2023 Guber: The Raging Debate Over Zoning In Cross River

In Breaking News, Politics

By Nsa Gill, The Nation Newspaper

As preparations for the 2023 general election continue to gather steam, one issue being widely discussed across the length and breadth of Cross River State is the issue of zoning, writes Nsa Gill.

The next general elections are still more than a year away but stakeholders in Cross River State are already debating which zone of the state should produce the next governor upon the expiration of Governor Ben Ayade’s second term in 2023. Across the various zones in the state, the argument for and against zoning is now deafening. Among those who have spoken out in recent times on the matter are the three senators currently representing the state in the National Assembly. They have all added their voices directly or indirectly, to the raging debate.

According to Senator Gershom Bassey, representing the Southern Senatorial zone, “Zoning is about equity and a moral persuasion, which I believe is now due to the South. But if other zones feel otherwise, I’m prepared to contest at the primaries and general elections against anybody. It amuses me to hear insinuations that the south is not prepared, the south is lazy, and the south is broke and does not have the financial muscle to run an election.”

He revealed that in the run up to the 2015 election, a resolution passed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) caucus, which included Governor Ben Ayade back then as leader of the PDP in the state, zoned the 2023 PDP ticket to the south. “One leg of that resolution was zoning the gubernatorial seat to the North in 2015. Now, the 2nd leg is zoning the seat to the South and this must also be implemented.”

He argued further that the Nigerian constitution, the PDP constitution as well as the All Progressive Congress (APC) constitution, all provide for equity and fairness in the nomination of candidates for election and appointment. Therefore, the continued rotation of the governorship seat to the Cross River South Senatorial District by all political parties in Cross River State is the way forward in 2023,” he said.

He however added that, “the South does not depend on zoning and I do not depend on zoning. I am ready to match anybody from anywhere regardless of their zone. I have the guts and the grassroots support in every community and every zone across the State, to run the gubernatorial race. I have what it takes.” The senator, who is rumoured to be strongly interested in fighting for the 2023 PDP governorship ticket is said to be revving up his political structures across the state.

Another person with reported interest in the race for the PDP ticket is the Senator representing the Central senatorial zone, Sandy Onor. The Director General of his Campaign Organisation, Joe Obi has clearly argued that nobody should talk about zoning in the state for 2023. According to him, it is a fact that the three senatorial zones in the state have all produced governors for the state. For him, merit should take prominence. The next governor of the state can come from any of the zones. Besides, the race in the state has always had candidates across the senatorial zones. There has never been zoning; he further argued.

The third senator, Sen. Jerigbe Agom Jerigbe has also not been silent on the matter. He is believed to be in league with the governorship aspiration of Sen. Sandy Onor who is believed to have given him support in the successful prosecution of his senatorial election battle, legally, financially and politically. Jerigbe said, “God gave me the grace to clinch the Senate seat by conquest, not through zoning. Some of those who fought against me and the zoning to Ogoja, are now crusaders of Zoning. You all forgot that Ogoja never had an opportunity of producing a Senator before I fought and emerged, against all odds.”

“Anyone who wants to be Governor of Cross River State in 2023should get into the field and prove his or her worth to the electorates. That includes even the North of Cross River State. Power is not donated to anyone or group. I am not an ethnic jingoist but a crusader of good governance and effective representation. No one can have his cake and eat it. Let us get practical in the field. What if Senator Owan Enoh had defeated Governor Ayade in 2019?  What if Dr. Etim Nyong had defeated Governor Imoke in 2007?  Let’s tell ourselves the truth; it has always been by conquest, except in 2015, when Governor Imoke had to go out of his way, to limit the aspirants for governorship to the North of Cross River State, on the platform of PDP and other political  parties followed  that direction,” he said.

An APC chieftain in the state, Chief Okoi Obono Obla, a former aide to President MuhammaduBuhari, has also given his views. He cited former governor Donald Duke’s view “Now that Donald Duke has spoken the truth that he was not elected governor based on zoning or terms of the so-called Calabar/Ogoja Accord, I urge proponents of zoning to give us a break. Whether from Cross River South, Cross River Central and Cross River North, everybody that thinks that they have what it takes to be governor, should step into the arena.

