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How governors’ battle over zoning threatens 2023 poll, national unity

By Leo Sobechi, Azimazi Momoh Jimoh (Abuja) and Murtala Adewale, Kano
03 October 2021   |   4:15 am
The disparate positions adopted by the 17 Southern Governors’ Forum and their 19 Northern States counterparts have introduced a dangerous dimension to the polarisation of the country along the two broad geopolitical regions.

Cross section of Southern States governors during recent meeting

• Power Shift Debate Can’t Affect Governors Forum – NGF
The disparate positions adopted by the 17 Southern Governors’ Forum and their 19 Northern States counterparts have introduced a dangerous dimension to the polarisation of the country along the two broad geopolitical regions.

Some stakeholders, including Kano State governor, Dr. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje and the former Chairman of Ikeja branch of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Monday Onyekachi Ubani, have reacted to the disputations by the state governors saying they lack constitutional locus to delve into the issues.

Governor Ganduje however, expressed apprehensions that the stance of the state governors on the twin issues of zoning the Presidency and controversies over whether state governments should collect and keep Value Added Tax (VAT), could damage the country’s unity.

The Kano State governor, who made his views public in the course of his remarks during the 2021 independence anniversary, described the development as unfortunate, regretting that it was inimical to the nation’s paramount interest.

The Guardian checks revealed that this is not the first time the Nigeria Governors’ Forum is being divided by political considerations, because in the build up to the 2015 general election, precisely in 2013, NGF was polarised after the election produced two factions.

It would also be recalled that after their second meeting, which held in Lagos House, Ikeja, on July 5, 2021; the 17 Southern Governors led by Ondo State chief executive, Rotimi Akeredolu SAN, asserted that for the interest of the national harmony and coexistence, the position of President should be ceded to the Southern part of the country.

In the communique released by the 17 Southern Governors, which was read by the chairman, Akeredolu, the forum 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.

[FILES] Fayemi. Photo/ facebook/ekitistategov

“The Forum reiterates its commitment to the politics of equity, fairness and unanimously agrees that the presidency of Nigeria be rotated between Southern and Northern Nigeria and resolved that the next president of Nigeria should emerge from the Southern Region,” part of the communique read.

Eight weeks after, the 17 governors were also in Enugu, where they reviewed some of the issues raised in the last two meetings at Delta and Lagos states, including the security situation in the country.

In their communique at the Enugu meeting, the 17 Southern governors reaffirmed their earlier commitment to fiscal federalism as resolved at their inaugural meeting on May 11, 2021 at Asaba, Delta State.

The governors also resolved to support the position that the collection of VAT falls within the powers of the states, even as they restated their earlier position that “the next President of Nigeria must come from the Southern part of Nigeria in line with politics of equity, justice and fairness.”

But, piqued by the audacious and bold statement by the Southern state governors, the Northern States Governors led by the Plateau State helmsman, Rt. Hon. Simon Bako Lalong, denounced the call for zoning the Presidency to the South as unconstitutional.

The meeting of the 19 Northern States Governors’ Forum, which held at the Council chamber of Sir Kashim Ibrahim House, Kaduna on September 27, 2021, was attended by Chairmen of Northern States Traditional Council led by His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III.

In the communique read by  chairman of NSGF, Lalong, the meeting noted that although “some Northern States Governors had earlier expressed views for a power-shift to three geo-political zones in the South with a view to promoting unity and peace in the nation, the Forum unanimously condemns the statement by the Southern Governors Forum that the Presidency must go to the South.”

The Northern governors said the statement by their Southern counterparts runs counter to the provision of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.

They remarked that the constitution stipulated that the elected President shall, among other conditions, “score the majority votes; score at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in 2/3 states of the federation” and in the case of run-up simple majority win the election.

Lalong. Photo/FACEBOOK/PLSGov/

Part of the communique read: “The Northern State Governors Forum considered the on-going national debate on the collection of Value Added Tax (VAT). As responsible leaders, while we are constrained by the fact that the matter is subjudice, we however for the purposes of educating the public, make the following observations:

“*the judgement of the Federal high Court calls to question the constitutionality of VAT, withholding tax, education tax, Niger Delta Development Commission, National Information Technology Development Agency, 13 per cent derivation, National Economic Development Council and many other currently levied and collected by the Federal Government of Nigeria, Federal Inlands Revenue Service.

“* Rivers and Lagos State Governments had enacted their own VAT laws and the Southern Governors Forum have expressed support for this course of action;

“*VAT is being confused by these State Governments as a sales tax. If every State enacted its own VAT Law, multiple taxation will result in increases of prices of goods and services and collapsed in interstate trade. VAT is not a production tax like excise, but terminal tax which is paid by the ultimate consumer;

“*Another confusion is ignoring observation above and its “overall effect”.  The reason Lagos account for our 50 per cent VAT collection is because most of the telecommunication companies, banks, manufacturing and other trading activities have their headquarters in Lagos with the resultant and wrongful attribution of VAT;

“*Until and unless the Supreme Court pronounces judgement on the substantive matter between Rivers State and Federal Government, the matter is subjudice and Northern States Governors Forum would respect this.”

