The key terms of this essay are the three phrases of its title: rotation, federal character and two-term provision. Here are the preambles. Despite all the good reasons given for it, the 1999 Constitution does not provide for power rotation. However, there is something of a consensus among Nigerians that power should rotate. Although the federal character principle does not specifically stipulate that the President and Vice President, as well as Governor and Deputy Governor of a state, hail from different regions or senatorial zones, it is assumed it does. Thus, the two topmost federal government offices are shared between the states of the former Northern Region and those of the former Southern states. By the same token, the Governor and Deputy Governor of each state hail from different senatorial zones. Our Constitution provides for term limits for the offices of President and Governor, but a maximum of two-terms, rather than one, is the stipulation.
It is the position of this essay that adherence to the federal character principle in the pairing of candidates running for President/Vice President and Governor/Deputy Governor, and the constitutional provision that allows a President and Governor to hold office for two-terms, impair the rotation of power and, thus, abet the escalation of inter-group and inter-regional tension in the country.
I would like the reader to recall the brief period of tension in late April to early May 2000, less than a year after Olusegun Obasanjo became President. This was when, in the Senate, Arthur Nzeribe, representing Imo West senatorial zone, moved a motion for the impeachment of President Obasanjo. There was uproar in Yorubaland, and the Lagos State Governor even declared Nzeribe a persona non-grata in Lagos State. It is needful to note that the uproar was limited to the South-West geopolitical zone. The reason for the uproar was not that Obasanjo had not committed any impeachable offences. Basically, it was because the zone was going to lose the Presidency to another zone (that of the Vice President) if Obasanjo was impeached.
I would like the reader to recall, too, that from late 2009 to mid-2010 there was resistance to the transfer of the powers of the office of President from an obviously incapacitated President Yar’Adua to Vice President Jonathan. The resistance could not have lingered if the only persons interested in continued nominal rule of Yar’Adua were “the cabal” (political appointees at State House). There was resistance by the North. The North was resisting because it was convinced that its turn to rule Nigeria was going to be truncated and that another region would take over. Thanks to the unambiguous provisions of the 1999 Constitution on the matter, pressure from foreign powers, and the ultimate death of Yar’Adua, Jonathan eventually succeeded Yar’Adua. However, because the North was still aggrieved, it put pressure on Jonathan not to contest the 2011 presidential election. When he defied the pressure and eventually won the election, protests in some states in the North resulted in the death of some youth corps members. Besides, a prominent Northern politician threatened that, if he was not declared President in 2015, “the dog and baboon will soak in blood.”
The background reason for the uproar over the motion for Obasanjo’s impeachment and the tension that accompanied the takeover of power by Jonathan was the federal character provision in the Nigerian Constitution. Although there is no constitutional stipulation that a presidential or governorship candidate must pick her running mate from another region (North/South) or senatorial zone, respectively, the Nigeria political intelligentsia are persuaded that the federal character principle requires this. Given that the same intelligentsia also believe in the rotation principle, any threat to the “right” of a zone to complete its term is viewed with misgiving and is a threat to peace. We will return to this issue later in this essay.
Nigeria has term limits for the positions of President and Governor—a maximum of two terms of four years each. Something can be said for having a two-term rather than one-term provision. Having two terms is meant to give voters the right to reward a President or Governor they consider good with another term and, in so doing, benefit from good governance for a longer time. Conversely, the provision gives voters the power to terminate a bad or lack-lustre government after one term. Because of the rotation principle, however, it is often difficult for voters to objectively exercise this right to keep a President or Governor longer in power or send her home after one term. This is because, in the view of politically active Nigerians, the period of each region/zone’s “right” to rule is taken to be eight years (two terms) rather than four years (one term). Thus, where a candidate from any region/zone is electorally prevented from serving for two terms, and especially where a candidate from another region/zone takes over from him, his zone is aggrieved and would try in subsequent elections to “complete” its turn. An example is the defeat of Chinwoke Mbadinuju of Anambra South senatorial zone in 2003 by a candidate from Anambra Central senatorial zone (2003). Another example is the defeat of Ikedi Ohakim of Imo North senatorial zone by Rochas Okorocha of Imo West zone (2011). In subsequent governorship elections in these two states, strong candidates from the aggrieved zones emerged. Their campaign platforms included the “right” of their zones to complete their two terms.
