also ask you why you have not made these ideas available to the Buhari regime until now or why you are only discovering them this late in the tenure of the Buhari regime. So, all the APC aspirants are running away from debate. As for PDP, well, they have been abysmal as an opposition and, in my view, complicit in the mis-adventure of the Buhari years. It is even sometimes difficult to distinguish both parts from one another because they are all criss-crossing from one side to the other. The only miracle is that their political heads are not in a perpetual swoon; or maybe they are, which is why the country is in this awful mess.

    The debate over zoning has refused to simmer with political leaders from the South renewing their call for the presidency to shift to the region. But northerners are not backing down. Where, in your own view, do you think the next president should come from?

    Inter-generational equity is inherent in the idea of sustainability. And politics, as an ethical game in search of the best way to guarantee and deliver public goods, has to deal in the currency of equity, which, really, is what the idea of zoning is about. My challenge is with the tendency to posit equity and merit as polarities rather than as complements. It is possible for zoning to coexist with merit. If every part of the country produces its best rather than its worst, we’ll make progress. That is the point that Anambra State made in the last election. Ondo State also made it when it had Aketi, Tayo Jegede, and Sola Oke (all of them now SANs) on the ballot for governorship of the state. When merit can consistently rise to the top, complemented by equity, progress will happen. But when vast swathes of citizens of the country, on the grounds of both origins and status, are made to believe that they cannot aspire to the best their country can offer, you end up in the kind of situation that Nigeria now finds itself.

    Does the North have an advantage over the South concerning the might and power to determine who will be the next president? People speak of the heavy votes in some states in the North.

    I presume you mean the old Northern Region? This thing is about myths, legends, and numbers. Let me explain. People in the South promote this idea of a monolithic North and shoot Steroids into all the so-called Arewa entities. And when you have people like Paul Unongo (a Tiv) or Audu Ogbeh who is Idoma, both from Benue State, being made titular heads of the so-called Northern Elders Forum or when you have Governor Simon Lalong chairing the Northern Governors Forum, people get it into their heads that there is this monolithic North. But the North is more diverse than the South of Nigeria and does not agree on much. My good friends, Simon Kolawole and Segun Adeniyi are both northerners. Dapo Olorunyomi is a northerner too. But can they represent any North? There are indigenous Igbos of northern origin from Kogi State in Olamaboro Local Government Area for instance. But who could count them as Northerners? The North only claims the Middle Belt when it wants to claim power. You can see now, the chairmen of both PDP and APC are from the Middle Belt. But, in elective government in Nigeria, the most anyone from the Middle Belt has been able to aspire to realistically is either party chairman or president of the Senate. Meanwhile both President Buhari and President Yar’Adua come from the same local government area. No? Does that tell you something about your idea of “North”? However, as long as those of us from the South continue to parrot myths of a non-existent northern monolith, then that will be exploited, of course by those whom it benefits.

    There is one certainty about elections and counting in Nigeria though: as a country, we have never counted honestly. Historically, in single national constituency elections (for the presidency), the contest has historically been decided in places where people don’t exist in large numbers: the neo-Sahelian rim in the North, and in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Those are the places that have since 1979 produced all the votes that determine the presidency. Go and check. Nigeria is the only place in the world where the people who determine elections with their votes are ghosts found in uninhabited places or bombed out places left desolate by internal displacement. In the 2019 elections, Geidam was attacked by terrorists on the day of the vote, but managed to produce more turnout than Ajegunle in Lagos. Look, Niger State is approximately 76,363 square kilometres. Imo State at 5,530 sq km is only a fraction of the size of Niger. But Imo State has 27 LGAs; Niger has 25. In other words, Imo State is just fractionally above the size of an average LGA in Niger State. Borgu Local Government Area is more than double the size of Imo State, for instance. So, the advantage of the North is that it has many more places in which you can find these ghost voters.

    The issue of former President Goodluck Jonathan returning to power has continued to cause ripples in the polity and particularly in the APC. Do you see the ex-president running as APC presidential candidate? What do you see happening if he does?

    My view is very clear. As a matter of both law and political morality, it is disappointing that President Goodluck Jonathan has not taken deliberate steps to rule out this idea of returning to the fray on the platform of APC. First of all, I think that the constitutional amendment that came into force in 2018 clearly precludes him. All the stuff about it not being retrospective is sophistry. The language is clear. But, secondly, even if that were not to be the case, President Jonathan is astute enough to know that this is political hemlock. He drinks it, it kills him politically and kills a lot more with it. He knows. If he wants to drink it, it is up to him. I am not sure I need to say more on this really.

    You know, I like chief [Babalola] a lot. I did my National Youth Service in old Oyo State and his office in Emmanuel Chambers on Adamasingba was home to everyone. He had time for everyone and you never left him empty handed. So, I would, of course, treat whatever Chief Afe Babalola says with a lot of attention and respect. I consider that he is inspired in this suggestion by the deepest possible desires for a soft landing for Nigeria. The problem is that Nigeria has been trying to avoid the logic of its trajectory for too long. So, we had military coups which took place telling us that they were corrective. We had Interim National Government to save us. We had constitutions that we never implemented. We had doctrine of necessity not once but twice. None of that has worked. I think we need that logic restored. If Nigeria is on a logic to failure, we should not artificially seek to preclude that from happening. My fear is that Chief Afe’s suggestion is another of these messianic things designed for Nigeria’s elite to save themselves from the consequences of their misdeeds. I am sorry, that has passed its sell-by date and it is time to turn the page on that.

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