From Judex Okoro, Calabar
In the last one year, the echoes of zoning and no zoning have resonated across the length and breadth of Cross River State with key political players, stakeholders and supporters arguing back and forth in favour or against zoning.
The defection of Governor Ben Ayade to APC on Thursday, May 20, 2021, seems to have given vent to the issue of which zone produces the next governor in 2023. Ayade shortly after he defected, dropped the bombshell by pronouncing that the governorship slot has been zoned to the Southern senatorial district of the state. Since then, the zoning debate has been waxing and waning.
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Ayade had argued vehemently that the state has operated zoning principle since 1999 and therefore, it would be unfair, unjust and against equity to jettison zoning at this crucial stage, adding that he is also “a product of zoning.”
According to him, since all the three senatorial zones have produced governors in the persons of Mr Donald Duke from South between 1999 to 2007; Sen Liyel Imoke from Central from 2007 to 2015 and himself from North between 2015 to 2023, it is now back-to South in 2023.
Within the Cross River Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC), the storm is brewing just as the political class are at cross-purposes over zoning arrangements. The PDP and APC seem to be like actors with a flair for melodrama with regard to zoning of governorship ahead of 2023 general elections.
While the PDP leadership headed by Venatius Ikem has not been resolute about zoning as it rather prefers throwing it open and allow party members decide during primary election, the APC led by Alphonsus Eba, seems to have queued behind Ayade’s declaration of back-to-south.
However, while the arguments for and against zoning are on, notable politicians from both PDP and APC across the South and Central have declared their intention to take over from incumbent Prof Ben Ayade. In the South, Sen Gershom Bassey, representing Cross River South senatorial district, Sen Sandy Onor, representing central senatorial district, Daniel Asuquo, member representing Akamkpa/Biase federal constituency and Sir Arthur Jarvis Archibong, Chancellor Arthur Jarvis University, have been on vigorous campaigns across the state soliciting party supporters ahead of the party primary.
In the South, members of the APC said to be oiling their political machinery and waiting on the wings watching Ayade’s body language include prof Ivara Esu, the incumbent deputy governor, Asuquo Ekpenyong Jnr, commissioner for finance, Sen Bassey Otu, former senator representing southern sensorial district, Arch Bassey Ndem, former commissioner for lands and a key player in the private sector.
Others are Prof Eyo Etim Nyong, former NDDC commissioner, Chief Ogba Ebok, Hon George O’be-Etchi, Edem Ekong, and Ben Akak.
For the Central senatorial district, the APC heavyweights including Dr Usani Uguru Usani, former state chairman and minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Sen John Owan Enoh, former APC governorship candidate, and Mr. Chris Agara, a business mogul and Ayade’s close ally are said to be eying the party ticket.
Historical perspectives on zoning
A peep into the political trajectory of Cross River has shown that there has been no clear cut arrangement on zoning or power station just as it is not enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. Analysts have argued that it is a privilege or gentleman’s agreement which is not an enforceable right, but has nevertheless become part of our political system.
Taking a look at zoning, the governorship contest has always been open to all zones as seen from 1999 to 2019 general elections. For instance in 1999, Kanu Agabi (SAN) from the Northern senatorial district and Donald Duke of Southern senatorial district ran the PDP governorship primaries just as Prof Eyo Etim Nyong from South and Mark Ukpo from the North contested in the defunct All Peoples Party (APP) governorship primaries in 1999. In 2003, Duke (PDP) contested against John Okpa (ANPP), his former deputy from Central and a few others from the North.
In the 2007 PDP governorship primary, it was a hot contest between Sen Liyel Imoke of central and late Dr Walter Eneji, former deputy governor to Donald Duke and Dr Julius Okputu, all of the Northern Senatorial zone in which Imoke emerged from the Central.
During the PDP primaries in 2015, there were 24 aspirants from the North and three aspirants in APC all from the North as well. So, it was a northern affair in the general election between Prof Ben Ayade (PDP) and Odey Ochicha (APC) with Ayade emerging victorious.
In 2019, Ayade (PDP) and Sen John Owan Eno (APC) from central with Ntufam Ekpo Okon, former State Chairman of PDP and of the southern senatorial district as deputy and Barr Eyo Ekpo (SDP) of southern senatorial district, the former Attorney General and commissioner for Justice,who defected from PDP ran for the governorship in the last general election.
