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2023: Zoning under threat as stakeholders kick in Cross River

By Anietie Akpan, Calabar (Deputy Bureau Chief, South South)
08 October 2021   |   3:11 am
The age-long zoning arrangement in Cross River State is under threat as some political gladiators are tinkering with the power rotation, arguing that it breeds mediocrity.

Ben Ayade

Ben Ayade

The age-long zoning arrangement in Cross River State is under threat as some political gladiators are tinkering with the power rotation, arguing that it breeds mediocrity.
A school of thought is of the opinion that the three senatorial zones in the state have tasted the governorship; hence the next governor can come from any of the zones. To them, zoning breeds mediocrity. Another school of thought say power rotation could start from any of the zones, but excluding the North where the incumbent, Governor Ben Ayade, who will vacate office in 2023, hails from. However, some are insisting that the current zoning must continue on a rotational basis and for equity and fairness, it should continue from where it started in 1999, which is the Southern senatorial district.

The South emerged in 1999 through a fierce contest that saw Mr. Donald Duke of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) defeating the late Mr. Mark Ukpo of the All Peoples Party (APP) from the North.
In 2003 the political equation changed, APP split and metamorphosed into All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) that waged battle against the Duke-led PDP government under an ethnic colouration of “Atam Congress” with Akpang Obi Odu as their arrowhead from the North but Duke humbled them. 

Then in 2007, Duke’s friend, Senator Liyel Imoke of PDP from central emerged as governor and served two terms that ended in 2015 after defeating oppositions from north and south.

Towards the end of his tenure in 2015, Imoke openly declared that his successor would come from the North since South and Central had taken their turns, hence Ayade emerged under the umbrella of the PDP among other aspirants from the Northern senatorial district.
Zoning in the state has been peculiar to PDP but in 2015 both the PDP and APC had their candidates from North. While in 2019, PDP still zoned its ticket to the North, which Ayade picked; the All Progressives Congress (APC) had its candidates, Senator Owan Enoh and a former Minister, Pastor Usani Usani from Central.
Both parties may likely zone their governorship tickets to the South as the PDP has already taken its chairmanship position to the North and Secretary to Central, suggesting that the governorship ticket may go to the South. APC is yet to finalise on its State’s party executives.
In 2018, PDP elders of Southern and Northern senatorial districts had formally agreed on a zoning system to rotate governorship positions among the three senatorial zones and promised to meet with elders of Central in a subsequent meeting to cement the arrangement.
The meeting which was chaired by a top businessman and politician, Chief Asuquo Ekpenyong resolved that “the principle of rotation and zoning of the governorship seat should be maintained and sustained amongst the three senatorial districts of the state in all future elections. That such rotation and zoning consist of allowing each senatorial district to complete its eight years of two terms as this was the case in the Southern and Central Senatorial districts of the State. Upon completion of the second term of the Northern senatorial district in 2023, the rotation/zoning shall recommence in the Southern senatorial district and followed in that sequence as earlier instituted.”
But a top politician and political analyst in the state, Dr. Ojong Okongo decried the use of zoning to produce a governor come 2023 saying, “South, Central and the North have taken it (governorship) so it can start from Central or the South but not from North because the North is still in power. My explanation for this is that the zoning formula, which Mr. Donald Duke brought, has elapsed and the man, whom the system brought from the North, has ‘killed’ the whole state. Zoning does not bring out the best.
Okongo, who is from the South and also championed the second term campaign of Duke through his popular “Mandate 2003” campaign structure, dismissed the Chief Ekpenyong-led zoning resolution adding, “This time around let them go for a contest and whosoever wins the nomination should be given the ticket. Let it be on merit. Zoning brought us to where we are today. It does not call for any protest from the South. Zoning is not formal and there was no agreement, but it was just a gentleman’s arrangement on how we can run the state based on geographical zones and as you can see when it got to the North, it failed. The dividend of democracy was not achieved and the purpose of zoning was defeated”.
Governor Ayade who is now in APC has said the next governor will come from the South but some top persons in his government have alleged that Ayade’s body language may not honour the standing zoning or rotation arrangement as the governor is said to be interested in handing over to his friend in the Central, Mr. Chris Agara, while his younger brother, Frank whom the governor had in the early days of his administration declared as co-governor is said to be supporting a young businessman, Mr. Ben Akak from South.
There is suspicion that the zoning arrangement may be scuttled and this is further heightened by the alleged rumour that Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and some powerful politicians in PDP may support Senator Sandy Onor who is currently representing Central senatorial district in the upper house for the governorship in 2023.
For the former State PDP Publicity Secretary, Mr. Joe Obi Bisong, “zoning in the state has neither been a formalised nor institutionalised arrangement (and) at no time has the political class of Cross River State, either intraparty or inter-party, institutionalised or decided on the modus operandi or modus vivendi of the rotational governorship basis for the three senatorial districts. This is why in virtually all gubernatorial elections, both intraparty and inter-party, all senatorial districts had contested”.
Bisong explained that, “rather, the rotation has been there based on the simple and conventional process of self-elimination. Once a given senatorial district got the governorship for eight years, it eliminated itself from eligibility from the succeeding contest that followed. This first circle of rotation by self-elimination ends in May 2023, and a new circle of same rotation by self-elimination commences”.
An APC chieftain and former aide to President Mohammadu Buhari, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, from Central in his article dated September 27, 2021, declared that the Calabar-Ogoja accord of 1980 has been overtaken by events and it “only spelt out the basis of political relationship and power-sharing between the old Calabar and Ogoja senatorial districts of the old Cross River State, and therefore no longer relevant to the present political and constitutional realities of the present Cross River State and cannot determine which part of the state to produce next governor in 2023. Therefore, I will urge politicians to stop invoking the accord as the premise for zoning the governorship position to circumvent the democratic processes”.
However, Bisong’s position was countered by former member House of Representatives, representing Calabar-Odukpani Federal Constituency, Mrs. Nkoyo Toyo, who said: “is a bit muddled up because it addresses apples and grapes together”.
She said, “If he is talking about zoning and rotation as the PDP former Publicity Secretary in the state, I would rather say he dwelt on what the Constitution of the PDP says and how the party has acted over time. The fact that people from other parties contested an election does not obliterate the need for zoning and rotation by the PDP. As far as the Constitution of the PDP as amended is concerned, zoning or rotation is a constitutional requirement. It is left for us to argue, why did the party envisage not only zoning but added rotation?
“As a matter of fact, Chapter 1 Sec 7 (3) (c) predicated this action on fairness, equity and justice. Is it therefore fair, equitable and just to start all over again, unmindful of the history of the PDP as a party (not individuals) in the state? There is grave danger in doing so, as we saw in 2015 when President Jonathan insisted on running against certain agreements entered between the North and South”.
“Individual contesting an election is different from the responsibility of the party to zone and rotate. That function as laid out in the party’s constitution was in operation this last week at the national level. The PDP national zoning committee went ahead to swap positions between the North and South. On this national assignment of zoning and rotation, were two distinguished Senators from Cross River State – Senators Bassey Ewa Henshaw and Prof. Sandy Onor. What business did they have on a national zoning committee, if zoning and rotation were matters of mere ‘self-elimination’ as argued by Mr. Joe Obi Bisong”, she queried.
The former lawmaker said, “I trust that our former Publicity Secretary knows the difference between the position of a party and that of the individual to exercise certain constitutional rights. If an individual chooses to run independently, that is within his/her powers to do but that cannot take away the powers of PDP as contained in chapter 1 Sec 7 (3)(c) of the PDP Constitution to zone and rotate.  I do not know whether APC has a similar provision but this is what PDP has to do constitutionally. It is important, therefore, to conclude that zoning and rotation are not optional issues; they are requirements of our Constitution as PDP. The decision of the party organs on this matter will lay to rest this burning issue.”