“It will afford the electorate an opportunity to assess their manifesto, programs, and road map, and judge them accordingly by voting for any candidate. The electorate can give us a clean break in the State. This is what democracy is all about; freedom of choice, competitiveness.” He reiterated that he commends “the honesty, broad-mindedness, statesmanship, and integrity of Mr. Donald Duke on this issue, which has become somewhat controversial.”

The Nation gathered that the decision to cede power to the North by the PDP, was arrived at with a spirit of give and take, and in keeping faith with the reality of fairness and equity. At that expanded caucus meeting of the main political party at the time (PDP), the South made a proviso that since they were being asked to shelve their right to contest the office of governor for 16 years, power should rotate sequentially to them at the end of the North’s sojourn. It was unanimously endorsed and all the southern contenders had to drop their ambition immediately and support the northern ones. The main opposition at the time (APC) followed suit.

According to Arch Bassey Ndem “Subsequently, the South rejected attempts to lure them to support efforts to impeach the incumbent as they knew this was unfair and would bring chaos to the zoning arrangement. It is not surprising, however, that today, many are bringing up specious arguments like “zoning by elimination, or “all zones have had a go so it can start anywhere” to justify their attempt at advancing their selfish political interests. We must persuade such elements not to try to upset the applecart even if “all is fair in love and war”. For, it may favor them today but be a regrettable move for their youth, who are growing, and would be ready to smoothly take up the mantle of leadership in a few years, but have to pay for the sins of their fathers’ betrayal.”

“Zoning and sequential Rotation of political offices, from ward to federal level, ensures that no single group monopolizes any office and further guarantees the rights of minorities to ascend to the highest office. The onus is now on all the political parties to ensure that the senatorial district, whose turn it is to occupy an office, puts forward its very best materials for the rest of the state to elect and rally around. After all, the policies and actions of whoever is elected will affect all of us and not only members of his Senatorial District or political party.”

But opponents of the zoning argument say there is nothing like zoning in the politics of today’s Cross River State. The only agreement which exists, they claim, is the Calabar/Ogoja , which was reached in 1980 between the two regions as they were then, in the old Cross River state. The Ogoja divide at the time is the region now existing as Akwa Ibom State. In 1987 Akwa Ibom State was created and the geographical area that was Calabar-Ogoja became three senatorial zones of Southern, Central and northern zones under Cross River State.

In 1999 when democratic dispensation came up, the struggle was not really about zoning. It was a contest both at the parties’ primary level and at the general election. Eventually, Donald Duke emerged as governor. He served two terms and faced challenges from other zones at the time he wanted a second term which he eventually got. The choice for Duke’s successor in 2007 was not exclusive to other zones besides the southern zone which Duke comes from. There were candidates across the three senatorial zones and Liyel Imoke from the Central senatorial zone eventually emerged as governor.

Imoke served for two terms but at the twilight of his administration, the agitation was high that it is only natural, fair, just and equitable to allow candidates from the northern senatorial district to present themselves for election by the electorate. In fact Imoke made a public declaration in Ogoja in 2014 that an unwritten rotation of Governorship had been on and it’s the turn of the north to succeed him from the central in 2015. That was the development which led to the emergence of Governor Ben Ayade who will complete his second and final tenure in 2023.

When Ayade wanted a second term in 2019, the people of the south had the option of supporting Ayade for a second term in office or supported the then candidate of the APC Sen. John Owan-Enoh who was formidable and had promised to govern the state better. Even Governor Ayade saw a potent threat to his second term chance and he opened up to a discussion and an unwritten agreement with some stakeholders from the southern senatorial district to the effect that if the south supports his re-election, it will strengthen his resolve and support to see his successor come from the south in 2023.

That unwritten agreement of Governor Ayade in 2018 we reliably gathered, was reached at the residence of High-Chief Asuquo Ekpeyong with stakeholders from the Northern Senatorial District who worked on the re-election of Governor Ayade, in attendance. They include Chief Linus Okom (now Late), Chief JIC Igbe, Mike Aniah, Madam Theresa Ezama and Brigadier General Anthony Ukpo (now late). On the side of the South during the said November 10th, 2018 meeting, were Arc. Bassey Ndem, Amb. Nkoyo Toyo, HRH. Etim Okon Edet, Chief Gershom Davis, Prof. Stella Atoe, Mba Ukewni (SAN), among others.

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