The ultimate legacy of this divisive era is now on full display. Governors of the 36 states of the federation have fanned out into two rival formations with clashing rhetoric and war like posturing. Governors of the Southern States versus governors of the Northern States in open verbal confrontation to the amazement of a bewildered citizenry. This is the shorthand for what may become the political legacy of the Buhari presidency. The predictable geo political divide is irrespective of party affiliation, an indication that our parties do not represent any broad based national belief systems. They are mere acronyms of electoral convenience.
Of course historical and cultural bi- polarity lies ingrained at the backdrop of our nation but never before has it been so weaponized as to become the basis of hostile political grandstanding among blocs of governors. Now, however, the fractious schism of the country into potentially hostile camps has degenerated into a menacing reality that ought to frighten us all. It is made frightening because it is coming in the midst of all manner of separatist pressures.
Conclaves of Southern and Northern governors are not in themselves a bad political development. Political leaders with identical interests are free to meet periodically to articulate their common concerns or canvass their common interests. This is a huge diverse federation with plenty of issues, benefits and headaches to share among those who decide for us. Looking back, meetings of governors of the northern states have been an ever frequent occurrence in our political landscape. Similarly, occasional meetings of the governors of the South West, South South and South East have similarly occurred more sporadically in the past depending on the urgency of the concern on the table.
However, the alignments have recently tended to ossify into Northern and Southern blocs triggered mostly by the pattern of division activated by Mr. Buhari’s politics. It needs to be clearly stated that it is literally the presidency in Abuja that has dictated the agenda of the conflicting regional meetings of governors. The governors are battling over open cattle grazing because the president insists on ancient cattle routes or the establishment of cattle colonies all over the country. The governors have seized the initiative on security of life and property because someone allowed the influx of hordes of militant herdsmen and let them loose on the entire country. The governors are dueling over security and establishing paramilitary outfits because the commander in chief has serially failed to do his duty. Similarly, governors are now arguing over internally generated revenue because the federal government has run the national treasury aground and insists on hijacking VAT proceeds to meet its cash obligations to cash strapped states. A vocal political faction in our northern hemisphere believes that Mr. Buhari has squandered the northern slot of the presidency by impoverishing and brutalizing the region. For that reason, some northern governors are insisting that the rotational convention of presidential succession no longer holds water.
In response to the signals from Abuja, therefore, the rival regional blocs of governors have taken sides. The Southern governors do not want cattle roaming and grazing in their farmlands, highways and private spaces. Most of them have gone ahead to enact state legislations to back up the prohibition of open grazing. Implicit in that is a stiff opposition to the free roaming of armed herder criminals around the country. On the matter of VAT collection, the southern governors support the legal initiatives of Rivers and Lagos states challenging the federal monopoly of VAT collection and disposition. Similarly, the southern governors have recently added a political position to their cocktail of desires. They insist that the next president of the federation must come from the southern half of the country in compliance with the extant convention freely adopted by successive political parties.
In direct opposition, the Northern Governors have recently met in Kaduna to assert counter claims. In the new politics of discord, the positions of the northern governors read more like the angry retorts of quarrelsome co- wives. The northern governors want the federal government to continue collecting VAT and disposing of the proceeds in line with existing rules. On the movement of cattle and open grazing, northern governors are somewhat divided. The more entrepreneurial minded among them see the necessity for modernization of cattle breeding and the wisdom of ranching. A few want the old pastoral herding to continue.
The more trenchant position of most of the northern governors is on the matter of which zone produces Mr. Buhari’s successor. They insist that the choice of who becomes president is a constitutional matter which is best decided by adherence to the stipulations of the constitution. On this, it would seem that the grouse of the northern governors is the phrasing of their southern colleagues’ rather militant insistence on converting a convention into an entitlement.
Of all the issues in contention between the two blocs of governors, there is none that is novel. The first two, cattle grazing and collection and disposition of VAT are simple straightforward matters of national security and the economic realities of true federalism.
Herds of cattle and their handlers have been part of the Nigerian landscape for as long as we can remember. Their nuisance presence on highways, city roads, private farms and gardens never led to such blood letting and violent clashes. The intensification of farmers and herders clashes to the degree we are witnessing today is a development of the last five years. The emergence of so- called Fulani herdsmen as active participants in a new national culture of armed criminality is what has introduced the politicization of cattle and their movement.
A perceived ‘cattle imperialism’ has emerged as an aspect of our political power struggles. Coming in the new context of jihadist terrorism, herdsmen criminality and violence in parts of the south has come clothed in hints of an islamization agenda and a Fulani expansionism. The cattle matter is a matter of economic enlightenment. Ranching as a business proposition as against open grazing is the modern route to go. It will yield healthier cattle, better returns on investment and more modern animal agriculture. We will have more meat and cattle owners will become wealthier. It will get violent herders out of the way and restore peace in farmlands and troubled states.
