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Rotation and zoning: Extra-constitutional frameworks for Nigeria’s political stability

6th February 2014

By: In On Africa IOA


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After over a decade of return to democracy, Nigeria’s federal system has been resilient to some of the political tensions that would have otherwise torn it apart. Here, an effective cooperation between regional political elites seems to be the key element for this stability. Besides the constitutional provisions on proportional representation in government, other extra-constitutional arrangements among regional elites such as zoning and rotation, have contributed substantially towards stability.

This CAI paper discusses the political expedience as well as the controversy surrounding the twin mechanisms of zoning and rotation in Nigerian politics. Firstly, this paper sketches the workings of these two complementary mechanisms. This is followed by a brief presentation of some of the cases where these mechanisms were violated and how both the public and politicians reacted to such a perceived threat to political stability.


Zoning and rotation explained

Considering some of the factors that have contributed to the relative political stability in Nigeria since its return to a democratic regime in 1999 - after over 30 years of military rule - one may wish to cite some policies that allow for ethno-regional balancing. These constitutionally recognised policies fall under what is generally referred to as the Federal Character Principle (FCP) and operate mostly through the federal structure.(2) Sections 14 articles 3 and 4 of the 1999 Constitution provide categorically that the composition of governments of the Federation, states and Local Government Areas (LGA), or any of their agencies, shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria.


This is to “[ensure] that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few States or a few ethnic or other sectional groups in [those governments] or any of [their] agencies.”(3) Subsumed under the FCP are the principles of proportional representation and preferential treatment. These two aim at equality in political participation and access to social benefits such as employment and education on a territorial basis. On the political terrain, this implies respecting the FCP in the appointment of ministers, commissioners and the directors of government agencies in accordance with Sections 147 (3), 171 (5), 192 (2) and 197 (2) of the 1999 Constitution.

These provisions have been substantially respected since 1999. Their continued application is vital to the management of various forms of identity-based conflicts, especially as they relate to ethnic sub‑nationalities, administrative territorial delimitations and religious cleavages. However, these mechanisms enshrined in the Nigerian constitution do not fully account for the relative stability that Nigeria has been experiencing for a little over a decade now. More particularly, they do not fully explain the basis of agreement between regional elites concerning their effective participation at the federal level of government.

It is important to note that politics in Nigeria is not just a game of numbers which ought to represent the aggregate of individual desires of voters. In fact, Nigerian politics is mostly characterised by clientelism, a form of instrumentalised and unequal symbiotic relationship between a political patron and his clients/protégés.(4) Clientelism and its variants predispose Nigeria’s formal processes to manipulation and circumvention by political elites, thus leading to institutional dysfunction and slow pace of development.(5)

As such, each segment of regional elites seems to exercise an overarching control over electoral and political outcomes in their various jurisdictions. This has an extensive impact on national politics. With this kind of regional control, the capacity of regional elites to mobilise their people for or against the Central Government cannot be underestimated. It should, therefore, be reasonably expected that the satisfaction of the personal interest of regional elites go a long way in contributing to the stability (or instability) of national politics.

The problem that naturally flows from this premise is to determine what mechanisms adequately ensure the participation of regional elites, thereby providing the much-needed stability. In this regard, the constitutional framework for identity balancing as presented above is further reinforced by some extra-constitutional norms that render it more intelligible and more practical for political actors and analysts. One such extra-constitutional framework is the principle of ‘zoning’, which implies a consensus sharing of political posts among regional elites.

This appears to be a variant of the consociative principle of elite coalition and ‘proportional representation’ as elaborated by Arend Lijphart.(6) An offshoot of this formula, and equally the most sensitive, is ‘rotational presidency’, which ensures the rotation of power between the northern (Muslim dominated) and the southern (Christian dominated) regions of Nigeria.

