On 13 February 2020, David Lyon, the governor-elect of Bayelsa State, was putting the final touches to preparation for his inauguration ceremony, scheduled for the following day, when the verdict of the Supreme Court was delivered by a Justice Mary Odili-led panel.
The court sacked him before he could step into the Government House in Yenagoa, the capital of the oil-rich state.
Mr Lyon had performed a political miracle by defeating the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the election, a feat that until that period was thought impossible. He polled 70 per cent of the votes cast to defeat the ruling party in the state of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
The jubilation in the All Progressives Congress (APC) camp of Mr Lyon was cut short because of the discrepancies in the certificates of his running mate, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo. The consequence of the verdict of the Supreme Court was the emergence of Douye Diri, the man who came a distant second in the election by polling 28 per cent of the total votes cast.
Mr Diri was a product of the Supreme Court verdict, and he is facing re-election after serving four years as the governor of the oil-rich state. He will be facing another man who is seeking an elusive second term, former Governor Timipre Sylva.
Mr Sylva was the governor of the state from 2007 to 2008 and 2008 to 2012 under the PDP. He was initially elected in 2007 but was removed when the Supreme Court ordered a re-run of the election in 2008. He won that poll too and was sworn in.
The Supreme Court intervention in 2008 pushed Bayelsa’s governorship election off-cycle.
His bid for re-election in 2012 was stopped by former President Jonathan, who was believed to have orchestrated the disqualification of Mr Sylva by the PDP National Working Committee (NWC) from the party’s primary.
The party nominated Seriake Dickson for the poll and won a landslide victory with 89 per cent of the votes.
The former president, who was Mr Sylva’s predecessor as governor, during the governorship campaign in 2012, described the five-year stint of Mr Sylva as a “monumental disgrace”.
But Mr Sylva in an interview in 2018 explained the friction between the two men.
“As governor in Bayelsa State, I had ongoing battles with the Jonathan system. He wanted a different succession plan but I didn’t and without him being in control, I ended up as governor. So, as vice president, he started fighting me from day one. And that was why my election was annulled in 2008, but then I went back for re-election,” he said in the interview.
The disagreement between the two could be traced to the PDP governorship primary for the 2007 general election when Mr Sylva challenged Mr Jonathan for the ticket of the party.
The former president won the primary but was named as running mate on Umar Ya’adua’s presidential ticket, hence paving the way for Mr Sylva to take the governorship ticket.
In 2015, Mr Sylva made another attempt to return to the Government House. He contested on the platform of the APC but was defeated by the incumbent, Mr Dickson.
Now in 2023, the incumbent, who is yet to win a governorship election in the state, will be squaring up against a man who has won two elections but is still seeking another term in office.
There are 16 candidates in Saturday’s election. However, the race is between Messrs Douye and Sylva.
Geopolitical alignment of Bayelsa politics
Bayelsa State has eight local government areas: Ekeremor, Kolokuma/Opokuma, Yenagoa, Nembe, Ogbia, Sagbama, Brass and Southern Ijaw. In terms of voting strength, the big four are Yenagoa, Southern Ijaw, Sagbama and Ekeremor local governments.
The incumbent governor is from Kolokuma/Opokuma local government area in Bayelsa Central Senatorial District and his running mate, Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, is from Sagbama Local Government Area in Bayelsa West Senatorial District.
Mr Sylva is from Brass Local Government in Bayelsa East Senatorial District and picked his running mate, Joshua Maciver, an ex-militant, from Southern Ijaw Local Government Area in Bayelsa Central Senatorial District.
Notable players expected to influence the race from outside are Mr Jonathan from Ogbia Local Government Area, Mr Lyon from Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, former governor Dickson from Sagbama Local Government Area and the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Heineken Lokpobiri, from Ekeremor.
Bayelsa politics has been influenced by an unspoken convention of rotation among the local government areas. Southern Ijaw had Diepreye Alamieyesigha, Mr Sylva is from Brass, Ogbia had Mr Jonathan and Mr Diri is from Kolokuma/Opokuma.
Nembe, Ekeremor and Yenagoa Local Government Areas have produced deputy governors in the persons of John Jonah, Peremobowei Ebebi and Werinipre Seibarugu respectively. The incumbent deputy governor is from Sagbama Local government.
Electoral Map of 2015 and 2019
To understand the current political atmosphere in Bayelsa, it is important to look at the 2015 and 2019 elections. Neither of the two taken alone will provide a comprehensive overview of the politics of the state because the political variables of the state have been swinging in the past three elections.
In 2015, Mr Sylva, under the APC, challenged former Governor Dickson. However, the outcome of the election was a landslide victory for the latter. The incumbent won in seven out of the eight local government areas. Mr Sylva only won in his home local government area, Brass.
