It is almost impossible to overemphasise how seriously this paragraph from Olabode George’s statement announcing his withdrawal from the Peoples Democratic Party’s chairmanship race could loom over the party’s just-concluded national convention:
“The Yoruba people have been openly maligned. The Yoruba have been savaged, tormented, treated with contempt, scurried, scoffed at, humiliated and denigrated by little men whose sun will soon set.”
In the wake of the PDP’s least controversial convention since losing power in 2015, concerns have mounted over the opposition party’s 2019 chances in the South-west after politicians from the region were denied chairmanship in a rapid twist of fate.
Including Mr. George, all but one of the seven chairmanship contenders from the South-west were compelled to stand down at the eleventh hour, and one of the two South-South candidates went on to defeat the Yoruba consensus pick.
Uche Secondus’ victory is fueling speculations that the South-west was tactically schemed out of the PDP’s hierarchical structure, effectively tilting the party, which prides itself the biggest in Africa, towards regionalism.
John Odigie-Oyegun, chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, dutifully latched onto Mr. George’s anger with a divide-and-conquer statement to the media.
But going by the accounts of party players, including those who have reservations about the outcome of the convention, it appears the assurances given to the South-west were, at best, a gentleman’s agreement, which failed to hold water.
Above all else, Mr. George’s smouldering dissatisfaction was aimed at putting some relatively new power brokers in the PDP on the notice. This is not because the politician has any interest in yielding to the overtures of the APC, said Ebenezer Babatope, his long-time ally.
The 2015 misfortune of the PDP has seen the resurgence of governors on its platform as the major fixers in crucial affairs.
The 2015 outcome also saw the concentration of most of the governors on the platform of the party in two contiguous geopolitical zones, South-south and South-east.
The influence of this bloc from the two zones prevailed at the party’s latest national convention, which held Saturday in Abuja.
After the party’s defunct interim national leadership announced in October that the convention will hold on December 9, nine candidates purchased forms to contest the chairmanship.
Of these, Mr. George, Rasheed Ladoja, Segun Aderemi, Taoheed Adedoja, Gbenga Daniel, Tunde Adeniran and Jimi Agbaje contested from the South-west; while Mr. Secondus and Raymond Dokpesi targeted the top office from the South-south.
The party had formally restricted the chairmanship to politicians in the south, and the presidential ticket in 2019 to northern politicians.
At the initial stage of the campaign for the chairmanship, it was widely expected that one of the seven South-west candidates would clinch the office and the region will have its first chairman since the party was created in 1998.
But as the convention neared, the South-west candidates began feeling the heat from Mr. Secondus, who had once led the PDP in an acting capacity between 2015 and 2016.
It turned out that Mr. Secondus, 62, from Rivers State, had the unwavering support of his state governor, Nyesom Wike. With enough money and the comradeship of other PDP governors to deploy, Mr. Wike was able to seize control of most of the delegates, one state at a time.
The South-west candidates, including those who had spent weeks on the campaign trail to all the 36 states, found themselves submerged by Mr. Secondus, who did not start campaign tour until two weeks to the convention, according to those familiar with his itineraries.
When Mr. Secondus’ ambition was becoming too domineering to ignore, meetings were held to broker a consensus deal amongst the Yoruba candidates, but none of them was ready to shift ground, according to those familiar with the talks. One of such early meetings was convened in November by Ekiti Governor, Ayo Fayose, in Ikeja, Lagos.
The negotiations intensified in the last week leading to the convention after some northern leaders purportedly assured the Yoruba candidates that northern delegates wanted a consensus candidate.
On November 6, Mr. Ladoja, a former governor of Oyo State, was the first to withdraw from the race, a decision he made during a meeting held at his instance the same day, according to those who were there.
The next day, more aspirants, including Jimi Agbaje, also stepped down following intervention from the Afenifere.
The discussion continued in search of consensus amongst the remaining three candidates from the South-west —Messrs. George, Adeniran and Daniel. But while this was ongoing, the candidates were receiving reports that Mr. Wike was spending heavily to sway the northern delegates towards Mr. Secondus.
The intimidating spending was the reason Messrs. George and Daniel ultimately dropped out, leaving Mr. Adeniran as the only candidate from the region.
At the convention on Saturday, Mr. Secondus polled 2.000 out of the total 2,296 votes cast, with Mr. Adeniran trailing with 230 votes.
The process leading to the convention was seen by politicians like Mr. George as an affront to the Yoruba.
They argued that the chairmanship had been ‘micro-zoned’ to the South-west, and Mr. Secondus should not have entered the race in the first place. The South-east stayed out of the race because it had been promised the vice-presidential ticket in 2019.
The South-south was told that since the last president is from Bayelsa State, the region could wait to get other positions in government, like the Speaker of the House.
But Mr. Wike and others in the Niger-Delta argued that the arrangement was untenable, and the South-west, which had not added much political value to the party, should not be put in the top position.
“The comments by Governor Wike is the height of insult against the Yoruba,” Mr. Babatope told PREMIUM TIMES via telephone Monday night. “We have contributed immensely and helped hold the party together since its inception.”
