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2023 Election Highlights Imperative of Power Rotation

By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi Nigeria is a frail, imperfect patchwork of disparate nations that is perpetually on the brink o...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Nigeria is a frail, imperfect patchwork of disparate nations that is perpetually on the brink of implosion on account of political and identitarian stressors. The past presidential election dramatizes the abiding fragility of Nigeria and the imperative to tweak our democratic practices in response to this fact.

When most people vote, they don’t vote as individuals. They don’t even vote as people. They often vote as members of a collective identity. I am not saying that this is the case for every voter. There are certainly exceptions. But it is the case that voting behaviors are often patterned along notions of the interests of collective identities.

This isn’t, by any means, unique to Nigeria. It’s a feature of all modern representative democracies, including in the United States, which sees itself, and is seen by others, as the patron saint of democracy. 

Here in the United States, political parties have devolved into more or less inflexible tribal groupings where merit is the last thing people consider when voting for political candidates. Identity is the most salient consideration in voting decisions.

 In states where Republicans dominate, as I pointed out last week, literal dogs that run as Republicans have 100 percent higher chances of being elected to political positions than the smartest Democratic candidates. The reverse is also true of states dominated by Democrats. Exceptions can be found in so-called battle-ground states where Democratic and Republican candidates have equal chances of winning statewide electoral contests. Such states are just a handful of America’s 50 states, typically no more than 10 in a generation.

In Nigeria, the embeddedness of identity in electoral politics is complicated by the fact that our political divisions are formed around invariable attributes such as ethnicity and near invariable categories such as religion. A Democrat can change to a Republican, but an Ijaw man, for example, can’t change to a Berom man. Even if he does culturally, linguistically, and by reason of geographic presence, he will always be reminded of his “outsider” ancestral origins by people who consider themselves “indigenes.” We have seen examples of that this year even in ethnically homogenous states, particularly in the South where ethnic identity tends to be stronger than religious identity.

This fixity of our identity categories makes political rivalries built around them intensely emotional and prone to rhetorical and physical violence. In democracy, sadly, the end justifies the means. The end is to win elections and the means is often to mobilize the sentiments of collective identities in a certain direction.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu chose a northern Muslim running mate even though he is also a Muslim not because he hates Christians (his wife is a pastor, and all his children are Christians) but because it was the surest means to actualize his end. He had a choice between doing the “right” thing and “losing” and doing the “wrong” thing and “winning.” Like all politicians, he chose the option that came with “winning.”

 In the Southwest, moreover, he galvanized the support of people, irrespective of religious affiliation, by appealing to the common ethnic origins he shares with the people there. Meanwhile, among northern Muslims, he played up his Muslim identity to achieve identification with that voting bloc.

Atiku Abubakar tried to blunt Tinubu’s northern Muslim appeal by calling attention to the common ethnic and regional identity he shares with northern voters. His electoral battle cry in the North was “naka sai naka,” which translates as “yours is yours.” That’s a direct challenge to Tinubu who, although a Muslim, isn’t a northerner. This is in spite of Atiku’s reputation as a tolerant, broadminded, cosmopolitan politician who isn’t beholden to narrow ethnic, regional, and religious loyalties.  

In the South, meanwhile, Atiku sought to appeal to the emotions of the people of the Southeast by saying he has always been an unwavering friend of theirs and that he is the surest and shortest path to an Igbo presidency. Every single running mate he has had since he started running for president, he pointed out, has been an Igbo man, even if his latest running mate, Ifeanyichukwu Okowa, is a Midwestern Igbo whose people have historically disavowed affiliation with Southeastern Igbos.

 Peter Obi, for his part, cashed in on the Muslim identities of Tinubu and Atiku to rally Nigerian Christians to vote for him. In perceptual terms, he started off as an Igbo candidate who took advantage of the justified sentiment that an Igbo person has never been elected president. He later expanded his electoral base to become the southern Christian candidate. He ultimately emerged and campaigned as the all-Nigerian Christian candidate and abandoned attempts to transcend this confine because he knew he didn’t stand a chance against Tinubu and Atiku outside this.

Right from the demographic profiles of the people who constituted his presidential campaign council to his hopping from church to church in search of votes (even going so far as to say to Taraba Christian leaders, “Please church, wake up, take back your country”), to isolating Christian communities in predominantly Muslim Northern states for targeted campaigns and even making his post-election legal team an all-Christian and mostly Igbo affair, he has left no one in doubt that he is riding on the crest of the wave of Christian resentment against the two major political parties, on one of whose platforms he was a running mate in 2019 and a short-lived presidential contender in 2022, for fielding Muslims as their candidates.  