Zoning and rotation in the Nigerian context

Article 21 of the internal rules and regulations of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) (which was the ruling party at that time) introduced zoning into Nigerian politics during the second Republic (1979 – 1983).(7) In the fourth Republic, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has been in power since 1999, retained this practice internally. The practical operation of zoning demands that key positions, such as that of the president of the Republic, the vice-president, the senate president and his vice, the speaker of the House of Representatives and his deputy, the secretary to the Government of the Federation, be occupied by people from different States and geopolitical zones. It must be noted that this mechanism appears in neither the 1979 nor the 1999 constitutions. Though both analysts and politicians are divided on the constitutionality of zoning and rotation, it may be argued that if well managed, they are desirable for the sake of peace and stability.

The continued practice of zoning in the fourth Republic underscores the long negotiations and compromises between regional elites in view of general elections, mostly at the federal level. The principle was substantially respected during the 2011 general elections. With the president of the Federation being a Christian from the South-South geopolitical zone, political elites went ‘shopping’ among northern governors for a Muslim Vice-president, who eventually emerged from the North-West geopolitical zone. In line with this president/vice-president formation, the president of the Senate emerged from North-Central, while his counterpart from the House of Representatives came from the North-West. Based on these, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) was subsequently appointed from the South-East.(8) It is also in accordance with this inter-elite arrangement that President Goodluck Jonathan made ministerial nominations for his administration.

On the other hand, rotational, as the name implies, concerns mostly the position of the president of the Federation. To a reasonable extent, the same principle is applicable at the state and LGA levels. The practice of rotational presidency requires that when, for example, a president is a Muslim from the northern region, the vice president should almost automatically be a Christian from the South, and vice versa. Most importantly, at the end of the tenure of a president from a particular region, the usual expectation is that the next one should be from the other region.

In the mid-90s, the military regime of Late General Sani Abach considered the formal inclusion of this principle into the transition constitution to democracy based on six geo-political zones. Though not included in the 1999 Constitution on the return to a civilian regime, the PDP adopted it as part of its internal rules and regulation.(9) The formula was practically applied as from 1999 under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, a South-Western Christian, with his vice being Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a North-Eastern Muslim. At the end of their two-term tenure in 2007, the next president was late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a North-Western Muslim, with his vice being Goodluck Jonathan, a South-Southern Christian. Indeed, it was out of respect for this extra-constitutional framework that at the death of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in May 2010 when Jonathan took over power by default, he had to ‘shop’ from among the northern Governors for his deputy.

Though this policy was a formal rule within the PDP, other political parties have come to appreciate its expedience in the management of the North/South dichotomy in Nigerian politics. Accordingly, they have also adopted similar formulae in the selection of their various presidential candidates and their running mates, as was seen in the 2011 general elections.

Suspended nationalism

Now, we must not fail to underline the side effect of zoning and rotational presidency on nationalist outlook in Nigeria. In fact, one may argue that instead of helping to mould Nigeria into a united nation, zoning and rotation are rather hardening socio-cultural cleavages on political and territorial grounds. This is further complicated with the application of the Federal Character Principle, which lays undue emphasis on the State of region in recruitment and admission processes into federal public institutions. On the joint effect of FCP and the mobilisation of clientelist networks and money, Chris Willot rightly pointed out that they create frustration and resentment in the mind of non-beneficiaries.(10) This makes it almost impossible for regions to have a real sense of belonging and to share a common interest in national affaires, in a spirit devoid of ethnic and regional chauvinism.

One should also note that the Constitution requires that political parties no longer be formed along ethnic divides (as was the case during the first Republic). However, the introduction of zoning in the various internal rules and regulations of most parties in the fourth Republic could be interpreted as a major obstacle to the reduction of ethno-regional chauvinism. In the end, the continued application of these two mechanisms may be counterproductive for the very stability that they were meant to ensure. These elements of intra-party divisions and suspended formation of a national consciousness begs the question of the desirability and the acceptability of these extra-constitutional frameworks.

