Akwa Ibom’s Long Walk to the Presidency

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Governor Udom Emmanuel’s entry into the presidential race, coupled with the expected entry of his predecessor, Senator Godswill Akpabio, could bring to a closure Akwa Ibom’s long-running quest for Nigeria’s top job, a journey which began almost three decades ago, if any of them wins

By Inemesit Ina

“I want to assure Nigerians who believe in our capacity that we won’t fail. Once you set deliverables and achieve them, it is not a one-man show. We all made it happen. You had faith and trust in our capacity by choosing me out of 200 million Nigerians. I do not take it for granted. I also want to believe that whatever we will achieve as a country can never be a one-man show. We need to join hands together to get it right in 2023. We also call for equity, justice and fair play in the process of producing the next leaders.”

  • Akwa Ibom State Governor Udom Emmanuel while receiving his PDP presidential nomination form last week

Governor Udom Gabriel Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State is now fully in the presidential race of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). On Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Uyo, the Governor confirmed speculations about his ambition, which began in December, last year, when he received the nomination form bought for him by Berekete Radio. The Abuja-based human rights’ radio had purchased the form the previous week at the PDP National Headquarters in Abuja.

Unlike the Governor, the Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio, is yet to confirm his presidential ambition. But, from all indications, he is running. Since the middle of last year, some groups have been seeking to draft him into the race. Things got so intense at a point, nearly setting him on collision course with some powerful forces within his party, the All Progressives’ Congresses (APC), that he had to publicly caution them. Palpably, they refused to give up.

Now, it appears he has given in. The convener of a coalition of 65 groups, Dr. Jibril Tafida, announced that the coalition converged on Wednesday, last week, in Kano where they drummed support and also raised over N100 million for Akpabio’s ambition.

Udom and Akpabio, his predecessor, are easily the biggest Akwa Ibom politicians at the national level today, with control of their respective parties at the state level.

Their interest in the presidency ends a 15-year hiatus of Akwa Ibom from presidential contests. If any of them wins, it would bring to an historic closure, Akwa Ibom’s pursuit of the presidency which began 29 years ago.

Always Running in Pairs

It seems it has become a tradition that two aspirants must emerge from Akwa Ibom whenever the state has interest in the nation’s top job. Udom and Akpabio are innocuously following this tradition.

The legendary former Military Governor of the old South-Eastern State (now Akwa Ibom and Cross River States), late Chief Udoakaha Jacob Esuene, from Eket Local Government Area (LGA), and the former Managing Director of ICON Limited (Merchant Bankers) and later of Century Merchant Bank (both defunct), Otuekong Ime Ekop Ebong, from Itu LGA, blazed the trail for other Akwa Ibom politicians in January 1993 during the Transition Programme of the then Military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. Esuene and Ebong were the two presidential candidates chosen by the Akwa Ibom State chapters of the two parties existent then, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), after stiff contests. They went ahead to compete with their counterparts from the 29 other states existent then at the national conventions of their parties held in Jos and Port Harcourt, respectively. Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, from Ogun State, and Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, from Kano State, both deceased, won the nomination of the two parties.

During the subsequent Transition Programme of the Head of State, late General Sani Abacha, two presidential aspirants again emerged from Akwa Ibom in 1996. They were two first class engineering graduates of the prestigious Imperial College, London, Atuekong Donatus Obot Etiebet, from Oruk Anam LGA, and Chief Edet James Amana, from Urue Offong/Oruko LGA. Etiebet almost single-handedly formed and funded the National Centre Party of Nigeria (NCPN), one of the five registered parties then, while Amana was one of the founders and State Leader of the United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP), Abacha’s favourite party. Both men were, however, forced to scale down their ambitions to the Senate after harassment, including brief detention in 1997, by the regime of Abacha who wanted to transmute to a civilian President.

In the aftermath of Abacha’s death in June 1998, they revived their ambitions during the Transition Programme of the succeeding Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar. Etiebet ran for the PDP ticket while Amana sought the ticket of the All Peoples’ Party (APP) in January 1999. The PDP, the APP, and the Alliance for Democracy (AD) were the three registered parties then.

General (later Chief) Matthew Olusegun Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo (retd.), from Ogun State, won the PDP ticket in a contest adjudged by all as free and fair. Etiebet finished third behind Obasanjo and Second Republic Vice President Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme (Anambra State) at the first PDP National Convention held in Jos. Other aspirants were Alabo Tonye Graham-Douglas (Rivers State), Chief (later Senator) James Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo (Enugu State), Chief Phillip Chukwuedo Asiodu (Delta State) and late Senator Francis John Ellah (Rivers State).

