BY AUGUSTINE AVWODE
The stage for a titanic struggle for the soul of Cross River State in 2023 has been effectively set since mid-May 2021. Governor Ben Ayade, then of the People’s Democratic Party, after many months of speculation over his body language, formally dumped the party and joined the ruling All Progressives Congress. The PDP had ruled the state since the return of civil rule in 1999.
The implication of the Governor’s defection was how he would, leveraging on his power of incumbency and all the structures of government available to him as a sitting governor, ensure the continuity of APC as the ruling party in the state post-May 29, 2023. And by the same token, the challenge for the PDP was how those left behind in the party, described as “remnants and disloyal rebels” who didn’t join the governor’s bandwagon to the APC would be able to assert themselves, recapture and regain their lost Garden of Eden.
Governor Ayade followed the path of his Ebonyi State counterpart, David Umahi, who had also left the PDP six months earlier. Ayade’s defection was as dramatic as it was expected. It happened, officially, while hosting six APC governors who visited him in Calabar, the state capital.
The visiting governors, who were led by Mai Mala Buni of Yobe State included Atiku Bagudu of Kebbi, Hope Uzodimma of Imo, Simon Lalong of Plateau, Badaru Abubakar of Jigawa and Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti.
Ayade, one of the cerebral and youthful governors who emerged on the political scene in 2015, started complaining of poor treatment by the party a little more than a year after he was sworn in for a second term. When he left, he thus became the only governor of the APC in the South-South region today. Edo State which could still have been in the hands of the APC was inadvertently lost to the PDP because of irreconcilable political wrangling between the then-national chairman, Adams Oshiomhole and Governor Godwin Obaseki.
It was huge news for the ruling APC as Ayade’s defection increased the number of governors on its platform to 21 while the PDP dropped to 14 and the All Progressives Grand Alliance, has one.
WIKE APPEARS ON THE SCENE
An opportunity to fill the big void created by Governor Ayade’s exit suddenly presented itself in February this year. Though findings revealed that Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State had long made an in-road to the state’s politics using the contact of his friend, Senator Sandy Onor, it was the campaign time for the Ogoja/Yala Federal Constituency and Akpabuyo State constituency by-elections of Saturday February 26 that came handy. The PDP was finding it difficult to navigate the restrictions and intimidations on her path when Wike stormed the state.
Sources say the arrival of Wike immensely bolstered the already badly sagged confidence of the PDP which was shorn of the paraphernalia of power and authority that it used to enjoy in the state for a period of almost 22 years. It was in such a state of despondency, according to a source that Governor Wike literally infused live restoring blood into it as he stormed the state with “logistics, morale boosting and plenty of assurance that it would not just end with the immediate contest for bye-election but a promise for 2023 specifically,” The Point was told.
With the party rediscovering its mojo, it launched forcefully into the campaign with Wike prodding it on. Like a time-tested motivational speaker, Governor Wike charged the PDP family not to be “intimidated by APC antics but should rather get set to vote them out come 2023.”
“It was in such state of despondency, according to a source, that Governor Wike literally infused live restoring blood into it as he stormed the state with ‘logistics, morale boosting and plenty of assurance that it would not just end with the immediate contest for bye-election but a promise for 2023 specifically”
He added, “You must resist any form of illegality to deprive you of your fundamental human rights, it can’t work. Having destroyed everything he met on the ground and with electoral disgrace looming, he is in a desperate fix to truncate lawful democratic principles,” Wike charged at Governor Ayade to a loud applause and admiration of the teeming supporters during a mega rally for the by-elections.
He then assured them of his total support to reclaim the state from the APC, saying, “When I was told that they don’t want you to hold this rally, I said this rally must be held today and I must come. Whatever will happen, let it happen today. I told your leader that if you did not hold this rally today, then that would have been the end of PDP. But I thank God, all of you resisted it and you said enough is enough.
“Let me tell you now, I have come here today to let you know I’m going to give you every support. Don’t be afraid. They tried it in Rivers State, we resisted them. They are trying to instigate fear in you. Don’t be afraid at all. Whatever the Cross River government can do, the PDP can do it better.
“I don’t understand how a governor would for an ordinary federal constituency election, ordinary state election, you’re stopping them from holding rallies. When it comes to governorship what will happen?” he had stated.