Contested legitimacy

It should be noted that the application of this two pronged formula has not been without contestation and violation in certain quarters. Though zoning has been generally successful since 1999, the same cannot be said about rotational presidency. In fact, this became apparent with the election of President Goodluck Jonathan, and is currently generating quite a stir among politicians and academics alike. Because of this, the upcoming general elections slated for 2015 appear unpredictable when compared with previous elections.

To better understand the workings of rotational presidency under the fourth Republic and how the political class regards its violation, the twilight of President Obasanjo’s administration could serve as a good point of departure. The Nigerian Constitution provides for a maximum of two-term tenures of four years each for the president and governors if they are re-elected at the end of their first tenure. Towards the end of Obasanjo’s second term, efforts were made to have the Constitution modified in order to make way for a possible third term or more. Within this period, Obasanjo’s public image fell into disrepute, especially among the Northerners. Likewise, he fell out of favour with some members of the political class as both insiders and outsiders, starting with Atiku, his vice, expressed their displeasure at his intention to run for a third term.

Similarly, his strategy was criticised by the majority of National Assembly members. Because of Obasanjo’s attempted manipulation of the Constitution, the National Assembly brought the Constitution reform process (which would have also dealt with some pressing social issues), to an abrupt halt on 16 May 2006. Despite the alleged large-scale electoral rigging that brought his northern successor, Musa Yar’Adua, to power, the public seemed rather satisfied with the fact that the power-sharing balance between the North and the South was maintained. As John Campbell, the former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, aptly noted, “…it was more important to get Obasanjo out and a Northerner into the presidency than to have a free, fair, and credible election.”(11)

At the untimely demise of Yar’Adua in 2010, and with the coming into power of Jonathan, subsequent political events seemed to call this extra-constitutional framework into question. Firstly, and based on the two-term presidency that Obasanjo enjoyed, the northern elites strongly believed that the North, under Yar’Adua, was entitled to eight years of presidency as well. Though they accepted the events that suddenly brought Jonathan into power as an actus Dei over which no one had any control, they perceived it as unjust for Jonathan, a Christian southerner, to contest the elections. This would of course shorten their entitlement under the rotational presidency framework. This feeling of being short-changed might have fuelled the violence in some northern cities that greeted the declaration of Jonathan’s victory at the 2011 presidential elections.(12)

At the moment, the controversy surrounding the continued presence of President Jonathan at Aso Rock (the presidential villa) is far from being resolved, as the information available from Nigerian media suggests that the internal crisis that the PDP is undergoing is partly a result of the violation of rotational presidency. Trouble started around September 2010, when Jonathan, not long after assuming office upon the death of Yar’Adua, declared that rotation and zoning did not apply to the office of the president of the Federation. This remark earned him the reproof of the two major Northern political pressure groups, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and the Northern Political Elders Forum (NPEF).(13) On the other hand, some others, mostly from southern Nigeria, were of the opinion that the idea of zoning and rotation were untenable as they were glaringly unconstitutional.(14)

As at today, the PDP crisis has unavoidably reanimated the public debate on rotational presidency. The Northern elites are alleging that, aside from the PDP’s internal rules on zoning and rotation, Jonathan had an agreement with them to preside over the Federation for a single term, and then to relinquish power to the North in 2015. This arrangement, if respected, would ensure that the North completes its eight years that was truncated by Yar’Adua’s death. However, since the beginning of 2013, there have been strong indications that Jonathan might contest for the presidency in 2015. Though he has not made any formal declaration on the issue, the media is awash with allegations from northern elites and some eminent politicians from the south that he intends to run for the presidency, come 2015. This was one of the major dust‑raising allegations contained in an 18-page letter written by former president Obasanjo to Jonathan on 2 December 2013.

In the face of all these political events, there has been an increase in the rate of reshuffling, decomposition and realignment within the political class. Though most people identify the non-respect of zoning and rotation as the underlying cause of these events, one cannot fail to wonder if political elites, who have been protecting or contesting the legitimacy, are truly serving the interest of their regions. It may be difficult to believe that they are not taking sides in the debate based on their self-serving interests at any given time, devoid of altruistic intentions for the masses.