Mr. Babatope strongly disagreed with the outcome of the convention, but said that would not chase him out of the party.
“We will not jump from one party to another,” Mr. Babatope said. “Those of us who believe in PDP will never compromise on our membership.”
He said the controversy will not have any adverse effect on the party’s showing in 2019, especially if a reconciliation mechanism is put in place to address genuine grudges.
“The PDP’s chances will not suffer in the South-west because of what happened. We have specific disagreements and we hope a reconciliation committee will be set up to resolve them,” he said.
Mr. Babatope said the South-west PDP politicians still see Mr. Wike, Mr. Secondus and others who denied the region the chairmanship slot as friends.
Governor Seriake Dickson had earlier told PREMIUM TIMES that a reconciliation panel might be raised, although he strongly dismissed claims of any conspiracy against the South-west at the convention.
He described the affair as “a question of political calculation” and “not a conspiracy.”
But Boladale Adekoya, a political analyst, said the failure of South-west to clinch the chairmanship was a major setback for the region.
He said the South-west’s loss derailed the PDP from the ideology of its founding fathers as a political party that transcends ethnic, religious and regional colouration.
“The PDP as we know it is dead,” Mr. Adekoya said. “It has now been replaced by power brokers from some regions in the country.”
Mr. Adekoya rejected the argument that the region lost because it failed to rally behind a candidate, an excuse he said had been deployed before.
“What the leadership of the party should have done was to leave the South-west to deal with its options, rather than disguising to be fighting the battle on its behalf,” he said. “The same playbook adopted by the Jonathan administration against the South-west when the region lost key National Assembly positions in 2011.”
In 2019, PDP plans to pick its presidential candidate from the North and the running mate from the South-east; the Senate President is also restricted to the North; the Speaker to the South-south.
“In all these, one of the most sophisticated regions in the country, is nowhere to be found,” Mr. Adekoya said. “Like President Jonathan, the PDP will definitely pay for scheming out the South-west.”
“Even Buhari, with his cult following in the North, failed woefully three times until he made a U-turn to properly include the South-west in his political permutations,” he added.
On the contrary, Tolani Animashaun, a PDP chieftain, said the party’s nationalist perception will not be corroded or diminished by Saturday’s outcome.
“It is unfortunate that we lost the chairmanship,” Ms. Animashaun said. “But that is because we failed to properly organise and present a common candidate.
“The region that won strategised better in the lead up to the convention,” she added. “Nobody should say the PDP has become regional. We’re still united and a reconciliation plan that is currently underway will even make us more united.”
Similarly, Demola Olarewaju, a PDP strategist with a fair knowledge of the party’s history, described the convention as the most democratic in the party’s history.
Mr. Olarewaju rejected the insinuations that the PDP is becoming increasingly regional, especially since party chairmanship is not considered a part of ‘zoning arrangements’ in the real sense.
The PDP moved the chairmanship to the south in continuation of its long-standing strategy of ensuring that the chairman does not emerge from the same region as the president, Mr. Olarewaju said.
This policy is aimed at achieving a political equilibrium in the affairs of the party, not necessarily the government.
“That’s why you have Sule Lamido contesting from the North-west while Atiku Abubakar is running from the North-east,” he said. “The South-west should not feel entitled to a position that was opened to the whole south.”
Amongst the reasons why the South-west was looking forward to the chairmanship was because its candidate was widely favoured in the botched Port-Harcourt convention last year.
Jimi Agbaje, from Lagos State, was widely backed at the time by major fixers in the party, including governors in the South-south and South-east.
But that arrangement has since been discarded after the convention threw up a flurry of legal and political crises in the party. The party finally regained its footing after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Ahmed Makarfi-led interim leadership.
“A lot has happened since then and people have changed their positions,” Mr. Olarewaju said.
Mr. Olarewaju said the convention outcome now means that the South-west could have a shot at the vice-presidential ticket.
“The vice-president was only allotted to the entire South, not the South-east in particular,” he said.
Yet, the analyst warned that Mr. Secondus “must move to unify the party,” lest it loses focus from mounting an arduous challenge to the ruling APC.
“As long as the APC is made to believe it has no opposition, it will always be complacent,” Mr. Olarewaju said.
Remilekun Owolabi, a Lagos-based political analyst, said the PDP risks being perceived as a regional party as it increasingly concentrates key offices in two regions.
“In an ideal situation, it shouldn’t, but the way it is here, it’s clear that that’s the case,” Ms. Owolabi said. “And with this arrangement, the South-west members can’t be pleased and I don’t think that’s good for the party.”
She advised the party to earnestly put its house in order if it hopes to make serious impact by 2019.
“The party needs not start this new era with issues like division and all, it simply means they are yet to get their acts together, and that’s not good for their success in 2019,” she said.
While many Nigerians still hold unfavourable opinion of the PDP’s 16-year streak, the party’s standing as the only viable alternative for Africa’s most populous nation is hardly in doubt.
The party clearly recognises its formidable status, but how it contains the fallout from the convention in a way that would polish its optics and broaden its base would require more skills than fortitude.