Son of former Military Administrator of the state, Sir Arthur Jarvis Archibong, who is the first to throw his hat into the ring for the 2023 governorship race using PDP platform equally defends zoning saying, “Surprisingly, some people have already concluded that South is not fit or capable to lead the state but I want to assure them that the big hammer they think they wield will not find its target, they are in for a big surprise. The gentlemanly agreement by our founding fathers is being trampled upon by some individuals, who because of small loaves of bread, try to scuttle the zoning formula, but for the peace and equity of the state, the Southern senatorial district should be given its due.”
An educationist and Chancellor, Arthur Jarvis University, who is from Effanga Offiong ward in Mbakeyop Ikot Effanga of Akpabuyo local council said, he was, however, “consoled by the fact that there is a principled, disciplined, experienced and steadfast state party executive that will ensure equity and justice especially with the leadership of Venatius Ikem as chairman. Our founding fathers are highly principled individuals, and we know that justice will prevail because they will ensure that leadership as agreed comes back to South come 2023.”

Similarly a socio-political pressure group, Cross River State Senatorial District Assembly, (CRSSSDA), in a statement signed by, Mr. John Offiong warned that “anybody or group of persons who want to scuttle the gentleman’s agreement will be doing that at his or her own detriment. Let it be known that Cross Riverians are now awake. We are no more docile if we ever were. The era of lifting hands or imposing candidates has passed. We the people of Cross River will determine who governs us and not one man from Delta or Rivers State or wherever we will resist any attempt to impose an unpopular candidate in Cross River State.”
The group said, “as the 2023 general elections draw closer with several political activities, our attention has been drawn to the hideous activities of some of the leaders from the Southern senatorial district of the state. These leaders with huge deposit of betrayal tendencies have started romancing with some gubernatorial aspirants from the Central senatorial district of the state in a bid to support their aspirations for the Cross River governorship stool come 2023.  In as much as we respect every man’s constitutional rights especially as it relates to the freedom of association and political aspirations, as a pro-Southern socio-political pressure group, we seek to use this moment to sound a note of warning to all Cross Riverians especially those from the political class, across political party lines that we will not fold our hands and watch as our collective destinies are being trampled upon.”
The Cross River caucus chairman in the National Assembly and Senator representing Southern senatorial district, Senator Gershom Bassey said, “Power rotation is not new and did not start with this generation of politicians. In fact, power rotation is the basis for the agitation and eventual creation of Cross River State. This is clear from the Calabar-Ogoja accord. That same principle of rotation of power amongst senatorial districts is why we have a governor from the Northern senatorial district today. Anyone attempting to toy with that rotation is wasting his time because it is already entrenched in the electorate and clearly the next port of call for the governorship is the Southern senatorial district.”
Similarly, a member representing Calabar Municipality/Odukpani Federal Constituency of Cross River State in the House of Representatives, Ntufam Eta Mbora also insisted that the current zoning arrangement in the state starts from the Southern senatorial district, as “Nigeria’s politics is not matured for just the issue of merit.”
Mbora said, “For me, it is a straight issue. We have agreed and I am very happy that the persons who were the architect of the zoning in the state are still very much in PDP. The likes of former Governors Liyel Imoke and Donald Duke and the majority of the voices that have kept the unity on the issues of zoning are all in PDP. We are starting our rotation from the South. There is a lot of voices reasoning that such is the proper thing to do. However, you can’t stop people who want to work for their personal interests. But what the majority believe is that if it should go the proper way, then the rotation should start from South again.”