From Judex Okoro, Calabar
With approximately two years to 2023 general elections, Cross River State once again is in the eye of the storm following the defection of Governor Ben Ayade to the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, on Thursday, May 20, 2021.
Ayayde’s defection has altered the political landscape and has removed the toga of Cross River being a predominantly PDP state. The move of Ayade to APC has pitched him against the founding fathers of the PDP, who claimed the governor benefited from their benevolence. It is now a defined tacit war between Ayade and the PDP.
Beginning of power game
Ayade and PDP battle of supremacy started during the 2016 party congresses to elect new party leaders from ward to national levels. The congresses were barely a year after Governor Ayade took over the reins of leadership from his predecessor and political mentor, Sen Liyel Imoke and that was his first acid test on power sharing. The govrnor and his new henchmen, without caring a hoot, made good use of the opportunity and installed their cronies at various levels of party structures, leading to dissensions, divisions and acrimony among party members.
That was the beginning of a big crack within the party leadership and it affected the nucleus of PDP in Cross River State because there was a cry of “imposition” and “marginalisation” of critical stakeholders at the ward, chapter and state arising from the congresses held in May 2016. From across the 18 local governments and 196 wards of Cross River State, and from Akpabuyo through Calabar South to Odukpani local government up to Etung and Bekwara local government areas, stakeholders and elected members of the state and national assembly members cried foul over the alleged move to asphyxiate them out of PDP using the congress processes.
But in spite of the complaints, Governor Ben Ayade believed that the decision had the general nod of the party. In his speech at U.J Esuene Stadium, venue of the state Congress held on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, he said: “We had a consensus, we had a bit of understanding, we had to consult; it was democratically done.
“We also know that PDP has a culture dominating Cross River State because when we resolve all our disputes, we resolve in favour of equity, we resolve in favour of justice, we resolve in favour of history of hardworking and commitment to the party. What we have done, there’s slight generational shift, but we focus on retaining old hands that have experience to bring the young ones on the scene.”
But Ayade’s statement did not assuage frayed nerves then. So, when the beagle was blown again in early February 2020 for another round of PDP congresses across the country, Ayade was ambushed by some founding members of PDP and NASS who were still aggrieved at the subterranean moves to retire them from the party they have put in so much to build and sustain.
The battle over the control of party structures became a tug of war between the governor’s faction and Abuja front until the National Working Committee, NWC, in a letter dated April 26, 2020 and signed by the national organising secretary, Col Austin Akobundu (retd), approved the Abuja list as the authentic one for ward and local government executives for all the 196 wards and 18 local government councils in the state in accordance with the provisions of Section 65 of our party’s constitution as amended in 2017.
The tussle for the party leadership continued unabated as PDP threw up two candidates who are laying claims to the Northern senatorial district ticket. While Mr Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe insists that he won the election, Dr Steve Odey, an ally of Ayade, said he is the authentic party candidate. Since then, it has been back and forth leading to series of litigations on which faction is the authentic one which culminated in Supreme Court rulings favouring the NASS members.
Day Ayade took up the gauntlet
On Thursday, May 20, 2021, Ayade, who was sitting on the fence waiting for PDP’s decision with regard to the party structures, finally defected to the APC, signaling the beginning of another journey into the political murky waters of our political system.
Addressing journalists at the Exco Chambers in Calabar, after his defection, Gov Ayade said: “I have considered the situation and the problem on our land. So, it is now to join other governors to build the nation. We need to join the President to rebuild Nigeria.
“I have seen the situation of my people. I, therefore, as the leader of the people and the state decide to assist the President in rebuilding the nation. So, on behalf of my people, I declare Cross River as APC state.”
In what appears as a continuation of the fight against his former party, Ayade in the early hours of Saturday, May 22, 2021 took over the PDP secretariat located at 42A Murtala Mohammed Highway with armed policemen and painted the building in an APC colour.
To further demonstrate his angst, the governor in an integration dinner with APC stakeholders held at Dorschester Hall, Spar Mall, Calabar, on Sunday, May 30, 2021, declared PDP in the state “dead and buried,” adding that “anyone who is not here is nowhere”. According to him, APC would do everything possible to win in 2023 as there is zero opposition in the state following his defection and massive movement of his aides.
