By Omoniyi Salaudeen
Following the timetable and the guideline of activities released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), political parties and their presidential candidates are now warming up for the commencement of the campaigns for the 2023 general elections expected to kick off on Wednesday, September 28.
If the social media frenzy that has been witnessed in recent times is anything to go by, this may be another electrifying campaign jamboree Nigerians are waiting to see in the days ahead.
However, optimism may not be that high within the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which has been grappling with internal rebellion arising from disagreement over power sharing. Of course, like other political parties, the PDP is ready for campaign activities but its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, and his running mate, Ifeanyi Okowa, are far from the mark. The road ahead of them is rough and bumpy. Despite all the trouble-shooting efforts by the National Working Committee (NWC) to douse the tension generated by the agitation for the resignation of the National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu, ahead of the 2023 presidential election to give room for the balance of power equations, peace still remains largely elusive to the party. Every attempt made to cajole and rein in the aggrieved governor of Rivers State, Nyesome Wike, and his loyal allies in the South, who are championing the course of justice and equity based on respect for the constitution of the party has met a brickwall.
The latest reconciliation effort was the stakeholders’ consultative forum held in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, last week, to resolve the lingering crisis, but all to no avail.
The host governor, Seyi Makinde, as the zonal leader of the PDP in the Southwest, unequivocally told Atiku during the parley that Ayu must step down as national chairman for peace to reign in the party, a position Wike has consistently maintained in all his protests against the current composition of the NWC.
The former Deputy National Chairman (South) of the PDP, Bode George, didn’t also mince words, warning that the party might lose the 2023 presidential election if nothing was done to address the perceived lopsidedness in the present power-sharing formula to give a sense of belonging to the South.
While speaking with journalists in Lagos a day after the Ibadan meeting, he said: “We should not allow any sentiment – ethnicity or religion to divide us. Unfortunately, with what we are presently witnessing, our party may lose the next presidential election if we continue to disregard or fail to address the feeling and grievances of ‘alienation’ being presently experienced by the entire Southern population of this great country. If this issue is dismissed, we cannot expect votes from them.
“Until this party returns to the founding fathers’ principles of unity, with equity, fairness, and justice being the pedestal for any political decision taken in this party, and ensuring broad-mindedness to accommodate the concerns of all zones in this country, PDP becomes vulnerable to disaster in the 2023 elections.”
By playing intrigues with the party’s constitutional provision on power sharing, Atiku has wittingly or wittingly pitched himself against the South. The principle of power rotation as entrenched in Section 7 (2) (c) of the PDP Constitution reads in part: “In pursuant of the principles of equity, justice, and fairness the party shall adhere to the policy of rotation and zoning of the party and public elective offices and it shall be enforced by the appropriate executive committee at all levels.”
This is further reinforced in the preamble stating that the provision is “to create socio-political conditions conducive to national peace and unity by ensuring fair and equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, to conform with the principles of power shift and power sharing by rotating key political offices among the diverse peoples of our country and evolving powers equitably between the federal, state and local governments in the spirit of federalism.”
It will be recalled that the 17 southern governors had converged on Asaba, the Delta State capital, prior to the presidential primaries to issue a declaration that the next president must come from the South. They had argued that power most automatically shift to the South after the expiration of the eight-year tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari of Northern extraction to give every component part of the country a true sense of belonging. Subsequent meetings held in Lagos, Enugu, and Abia as a follow-up to the Asaba Declaration also affirmed the same position, though it didn’t seat well with their northern counterparts who swiftly reacted in Kaduna that the statement contradicted the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
However, by guile and intrigues, Atiku eventually emerged as the winner of the primary and later settled for Delta State governor as his running mate in preference to Wike, who came a close second in the presidential contest. Since then, peace has remained elusive in the party because, according to Wike, the national chairman who had promised to resign from his position if a Northern candidate won the ticket has refused to honour his words.
So far, all entreaties made to calm the recalcitrant attitude of the aggrieved governor of Rivers State have failed to yield the desired result.
By being adamant, what Wike and other protagonists of the balance of power are saying with their righteous indignation is that the North cannot produce a presidential candidate and at the same time retain the national chairman because it negates the principle of fair play.
Traditionally, South-south and Southeast are strongholds of the PDP.
While in the 2019 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the PDP, garnered a total of 2,233,292 votes in the South-south, the APC scored 1,050,785 votes.
Similarly, in the Southeast, the PDP recorded an overwhelming victory, scoring………………………….. 403,968 to beat the ruling APC which polled 1,050,785 votes.
Now, with the hardline position of Wike on Ayu’s resignation as a precondition for peace, chances are that Atiku’s hope of securing the majority votes in the two regions in the coming general elections may be ultimately jeaopadised.
Presumably, Atiku’s decision to opt for Okowa as his running mate is to neutralise the influence of Wike in the South-south. Atiku, while justifying his choice of Okowa on June 16 had said: “I am pleased, therefore, to announce here my choice of a running mate who will help to lead us to victory next year not only in the presidential election, but also in the governorship and legislative elections. And he will be by my side as I work hard every day to provide our people with security, revive our economy, improve education and unite our country. He has both legislative and executive experiences.”
However, the groundswell of opposition against the nomination of Okowa, who many stakeholders have described as a traitor, might have put the PDP in a dilemma.
For the benefit of hindsight, Okowa was the host governor at Asaba where the declaration for power shift to the South was made by the 17 Southern governors. Some aggrieved stakeholders who decried the ease with which Okowa fell for Atiku’s bait said he had by his action stabbed his southern colleagues in the back and would be paid in his own coin in the coming election.