On the other hand, where a President or Governor is defeated by a candidate from her zone, there is the concern that the two-term provision potentially allows the zone to rule for up to twelve years (three terms) rather than eight (two terms). This was what happened in Kwara State in 2003, when Bukola Saraki defeated Mohammed Lawal. Both hail from Kwara Central Senatorial zone. Saraki went on to serve for two terms, enabling the zone to rule for twelve years. It happened in Imo State in 2011, when Rochas Okorocha of Imo West Senatorial zone defeated Ikedi Ohakim of Imo North Senatorial zone. Okorocha went on to rule for eight years, like Achike Udenwa (1999-2007) who also hails from Imo West The same concern, it may be added, was raised in 2019 during the campaign period for the presidential election. In Igboland, APC propagandists were warning voters that victory for Atiku Abubakar would potentially allow the North to rule for twelve years, as a victorious Abubakar would be expected to insist on his right to run for a second term.
Clearly, the two-term provision is not quite compatible with the principle of rotation. It also makes it difficult for voters to vote objectively for candidates seeking a second term. It also makes it difficult for legislators to impeach any President or Governor that has committed impeachable offences. Given that there is something of a national consensus that power should rotate, there is need for constitutional amendments to ensure that rotation takes place seamlessly. The amendments will also encourage the voter to vote without considering whether her vote will make her zone lose power or delay her zone from getting its chance to rule. It will also enable legislators to use the instrument of impeachment when necessary, without being concerned that the zone of the President or Governor would rise up in arms for losing power.
To guide the country in this exercise, the unpublished 1995 Constitution and examples from some other countries would be of help. Some countries have no term limits. The constitution of most countries that elect their presidents provide for two terms. A few provide for three terms. And some provide for one term only. Countries that have a one-term limit include the following: Colombia (four years), El Salvador (five years), Guatemala (four years), Honduras (four years), Mexico (six years), Paraguay (five years), Armenia (seven years), Philippines (six years), South Korea (five years), and Malta (five years). Concerned mainly with using rotation to unite the country, the authors of the 1995 Constitution provided for one term of six years. I am yet to see any convincing argument against that provision. Given that some other countries have one term, Nigeria would not be doing anything strange, or anything that has not been tried and tested, by adopting a one-term limit.
The authors of the 1995 Constitution also provided for rotation. The office of President and five other top federal offices were to rotate among the six geopolitical zones. In my view, rotation among six zones is likely to make politically ambitious persons who believe the waiting period is too long to work against rotation. So I suggest that, for the office of President, the consensual view that it should rotate between North and South should be codified. The mood of the nation, as determined partly by principle (sense of injustice) and partly by expediency (the quality of the candidates and the challenges facing the nation at each election period) should determine the particular zone in each of these two regions that should be given the office. The 1995 Constitution also provided for rotation among the three senatorial districts of each state. This should also be codified.
The authors of the 1995 Constitution were aware that death, disability or impeachment could make a President lose his post and that the accession to the post by a Vice President from another zone would make the President’s zone unable to complete its “tenure”. To prevent this from happening, the makers of that Constitution raised the number of slots for the position of Vice President from one to three, with the following designations: First Vice President, Second Vice President and Third Vice President. The 1995 Constitution further provided that the First Vice President would hail from the same zone as the President. Thus, if a President dies or is removed from office, a person from his zone (the First Vice President) would complete his term. Interestingly, former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, one of the authors of the 1995 Constitution, talked about this provision of that constitution in 2000, when the motion for the impeachment of Obasanjo was moved. He pointed out that the Yoruba would not have reacted as angrily as they did if they knew that Obasanjo’s successor would also be Yoruba. It is reasonable to assume that transition of power from the President to the Vice President in 2010 would have been characterized by much less tension if his Vice President was also a Northerner. In my view, having three vice presidents is cumbrous. To address the risk of power passing prematurely from one region or zone to another, the Constitution should be amended to make each presidential candidate, as well as a governorship candidate, pick his running mate from his or her own geopolitical zone. The issue of where the President or Governor comes from matters in our country. The concern to reflect the federal character through having the President/Governor and Vice President/Deputy Governor from different zones is a potential threat to peace. Concerning these offices, therefore, it makes sense to seek to reflect the federal character through rotation only.