One major factor that could explain the outcome of that election was anger against the APC over Mr Jonathan’s defeat in the presidential election. Mr Jonathan, the first president from the South-south, was defeated by the APC.
Mr Sylva, a member of the APC, had openly campaigned against his kinsman to the chagrin of many Bayelsans. Also, the polarising nature of the 2015 presidential poll led to a division in the country, with many states in the South-east and South-south hostile toward the APC.
However, by 2019, the political atmosphere in Bayelsa had changed significantly. Mr Dickson’s move to solidify and consolidate the political power in the PDP around his Restoration Caucus was viewed by loyalists of Mr Jonathan as a political coup. The battle between the two PDP factions was fierce and it was felt during the general election in February 2019, when the APC won one senatorial seat and two House of Representatives seats in the state.
Undeterred by the division and the outcome of the 2019 general election, Mr Dickson went ahead to single-handedly pick Mr Diri, who was in the Senate, as his successor and flag-bearer of the PDP. It was believed that Mr Jonathan’s group backed the former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Timi Alaibe, but lost out at the primaries.
The PDP was unable to close rank all through the campaign, and the outcome was devastating for the party at the poll. PDP only managed to win two of the eight local government areas.
For the APC, Mr Sylva was serving as the Minister of State for Petroleum at the time of nomination, and hence, he supported Mr Lyon for the ticket of the APC. Mr Lyon, who is from Southern Ijaw, handed the PDP an embarrassing defeat. In a strange twist, Mr Jonathan, many observers believed, played a major role in the defeat of his party at the election.
Alas, the pronouncement by the court allowed the PDP to continue to rule, and on Saturday, the popularity of the PDP would be put to the test.
However, if the outcome of the 2023 general elections is an indicator, the PDP is expected to have a smooth sail to reelection. The party won all five House of Representatives seats, the three senatorial seats and 20 out of 24 House of Assembly seats. It also delivered the state for its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar.
The Chairman of the PDP in Bayelsa State, Solomon Agwanana, told PREMIUM TIMES, in a phone interview, that the issues that led to the party’s defeat in 2019 have been addressed and all the leaders are now behind Mr Diri.
“The issues have been addressed. You can see the unity of purpose that was demonstrated today at our ground finale. All our leaders are on the same page. That’s why none of them contested against him (Doye) at the primaries. That speaks to the fact that what happened in 2019, certainly it is a clear departure from what we are experiencing now,” Mr Agwanana said.
Mr Diri, a former member of the House of Representatives and Senate, will be counting on his incumbency factor to defeat a more seasoned grassroots politician like Mr Sylva and try to avoid the factors that led to his embarrassing defeat in 2019.
“In terms of road infrastructure in the state, Diri has done well. However, one major thing is the lack of water in Yenagoa and other places in Bayelsa,” Lucky, a tricycle rider in Yenagoa, told PREMIUM TIMES.
So far, every indication points to a united front for him and his party. The party even ensured that the governor did not face any primary election challenger. But one major factor causing apprehension is what to expect from the new sheriff in Abuja. This is the first election under President Bola Tinubu, and the party does not know what to expect from the former Lagos State Governor.
The former president, Muhammadu Buhari, is believed not to be a thoroughbred politician. Under his watch, opposition parties enjoyed some sort of level playing field. But with Mr Tinubu in the saddle, there appears to be uncertainty about what to expect from the government in Abuja, particularly the use of “federal might,” a reference to state institutions like the police and other security agencies.
Mr Agwanana said the PDP is hoping that the security agents would be adequately deplored as he accused Mr Sylva and his running mate of being men of violence.
For the incumbent governor to retain his job, he must resurrect the electoral map of 2015, and show that the performance of the party at the last 2023 general elections is not a fluke. He must win big in Sagbama, Southern Ijaw, Yenagoa, Ekeremor and Kolokuma/Opokuma. A good outing in these local governments will neutralise the votes of Nembe and Brass local government areas.
Southern Ijaw will be the main battleground in this election because of two main factors. One, that local government area decided the last election as APC got 124,803 votes against PDP’s 4,898 votes. Secondly, the APC deputy governorship candidate is also from Southern Ijaw.
The incumbent will also be looking to improve his performance in his local government area because, in the last election, he only got 15,360 votes against the 8,934 votes his opponent got. He will also be hoping that the combination of his running mate and his godfather, Seriake Dickson, will deliver Sagbama, just like it did in 2019.
Sylva’s path to the Government House
As stated earlier, Mr Sylva is a veteran of governorship elections in Bayelsa State with two victories and one loss. His journey to the ballot in this election was equally tough, having to navigate the court process fighting for his eligibility.