A statement jointly signed by Chief Edwin Clark (PANDEF), Chief Ayo Adebanjo (Afenifere), Dr Dru Bitrus (Middle Belt Forum), and Ambassador George Obiozor (Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide), declared: “That this is not a matter of loyalty to one’s political party, but rather a greedy, parochial and unpatriotic action, committed against the general interest of his state, Delta State, the Niger Delta region, and Southern Nigeria. It is, certainly, also not in the interest of the nation at large.”
Though some critics of the governor of Rivers believe that he does not have the temperament to be a running mate, he is by no means a pushover. Wike with all his eccentricity remains a strong voice in the South-south political firmament, which is why the focus has been on him since the crisis started after the presidential primary.
Beyond the South-south, he also has a strong ally with some governors of the Southeast notably Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia and his Enugu State counterpart, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, who are both aggrieved that Atiku and PDP did not factor the region into the current political equations.
So, Atiku might be trading off the votes in the entire Southern part of Nigeria if Ayu maintains his stand not to resign in the face of the overwhelming opposition against his continued stay in office.
Even if he eventually bows to the pressure to resign, there is also another dilemma over his would-be successor.
According to the constitution of the party, in the case the National Chairman resigns, he shall hand over to the Deputy National chairman who shall, without prejudice to Section 45 (6) of this Constitution, act as the National Chairman pending the election of a replacement.
In this case, the current Deputy National Chairman, Umar Damagum, who is entitled to take over the mantle of leadership, is also from the North. So, technically, the only option left is for the two of them to go to pave the way for a successor from the South, which is an unlikely proposition.
Meanwhile, Wike’s team has pulled out of the PDP campaign council, insisting that Ayu must resign to give peace a chance. In a communiqué issued after the stakeholders’ meeting in Port Harcourt, Bode George, who addressed the press, said the campaign council list released by the party which had Wike’s name was like “putting the cart before the horse”.
His words: “The published presidential campaign council list translates to putting the cart before horse, the pertinent issue remains the Ayu leadership.
“We, therefore, resolve that senator Iyorchia Ayu resigns as the national chairman for an acting chairman of southern Nigeria extraction.
“We resolved not to participate in the campaign council in whatever capacity until the resignation of Dr Iyorchia Ayu.”
Regardless, a former BoT member of the party, Ebenezer Babatope, while reacting to the development, expressed optimism that the matter would be amicably resolved before the general elections.
He said in a telephone interview with Sunday Sun: “We are working very hard to ensure that we resolve the issue and by the grace of God, we are going to resolve it. We will settle the matter. I have been talking to my friend, Olabode George, and I know that he is a very strong party man who had held very vital positions in the party before. He is my friend of 55 years; he will not want to work against the interest of the party.
“He is only expressing his mind and they should allow him to express his mind. They should give him a fair hearing and ensure that we make peace in a manner that will ensure the victory of the party. He is looking at the issue the way he sees it and we are going to ensure that we achieve peace in the party. It is all about what is good for the betterment of the party and the country at large.”
Asked how the electorate would trust the party watching its constitution being twisted to serve the interest of some particular individuals, he retorted: “Electorate will trust us because, within the constitution, we had a convention to elect national Exco which can resolve all the knotty issues. We are going to have peace.”
A former chairman of the party in Lagos State, Mr Tunji Shelle, adding his voice, assured that the aggrieved governors would work for the party in their respective states.
He said: “Our party has gone through a lot just like any other party. Ours is an open discussion. Other parties are keeping their wound inside them, which is not good enough for their health. They are not speaking out, but they are dying inside. So, it is good for the PDP to express itself. At the end of the day, it will come out stronger. And that is what will eventually happen.
“When the time is ripe, everybody will come together to face the election squarely. Next week may be short; it is also long enough for us to reconcile ourselves. And I believe it will happen. That election will be prosecuted as a family. That much I can assure you.
“That they (Wike’s team) pulled out of the campaign team doesn’t stop them from working for the party. They have not pulled out of the party. Wike will win the election in his state for PDP. Makinde will win the election for PDP in his state. He is the governorship candidate; he has a second term to work for. He will work for the party; there is no doubt about it.
“They will always have their say, but the party will have its way. They will have cause to change their mind at the last minute so that everybody can be on the same page. They have not said that they are not going to work in their various states. They are stakeholders. Definitely, Wike will win in his state and he wouldn’t stop people from voting for our candidate.
“Ayu is not the one that is contesting, it is Alhaji Abubakar. Nobody is saying Ayu should not go; it is just the time that is the issue. When we must have concluded the election, definitely, Ayu would go. Timing is what is in contention now. I am sure all of us will see the reason we should work together to face the election.”
However, Atiku’s Media aide, Paul Ibe, declined to make comment on the issue, saying “it is a PDP affair and I think they are handling it. At this point, it is a party affair and the candidate is owned by the PDP.”
As part of the renewed efforts to ensure a united party ahead of the commencement of campaign activities, the Chairman of the Presidential Campaign Organisation of the PDP and Akwa Ibom State governor, Mr Udom Emmanuel, as well as the Director-General of the organisation and Governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal, are said to have started the move to resolve the crisis. While Tambuwal is expected to use his position to mobilise the governors to achieve peace and unity in the party, Governor Emmanuel will work on Governor Wike of Rivers State and other feuding members of the party for genuine reconciliation ahead of the 2023 general elections.
The NWC had earlier set up a committee to interface with some aggrieved governors, including Ikpeazu, Ugwuanyi, and Makinde, over the continued stay of Ayu as the national chairman.
The outcome of the renewed reconciliation initiative is what many supporters of the PDP are waiting to see in the days ahead as political parties are set to commence their campaign activities in earnest on Wednesday.