By February 2023, Nigerians are expected to troop out and elect a new set of political leaders in the quadrennial electoral cycle. Most importantly, as the second and final term of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari comes to an end in May 2023, Nigerians will be electing a new leader for the largest Black democracy in the world as his replacement. More than a year to the 2023 presidential election, political activities towards electing the next President have commenced earlier than usual and the temperature of the polity is steadily rising from divisive rhetoric and polarising permutations by the active players on Nigeria’s dirty turf of identity politics.

This is so because the next President of Nigeria will not be decided by what the prospective candidates know about the economy, grasp of national security or understanding of foreign relations. Sixy-one years after independence and 22 years of unbroken civil democratic rule, the determining factor of the next President of Nigeria will be ethnicity, religion and region of origin.

On completing his eight-year tenure as President in 2023, President Buhari, a northern Muslim, is expected to hand over power to a southern Christian as his successor. This is in line with the principles of zoning and rotation of political leadership positions among the constituent peoples of Nigeria across its northern and southern parts, which birthed theFourth Republic in 1999.

As the principles of zoning and rotation of political offices are not written in black and white in the Constitution of Nigeria but only exist as a political arrangement aimed at giving every section of the country a sense of belonging in the distribution of positions and resources, it has always been challenged, denounced as undemocratic or unconstitutional and sometimes violated. It takes a principled politician to abide by the principles of zoning and rotation of political leadership offices even when such a politician has the advantage to violate it in the advancement of personal or sectional interest. But with a dearth of principled politicians in today’s Nigeria, the application or otherwise of the principles of zoning and the expected shift of presidential power to the South has become a matter of intense, polarising and toxic public discourse between those for and against power retention in northern Nigeria.

By way of a pre-emptive strike against those that may be harbouring the thought of power retention in northern Nigeria beyond 2023, the 17 governors of southern Nigeria from across party, ethnic and religious lines, at their June 2021 meeting in Lagos, demanded that power must shift to the South in 2023, in the interest of equity, fairness and justice. But, in reaction, the 19 governors of northern Nigeria, at the end of their September 2021 meeting in Kaduna, rejected the demand of their southern counterparts, describing it as undemocratic and unconstitutional. The exchanges between the political power blocs across the River Niger over post-Buhari Nigeria have once again brought to the fore the intense struggle for the control of Nigeria’s internal resources, the exploitation and revenues derived therefrom by its  constituent ethno-geographic nationalities.

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For a country of many ethno-geographic and religious groupings, with a federating unit that is structured along ethnic and religious fault lines, Nigeria’s democratic leadership was forged in identity politics. To resolve the many areas of intersecting ethnic and religious interests arising from Nigeria’s entrenched culture of identity politics, such measures as zoning and rotation of power among the constituent peoples become useful preventive mechanisms against violent conflicts. This mechanism of rotation has been in place in Nigeria’s politics right from Independence in 1960 to prevent the dominance of one ethnic and religious group over another. And, contrary the position of the Northern Governors’ Forum, the principles of zoning and rotation are constitutional and democratic. In Section 14 [3] of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, it is clearly stated that “The COMPOSITION of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs SHALL be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.”

Since the office of the President is one and indivisible, the leaders of Nigeria’s political parties evolved the principle of zoning and rotation of the number one office in the land, pursuant to this section of the Constitution, beginning from 1999.

The North/South formula for the rotation of the presidency of Nigeria is a reflection of the country before the 1914 amalgamation of both protectorates to birth modern Nigeria. While the principle of zoning and rotation of the presidency of Nigeria was not conceptualized to be a permanent feature in Nigeria’s central leadership recruitment process, it has, sadly, remained a constant determinant of what ethnic and religious group of Nigeria the President will emerge from in 2023, after 24 years of democratic rule. This is precisely because successive political leaders since 1999 have observed the constitutional provisions in section 14[3] more in breach than compliance.

Rather than use their offices of responsibility to promote national unity through an inclusive, fair, equitable and just administration of the country, Nigeria’s past and current leaders have in varying degrees taken advantage of their occupation of the most powerful office in the land to elevate their ethnic, regional and religious sections above others in a most nepotistic, parochial and clannish manner, thereby leaving Nigeria more divided than they met it.

However, while it is imperative for the peace and unity of Nigeria and in the interest of justice, fairness and equity for the presidency of Nigeria to shift to the South after eight years in the North by 2023, such a southern option must be one with sufficient nationalist credentials to fulfil the spirit and the letters of Section 14[3] of the 1999 Constitution, as amended: A truly Nigerian President from southern Nigeria who can deploy his nationalistic qualities to heal Nigeria’s ethno-geographic and religious fault lines and unite Nigerians for global competiveness through an inclusive, equitable, fair and just administration. This will bring a closure to Nigeria’s revolving door of identity politics, which has arrested its collective development.