Yet, Obi may well be a secular person who isn’t wedded to religion, but he needed to mobilize the Christian vote because it was his only way to have a fighting chance.

This sort of divisiveness isn’t healthy or sustainable for a fractious, fissiparous country like Nigeria. That is why we need to constitutionalize power rotation between regions. We need to avoid a repeat of what happened this year where collective identities squared off against each other and raised the national emotional temperature to fever pitch. Its cost to national cohesion isn’t worth the trouble.

Given our peculiarities, systematizing power rotation between the regions at national, state, and local levels is the way to go. I know this will be resisted by politicians who will see this suggestion as the indefinite deferment of their political aspirations, but it’s the best way to ensure tranquil co-existence.

The constitution should draw up a schedule of power rotation so that every region and subregion of the country will have a chance to be president, vice president, governor, deputy governor, member of the House of Representatives, senator, house of assembly member, and local government chairman. All registered political parties should be required to nominate their candidates (and running mates in the case of presidential and governorship elections) from one region for eight years after which another region will have a shot.

This will eliminate ethnoreligious tension and promote merit in leadership selection. If all the presidential contenders in 2023 were, by law, from the Southeast and their running mates were from the Northeast, for instance, appeals to religious and ethnic solidarity would be pointless. Voters would focus on the pedigree and programs of candidates, and only the best from the regions that are scheduled to produce candidates would emerge since no one can mobilize the emotions of collective identities to win elections.


  1. If this is adhered to, do we still call ours a 'democracy'?

    1. There is no universal form of democracy. That's why its practice varies from country to country. In the US, for example, presidential elections are not a game of numbers like they are in Nigeria and elsewhere. Hillary Clinton, to give one example, got 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in 2016, but Trump was declared president because he won the Electoral College vote. In Switzerland, they rotate the presidency among their federating units, and it's for just a year. Voters don't directly elect the president. A 200-member Federal Assembly does. The ancient Greeks from whom the current notion of democracy was inherited practiced it differently from how almost every country is practicing it now. So, yes, ours would still be a democracy if we practiced it the way I suggested. What's important is that it should work for us.

    2. 'Democracy' is really a vague term. Ancient Greek democracy did not even allow women to participate and outrightly restricted slaves and non-propertied individuals. Early modern democracy followed the same lines. And when social conditions evolved, the views, restrictions and traditions changed with it. Nigeria cannot be ruled as a fief of particular regions.

      One cannot run it like the ancient Igbo Nri state or like a Yoruba or Sokoto Caliphal polity. These older arrangements all have attendant ethnic and religious segmentations that are incompatible with a modern and multiethnic state that is mostly literate ( at least in the basic sense). Part of what causes caustic reactions (e.g. from Obidients in this most recent electoral cycle) is the awareness of the structures of domination without an understanding of solutions to it. There is ultimately the urge to bestow on a symbolic figure, hope for the means of emancipation. Important to note that this is not possible without the awareness.

      Old Aro lords could slave-trade and oppress with impunity. Same goals for the great Chiefs in the West and the Sarakunan in the North. There was limited agency with regards to political and social change and the a weak impetus for transformation. Nigeria is the exact opposite. Diverse and prone to sectional squabbling, the only solution is for broad-based and inclusive government. On the symbolic level at least. No body is going to probe the actual makeup of the ministries, agencies or services that run the country. What matters is the most visible aspects of leadership. So reducing things to maths, is really a frivolous game. How well does that represent diverse interests in times of marked competition and rivalry.

      To illustrate how societies adjust to satisfy periodic shifts in orientation and traditions we can look at the very Islamic Caliphate from 632 to 1924. From Rashidun (631-661) tradition based on Shura and Quraysh lineage to the hereditary Ummayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) arrangement, still anchored on Quraysh heritage. After that we have the change to the mystical Ottoman rationale, shifting from Arab stock to a broader pragmatic Islamic kingship theory (divine monarchy from the Persian sphere). Before settling on the 'National Sultanate' of the 1920s that saw no need for a caliph anymore and which argued for decisions in-shura once again (through a parliament). The caliphate was subsequently abolished as an institution. Within the same Islamic world, perceptions and justifications differed depending on the stage of development (geographical, social and political) of the Umma.

      Every setup must correlate to its context.


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