Voices for zoning cry for equity and justice
Following the historical facts that all the three senatorial zones have had a taste of Government House, the proponents of back-to-South said since the democratic journey started from there in 1999, it is morally justifiable and fair that it returns to the zone to save our nascent democracy as well as in the spirit of brotherhood.
Lending his support for zoning/ rotational principles, the Deputy Governor, Professor Ivara Esu (APC), said its adoption in our democratic journey since 1999 in Cross River has been described as the best formula for a young democracy.
Speaking when the Southern Cross River State Students Worldwide(SOCRISS-WW), led by the President, paid him a courtesy visit at the Government House, Esu, maintained that zoning formula in our political and democratic dispensation is the best as it ensures equity, justice, peace, fairness to all senatorial district of the state, while at the same time provide avenue for all to look back at what have been achieved or done in the past.
Queuing into the same line of argument, some of the PDP governorship aspirants, Sen Gershom Bassey and Rt Hon Daniel Asuquo stated unequivocally that zoning has existed in the state since 1999 and that the constitution of PDP explicitly stipulates the party’s position on the principles of rotation and zoning of political offices.
According to Gershom, “section 7(3)(C) of the PDP constitution mandates the party to adhere to rotation and zoning policies in public elective offices in pursuance of the principle of equity, justice and fairness.
“Therefore, the significance and recognition of these principles by the PDP cannot be over-emphasised. Moreover, the applicability of these principles in the Cross River State PDP governorship candidate selection process are embedded in the party’s constitution.”
He argued that there were potential candidates from the South, who could have created a contest in the field in 2015, but the people of the South decided to go with the zoning principle and supported the North on grounds of equity and fairness, adding “the southern senatorial district categorically and without equivocation, expect that power will come to the South in 2023, based on the rotation principle with PDP also expected to zone governorship to the South in 2023.”
Declaring his interest to contest for the governorship seat, the member representing Akamkpa/Biase Federal Constituency, Daniel Asuquo, said: “Cross River State has over the years operated a rotational brotherly system and it is the turn of the Southern senatorial district to produce the governor.
“But it is our wish that the governorship be micro-zoned to non-Efik speaking people of the Southern district. By our calculation, Mr Donald Duke, an Efik son from the South, was the governor between 1999 and 2007. So it should be the turn of non-Efik this time around if finally zoned back to South.”
In his argument for zoning, an APC governorship aspirant, Arc Bassey Eyo-Ndem, said zoning discourages the use of tribalism as a means to becoming governor and allows for the orderly transfer of that office from one senatorial district to another.
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The former commissioner for works during Mr Donald Duke administration, said zoning also discourages domination by the majority tribe or district, by forcing them to give up power from time to time, adding that this is very important in a multiethnic democratic society with weak institutions, as it allows minorities to have their say and even their way.
He stated that besides reducing violence and the cost of elections by making it unnecessary for politicians to form and arm ethnic militias to tackle their opponents, zoning reduces corruption by making it difficult for moneybags from any other district or state to hijack or compromise the system against the flow of equity and natural justice.
Advising all Cross Riverians to see themselves as one entity with a common destiny, he called on the senatorial district whose turn it is to occupy the office of governor to put forward its best materials in order to reinforce and build confidence in the zoning arrangement,
Equally lending support to zoning, some PDP stakeholders from Central said in a statement signed by over 30 of them including, Nicholas Ayua, Sylvanus Odong, Obeten Okorn Obeten, Bassey Eko Ewa, Chris Agibe, Nelson E Ofem, and Itam Abang, Emma Idaka, Mr Attah Ochinke and Eko Atu, maintained that “the central senatorial district has always provided leadership, direction and strength vital for the consistent success of PDP in the state.”
According to the statement, “the central senatorial district supports the principle of zoning and rotation of political responsibility in the state, and particularly supports the sustenance of the rotation of the governorship of Cross River State following the already established sequence amongst the various senatorial districts.
“This position is taken in the unshaken confidence that there are members of the party from the Southern senatorial district with capacity, competence and commitment to lead the state and restore the developmental strides the state was hitherto known for.”
Opposition to zoning mounts
The opponents of zoning are going at it hammer and tongs as they have rejected outrightly the back-to-South arrangements ab initio that it does not only promote mediocrity at the expense of merit, but not auspicious at this critical time of state development.
The mounting opposition to zoning, especially coming from PDP and APC, showed that the stakeholders in the Southern and central senatorial district have thrown down the gauntlet.
Firing the first salvo against zoning while hosting some PDP stakeholders in his house in Calabar in early January, former presidential candidate of Social Democratic Party (SDP) during the 2019 general election, Mr Donald Duke, said anybody who meets constitutional provisions is qualified to contest election.
