Until he recanted on Thursday, Okwesileze Nwodo had worn the garb of the killer of the zoning agreement within his party. The national chairman of the PDP officially announced the long-awaited death of that annoying entry in our political lexicon. With a devil-may-care chest-thumping reminiscent of our recent dark past, Dr. Nwodo had intoned on Wednesday: "There is no zoning on the ground right now. Absolutely, there is no zoning... If we think that we need to revisit zoning today, let us revisit zoning. But the one we did in 1999, no, no, no, no, it has been jettisoned by the PDP itself."
Naturally, the proponents of zoning were aghast. They must have screamed: "Has the national chairman gone bananas? Where was his sense of decorum?" Either Nwodo did not consult with other party bigwigs before making his comments both to the BBC earlier and the Nigerian press on Wednesday, or he was playing some game. His swift rebuttal through a spokesman, who made a bad job of trying to show that the national chairman had been misquoted, looked suspect. The damage has already been done. Now we can also relish the discovery that the ruling party is, as Balarabe Musa said, in disarray. Nwodo's doublespeak also suggested to the nation that the "biggest party in Africa" is no longer confident about the next elections; it's disunited, and its future looks grim.
Meanwhile, we, the downtrodden onlookers, have been clapping. Nwodo had pricked us where it ached most. Zoning, an anachronism in democracy, was a PDP ploy that was manufactured for the exclusive convenience of a clique within the party. Its creation was due to the discovery that the choice of Obasanjo as president was a wrong one after all. The man who was freely elected in 1999 was turning into an ogre. He had begun to play the chess game of power elongation ahead of the end of his two-term tenure in 2007. In 2006, I was one of three persons who visited the then Vice President Atiku Abubakar at his official residence in the presidential villa. During the visit, Atiku, who looked pained, told us that the roots of Obasanjo's third term dream had been planted right from 1999. He went on to tell us a long story about how his boss began to plot his life presidency right from when he was first elected.
In retrospect, one could see clearly why the then wise men of the ruling party, who were working solely to preserve their own interests rather than the nation's, came up with the zoning idea. They calculated that after Obasanjo, a Northerner should mount the saddle in order to stop the presidency from remaining perpetually headed by a Southerner. Without zoning, the Frankenstein monster they had all helped to build, i.e., the PDP, which operated in accordance with the president's whims and caprices, would trample and smother anyone in its way. Even the mammoth North would be incapable of stopping the monster's charge.
Goodluck Jonathan's PDP appears to be different. Nwodo seems to have come on board in order to do the dirty job of ensuring that Jonathan is elected next year. But Nwodo himself is appearing to be toeing the president's line of ensuring that the party he heads plays only by the rules. He has pledged his readiness to resign if anyone tried to mess him up. He says he is willing to take on the former rider of the monster, Obasanjo, if he tried to be funny. Nwodo had had a "wahala with him in the past" and was surprised that the former president didn't try to block his appointment - as he was wont to do. On Wednesday, he told the media that he was going to organise transparent presidential primaries, which, according to him, would usher in the best candidate for the party. Which means that President Jonathan himself could lose to any other person the party deems better suited to carry its ticket.
Nwodo should keep talking the way he had been talking before Thursday's needless corrigendum. That way, we could all go to sleep with the assurance that a new PDP is emerging. The best assurance, however, is the new helmsman at the electoral commission. Prof. Attahiru Jega has been more forthright than Nwodo. He has a cleaner political record. So far we have not heard of or seen a taint on him. Everybody has applauded his appointment. And he has assured the nation that nobody is going to buy him, not even Jonathan. No wonder the old guard in the PDP were jittery when they heard that Jonathan was toying with the idea of appointing such a radical to head INEC. They must have warned the president: this man isn't the type to play ball, our kind of ball. Unknown to them, that's the kind of man the president himself was looking for.
As I argued recently in this space, the fear that the next general election could or would be stolen is old school. It resulted from the excess baggage of our recent past when any incumbent leader stuck to his post as if it were hereditary. Our fear was rightly couched in the notion that whoever was occupying an elective post would never be dislodged. The PDP, especially during the 2003 election, was so impregnable that toying with its supremacy was at one's peril.
Prof. Jega has said that the best way to overcome the fear of marginalisation and, if I may add, the chance of crooks taking over the mantle of leadership, is for the best candidates to run for election. For too long, our political scene has been dominated by mostly the wrong people. Jega's thesis is that instead of endlessly wailing about the quality of the leadership we have, we should encourage the most suitable persons to stand for election. Leaving the scene unattended gives charlatans and hoodlums the chance to parade themselves as candidates and ultimately become our leaders, even if they acquired the office through rigging.
The emergence of the best candidates will solve the fear of domination or marginalisation and dispel the notion that brought zoning in the first place. Seventeen years ago, Chief MKO Abiola was elected by the generality of Nigerians because he was considered to be the better candidate. He didn't emerge through zoning and, as Mallam Adamu Ciroma said famously, Abiola won fair and square.
Come to think of it, stopping zoning within the PDP and any other political party can even favour the North more if the elections are free and fair. How? The North, being the most populous section of Nigeria, is bound to have an upper hand any day in an election where real votes are freely cast and counted. So the North can win the presidency out of anybody's hand by simply voting for a Northerner or endorsing a candidate it deems the best. The important thing is for the election not be rigged. Instead of complaining, we should try this and see.