As Nigeria gradually inches toward another year of general election in 2023, there will continue to be surprises. Several alignment and re-alignment of forces would be seen in a country that politicians only think about themselves and go to any length to perpetuate themselves in power.
Since the return of the country to civil rule in 1999, politicians have continued to move from one political association to another.
For instance, many of the founding fathers of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that won the election in 1999 have either moved once or twice into other parties, or decided to stay “partyless”, like former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Big names like Barnabas Gemade, Audu Ogbeh, Jim Nwobodo, Orji Uzor Kalu have at one time or another divorced the party that they formed, on the platform of which they became many things.
Nigerians will not forget the mass defection in 2014 of many bigwigs in the then ruling party into the then newly formed All Progressives Congress (APC). The exit of such political heavyweights exposed the PDP to a disastrous defeat in the 2015 general election.
Interestingly, a number of the defectors, again, defected back to the PDP shortly before the 2019 general election. So, in Nigeria, politicians have always practiced “shifting cultivation” whenever it comes to protecting their political interest.
It is usual to hear them give awful reasons for their defection. For instance, when Godswill Akpabio, a former governor of Akwa Ibom State and now minister of Niger Delta Affairs, left the PDP, he said the party did not recognise his worth. Recently, when Yakubu Dogara, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, dumped the party he joined shortly before the 2019 general election, he said it was because he could be misunderstood if he started pointing out things that needed to be corrected in his home state.
Ahead of the next round of elections in 2019, some politicians have already started to make deft moves to position themselves for some bigger than what they are holding now.
For a very long time now, there have been speculations that Governor Samuel Ortom, who moved from the APC to PDP, was planning to go back to where he came from. He has denied this severally, and vehemently too.
Not long ago, the governor, who won his second term on the platform of the PDP, said he declined the invitation of joining the APC after being contacted by some notable persons.
Before he confirmed last week the rumours that he was joining the APC, Governor Dave Umahi had denied profusely whenever the matter came up.
Like others who were said to have blackmailed the PDP in their quest to move out, Umahi dragged the umbrella association’ name in the mud, as it were.
Umahi’s controversial reason for decampment
Umahi had at a press conference in Abakaliki, said he dumped the PDP for the APC to protest perceived injustice and marginalisation of the South-east by his former party.
Umahi insisted that he would continue to agitate for the interest of the South-east in and out of office, saying that he had decided to become the “sacrificial lamb” that would be crucified for the interest and good of the South-east as a zone.
He added that he was not driven by selfish reasons, noting that he had since 2019 started the agitation for South-East presidency and that the zone must get it right now or else wait for another couple of years to get such opportunity again.
“I want to clear the air that I never sought (for) the PDP presidential ticket and I will not. So, whoever said that I moved to APC because they refused to zone the ticket to me is being very mischievous.
“Even if PDP promises somebody a presidential ticket, how does it work where over 8000 delegates will be voting. And such promises cannot happen with more than 10 or 20 people so people are being very mischievous about that,” he said
“It is absurd that from 1999 to 2023, the South-East will never be considered to run for presidency under the PDP. And this is my position and will continue to be my position. It had nothing to do with me or my ambition”.
But PDP dismissed Umahi’s action, describing it as selfish, insisting that it would not be arm-twisted into making a decision on the zoning of its presidential ticket for the 2023 general election.
The party’s National Working Committee (NWC) also quickly dissolved its South-east Zonal Caretaker Committee headed by Umahi’s brother, and the Executive Committees at the ward, local government and state levels in Ebonyi.
PDP reiterated its position that it is premature to allot the party’s ticket to any of the six geopolitical zones as the party needs to engage in consultations with all of its critical stakeholders to arrive at such a decision.
The PDP National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan said the party would not be intimidated with the reported defection of the governor, stressing that the PDP is a well-structured political party that usually decides issues based on consensus.
Ologbondiyan, said: “Our party thanks Governor Umahi for services rendered to the people of Ebonyi State, as the state chairman of Ebonyi PDP (2003 to 2007); deputy governor of Ebonyi State (2007 to 2015) and two-term governor of Ebonyi (2015 till date), all elected on the platform of the PDP.
