By Ubong Ekott and Joseph Obung
Weeks before the Independent National Electoral Commission rescheduled the 2015 elections by six weeks, all seemed clear the Cross River State governorship elections were to be decided at the campaigns — for the first time since 1999.
Things have now slowed a bit, and if the vote goes ahead today, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, will, no doubt, win.
But early February, the permutation was more complex. The PDP was on the defensive for the first time, as an opposition, emboldened by unprecedented defections, rallied to upstage the status quo.
Analysts believe the opposition’s slowed momentum is strategic given the postponement of elections, and that PDP’s two major challengers — Labour Party, LP, and All Progressives Congress, APC — will bounce back before the March 28 and April 11 polls.
Ultimately, the 2015 race in Cross River, Nigeria’s most notable tourist destination, is between the PDP’s Benedict Ayade, a serving Senator and a professor of Microbiology, Labour Party’s Fidelis Ugbo, a former Executive Secretary at National Planning Commission; and APC’s Odey Ochicha, a former employee at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.
Intense party campaigns are trailing at the Local Government Areas, and candidates are deploying everything, including the social media, to stay ahead of their rivals.
The opposition fed from the cataclysms of PDP, starting with the party’s December primaries which yielded as many disgruntled members, as winners. Attendant cross-carpeting of former PDP kingpins changed the tide of the state politics.
The chief beneficiary is the relatively less known Labour Party.
After the primaries, one of two PDP senators who lost at the primaries – Bassey Otu – left for Labour Party as did Fidelis Ugbo, a frontline governorship aspirant, who also failed to pick the PDP ticket. Mr. Ugbo became the LP’s flag bearer.
Other top names who left PDP for Labour include Sandy Onor, a former Commissioner for Agriculture; Alex Egbona, the immediate past Chief of Staff to Governor Liyel Imoke; and Dominic Edem, a former commissioner at the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC.
Julius Okputu, a former Commissioner for Environment; Bobby Ekpenyong, a former chairman of Calabar Municipality; Egbe Egbe of Obubra/Etung federal constituency touted as the power behind PDP’s successes in that axis, amongst others, also picked the LP forms.
In a speech announcing his defection, the LP flag bearer, Mr. Ugbo, characterised his former party as autocratic.
“I was a strong member of the PDP but they don’t believe in democracy. Cross River requires someone with the capacity and experience to navigate the state. Nobody else has the ability to take the state out of the woods,” he said.
Mr. Otu was not less scathing. “After the charade exhibited by the PDP in the primaries, and after due consultations with my constituents, I have moved to the Labour Party,” he announced. “I hereby restate my resolve to continue rendering service to my people because there is no vacancy in Southern senatorial seat.”
Mr. Egbona, who is running for Abi/Yakuur federal constituency seat, said he left the PDP because the primary which produced his opponent, Bassey Ewa, was “a stupid process; a process which negates tenet of democracy”.
The PDP has predictably made no fortune of such sentiments, rife in the state. Still, beyond the bitterness of primaries, analysts believe other factors have worked in favour of the opposition.
One is what seems to be a replication of the historic neck-to-neck contest, nationally, between the opposition APC and the ruling PDP. Another, is what analysts see as widespread citizen discontent with the current Imoke administration.
Neo Ofem of Noble Organisation for Solidarity and Development, a civil society group, said 70% of sampled opinion among voters is dissatisfied with the performance of Mr. Imoke. This, he blamed partly on the fact that a band of election losers are recycled into government and are offered positions they are unskilled to utilize for the peoples’ benefit.
In political strategy, the opposition have also pushed to outstrip the PDP. For instance, while the three parties — PDP, LP and APC — have chosen their candidates from the northern senatorial district of the state, for the reason of zoning, it is only the PDP that drew its deputy from the central region where Mr. Imoke comes from. The PDP governorship running mate is Ivara Esu from the Biase/Ejagam speaking area of the state. Mr. Esu is a professor and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Calabar.
The opposition parties, keen on reaping a political capital there, have wooed the Efiks, who wield a big population, and appear to benefit the least from the PDP’s proposed power structure. While Nella Andem-Rabana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, runs with Mr. Ugbo in Labour Party, Sylvester Nsa is the deputy for Mr. Ochicha for the APC.
Meanwhile, at the local level, Ms. Onor is shaking the Central senatorial district with Labour Party flag against PDP’s John Enoh; while Julius Okputu is daring Rose Oko of the ruling party for Northern senatorial seat. Mr. Out squares up against Gershom Bassey of the PDP at the southern tip.
But beyond the campaigns, not much appears on ground in terms of actual plan of governance if any of the candidates is voted into power.
While the PDP candidate bandies continuity, the APC candidate claims change. Labour pledges to run an inclusive government. None provides verifiable details of how those goals will be achieved.
“Ayade talks about continuity, which means that he does not see anything wrong with the present government… Ochicha says he is bringing change, what change? We have not heard his clear cut road map for the change he proposes. The present PDP government is about recycling of people within the top party hierarchy with no actual emerging leaders,” argued Mr. Ofem.
Either way, the PDP remains haunted by some ills. Nerves bruised during the primaries, in what was clearly a power tussle between Governor Imoke and Governor Donald Duke and Senate Majority Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, have yet to heal.
Concerned about the new political challenge in the state for its party, Mr. Imoke at a PDP dinner recently, appealed to aspirants who lost at the primaries to put their grievances behind them and work to ensure the success of the party.
The dinner saw over 20 aspirants who lost out of the PDP primaries gather for unity in a show of solidarity and reconciliation. They promised to support and work with Mr. Ayade. How much support that translates to, remains to be seen.
But some party backers are quick to dismiss any serious threat against the PDP. Otu Otu, a PDP member and political science lecturer said the “PDP has mended their fences and appeased discontented party members, what happened during the primaries was power play and is normal within political parties. The party can still rally votes”.
Jedy Agba, a frontline aspirant who was believed to have had the backing of the former governor of the state, Mr. Duke, recently accepted defeat and agreed to work with Mr. Ayade after speculations he was leaving the party.
According to him, “The primaries have been won and lost and we have moved on. The next phase now is to see how we can collectively work to ensure the success of our party at all levels in next months’ election.”
Whichever party wins the governorship on April 11, will have a clear-cut assignment. It must build confidence in leadership and reverse the negative norm associated with politics in the state.
It must seek true governance that serves the people and that is accountable. The government must anchor the state’s developmental plans on agriculture which is a strong point of the state.
“Agriculture is vital but there is no emphasis on it. The next government needs to develop an agricultural policy to be able to empower the citizens through harnessing what they have known in ages,” Mr. Ofem said.
Overall, he said the leadership structure should be changed and value added. “Governance is not about paper qualification or personal achievement but rather connecting to the people who you choose to serve,” he said.