In the APP, things were not so neat. The first civilian Governor of Abia State, Dr. Christopher Ogbonnaya Onu, emerged the APP presidential candidate, in controversial circumstances, only to relinquish the ticket, in a murky political drama, a few days later, to Chief Samuel Oluyemisi Falae of the smaller AD who became the candidate of the emergency APP/AD alliance. Amana and other APP presidential aspirants like late Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki (Kwara State), Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu (Imo State), late Dr. Joseph Wayas (Cross River State), late Mr. Gamaliel Oforitsenere Onosode (Delta State) and late Chief Harry Ayoola Akande (Oyo State) were not even allowed to contest at the party’s National Convention in Kaduna despite their protests. Onu, who joined the presidential race a few days to the convention and barely a week after losing the first Ebonyi State governorship election, was simply “coronated” by the APP National Chairman, late Senator Mahmud Waziri, and the party’s “owner”, late Alhaji Umaru Ali Shinkafi. Still as part of the curious arrangement he clearly masterminded, Shinkafi (Zamfara State) went on to be the running mate to Falae, from Ondo State, in the February 1999 election which Obasanjo and his running mate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar (Adamawa State), won.

Again, two aspirants emerged from Akwa Ibom at the start of the transition process of Obasanjo in 2006. Unlike in the past, the fight then was within the same party, the PDP, and the same LGA, Ibesikpo Asutan. Then Governor Victor Bassey Attah wanted to be President and so did his kinsman, Dr. Bassey David Ndem, a USA-based academic-cum-activist and younger brother of the late University of Uyo Communication Arts’ guru, Prof. Emmanuel David Akpan.

But Ndem fizzled out even before the race properly started. In late 2012, this writer ran into him at a bank in Uyo and he took time to explain his abrupt withdrawal from the race six years earlier.

In sharp contrast, Attah soldiered on to the very end in January 2007. He and his Cross River State counterpart, Mr. Donald Duke, were the last Governors to step down for Obasanjo’s favourite aspirant, then Governor Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of Katsina State. They did so angrily a few hours to the start of the PDP National Convention. The then Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Otunuya Odili, who was widely perceived as the front runner in the race, had quietly withdrawn on the eve of the convention allegedly due to Obasanjo’s intimidation.

Other Presidential Aspirants this Time

For the contest this time, 14 presidential aspirants are known to have bought the PDP nomination forms so far. Apart from Udom, the other Governors who have done so are Alhaji Aminu Waziri Tambuwal (Sokoto State), Senator Bala Abdulkadir Mohammed (Bauchi State) and Chief Nyesom Ezenwo Wike (Rivers State).

Other political heavyweights in the race are former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, two former Senate Presidents, Chief Anyim Pius Anyim (Ebonyi State) and Dr. Abubakar Olubukola Saraki (Kwara State), as well as former Governors Peter Obi and Peter Ayodele Fayose of Anambra and Ekiti States, respectively.

The remaining aspirants are a former Managing Director of the defunct FSB International Bank, Malam Muhammad Hayatudeen (Borno State), a former President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa (Abia State), an international journalist and publisher, Bashorun Dele Momodu (Edo State), a USA-based medical doctor, Dr. Nwachukwu Anakwenze (Anambra State), and a businesswoman, Oliver Diana Teriela (Imo State).

The APC is yet to start selling nomination forms for any position.

But six aspirants have, so far, indicated interest in the presidency. They are Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (Ogun State), the APC National Leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu (Lagos State), Governor David Nweze Umahi of Ebonyi State, two serving Senators, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu (Abia State) and Owelle Anayo Rochas Okorocha (Imo State), and Transportation Minister Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers State).

Amaechi staged an elaborate declaration ceremony last Saturday in Port Harcourt. His supporters see him as the man to beat. Amaechi’s confidence is said to be buoyed by the fact that he recommended the new National Chairman of the party to Buhari through Senator Ali Ndume of Borno South Senatorial District.

Osinbajo declared today in a unique and far less noisy manner. He simply issued a statement. It seems he has been looking beyond the nomination to the general election even before his declaration. This, perhaps, explains his bipartisan approach to his ambition. Since last year, the number two man is said to have instructed leaders of the two major groups championing his ambition to draw their membership across the country from both the APC and the PDP. What is not known yet is if he enjoys the backing of his boss and the famed Aso Rock cabal whose leading lights have never been known to be his fans.

Apart from Akpabio, other unconfirmed aspirants in the APC are Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, Onu, who is the Science and Technology Minister, Works and Housing Minister Babatunde Fashola (Lagos State), and Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele (Delta State).

Interestingly, Umahi and Onu, bitter political rivals since 1998, are from the same village, Uburu, in Ohaozara LGA of Ebonyi State.

All APC aspirants would be known when nomination forms are sold.

Akwa Ibom’s Chances

Akwa Ibom stands good chances of producing a presidential candidate in either of the two parties.

