Although, no fewer than five political parties are fielding candidates for the April 11 governorship election in Delta State, South-South Nigeria, the battle essentially will be fought by the big three: the Peoples Democratic Party, All Progressives Congress and the Labour Party.
While a serving Senator, Ifeanyi Okowa, is flying the PDP ticket, the APC is fielding a businessman-turned politician, O’tega Emerhor, and a popular politician and business mogul, Great Ogboru, is the candidate of the LP.
Mr. Okowa, a medical doctor hails from Ika North-East Local Government Area in the Delta North Senatorial District otherwise known as the Anioma (or Igbo speaking) part of the state. He is currently the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health. He served as Water Resources and Agriculture and Health Commissioner in the administration of former Governor James Ibori and later Secretary to the State Government in the first tenure of the outgoing governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan.
Mr. Emerhor, is an Urhobo from Ughelli North Local Government Area in the Delta Central Senatorial District. He came into politics in 2013 when he ran in the bye election to represent the district following the death of its former senator, Pius Ewherido.
On his part, Mr. Ogboru, is also an Urhobo from Abraka in Ethiope West Local Government Area in the Central District. He came to limelight in 1990 when he was fingered as one of the major sponsors of the Gideon Orkar-led coup that failed to oust former military leader, Ibrahim Babangida.
Mr. Ogboru has contested the governorship election on three occasions – in 2003 on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy; in 2007 on the ticket of the Democratic Peoples Party, DPP; 2011 bye-election – on the same platform. He failed on all occasions.
Though all strong candidates, the coming election in the oil-rich state will be largely defined by zoning, popularity of the candidates as well as the strength of their parties rather than issues of governance.
To be sure, Deltans appear to be showing little interest in what the candidates are presenting as their programmes, or who among them will consolidate on Mr. Uduaghan’s effort on capital development, peace and security and infrastructural development, which he calls Three Point Agenda.
In the build up to the primary elections, the zoning of the state’s number one political seat became the topmost issue. This is because two of the senatorial districts have produced governors since the state was carved out of the old Bendel State in 1991.
The first civilian governor of the state, who ruled from 1992 to 1993, Felix Ibru, and Mr. Ibori, who ruled from 1999 to 2007, are Urhobos from the Central Senatorial District,while the outgoing governor, Mr. Uduaghan, an Itsekiri, is from the Southern Senatorial District.
The Northern Senatorial District comprising distinct Igbo subgroups of Ika, Enuani (Aniocha/Oshimili) and Ukwuani (Ndokwa), all split into nine local government areas, sees the current elections as its turn to produce the next governor. This perceived marginalisation increased their agitation for the creation of Anioma State.
Thus, based on that understanding, in the period preceding the party primaries, a flurry of aspirants emerged from the district. No fewer than nine aspirants from that part of the state emerged on the platform of the various political parties.
The PDP produced the largest number not only because it is the ruling party in the state, but also because of the initial assertion by Mr. Uduaghan that his successor would emerge from the area. The line-up included a member of the House of Representatives, Ndudi Elumelu; a retired police officer, Godswill Obielum; a presidential adviser, Sylvester Monye; Chairperson of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund, Ngozi Olejeme; a former Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Victor Ochei; and his predecessor, Sam Obi.
Others were the Commissioner for Energy, Charles Emetulu, Michael Uwaka, George Ugboma, Festus Okubor, Johnson Opone, Gabriel Oyibode, Peter Okocha, Esther Uduehi and Anthony Obuh. The case of Mr. Obuh was particularly interesting because he was encouraged by Mr. Uduaghan to resign as permanent secretary in the Governor’s Office to join the race and assured he would get the ticket.
Among those who showed interest on the platform of APC were Pat Utomi, a two-time presidential candidate of the African Democratic Congress and Social Democratic Mega Party, and Fidelis Tilije, a former deputy governorship candidate of DPP.
This did not however deter people from the other senatorial districts from showing interest in the race. For instance, David Edevbie, an Urhobo and former finance commissioner and later private secretary to late President Umaru Yar’Adua, emerged as an aspirant on PDP platform. He was said to have been drawn into the race by Mr. Ibori, who is serving a jail term in the United Kingdom thus forcing Mr. Uduaghan to shockingly switch support from Mr. Obuh about a week before the primary.
There were also the former SSG, Ovie Omo-Agege, and the outgoing deputy governor, Amos Utuama, both Urhobos. Godsday Orubebe, an Ijaw from the southern district and the immediate past minister for Niger Delta Affairs, also showed interest in the race on the platform of PDP.
However, Mr. Okowa emerged the winner of the December 8, 2014 PDP primary election based on the support from his own northern district and the key politicians in the Ijaw speaking area of the southern district.
To clinch the ticket, the senator reportedly got massive support from notable Ijaw leaders, including Edwin Clark; James Manager, a serving senator; and a former militant, Government Ekpemukpolo, (aka Tompolo), all of who were determined the governorship seat was not returned to Urhobo.