The VAT palaver is a slightly different thing. It touches on the tax obligations of citizens as ultimate consumers of goods and services. In most jurisdictions, sales or consumption tax is ordinarily a state tax. It ought to be charged and collected by the immediate jurisdiction of the transaction. The existing federal collection and disposition of the VAT is inherently faulty. This abnormality has been challenged previously by the Lagos state government under the Obasanjo administration. The dispute may once again end up at the Supreme Court.
There is something awkward about federal appropriation and redistribution of the proceeds of a state based consumption tax. Under this arrangement, states like Lagos and Rivers that collect huge troves of VAT end up subsidizing states that collect little or no VAT. The inherent subsidy in that arrangement is part of the abnormality of the present federal system. It is better for the richer states to collect and keep their VAT revenues which they could invest for profit in the poorer states to generate employment and help grow the economies of those states. The mobility of capital among states is a superior strategy than the distribution of poverty in a subsidy state.
The political trouble of presidential succession is the more consequential matter. From the time of independence to the various military dispensations and the inception of the various presidential constitutions, it has been an unquestioned convention of Nigerian power politics at the apex to rotate incumbency between the north and the south, between Christians and Muslims. Even the various military dispensations adopted the principle of zoning and balance of power as strategically axiomatic.
Curiously, the history of constitution making in Nigeria has left a permanent puzzle. The abiding question remains why our constitution makers have failed to enshrine the principle of zoning into our constitutions in spite of its historical and strategic imperative. Our geo political divide is permanent. Our dual cultural heritage is also permanent. Church and Mosque are permanent emblems of our abiding pillars of belief as a nation. Nothing says that a secular republican constitution should not contain clauses that take due cognizance of the cultural, historical and geo strategic imperatives of a nation.
A constitution that remains blind to this imperative is likely to continue to be a source of crisis and conflict in the hands of ambitious politicians. Therefore, the more urgent task of the amendment of the 1999 constitution is to enshrine the principle of zoning and rotation of apex political power in the constitution. We cojld insert transitional clauses that maintains the zoning principle upt o the point where one man one vote in an enlightened democracy becomes a reality. This ought to be done in a manner that leaves no room for the current trafficking in geo political blackmail. For now, the principle of zoning and rotation of the presidential mantle between north and south remains an article of faith within political parties.
However, in the confrontational posturing between Northern and Southern political leaders on presidential zoning, I see transactional politics in action. The northern political elite understand that the logic of national history points inevitably to the wisdom of a southern successor to Mr. Buhari. I presume they also understand that the decision of voters on whom to vote for is no longer a simple north versus south choice. The ultra conservative Northern Elders Forum(NEF) may not yet have come to terms with the changed realities of the demographics of today’s north. The northern monolith is gone and is not coming back any time soon. The complex ethno national character of what used to be northern monlith is increasingly assuming a political consciousness of its own. The nationalities and micro nationalities domiciled in the zone have come to a new awakening of their political and economic rights. They are not likely to vote as a blind bloc guided by unquestioned faith anymore.
On their part, I assume the southern politicians fully understand that they are confronted with a similar dilemma. Voters now ask questions beyond the geo political origins of candidates. Party loyalty, local peculiarities and micro national interests are beginning to play a role in the choices that voters make at the polls. But the southern politicians also realize that ultimately in a democracy, it is the votes that determine who wins. And the current demographic configuration of the country places a huge voter population in a number of northern states. But that demographic quantum has to be modulated by the geographical spread requirement of the present constitution. That is the catch.
It is safer to assume that the current posturing by politicians on both sides is clearly a negotiating strategy. The idea is perhaps to deploy threats and grand standing to the point where compromise becomes a logical recourse. The aim is to congregate around a mutually acceptable compromise president that could be a southerner in origins but a pliable handyman of northern hegemonic interests. That is the classic template of Nigerian power politics at the top. It has so far yielded a succession of weakened and fundamentally castrated presidents. That is mostly why Nigeria has remained static because our leaders are hostages of the deals and compromises that bring them into office largely devoid if power.
The new rival bi-polar formation of the governors has merely formalized the new reality of a nation deliberately divided by bad politics. Ordinarily, politicians are paid to play politics. They exploit whatever differences that can confer advantages to them. Sharp partisan differences can even be tools for hammering out comprises and pressing advantages. But what is happening in Nigeria today is beyond politics as a game.
In a time of national crisis and dangerous insecurity, political bad behavior undermines and threatens more than the game of politics. It touches the foundation of nation being. The north-south politics of our governors is feeding on a season of ill wind. The bonds of fraternity that holds Nigerians together is badly eroded. Mutual suspicion and antagonism has replaced the ties of trust, mutual respect and fellow feeling. Hate speech and incendiary rhetoric has replaced the normal exchange of communal living. Even in barbers’ shops and beer parlors, the normal banter of fellowship has been replaced by name calling and ethnic profiling of a dangerous kind.
Now that our governors have resolved into two dueling factions, politics should now revert to its original intention. The pursuit of enlightened self interest compels our politicians to a common elementary realization. If there is no nation, all their political computations will come to nothing. We need a nation to pursue our discordant interests. The current multiple threats to our national continuation are a direct threat to the political class. It is therefore time to play the politics of national unity and collective survival.