When the dust settled, the two parties shared the spoils of the battle with the APC winning the federal seat while the PDP settled for the state constituency.
Jude Ngaji of the APC polled 22, 778 to defeat Mike Usibe of the PDP who garnered 20, 590 in the Ogoja/Yala Federal Constituency by-election. On the other hand, the PDP candidate, Effiom Ekeng Edet scored 5,866 votes to beat his closest rival and APC candidate Bassey Ekpo, who scored 5,363 votes in the Akpabuyo State Constituency by-election. With that result, the biggest test of their political strength and relevance in the state now looms on the horizon with 2023 the governorship contest regarded as the most prized contest in the state in sight.
But while Governor Ayade would be participating as a direct candidate of the APC for Cross River North Senatorial District, Wike will not be on the ballot either in Rivers State or in Cross River. He will, however, have two irons in the forge at the same time in two different states. In Rivers, he will be working to ensure the victory of the PDP in the governorship contest just as he will be working to ensure the victory of the PDP candidate in Cross River State.
Already, the APC thinks it has the edge over other parties because of the presence of Ayade, especially in the Northern Senatorial District.
A chieftain of the APC in the zone, Odi Omagu, while expressing confidence in the likely outcome of the poll next year said Governor Ayade is a man of the people and winning the Senatorial election for the Cross River North post in the 2023 election is a reality.
“I can assure you that judging by the popularity of His Excellency Senator Professor Ben Ayade, his victory in the Cross River North election would be before midday on Election Day and I am not just being braggadocious. And that will go a long way in shaping the entire result for the whole state. ”
He said when Ayade occupied the Senate position between 2011 and 2015, his record was unrivalled at that level in the district and his performance as governor has further made him a household name which will make his victory at the election seamless.
“There is hardly any household in Cross River that has not been touched by the people-oriented policies of Governor Ayade, particularly his Food on the Table programme which had over 20,000 people monthly receiving alerts from the state payroll.
“That in itself is a big propelling force for the governor and of course his industrialisation policy which has made thousands of jobs available to youths of the state.”
“Personally, I am calling on all people in the north to support this political and industrial icon of our time as he returns to the Senate as Cross River North representative and in ensuring that the zone is now evolving into a leader of repute in the state courtesy of him; all our hands have to be behind him as he represents the district at Red Chamber from next year. And in the state, he has thrown his weight behind the South Senatorial District to produce the candidate and that is what we will all work for,” he said.
The APC chieftain has a word of advice for those in opposition, saying the earlier they join the Ayade train the better to avoid being left behind and so suffer early political retirement.
“When the wind blows in a particular direction, trees bend towards that direction and any tree that resists is pulled down. Let everyone including those in opposition join forces with the Ayade vision for the state now to avoid being rendered politically irrelevant,” he stated.
Like in many states of the federation, Cross River has since the return of civilian rule adopted the zoning arrangement of where the governor should come from. It started with the South Senatorial District in 1999 to 2007 and turned into the Central Senatorial District between 2007 and 2015. In 2015 the North took it over and will in 2023 step down.
The argument then arose as to which zone should produce the next governor between the South and the Central. Of course, the interest of individual actors came into play and at the end of the day, while the PDP settled for a Central Senatorial candidate, the APC settled for a Southern Senatorial candidate. And this is where the conflict between the two governors comes into sharp focus.
Whereas Ayade has thrown his weight behind the candidate of the party from the South, Bassey Otu, who emerged after a series of intrigues and flip-flop arrangement of consensus and no consensus, on the premise that the arrangement should follow the natural order it has taken before because the zone had waited for 16 years, Wike is supporting the PDP candidate from Central, Sandy Ojang Onor, on the argument that both zones had waited for 16 years. Of course, the primary election in the two parties was between the two zones with the candidate from the central snatching the victory for PDP and APC pitching a tent in the South.
Last week, the Cross River PDP delegation visited Governor Wike in Port Harcourt. It was led by the state’s PDP chairman, Venatius Ikem. The video of the visit, seen by our reporter as posted in the official FaceBook page of the Governor, showed first the PDP candidate, Senator Sandy Onor, addressing Wike.