“As we wish Governor Umahi all the best in his adventure, we call on the members of our party to remain calm and committed to the ideals of our party as no individual is bigger than the PDP.”
But if Ologbondiyan was diplomatic in his handling of the issue, Nyesom Wike, Rivers State governor, was not.
He was not ready to entertain any shenanigan, pointing out that Umahi’s quest to be the APC presidential candidate and not alleged injustice against the South-east by the PDP was the reason for his defection.
Wike said PDP members were not surprised by Umahi’s defection to the APC because he had been fraternising with the ruling party for a while, adding that he felt offended by his attempt to justify his decision on the purported injustice against the South-east by the PDP.
“My friend Umahi wants to be president. There is no problem with that. You have a right to be president. Nobody can stop you. You are educated. You have been a governor for two terms, so you are qualified to say I want to be president of Nigeria. But that does not mean that because you want to blackmail your party and tell lies to the people you are leaving the party because of the injustice meted against the South-east, that is not correct,” Wike said.
Speaking in the same vein, the PDP Caucus in the National Assembly dismissed the major reason given by Umahi for defecting from the PDP to the APC that the PDP has not been fair to the people of the South East on the issue of zoning the Presidency and Vice Presidency.
The Caucus led by Sam Egwu, a former governor of Ebonyi said: “While we support that it is the turn of the South East to fly the Presidential flag of any of the major political parties come 2023, yet we consider it impolitic, indecent and unwise to give ultimatum and conditionalities in a bid to secure zoning.
“Indeed, if there is any Ebonyi person who should remain eternally grateful to the PDP, that individual ought to be Governor David Umahi; a man who was appointed the Ebonyi State Chairman of the PDP, made deputy governor of a PDP administration, and was elected for two terms under the banner of the PDP. As governor, his two younger brothers were elected to principal offices of the PDP; one (Mr. Augustine Umahi) as the National Vice Chairman (South East) and another (Mr. Maxwell Umahi) as the Deputy State Chairman of the PDP.”
According to Egwu, “As democrats, we concede Chief Umahl’s right to join any political association of his choice. However, as Federal lawmakers we are not unaware of the Supreme Court decision that candidates are products of political parties. What it means is that political office holders are not at liberty to migrate from one political platform to another, particularly when there is no division in their party.”
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, a minority leader in the Senate, representing Abia Central Senatorial district, was amused at Umahi’s claim that he was bringing the South East into the mainstream politics through his defection.
Abaribe, who spoke on a national television programme, chided the governor for blackmailing the PDP just to find a reason to justify his action, the same way Akpabio did.
He said that events that would unfold as the country inches closer to 2023 would prove Umahi right or wrong.
While PDP may be crying foul, APC is celebrating the netting of a big fish in Umahi through the governors of the party under the banner of the Progressive Governors Forum (PGF) welcomed him into its fold.
Chairman of the Forum and Governor of Kebbi State, Abubakar Bagudu, said: “We celebrate the decision of Chief Umahi as a testament to our party’s capacity to mobilise all Nigerians. The vision of the founding fathers of our legacy parties is for the APC to serve as a platform to unite all Nigerians under a progressive umbrella. With Chief Umahi now in APC, the vision is further reinforced and shall contribute to the process of membership and leadership recruitment at all levels.”
Orji Uchenna Orji, commissioner for information, Ebonyi State, said the people of the state were happy with the development despite the decision of the serving senators from the state not to move with him. Orji said people were entitled to their opinion.
Lessons for PDP
However, amidst the intrigues over the Ebonyi Governor’s defection, what is clear is that it may be a sign of deeper crack in the PDP and could also signal more trouble ahead for the party if the leadership does not move quickly to put its house in order in some states’ chapters in the country.
Perhaps, a similar situation is playing out in the South-west where the party is apparently heading toward a crisis ahead 2023. Presently, Ayo Fayose a former governor of Ekiti State with support from some state chairmen and party leaders is parading himself as the leader of the party in the region.
