The hope of the South East geo-political zone to produce a president for the country dimmed last week, as the Peoples Democratic Party ( PDP) Committee on Review of 2019 general elections asked the party to jettison the zoning of its party’s presidential ticket in the 2023 polls.

The panel was inaugurated in January 2020 to review PDP’s performance in the 2019 general election and ascertain why the party lost the presidential poll, and chart a roadmap for the opposition party for the 2023 presidential contest.

The report of the panel, like that of a similar committee, chaired by former deputy Senate Pressure, Ike Ekweremadu, is expected to serve as a guide to the PDP in its preparation for the 2023 polls.

In recent times, the issue of which of the geo-political zones would produce the PDP 2023 presidential candidate has dominated discourse in the opposition party, with party leaders expressing divergent opinions on the subject.

While party leaders from the North are pushing for the PDP ticket to be ceded to the zone, their counterparts from the South insist that it is the turn of the South, particularly the South East to produce the candidate of the opposition party in 2023.

For the people of the South East, expectations were high that the PDP presidential ticket would be theirs, to brighten the zone’s chances to produce the next president of the country. The South East is known to have  supported the opposition party more than any other geo-political zone in the country, since the inception of the present democratic dispensation in 1999.

However, the  hopes dimmed last Wednesday, as the 2019 general election review panel, headed by the Bauchi State governor, Bala Mohammed, recommended that the contest for the PDP ticket be thrown open to all qualified candidates from across the country.

Mohammed, while presenting the  committee’s report at the PDP National Secretariat, Wadata Plaza, Abuja, said the panel observed that there are many capable and very experienced leaders across the country.

Besides, he noted that  the exigencies of the moment demand that nothing should be compromised in choosing a leader that will lead the country out of its present challenges.

Nevertheless, the Bauchi governor admitted that a  lot of persons believe that the North East and South East geo-political zones have had the shortest stint at the presidency and should be given priority in the choice of the opposition party’s 2023 presidential candidate.

He said:  “in line with certain unwritten conventions of the nation’s history, many people think that, for fairness and equity, the North East and South East geo-political zones that have had the shortest stints at the Presidency, should be given special consideration, in choosing the presidential flag bearer of the party, for the 2023 elections.

“While we admit that this is a strong argument, we should not lose sight of the fact that Nigeria is endowed with many capable and very experienced leaders in every part of the country.

“Moreover, the exigencies of the moment demand that nothing should be compromised in choosing the leader, with the attributes to disentangle the country from the present quagmire.

“Therefore, we think that every Nigerian, from every part of the country, should be given the opportunity to choose the best candidate, through a credible primary election as a way of institutionalising a merit-based leadership recruitment process, for the country.”

Changing the rules midway

However, Daily Sun checks revealed that the recommendation  of the Bala Mohammed committee was a violation of the PDP Constitution (as amended in 2017), which recognizes zoning and rotation of party and elective offices.

Section 7(3)(c) of the opposition party  states that the party shall “adhere to the policy of the rotation and zoning of party and public elective offices in pursuance of the principles of equity, justice and fairness.”

Since 1999, the PDP,  in adherence to its principle of zoning and rotation, had always zoned it’s presidential tickets between the North and South.

For instance, in the 1999 general elections, the PDP presidential ticket was zoned to the South, with President Olusegun Obasanjo from the South West emerging the party’s candidate. While in the 2007 polls, the ticket was zoned to the North, with late President Umaru Yar’Adua from the North West as presidential candidate.

After Yar’Adua’s death, the ticket returned to  the South, with President Goodluck Jonathan, from the South South, as the PDP standard bearer in 2011 and 2015 polls.

In the last general elections,  the PDP presidential ticket was ceded to the North, in line with the party’s zoning principle,  while former Vice President Atiku Abubakar emerged the candidate.

Expectedly, the recommendation of the PDP panel to the opposition party to jettison zoning in the 2023 contest  did not go down well with stakeholders in the South East zone, who strongly believe that the opposition party wants to short-change the zone.

The Vice Chairman, Igbo Leadership Development Foundation and Director Public Affairs, Project Nigeria President of South East Extraction, Dr Law Mefor,  told Daily Sun that  the  recommendation  is an affront to both the PDP Constitution and manifesto, which provides for zoning of party and elective offices.