Last month, a Federal High Court in Abuja disqualified Mr Sylva from the race following a suit by an APC member, Demesuoyefa Kolomo, who anchored his case on the fact that Mr Sylva had been sworn in twice, hence, he is not eligible to be on the ballot again.
The former governor was sworn in on 29 May 2007 but was sacked by the Supreme Court. He subsequently won the re-run election and was sworn in again on 15 May 2008. However, the disqualification by the Federal High Court was reversed by the Court of Appeal over lack of jurisdiction.
Also, Mr Sylva is facing another major challenge over his running mate, Mr Maciver, who the opposition has accused of jailbreak at the Kaduna Correctional Facility where he was serving his prison term after he was convicted in 2006 for militancy-related charges.
“He (Maciver) is not an ex-militant, he is a convict that breaks jail. Would that man not be arrested and brought back to jail? That man is an embodiment of violence, the two candidates of the other party. They are the embodiment of violence. These are the concerns that we have raised,” the PDP state chairman had told PREMIUM TIMES.
However, according to reports, Mr Maciver was released following the amnesty proclamation by former President Umar Yar’Adua in 2009 and is no longer under any prison term. PUNCH had published a leaked document by the National Correctional Services (NCoS) debunking the claim of jailbreak.
A former deputy spokesperson of the APC at the national level, Yekini Nabena, dismissed the allegation of jailbreak, stating that the PDP is trying to once again use the court to win the election.
“There is something I want people to know in Nigeria, the incumbent did not win an election. He came through the back door. God gave him the opportunity to show the people what he could do, which he has also failed the people. All we are saying is that he came through the back door, and the back door is open. The people will decide in 2023. The incumbent knew that the only means of staying on is to use the back door, that is why they went to court,” he said during an interview over the phone.
Also, a Federal High Court in Yenagoa has equally dismissed a case seeking to disqualify the APC deputy governorship candidate. However, appeals are allowed up to the Supreme Court.
Division in APC
Furthermore, Mr Sylva appears not to be going into the election with a united front. Before the APC primaries, many groups within the APC had pushed for the ticket to be given to Mr Lyon to compensate him for his sack over an infraction attributed to his running mate in 2019. However, the APC refused. The National Publicity Secretary of the party, Felix Morka, had said “You cannot use sympathy to upstage legality and due process.”
Mr Lyon was subsequently defeated at the direct primary election organised by the party. He polled 1,584 votes against the 52,062 votes by Mr Sylva. It is unclear if the party has achieved proper reconciliation. There are speculations of a rift within the party as part of the fallout from the primaries. PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the National Chairman of the party, Umar Ganduje, has been making frantic efforts to close any gap within the party.
The issue of crack within the APC was equally raised by the leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Edwin Clark, who claimed that Mr Lyon is not working for Mr Sylva.
Aside from the cracks, Mr Sylva’s last electoral outing was terrible. He won just one local government area, Brass. Even in Nembe Local Government Area, he was defeated.
His path to victory involves dominating the entire Bayelsa East Senatorial District, Brass, Ogia and Nembe local governments. Mr Sylva may be counting on his running mate to deliver Bayelsa Central Senatorial District, most especially Southern Ijaw, which is the biggest voting bloc in the state.
The state capital, Yenagoa appears to be a neutral ground for all the two candidates. However, Governor Diri seems to have more advertising presence than any other candidate. This has more to do with the incumbency factor.
The major obstacle is in Bayelsa West Senatorial district—both Sagbama and Ekeremor have been PDP strongholds. In Ekeremor, APC will be counting on the Minister of State for Petroleum, Mr Lokpobiri, to put up a good show.
According to the multidimensional poverty index by the National Bureau of Statistics, Bayelsa State has 82 per cent of its people living in multidimensional poverty. This is despite the huge allocation from the federation account. The report offered a multivariate form of poverty assessment.
Between June 2019 and December 2022, the state got N543 billion from the federation. However, Budgit had in another report raised issues around the fiscal sustainability of the state as 90 per cent of its revenue comes from the federation.
Also, the state faces other environmental challenges like floods and pollution due to the activities of oil companies operating in the region. And there is the issue of security in the state.
Messrs Diri and Sylva have released their respective manifestos on addressing the state’s challenges. The incumbent has the Covenant of Development with emphasis on security, infrastructural development and addressing the perennial flood in the state.
Mr Sylva also unveiled a manifesto that he tagged Six-Point Agenda with emphasis on human capital development, strong economy, agriculture, power and security.
Voters on Saturday will decide where the pendulum swings. PREMIUM TIMES will be present in the three senatorial districts to give robust coverage of the election.
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