Things may be easier in the PDP because of its likely mode of primary – indirect primary which entails an open contest at its National Convention fixed for May 28-29, 2022.

A coalition of four Northern aspirants, Saraki, Tambuwal, Mohammed and Hayatudeen, traversed the country, last week, lobbying for the adoption of the consensus mode of primary.

But this option appears dead on arrival because of likely aversion to it by two powerful interests.

One, Atiku, who was the presidential candidate of the PDP in the 2019 election, certainly believes he can win the nomination in an open contest like he did in 2018. Though the quartet have talked of reaching out to him, it is difficult to see how he would buy into their consensus idea when he clearly does not feature in their cold calculations. At 77, Atiku, who has sought the top job a record five times (1993, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019), probably sees this attempt as his last chance.

Two, the Southern PDP Governors are unlikely to accept consensus except it is tied to zoning the presidency to the South. The PDP leadership has been prevaricating on zoning, unwittingly fueling speculations that it is disposed to throwing the race open as recommended by its zoning committee.

Last Saturday, the eight PDP Southern Governors (their Northern counterparts are five) sounded what amounted to a note of warning to the party leadership after a meeting hosted by Udom at the Akwa Ibom State Governor’s Lodge in Abuja. Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, who spoke on behalf of his colleagues, said, “…we feel that the best thing to do is zone the presidency to the South and we stand on that position.” He added: “We have not seen any reason to change our position because the party was founded on the basis of equity and justice. We also think that equity and justice are important pillars that will ultimately stabilise our politics towards our journey in rescuing Nigeria.”

The Northern quartet wants consensus without zoning. And with their statement, the Southern Governors have loudy indicated where they stand.

If the PDP does not zone the presidency as it is likely, it would certainly be a North-South fight at its convention, possibly a four-horse race. The scenario may look like this – Atiku versus one of the quartet versus Udom (or Wike) versus Anyim (or Obi). Given the right alliances, chances are that Udom could emerge victorious.

As things stand, it may be easier to achieve unity among the Southern aspirants than their Northern counterparts. It is inconceivable that Atiku would step down for any of the quartet or vice versa. Tambuwal and Saraki, both of who had nursed presidential ambition twice in the past, contesting once in 2018, may even prefer a Southern aspirant to Atiku eventually. Saraki did so in 2011 when he backed then President Goodluck Jonathan in the PDP primary after he, Babangida and Lieutenant-General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau (retd.) lost out to Atiku in the Northern PDP consensus arrangement.

Udom and Wike appear to be in a working alliance even as fellow aspirants. It is possible for Wike to step down for Udom who appears to command more acceptability within PDP ranks across the North and South divide for obvious reason. Besides, Wike seems to be more interested in dragging the presidential ticket down south and not necessarily for himself.

Udom’s chances may be bolstered by his standing among the Governors who are the real kingmakers in the race in the PDP which is the main opposition party at the national level. The Governors will surely prefer one of their own as the presidential candidate. And Udom probably fits the bill.

Unlike their PDP counterparts, the APC Governors do not completely run things in the ruling party. There is an ultimate authority – President Muhammadu Buhari who is indubitably the sole kingmaker in the battle for the APC’s presidential crown. He clearly showed his hand as a sign of things to come when he pushed through his choice, Senator Abdullahi Adamu, as the APC’s consensus National Chairman, despite initial opposition by many Governors during the buildup to the party’s March 26, 2022 National Convention in Abuja.

The immediate past National Secretary of APC, Senator John Udoedehe, had hinted journalists mid-last year that the party’s presidential candidate would be chosen by consensus.

But, as demonstrated in the election of the National Chairman, nomination of the presidential candidate by consensus actually means Buhari’s dictate. Till now, he has kept his cards close to his chest, leaving everyone guessing. Late last year, he revealed that he would hide his choice till the last minute to avoid the person’s elimination.

Since January, this year, there have been persistent rumours in Abuja that the President has finally but secretly settled for Onu after weighing the 70-year-old former University of Port Harcourt Chemical Engineering lecturer alongside a long-time Buharist and Minister of State for Education, Chief Emeka Nwajiuba. Onu, who stepped down for Buhari during his first presidential run in 2003, was the last National Chairman of the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party (ANPP), one of the legacy parties that merged to form the APC in 2013. Increasingly, he looks like the man to watch in the ruling party.

But nothing has been cast in stone yet. Akpabio may still turn out to be Buhari’s choice. His triumph in the bitter and complicated tussle for the control of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in the last three years, against all odds, has left no one in doubt that he somewhat enjoys a level of the President’s confidence. Like in the NDDC tussle, his fate in the presidential contest completely lies in Buhari’s hands.

After all the said and done, a win for Udom or Akpabio means a win for Akwa Ibom.

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