And committed to ensuring victory for APC ahead of 2023, Ayade used the occasion to reconcile feuding members of the party who publicly embraced one another, maintaining that “the only way the APC in Cross River State can prosper is if we put the past behind us and create a new focus, a new opportunity that will guarantee every one of us to sit on the same table.”
Not relenting, the governor has also embarked on massive drive by directing all appointees to defect to APC or lose their positions. Already, some aides who refused to defect with him have been relieved of their positions just as some appointees have willingly resigned, vowing to remain in PDP.
APC backs Ayade’s defection
Welcoming the governor into APC, the former Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, enjoined Ayade, to work towards making the party cohesive, and advised the governor to keep the peace and unity among party men intact.
The leader of the 7th Senate warned on the dangers of allowing rancour and acrimony to thrive in the party, stressing that the unity and peace among party men remain sacrosanct as it was the only way the party can win elections in 2023
He said: “As an APC leader in the state, don’t allow the party, which is now under his care, to toe the line of his former party. This overwhelming support places huge responsibility on the governor’s shoulders. And he should reciprocate the gesture by ensuring that he remains a consultative, inclusive, democratic, transparent and accountable leader, not just for the APC, but to the people of Cross River State as a whole.”
Also hailing Ayade’s defection to APC, Sen. John Owan Enoh, said the governor’s action has changed the politics of Cross River, describing the step taken as courageous.
Enoh said: “After 22 years of PDP, the Next 22 years will matter greatly as he has redirected the politics of the state to the centre and it is unprecedented. He would be remembered for taking a proactive decision to flip Cross River state in 2021 from PDP to APC, and that by 2023 it would be retained as an APC state through the politics of transition and the next several years of transitions to come will remain an APC state.
Another APC stalwart, Utum Eteng, said Ayade’s movement to the APC is divine, long expected and worked for as his membership of the PDP was an error which he has corrected by returning to his proper political classification.
Eteng, said: “His return to the APC is the biggest blow that has shaken the foundation of the state PDP. He went away with the flesh of the PDP leaving only hanging skeleton joined with cracked bones about to be honoured with a sad and poorly conducted memorial about to come up soon.
“His coming into the APC has brought to the APC additional critical political stakeholders from Cross River State to the party, which by itself portends a possible sad political outing for the PDP come 2023 and an improved outing for the APC. l personally knew well in advance he was coming back to the APC. Ayade as the head of the APC family will definitely check the many years of bickering in the party.”
PDP vows to reclaim the state
However, PDP has moved to reposition and has vowed to reclaim the state. Regretting the political undercurrents in the state while speaking at the PDP stakeholders meeting held in Calabar on Sunday, May 23, 2021, the former governor, Liyel Imoke, said Cross River still remains a PDP state and no politics of intimidation and harassments would deter them.
Imoke, who it is believed single-handedly, installed Ayade, said: “We did not tell anyone to leave our party but on their own volition they left. At no point in time have we had a party run by one man or by a family or not to carry people along. It pains me because I gave power to the people and I never participated in any congress at any level because we had leaders we trusted. I have never sat down to write a list of delegates or party leaders because we were a family.”
Berating Ayade for speaking down on PDP that made him what he is today, the PDP Caretaker Committee Chairman of Cross River state, Efiok Cobham, also vowed that the party would get back their seized secretariat from Governor Ayade as such act is capable of generating crises.
Expressing concern on the development, the former Deputy Governor during Sen Imoke’s administration said: “We are still the occupant of the property because we paid for it and we will get it back. We don’t want problem so we plead they return our office to us” He raised the alarm that crucial documents and other property belonging to the PDP were missing.
Explaining that Ayade’s departure from PDP is something most stakeholders of the party have prayed and wished for, for quite sometime, the former national Publicity Secretary of PDP, Vena Ikem, said Ayade’s departure will not detrimentally affect the fortunes of the party in the 2023 elections, but would usher in the renewed energy with which they built the formidable political machine that the PDP is known for in state.
No doubt, since Ayade’s defection, the political space has been characterised by horse trading, intrigues and discreet scheming. Major political actors across party divide have been holding nocturnal meetings both at home and in Abuja trying to align and re-align with a view to repositioning for the much-talked about 2023. These alignments are indications that the race to Peregrino Government House in the next dispensation may no longer be an easy ride.