Debate over bill to rotate political offices in Nigeria raises quest for inclusion
With less than two month to the 2023 general elections in Nigeria, one issue that has remained in public discourse, even if not amplified is: which region will produce the next president after the expiration of the second term of the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari?
This is not only limited to the presidency but also has occupied debates in states, regarding which senatorial zones will produce the various governors. Interestingly, this debate trickles down to the level of councillorship.
The principle of zoning and rotation of political offices has become a subject of recurrent debate. It was a major plank of the discourse at the 1994/5 National Constitutional Conference in Abuja.
According to reports, the imperative of introducing the principle came up as a result of the earnest need for inclusion and national unity. Added to those is the need to embed the principle of power sharing among the component units of the federation.
It was agreed that monopoly of power by any one section of the federal system was utterly undemocratic and prone to inducing political crises and instability.
To properly push the narrative and situate the agitation in a proper legal perspective, a bill was introduced to the senate to give legitimacy to rotational offices.
The bill titled: “A bill for an Act to provide for the rotation of power and for other related matters therein, 2022”, was sponsored by Senator Patrick Abba Moro (PDP – Benue South).
The bill, which seeks to make compulsory provision for power rotation among the six geo-political zones, suffered a set back in the Senate when it came up for second reading at plenary but senators in their contributions opposed it.
Senator Moro stated that the proposed law would not only promote the principles of equity, fairness and justice among the nation’s geo-political zones, but would also ensure a sense of belonging necessary for nation-building in a heterogeneous country like Nigeria.
“If there is a law on power rotation in Nigeria, it will help to ameliorate the squabbles for power, particularly the presidency, across the six geo-political zones and also promote unity in the country,” Moro said.
But in their contributions, Senators kicked against the bill, saying it was contrary to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.
Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC – Kebbi South) said the bill should have been presented alongside bills for Constitution review and not as autonomous legislation emanating from the Senate and by extension, the National Assembly.
“In as much as it is good for power to rotate across the various divides in the country, none of the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, gives room for that because it throws such privilege open to all Nigerians at all times.
“Without legislation or law on power rotation, a minority like former President Goodluck Jonathan became President of this country a few years back just as we have a minority in the person of our revered President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, leading the 9th Senate.
“So, I don’t think there is any need for a specific law to be put in place for power rotation and even if any move is to be made in that direction, it has to be through Constitution amendment,” Na’Allah insisted.
The Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege (APC – Delta Central) also opposed the bill by making similar allusions to Bala Ibn Na’Allah.
Senator Moro, however, withdrew the bill by citing Order 42 of the Senate Standing Rules, a move that was apparently to save the bill from being thrown out or negatived.
However, proponents of power rotation said that without it, the winner-takes-all character of majoritarian democracy allows a dominant group to capture state power, relegating the minority into permanent opposition, which in itself creates political and social instability.
According to them, as a major engine that has deepened the democratic process, the rotation of political power, in particular, prevents the domination of power by larger groups. This is in the same way that presidential term limits prevent the monopoly of power by a strong individual and the possibility of a president for life, and thus protect a republic from becoming a de facto dictatorship.
They held that the practice of power rotation is widespread in democracies around the world. That is why it is now regarded as the finest political instrument ever invented to ensure political and social stability in deeply polarised societies.
Analysts said in a strong democratic country where polarisation is mainly ideological, power rotate through the electoral process periodically between ideologically opposed political parties. For example, in a bitterly and evenly divided America, power rotates ideologically between the Republican Party to the right and the Democratic Party to the left to ensure political stability. The same is true in Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and so on.
They cited the case of Switzerland, which is famously stable both politically and socially. The system of power rotation was introduced into their constitution in the 1890s to avoid the concentration of too much power in too few hands.
Today in Switzerland, the federal presidency is rotated among the four senior members of the seven-strong Federal Council, who take it in turns to be president for a one-year term for a combined tenure of four years. The members of the council are representatives of the country’s main political parties: two representatives from the Liberal Party, two from the Swiss Social Democratic Party, two from the Swiss People’s Party, and one from the Swiss Christian Democratic Party.
However, in Nigeria where the society is ethnically and religiously polarised and political parties are not ideologically rooted, perhaps, geographical/religious power sharing remains one way to foster national harmony and political stability.
According to a lawyer, Douglas Ogbankwa, the bill is a step in the right direction. According to him, it will lessen sectarian, tribal and religious tension.
“There has always been fear of domination of one part of the country by another. The recent development in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) if it was not just a party affair, could have put Nigeria on the perilous road of regional conflict. Our founding fathers have always had an unwritten rule of rotation of offices, which has ensured unity in diversity and balance of power.
“The bill, when it becomes an Act will bring about inclusive and participatory government. As a pointer of its objectives, the proposed bill should be christened the Government of National Unity Bill, to drive the message home to our complex population of heterogeneous people, of many cultures, diverse religions and mores,” he suggested.
On the argument that it is against the Constitution, the lawyer said the law would also allow leaders to prepare for leadership, as it will provide an ascertainable timing for leadership.
Those arguing that it is unconstitutional should realise that every law is made according to the Constitution, he argued, adding that it could be embedded into the Constitution.
His words: “Already there is something close to it that is enshrined in the Constitution, which is the Federal Character Principle, expressly enshrined in Section 318(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as altered). We must have rotational offices in our laws to safeguard our democracy and strengthen our unity.”
Kenechukwu Maduka, a lawyer said the bill was a good idea that would give every region a sense of belonging and therefore, needed to be supported.
He advised that rotational president should be introduced. To do that, he recommended that the Constitution should be amended to accommodate the principle.
“For me, if amended to accommodate the regions, everybody will be happier,” Maduka quipped.
Lagos-based lawyer, Paul Mgboema, said the current debate on the rotation of political office is a good idea, particularly because of the country’s heterogeneous nature.
He said: “If it will bring stability and quell ongoing agitations by regions for secession based on what is seen as marginalisation against those regions, then it is a welcome development. This will then mean that the Constitution needs to be necessarily amended so that it will have the Constitutional imprimatur it deserves.”