Around 1993, some Nigerian intellectuals initiated a seminal debate on leadership and political inclusivity in their country – or rather the lack of it. Mainly drawn from the country’s South, they pointed out that for the years since Nigerian independence in 1960, power had almost exclusively remained the preserve of Northerners, whether civilian or, more frequently, military.
And whereas here in Kenya we have had a duopoly of two communities exchanging power interminably, in Nigeria’s case it was an in-house affair played mostly within the dominant Muslim Northerners, particularly those of the majority Hausa-Fulani extraction.
The Nigerian discussion did not come by accident. It was launched after military ruler Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, a Northerner, had without warning annulled the election of Moshood Abiola, who would have become the first president from the South elected through a process observers deemed the most democratic so far in Nigeria's history.
(Technically, Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo from the South, preceded Abiola as Nigeria's first president soon after Independence. But the arrangement then was different as his office was non-executive whereas executive power was held by Prime Minister Sir Tafawa Balewa, a Northerner).
The nascent conversation on national leadership and exclusion was abruptly stopped when Gen Sani Abacha, another Northerner, took power when Babangida stepped down following the Abiola debacle.
Abacha was a ruthless dictator who brooked no dissent of any kind, not even the polite agitation the Southern academics had started on Nigeria's power imbalance.
That had to wait until the autocrat died in 1998 and the interim administration of Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, yet another Northerner but a reformist, took over. The debate on national power equity resumed in earnest. The moment was ripe. Abdulsalami not only was determined to return power to civilians, but to do so in a different way.
First, a little history is in order on how the cycle of Nigerian succesion used to go. 1966: Balewa killed in a coup; a swiftly executed counter-coup puts in power Colonel Yakubu Gowon (Northerner, but Christian) and stokes a civil war. 1975: Gowon overthrown by Gen Murtala Muhammed (Northerner, Fulani). 1976: Murtala assassinated in a botched coup; his Yoruba second-in-command, Gen.
Olusegun Obasanjo, steps in - though by default and as a transitional figure ahead of a planned handover to civilian rule. (Years later after retiring from the army, he transforms in 1999 into the first Southern democratically elected civilian President of Nigeria). 1979: Shehu Shagari (Northerner, Fulani) wins the Presidential election. 1983: he is overthrown by Gen Muhammadu Buhari, another Fulani Northerner. (The same Buhari who in civilian garb is the current Nigerian president). 1985: Buhari is overthrown by Gen Babangida, who later invalidates Abiola’s election and inadvertently brings the vexed question of Nigerian statehood to the fore.
Loading the dice
Events then lead to Abacha and eventually to Adulsalami, again both Northern Muslims. At this point, in 1998 – 38 years of independence – Northerners have held executive power in Nigeria for 35 years, with the exception of the 1976-1979 period Obasanjo was in charge.
Abdulsalami knows that loading the dice in favour of a fellow Northerner as his successor is not tenable. It is in these circumstances that Obasanjo is elected president, under a new constitution midwifed by Abdulsalami that forswears military dictatorships ever again.
The Nigerian constitution does not explicitly state that there be a rotational presidency. But the two main political parties have an unwritten convention to rotate the high office between North and South. Hence, Obasanjo was succeeded by Umaru Yar'Adua (Northerner, 2007-2010), who then was succeeded by Goodluck Jonathan (Southerner, 2010-2015). Logically the present leader, Buhari, had to come from the North.
The argument in Kenya by those opposed to a rotational Presidency is that it is impractical. That would be so if we go with the 44 tribes as the formula of rotation. It would be even more unserviceable in Nigeria with its 250-plus ethnic groups.
But ethnicity per se is not the only benchmark. Nigeria opted for zoning the country into geopolitical regions, with a zone comprising several states. There are six geopolitical zones: North-East, North-West, North-Central, South-West, South-East and South-South. Obasanjo (South-West) was followed by Yar'Adua (North-West), and then by Jonathan (South-South).
In practice, each zone should get its turn to the Presidency. Already there is heavy pressure from the South-East, the heartland of the former Biafra secessionists, to be next when Buhari retires.
That would be fair and just as it is the only zone not to have held the presidency since the civil war. It would also mend that feeling of Igbo exclusion which remains a sore wound in Nigeria's nationhood.
In Kenya, zoning would be much easier as we have the former eight provinces as markers. The question then would be whether to enshrine the rotational principle in law, or to leave it to political parties as is the case in Nigeria.
But the parties must be honourable enough not to flout the rules. If a province has done its term, no party should act treacherously by fronting its candidate from the same place.