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The Zero Sum Election by AKIN OSUNTOKUN


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Politics is inherently conflict-ridden with a dual and
contradictory potential to either serve as a conflict
resolution mechanism or generate a momentum for the
escalation of conflict to crisis and ultimately to catastrophe.
The election of Barack Obama, the first African-American,
to the office of the President of the United States of
America (USA) is unique and indicative in several respects.
It was a veritable indication of how far America has gone in
functional socio-political integration and positive adaptation
of social diversity. Yet it equally brought in its wake the
manifestation of the negative potential of politics to serve
as a predictor and harbinger of conflict and crisis.
By any standard, Obama is a distinguished political leader –
a distinction made more enhanced by the manifest
resilience he has been able to muster to grapple with the
self-destructive disposition of the Republican Party
leadership towards his presidency.
Repeatedly the point was made by the Republicans that they
were prepared to ground the American economy to a halt, if
that is what it takes to ensure the failure of Obama. And the
bad news is that it is a disposition shared by a large swathe
of the Western Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP)
A valid interpretation of this tendency is that the election of
Obama harbours a higher potential of zero sum definition of
American politics than previous presidential elections; and
explanations for this tendency will be found in those
features that make Obama uniquely intolerable and
unacceptable to his political opponents. And contrary to the
postulations of modernisation theory, the peculiar revelation
that emerged therefrom is that tribalism (racism) dies hard
in the advanced American democracy.
Such zero sum (winner takes all) political situations are
generally marked by the indisposition of the winners and
losers towards compromise and consensus building. The
higher the degree of this negative tendency the greater the
vulnerability to conflict and crisis. The ominous clouds of
crisis gather in direct proportion to the accentuation of
cleavages and divisions (cultural, religious, ideological and
ethno regional) operative within the polity under

The countervailing balance of terror threats issued by rival
regional claimants to Aso Rock villa in the 2015 elections
(the Niger Delta warlords and the up North protagonists of
rendering Nigeria ungovernable) is an expression of a
mentality that is unable to contemplate and accept the
possibility of losing the  election.
Such a loss is perceived in unbearable absolute terms and
provokes the nihilistic despair of having no stake in the
preservation and stability of the political system. To
illustrate, I call to witness the lesson of Nigerian elections
since 1959 and the extent to which they individually lend
themselves to the applicability of the zero sum
The 1959 elections were characterised by four mitigating
factors. Frist is the shared nationalist aspiration for political
independence from Britain – never mind the quibbling over
the appropriate time the independence would take effect.
Second is the supervision and guidance of the process by
the colonial masters and the concomitant consciousness of
bearing responsibility for its success or failure. Third was
the Africa-wide ‘revolution of rising expectations’.
Fourth was the utility of the prescribed federalism and
parliamentary system of governance. The federal
constitution was designed in such a manner as to minimise
the attraction of the centre and thereby preclude
desperation in the bid to attain power at the federal
government level.
The supremacist factional crisis within the governing party,
Action Group (AG), in the Western Region that ensued in
1962, set the tone for the desperation that characterised the
regional and federal elections of 1964/65. The political
situation in the Western Region had attained the tipping
point proportions of winner takes all and loser loses all
between the federal government-backed Akintola faction
and the Obafemi Awolowo faction – hence the culmination
of the crisis in the catastrophe of the coup and counter
coup of 1966, and ultimately the civil war.
The 1979 elections and the transition of power from military
rule to civil democratic dispensation generally followed the
pattern of the 1959 precedent – save the presence of the
safety valves of meaningful federalism and parliamentary
system of government. The consequential area of overlap
was the similar exercise of superintending authority and
guidance over the process; and the (dictatorship) latitude to
enforce compliance.
In the womb of the military rule prescribed presidential
system of government and attenuated federalism was sown
the seed of a zero sum degeneration of the political system.
Whatever its merits, the inherent winner takes all
connotation of the presidential system of government
renders it singularly vulnerable to the zero sum dysfunction.
And the argument was succinctly captured in the remarks
of President Goodluck Jonathan at the occasion of the
peace accord ceremony in Abuja the other day.
Inter alia he said: “The winner takes all syndrome is a
problem. Based on our laws, we should come up with a
concept that will work. We should make it that when a party
wins at the state or national level, in forming the cabinet,
parties that performed very well should by law and not by
privilege, be made part of that government. If politicians
know they will still be part of the government, when they are
campaigning, they will be mindful of their utterances.”
What the president was canvassing here is the antidote
utility of the concept of proportional representation – ‘an
electoral system in which seats in a legislature are awarded
to each party on the basis of its share of the popular vote’.
The self-evident utility of proportional representation is the
capacity to foster among all contending parties a vested
interest in the survival and stability of the political system.
Four years into the Second Republic, the general election of
1983 was marred by the trademark desire of ruling political
parties in the Third World to muzzle and flagellate rival
political parties. This was no less the case with the
interaction between the ruling National Party of Nigeria
(NPN) and the vocal opposition parties, particularly the
Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The pursuit of the winner
takes all ambition correspondingly resulted in the escalation
of the crisis that culminated in the subsequent opportunistic
intervention of the military.