Concluding remarks

The drama that has taken hold of the political stage in Nigeria has made it difficult to predict clearly what future zoning and the process of rotational presidency have in Nigerian politics. The 2015 general elections, with all the signs of unpredictability accompanying it, could largely determine the fate of these two mechanisms. Perhaps, this could be an opportunity to shift gradually away from a political system arbitrarily controlled by elites at the expense of the electoral collective. Furthermore, the PDP’s internal crisis, supposedly generated by zoning and rotational presidency, is gradually weakening its hegemony in Nigeria’s political space. As such, the reconfiguration that could follow this loss of hegemony may lead to a more balanced political contest among parties. The question that could arise then would be whether the nascent coalition of opposition parties would be able to offer an alternative arrangement or even a better management of ethno-regional representation in Nigeria’s national politics.

No matter the outcome of the 2015 elections in Nigeria, one can be sure that the next few years will offer an interesting reading on pluralist societies. Finally, in analysing the intrigues surrounding the operation of zoning and rotational presidency, one must not lose sight of the negative effects that these processes have had on the polity. They are contributing directly to the crystallisation of ethno-regional identities. The continued practice of these two mechanisms makes it difficult to give all the regions a sense of belonging in the nation. Furthermore, the constitutional requirement that all the political parties must have a pan-ethnic outlook has not succeeded in reducing the strength of ethnic and regional chauvinism. The combination of all these factors in the present circumstances makes the formation of inter-regional alliance quite daunting.

Written by Ndubueze O. Nkume-Okorie (1)


(1) Dr. Ndubueze O. Nkume-Okorie is a Research Associate with CAI, a researcher at Science Po Bordeaux, France, and a lawyer in Nigeria. Contact Ndubueze through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Elections and Democracy unit ( Edited by Liezl Stretton.
(2) Mustapha, A.R., 2006. “Ethnic structure, inequality and governance of the public sector in Nigeria”, in ‘Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme’. UNRISD Paper No. 24. UNRISD: Geneva; Ukwu, I.U. (ed.), 1987. Federal character and national integration in Nigeria. National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS): Kuru.
(3) Section 14 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
(4) Robinson, J.A., 2013. The political economy of clientelism. Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 115(2), pp. 260‑291.
(5) Ogundiya, I.S., 2009. Political corruption in Nigeria: Theoretical perspective and some explanations. The Anthropologist Journal, 11(4) pp. 281–292.
(6) Lijphart, A., 1977. Democracy in plural societies: A comparative exploration. Yale University Press: New Haven.
(7) Mustapha, A.R., 2006. “Ethnic structure, inequality and governance of the public sector in Nigeria”, in ‘Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme’. UNRISD Paper No. 24. UNRISD: Geneva, pp. 18–19.
(8) Cf. ‘Group cautions Jonathan over SGF appointment’, Vanguard Newspaper (Nigeria), 16 May 2011,
(9) See Article 7 (3) (c) of the Constitution of the People’s Democratic Party, 2012 (as amended).
(10) Willot, C., 2011. ‘Get to the bridge and I will help you cross’: Merits, personal connections and money in access to Nigerian higher education. Africa Spectrum, 46(1), pp. 85-105.
(11) Campbell, J., 2011. Nigeria: Dancing on the brink. Rowman & Littlefield Publisher Inc.: Maryland.
(12) ‘Nigeria’s elections: Reversing the degeneration?’, International Crisis Group Africa Briefing No. 79, 24 February 2011,
(13) ‘Arewa, Northern leaders lambast Jonathan’, Vanguard Newspaper (Nigeria), 29 September 2010,
(14) ‘2011 Presidency: N-Delta youths allege blackmail’, Vanguard Newspaper (Nigeria), 14 July 2010,; ‘Zoning of elective positions undemocratic, says Aminu’, Guardian Newspaper (Nigeria), 15 August 2013,


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