According to Mefor, “this is an affront to both the Constitution of PDP and its manifesto, which can be accessed even on the INEC website. Both the PDP Constitution and the party’s manifesto, uphold the principle of rotation of the office of the President.

“What that means is that North and South Nigerian aspirants cannot contest the PDP presidential ticket at the same time. In other words, asking the party to jettison the rotation principle long way into our democracy, after it has benefitted at least 4 zones in Nigeria, is tantamount to shifting the goalpost in the middle of a football match.

“That is intolerable and must have consequences,  because it is the interest and quest of the South East to produce the nation’s President in 2023 based on the principles of zoning and rotation that is targeted for elimination.”

Pundits say the report of the committee has seemingly vindicated Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi, in his claims that the South East was being marginalised  by the PDP.

Umahi, who defected to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), last year, had said his action was to protest the alleged unfair treatment of the South East by the opposition party.

The Ebonyi governor said:  “I offered this movement as a protest to injustice being done to the South East by PDP. Since 1998, the South East people have supported PDP in all elections; at a time the five states in the South East were all PDP. One of the founding members of the PDP,  His Excellency, late Dr. Alex Ekwueme was from the South East.

“And so, it is absurd that since 1998 going to 2023 that South East will never be considered to run for presidency under the ticket of the PDP; it is very absurd and this is my position and it will continue to be my position, it has nothing to do with me.”

The PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, after receiving the Bala Mohammed Committee report promised that the party’s National Working Committee ( NWC) will analyse the report and come up with a position that will be beneficial to the party.

According to him, “the NWC is going to study and analyze your report meticulously and come up with a position that will be beneficial to the party.

“The PDP is leaving no stone unturned to ensure it regains federal power and this report is going to be the take off point and keystone to our subsequent actions ahead of 2023.”

Amidst discontent  over the development, the PDP has continued to explain that no decision has been taken in respect to the panel’s report.

In a tweet from its official Twitter handle @OfficialPDPNig, the opposition party had noted that “it has become imperative to clarify that @OfficialPDPNig is yet to adopt any of the recommendations proposed by the Senator Bala Mohammed’s Committee on the Review of the 2019 Elections.

As such, it will be incongruous for anyone to assert that any decision has been taken @OfficialPDPNig on zoning of the Presidency ahead of the 2023 elections. @OfficialPDPNig leaders, members and supporters are enjoined to note that party is yet to take any decision on the proposals presented by the committee.”

The assurances  notwithstanding, party sources say the jettisoning of zoning for the 2023 contest is more or less a fait accompli, as the PDP all along has fixed its gaze on the North for its candidate in the next general election.

Former presiding officer in the National Assembly, who is also a member of the PDP Board of Trustees (BoT) had told our correspondent, last year, that the thinking in the opposition party is that a Northern candidate stands a better chance to win the presidency for the PDP in 2023.

“ We have not discussed and agreed on  that in the party. But that will be the best way to go, because there is no chance for any Southerner, “ the BoT member had stated.

Northerners known to be interested in the PDP presidential ticket in the 2023 polls include Atiku and the Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal.

At the moment, prominent PDP leaders in the South East seem to have adopted a “siddon look” approach, while waiting for the party to take a final decision on the contentious zoning issue, before taking a position.

Former Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Chief Dubem Onyia, in response to a question on what the South East PDP will do, if the NWC adopts the position of the panel, told Daily Sun that “when we get to the bridge, we will cross it.”

However, the pan Igbo organization, Ohaneze Ndigbo, and other interest groups in the South East have continued to warn that there will be consequences for the PDP in the next general elections, if it takes the people of the zone for granted.

Mefor says: “for the reason that the PDP has always won landslide in the zone, they believe the South East can be taken for granted without consequences.

“The party may leave the zone with no choice than to try their luck elsewhere, win or lose, should they complete the perfidious move to quash their aspiration to also benefit from rotation.

“The PDP leaders often forget that the South East votes have always given the PDP victory since 1999. Use your calculator and tell which PDP presidential candidate could have won if the South East votes were to be subtracted.

“The zone may add their votes to another political party that will treat them with a bit of respect since they do not count to the PDP anymore.”

As the country awaits the PDP NWC to take a formal position of the 2023 zoning,  there is no doubt that whatever position the party takes will affect its outing in the South East in the next elections.