In terms of the potential to attain to successful conclusion,
the 1993 presidential election was guaranteed to follow suit
the 1959 and the 1979 precedent. In other words, the
military mentor was similarly placed and positioned to
ensure success and compliance if he were that disposed.
The presidential election of 1999 was deliberately and
specifically designed to be consensual and preclude any
zero sum colouration. It was contrived as a national
reconciliation mechanism – with the appeasement of the
South-west as the core element. For the South-west and
Nigeria in general, it was a unique instance of heads you
win, tails you do not lose. There was the intriguing
spectacle of reducing the presidential election to a Yoruba
particularistic contest – between Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu
Falae of the PDP and APP respectively.
The introduction and tacit acceptance of the zoning and
rotation of power principle was a specific response to the
need to foster and sustain the political consensus formula
that ushered in the Fourth Republic. Predicated on a time
specific rotation of the presidency among the six geo-
political zones, it represented the semblance of an
assurance that within a specific time frame, all the zones
would be winners. Former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme
proposed the clincher of six incumbent vice-presidents
corresponding to the six zones and he was proven
The zoning formula did not anticipate the non-completion of
two terms tenure for any incumbent president – either by
reason of being defeated at the bid for re-election or exit by
reason of incapacitation and death. At the root of the
present crisis of political succession is this error of
The probability is that if the late President Umaru Mus
Yar’Adua had survived his illness and recovered his health,
he would have been re-elected and fulfilled the zoning
allotment for the North-west zone; and there would have be
no zoning disruptive transfer of power to the South-south
zone. There is now no denying the desperation that hovers
over the forthcoming presidential election – complete with
all the trappings of the winner takes all and loser loses all
The two presidential candidates, Goodluck Jonathan of the
PDP and Muhammadu Buhari of the APC respectively, have
conducted themselves with decorum and decency on the
rostrums and may not be held liable for the inevitable
recourse to negative campaigns of their supporters – the
degree may vary but it is a worldwide sub culture. Yet the
two candidates have failed in the correct identification and
prioritisation of the task ahead.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, the foremost
challenge that faces whoever is elected president is not
fighting corruption or winning the war on Boko Haram –
important as they are. It is going to be the challenge of
draining the poison of divisiveness and incipient fratricidal
bloodletting (on industrial scale) from the system.
It is going to be the challenge of sustaining Nigeria as a
corporate entity. It is going to be the challenge of
reconciling the Niger Delta militants and the Northern
warlords (of rendering Nigeria ungovernable) with one
another and with the rest of Nigeria. You have got to have a
nation first before you can hope to successfully fight
corruption and Boko Haram.
If we have not learnt any lesson from the seeming
intractability of the Boko Haram insurgency, we should at
least know that divisions and suspicions within the Nigerian
military is a crucial factor in the elusiveness of victory over
the terrorist army. A house divided against itself cannot
stand. It is of little consolation getting wise after the event
but it was true then as it is now that the Fourth Republic
should have been predicated on a foundational national
conference as proposed by the NADECO opposition
If the idea of restructuring – generating national conference –
was crucial before the elections, it is certain to become of
urgent imperative after the 14th of February election. To
avoid this response is to live in denial and opt for the
strategy of postponing the evil day; see no evil, hear no evil.
May the good Lord give us the president who can heal the

Article originally featured on This Day

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