He said, “Your Excellency, we are a delegation of PDP from Cross Rivers, complete in our numbers with the state chairman of the party leading us. As the senator for the Central and Governorship candidate for the party, I am pleased to announce that we also have Senator Jarigbe Agom from the North Senatorial District with us. We have our senatorial candidate for the central, the man who will inevitably take over from me by the special grace of God, Hon Bassey Ewa; we have the candidate from the South Senatorial District. We have all our candidates for the House of Reps and we have all our candidates for the House of Assembly, we have all the chapter chairmen.
“We came here in solidarity to say thank you so much for being a proper friend and a great leader to us. When Governor Ayade eloped with our mandate to the APC, you made a promise to us that ‘you will not leave us alone’. If you stand by us, we stand by you.
“Your Excellency, we have been following your trajectory. And I would like to be quoted, nobody in the contemporary history of the Peoples Democratic Party has given more for this party to remain the same. Nobody has contributed more, nobody has sacrificed more than Governor Wike has done. So when we see a palpable attempt to minimize the maximum, we would stand up and say this is not possible. We would stand up and say this is injustice.
“When he met with supposed PDP stakeholders in Port Harcourt, the likes of Liyel Imoke, Senator Gershom Bassey were noticeably absent. Are they no longer members of the PDP in Cross River? All we are saying is that Cross River can’t be a suzerainty of Rivers State or Wike’s fiefdom”
“There is nothing Governor Wike is asking for that is personal per se. Governor Wike seeks justice within the party. If we say we are unifiers, we must begin by unifying our party. Governor Wike has never said we are leaving the PDP, He has never said he has left, but he is saying for the party to be prim and proper, there must be justice within it.”
Next to speak was Senator Agom from Cross River North. He literally gave a testimony of what Governor Wike did for him to become a senator. He said “For me to become senator, there is someone who was all around to assist me. One o’clock in the night, 4: 00 am in morning, the person wasn’t sleeping and the person is Governor Nyesom Wike. I would not have been able to stand it and all of us would have been conquered today. Some of us wouldn’t have been in this party anymore, at least 50 per cent of those of us in this room today. Cross River State PDP would have been in trouble,” he testified.
The state chairman, Venatius Ikem, was next to speak and he simply expressed the chapter’s appreciation to Governor Wike. He said, “Cross River PDP just wants to thank you. When I think of what you have done for us since Ben Ayade left, in fact, I need to thank Senator Sandy Onor for leading you to us. You have been more than a Governor to us. Indeed, as a party exco, we wouldn’t be here without your intervention. That is why when some people said we were not seen in Uyo, I said well, we would not be qualified to be in Uyo in the first place if not for you,” he concluded.
The import of the visit is to the effect that Wike has been playing the role of being the governor for the two chapters of the PDP in both Rivers and Cross River states. And if the state’s party delegation could embark on a “solidarity and thank you visit”, it speaks volumes of the place of importance Wike occupies in the Cross River State chapter of the PDP.
But the camp of Governor Ayade is not taking Wike’s maneuvers in Calabar lightly. Members of the camp have been faulting his intervention in the state’s politics, saying he can’t be shouting about fighting for justice in his party and at the same time promoting injustice in Cross River.
Linus Obogo, a senior aide of Governor Ben Ayade , told The Point at the weekend that Wike is pursuing two different types of justice, saying it is unethical.
“The Rivers State Governor, Wike is busy seeking to plant his friend and PDP candidate as Governor Ayade’s successor in Cross River State by funneling Rivers’ money and resources to see through the abhorrent project. Since his trouncing by Atiku at the PDP presidential primary, Wike has literally gone rebellious.
Hypocritically, what he can’t take is what he is upholding in Cross River with his deployment of money, Coaster buses to candidates for 2023 elections.
“Is Wike’s plot altruistic or merely to install his friend, Sandy Onor, against the grain of justice, equity and fairness that power should revert to the Southern Senatorial Zone of the state? When he met with supposed PDP stakeholders in Port Harcourt, the likes of Liyel Imoke, Senator Gershom Bassey were noticeably absent.
Are they no longer members of the PDP in Cross River? All we are saying is that Cross River can’t be a suzerainty of Rivers State or Wike’s fiefdom.”
From all indications, the 2023 elections in Cross River will see the strongman of Rivers politics go head to head once again with the new power broker of the ruling APC from the South-South geo-political zone. It promises to be a duel in which nothing in the political armoury of the two young Turks would be spared. It is a political duel that promises to produce the victor and the vanquished.