Duke, who was the former governor from 1999 to 2007, said: “It is time for a new crop of leaders to mount the saddle of leadership in Cross River as governor. Note that I am not against zoning, but there has never been zoning in the first place in choosing our governorship.
“But if there has to be zoning, then the political leaders of Cross River State across party lines (both intra party and inter party) should, in a joint meeting, sit down, adumbrate and unanimously draw up the modus operandi and modus vivendi of zoning as commonly agreed by all politicians. Not when it suits you, then you talk of zoning, at other times when it doesn’t suit you, you dispense with it.
“But even zoning is well contrived; it remains a gentleman’s agreement because the Supreme Court has, in a celebrated judgment between Jerry Gana and Donald Duke (on zoning) ruled that once a person meets the constitutional provisions for contesting any particular election, he or she cannot be stopped from running that election on the basis of zoning.
“I, therefore, call on all governorship aspirants from the Southern senatorial district to go into the public space and rationally market themselves, rather than relying on the whimsical and unsettled sentiments of zoning.”
Also kicked against zoning of the governorship slot while declaring his intention to run for the race at the party secretariat in Calabar, Prof Sandy Onor, a fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria, said: “It is about time that Cross Riverians looked out for competent hands from any senatorial district that can help salvage the pitiable situation of the state. I am confident in my ability to redeem and restore the state to the party of progress.
“We cannot compartmentalise our leadership, especially at this point where we need the best to lead us, the best that can be found in any senatorial zone today. So, the people must be allowed to determine who the best is. The state urgently needs a man with capacity, vision and reach and such a person can come from any zone in 2023.”
In the same vein, the Cross River PDP stakeholders from the central senatorial district after a consultative meeting held at Ikom recently, maintained that it has become critical that all concerned allow the political field open to all aspirants for best political results.
The statement, signed by Ntufam Gabe Odu Oji, former commissioner for water resources, John Gaul Lebo, former Speaker of Cross River House of Assembly, Chris Itafu Njar, former commissioner for Gas, Joe Obi Bisong, former publicity secretary of PDP, Prof. Walter Mboto, Dr Obol Goddy Ettah, former PDP state secretary and commissioner for education and water resources, and others, read in part: “We believe in the unity, progress and development of Cross River State based on justice, equity and fairness, hence we affirm that the sharing of electoral positions, especially the governorship of our dear state is not and has never been exclusive for a particular senatorial district or zone in any election.
“Concerned that the current inciting comments by highly placed individuals over zoning could precipitate undue crisis, we reaffirm that the state is an all-embracing political entity that calls for an all-embracing political participation that does not exclude any zone or constituency as hitherto been.
“It is, therefore, critical that we allow the political field open to all aspirants for best political results. We shall continue to implore all eligible aspirants to consult stakeholders and party faithfuls across the state and solicit for their support during and after the party primaries.”
After watching like a hawk for several months, the Cross River APC central stakeholders forum has kicked against Governor Ben Ayade’s pronouncement that the Southern zone would produce the next governor in 2023 and instead called for the opening of the political space in the state for the overall interest of the party.
In a meeting convened by the trio of Senator John Owan-Enoh, Chris Agara (a close friend of Governor Ayade) and Dr. Usani Usani, former minister of Niger Delta Affairs, and held at Ikom recently, the forum called on the party leadership to “lead with fairness and inclusiveness for all party men and women irrespective of senatorial district as well as provide a platform for credible emergence of candidates than empahising on zoning as winning strategy.”
Speaking at the meeting, Sen John Owan Enoh said the Central offers the best chance for the APC to win next year’s governorship election, frowning at a situation where the APC state excos takes decision without recourse to the stakeholders of the party as attempts to de-market the stakeholders will affect the fortune of the party in the election.
Enoh said the candidate who is competitive enough to win the election should be given the party’s ticket regardless of the zone he or she comes from.
On his part, Agara said his attendance at the meeting does not mean that he is against the governor who is his close friend, adding that as a friend of the governor, he advises him when necessary. Dr. Usani Usani, in his speech, said the governor has the right to his opinion, adding that his (governor) pronouncement does not mean that they all agree with him.
Some analysts have argued that the pronouncement by Ayade that the South produces the next governor after him is being challenged by the critical stakeholders. They argue that with the discordant tunes coming from every corner of the state, zoning is up for the creeks and for grabs by any zone.