Presently, there is a division in the PDP in the South-west with some chapters being led by two camps with Fayose spearheading an attempt to hijack the party in the region from Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde.
Observers say that the party leadership under the control of Uche Secondus is not doing enough to resolve these crises before they get out of hand.
Meanwhile, what has become clear is that the party leadership cannot continue to ignore the lingering agitations for zoning of the presidential ticket to the South-east.
There is also the fear in some quarters that just like Umahi, more prominent leaders could dump the PDP in the South East, including the two remaining governors of the party, who are said to be standing on one leg in PDP, if the question over zoning of the presidency is not resolved quickly and amicable by the party leadership.
Although it may appear too early to begin talking of zoning the 2023 presidential ticket, observers say that the party needs to adopt a more strategic method of managing the issue in view of its sensitivity.
“Well, whatever you say, Umahi has a right to defect to any party he wants, it is his decision, the PDP has also benefited from Godwin Obaseki moving to their party recently from the APC. But I think the PDP cannot also ignore the clamour from the people of that region that they want the presidential ticket. They should not forget that they have always been for the PDP and voted for them; so, for how long would they deny them that ticket?” Wale Ogunade, political Analyst said.
Ogunade further warned that continued silence by the PDP leaders was an indication that the region would be denied the presidential ticket.
“I just think the PDP chairman and the party leaders should act fast to prevent more defections, because the body language now among PDP leaders seems that they do not want to zone the position to the South East,” he added.
Since it was formed in 1998, the South-east has not gotten the presidential ticket of the PDP, which ruled Nigeria for 16 years, beginning from the Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration on the advent of the present Fourth Republic in 1999 and culminating in the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration which was defeated in the 2015 presidential election by the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari.
But after the presidency had rotated among the two other major ethnic groups, there is the feeling among leaders of the region that 2023 was the turn of the Igbos.
Adeola Adeoye, an analyst, however, thinks that Governor Umahi defected to the APC based on his personal ambition, stressing that the South-east region had not been badly treated by the PDP.
According to him, “Dave Umahi’s defection to the APC is on his personal ground and not because of any marginalisation of the Igbos as he claimed. There have been so many gains by the Igbos in the PDP since 1999 and for them to get the presidential ticket, there must be political collaborations with other regions, and this has nothing to do with political parties at this stage.
“PDP and APC are not the only party that they can build a structure to win the Presidential election; we have APGA, ADP and others that can serve the purpose.
“Going by what he said, it must be noted that his state, which produces less votes amongst states in the South East during national elections, have benefitted more than other states in that region. They’ve produced a National Chairman and Senate President in the same PDP he is trying to blackmail to justify his defection to the APC.”
Adeoye further said: “Politicians tend to be very ungrateful sometimes, to the political platform that gave them the leverage to become what they have become; whenever they want to achieve another interest, that is when they begin to cook up all sorts of conspiracies.
“His defection to me cannot affect his erstwhile party. The APC he is going to hoping they will give him the Presidential ticket, as popularly rumoured, is likely to be a tall dream.
“The gladiators he will be meeting in APC won’t fold their arms, while a new comer like him will be handed the ticket. The absolute fact is that the governor is not popular in the South-east region to merit taking any position on behalf of the Igbos.
“Except there are other genuine reasons for his defection, no party has spoken about zoning of its ticket ahead of the 2023 election, so the Igbos will not fall into the trap of one man trying to advance his political career, by trying to use the Igbo presidency as an excuse”.
An insider speaks
A prominent member of the PDP has said that Governor Umahi’s defection, though was not unexpected, has taken the leadership of the party back to the drawing board ahead of 2023.
“I must tell you straightaway that the development in Ebonyi, South East geopolitical zone, has raised a lot of questions at the highest leadership level of our great party. Yes, it is too premature to say what happens in 2022 and 2023; I tell you we are not oblivious of the signs. We are hearing loudly, the drumbeats of 2023, and as politicians we are not asleep, the party leader said, asking not to be named.