As things stand today, the PDP appears to have an edge over the other parties in the impending contest. It remains the most popular party in the state having been in power since the return of democracy in 1999. It has structures in all the 25 local government areas where all the chairmen are members of the party.
With a popular candidate also, the party might secure votes from all parts of the state. Mr. Okowa had played prominent role in the politics and governance of the state since 1999 and had been seen as a natural successor to the outgoing governor with the current SSG, Ovuzorie Macaulay, an Isoko in the southern district, as deputy. Mr. Okowa served as the campaign director for Mr. Uduaghan in 2007. He is a grassroots politician and has established structures in the three senatorial districts.
The PDP candidate enjoys the support of the incumbent. Mr. Uduaghan, whose candidate lost in the primary has since accepted his fate and has teamed up with Mr. Okowa to campaign for the party. The outgoing governor is not deterred by failure to pick a senatorial ticket.
Another strategic move Mr. Okowa made was to pick his running mate from the Ijaw ethnic group in the southern district apparently to seal his support from there. The deputy governorship candidate, Kingsley Otuaro, is a protégé of Mr. Ekpemukpolo. He is a commissioner in the Delta Oil Producing Areas Development Commission and hails from Warri South Council.
However, Mr. Okowa’s major challenge is his rejection by the Urhobo, the single largest ethnic group in the state. The choice of an Ijaw as Mr. Okowa’s deputy has effectively dampened the quest by the Urhobo nation to have a representative in Government House on a PDP ticket, Asaba. It leaves the ethnic group with the option of producing the Speaker of the House of Assembly, the next most important position, if the PDP forms a government.
Although it produced two out of the three civilian governors of the state so far, the Urhobo nation with about eight local government areas, is still angling to produce Mr. Uduaghan’s successor.
The President General of Urhobo Progressive Union, UPU, Joseph Omene, said the leadership of the body would at the appropriate time direct the people of the ethnic group on who to vote for. Mr. Omene declared that they had already foreclosed voting for the PDP.
“I can’t tell you which of the two (Emerhor and Ogboru). Before the primaries you had about seven, few days before the primaries, the Urhobo came up with one (aspirant) and that one polled 229 votes and the next person polled 11 votes,” the UPU leader said.
“When the time comes, the UPU will tell the Urhobo nation what to do. So if we were able to bring seven people and we were able to shortlist them to one, what is difficult then in asking one to step down for the other between the two people? It is not a problem. Urhobo knows what to do when the time comes and unlike the primaries, we will not wait for the last hour before we take the decision.”
Even so, the PDP is not relenting. The emergence of two strong candidates from Urhobo might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the PDP candidate as it would effectively split the votes of the ethnic group.
Besides, as part of the strategy to woo the Urhobos and neutralise whatever efforts to thwart his ambition, Mr. Okowa named an Urhobo, Sam Oyovbaire, a former information minister as the director general of his campaign organisation.
Though it is relatively a new party, APC is widening its strength and giving the PDP a hot chase. Though little known in Delta politics, Mr. Emerhor’s track record in the corporate world is a major attraction.
To further expand his support base, the APC candidate recently made a tactical political move when he reversed his decision to pick the Executive Director, News, of the African Independent Television, AIT, Mamoda Akugha, an Isoko in the southern district, as his running mate. Mr. Emerhor went for a retired CBN Director, Vanderpuye Abanum, an Ukwuani man from Ndokwa West LGA, as his running mate to secure votes from the northern senatorial district.
It was believed that Mr. Emerhor sensed that picking a running mate from Isoko as Mr. Ogboru, could be fatal for his gubernatorial outing. Also he must have felt that ignoring the northern district in the scheme of things could be suicidal, politically, particularly given the defection of the APC strong pillars in the state, Fidelis Tilije, an Ukwuani man in the northern district to the ruling PDP.
Mr. Tilije, a former bank chief executive was Mr. Ogboru’s running mate in the 2007 election and the 2011 rerun. Many believe they won the elections, but were rigged out. Little wonder when he defected from the APC, the PDP family excitedly said they had caught “a big fish”.
However, there may be protest votes from supporters of some of the former governorship aspirants who boycotted the party’s primary election and who are yet to settle with Mr. Emerhor.
Mr. Ogboru appears more popular than his party in Delta State. He might however spring a surprise in the contest. He is reputed to be one of the most consistent opposition figures in the state. This consistency has endeared him to many.
Also, having contested thrice but lost to the ruling PDP, he is believed to have the structure to prosecute the gubernatorial war.
Another factor in his favour is his root. Mr. Ogboru’s father is Urhobo in the central district while his mother Ukwuani in the northern district. He has complemented this by picking his running mate from Isoko in the south. He is Peter Erebi, a former President General of Isoko Progressive Union, IPU.
It was a tactical move to appease the Isoko people who have repeatedly complained about political marginalisation in the state.
But by far, if the feelers from the Urhobo Progressives Union are anything to go by, Mr. Ogboru will get the nod of the ethnic group, which believes he is a good stead to beat PDP’s Okowa.
Perhaps, the debate between the governorship candidates come March 24 will help Deltans to make their choices on who to vote for.