In an interview with The Guardian in Abuja yesterday, Ubani contended that there is no provision in the law for Governors’ Forum, adding, “So, it is not even a legitimate body. I think they meet for political reasons, as such, anything they say is not binding on anybody.

“They don’t speak on behalf of anybody, they speak for themselves. So, I think the issue of VAT is a legal issue, which the Supreme Court will have to decide based upon law.  So, irrespective of whatever the position the governors are holding, they are just wasting their time.”

On the issue of zoning as it concerns the 2023 general election cycle, the legal luminary stated: “I wish to point out that in 2006 or thereabout, the Northern governors met and said power should go to the North and to them it was constitutional, for equity and justice.

“But, now that it is the other way round, they are seeing it as unconstitutional. This speaks volumes of the kind of people we have at the helm of affairs. It is all about their personal interests above the interest of the country. So, I don’t take any of them or their position serious.”

Ubani expressed dismay that the governors are not discussing weightier matters that revolve around good governance or credibility of the electoral system, especially on the issue of electronic transfer of election results.

“On these, I don’t know their intention, but I know there are still issues we need to settle before the 2023 elections. One is the Electoral Act. The Electoral Bill has a lot of amendments that has to be incorporated, failing which I don’t think we will have a free and fair election.

“We need to settle what manner of electoral process we are adopting. The issue of legal framework is key. Also, the issue of governance that will take care of tensions in the country. There are a lot of agitation and secession plans. This is as a result of the style of the present governance that is exacerbating and making people to feel that they want to go their separate ways.

“There should be justice and equity. For instance, in the East, government officials are targets. In fact, whether the Anambra election will hold is a different ball game. The signs are something we need to take a closer look at to remove anything that will create more crisis. For now, everything is conjectures.

“What people are saying now is that there is no justice in the system. And if we do not correct this, it will just aggravate the agitations and there will be more tension in the system.

“I think the politicians must be careful in order to sustain the country, because we have been managing our unity for long before Buhari, but the way the President is going about issues, it is like they don’t care about the unity anymore with their statements and actions.”

Kano State governor, however said the disagreement among the state governors is promoting disunity in the country, even as he urged the country’s elites, members of the public, all stakeholders and all nationalities irrespective of religious and ethnic inclinations to come together and ensure that Nigeria’s unity grows from strength to strength.

While noting that the state governors were not elected to divide Nigeria into two, Ganduje stated: “It is unfortunate that the two are exchanging uncomplimentary languages with each other. The Unity of Nigeria should remain the paramount and unifying factor. Our elites irrespective of faith, ethnicity and political interest must unite to build a united entirety Nigeria.

“I must also emphasize here that the disagreement between the Northern and Southern Governors is not necessary and most unfortunate because Governors are elected to build and not to destroy the country.

“Let me use this opportunity to call on the Chairman of Nigerian Governors Forum and Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi to convey the large house for the purpose of resolving the lingering issues,” Ganduje said.

But the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), the umbrella body of states’ governors has dismissed the chances of such disagreements posing any threat to the country’s unity, describing them as mere political gimmicks, which are inconsequential to the body’s objectives of strengthening and encouraging good governance in states.

The Head of Media and Public Affairs to the NGF, Abdul Razaque Bello-Barkindo, in an interview with The Guardian, said the face-off between southern and northern governors regarding the rotation of the Presidency was inconsequential to the core mandate of the NGF.

Akeredolu. Photo: TWITTER/ONDOSTATEAPC

The NGF, which emerged when Nigeria re-embraced democracy in 1999 gained prominence from 2009 as a platform used by state governors to further public policy discussions, promotion of inclusive governance, promotion of sustainable development, and the promotion of collaboration among members.

Barkindo, who rejected detailed discussions on the alleged face-off, said diverse political issues are discussed by the governors at regional and zonal levels platforms, but noted that they have no relationship with the NGF.

“No! The Nigerian Governors ‘ Forum (NGF) is not and can never be involved in politics; and so, the controversy or disagreements on such political issues among governors do not affect our work in the NGF because we don’t do politics in the NGF, he stated in a brief interview.

According to Barkindo, “We are strictly on governance and so politics cannot distract us because we are not in it. If you have questions on governors and their politics, refer them to the northern or southern governors forum or any other platform of governors,” he insisted.

The NGF’s spokesman further clarified that “I can tell you that their politics do not affect the NGF because it is alien to the mandate of NGF. That is why all governors irrespective of their political leanings, would always honour our invitation for meetings because they know we are strictly on governance.

“So, we are not worried about their political disagreements at all because there is no relationship between us and the political issues they raise.”

In 2013, members of NGF quarrelled over the re-election of the then Rivers State governor, Rotimi Amaechi, for another term as chairman of the forum. While some of the governors loyal to the then President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, wanted to elect a governor from the north as chairman, others opposed mainly from the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) insisted on Amaechi having a second term.

At the end of the day, believing that with the support of non Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governors, particularly Peter Obi and Olusegun Mimiko of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and Labour Party (LP) would tilt the ballot against Amaechi, the election was held on May 24, 2013.

Unexpectedly the incumbent scored 19 votes to beat his challenger, Plateau State governor, David Jang, who polled 16 votes, which prompted the PDP governors to carve out a faction and establish a new secretariat.