What worked for Okowa
In the PDP presidential primaries, the Governor of Rivers State, Mr Nyesom Wike came second. Only the former Vice President Mr Atiku Abubakar beat him. He may have thought that if he was the most popular candidate from the South, getting to pick the vice presidential ticket would be something close to a walk in the park. But politics being a game in which horse-trading, trickery, unanticipated factors, known and unknown issues come into play, the ride to the number two position of the party’s presidential ticket turned out to be a ruse for Wike.
And when the Vice Presidential Screening Committee headed by the PDP Deputy Chairman, Mr Umaru Damagun, put his name on top of the list after 13 of the 17 members of the committee voted in his favour, Wike may have thought that the ticket was in the bag. But it didn’t happen. Someone else, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State got the nod of the party and the presidential candidate of the party. Okowa received this white garment of honour dressed in a long white gown topping his gear with a red cap, the favourite cap of the Igbos.
Wike must have had a dank feeling of being an unwanted man but it is not so. Choosing a vice presidential candidate often comes with a battery of considerations such as the potential candidate’s character and electoral asset or liability, strength of the party in his state or zone, his past utterances and actions on sensitive national issues, his religion, his knowledge of the economy, his friends and enemies etc. Most of these factors may have come into play when the PDP picked Okowa as the vice presidential candidate.
But even Okowa went through some withering scrutiny because a vice presidential candidate has to be chosen as carefully as an engagement ring so that he can complement the qualities of the presidential candidate. His own ambition almost got scuttled by his political mentor, Chief James Ibori, former Governor of Delta State. Ibori and Okowa had fought a bitter battle for the choice of a PDP governorship candidate for Delta State. Ibori’s candidate was Mr David Edevbie while Okowa’s choice was Mr Sheriff Oborevwort who is the Speaker of the State House of Assembly. Okowa’s candidate won with 590 votes to Edevbie’s 113 votes. Ibori who was very supportive of Okowa’s election even when he was in prison in the UK felt that Okowa should have reciprocated his gesture by allowing him to pick the party’s governorship candidate. Okowa didn’t think he should allow Ibori to pick his successor for him when he, Ibori, picked his own successor without anyone else’s dictation.
As a way of pacifying Ibori, Okowa ensured that his daughter Erhiateke Ibori Suenu emerged as the party’s candidate for Ethiope Federal Constituency for the House of Representatives. Ibori is a close friend of Mr Atiku Abubakar and if friends and well wishers had not intervened perhaps Okowa might not have succeeded. Some elders of the party such as Mr Babangida Aliyu, former Governor of Niger State, Mr Sule Lamido, former Governor of Jigawa State and Mr Uche Secondus, former National Chairman of the PDP who fell out recently with Wike also spoke to Ibori in favour of Okowa. Ibori’s anger melted and that paved the way for Okowa’s choice.
Some of the governors who wanted someone with a long electoral antennae were unhappy with the snub of Wike by the decision makers. Some of them refused to attend the unveiling of Okowa. But it wasn’t Okowa’s fault that he got chosen. In every political contest there must be a winner and a loser(s). Wike’s strength is that he is a radical to his fingertips. His strength is that he believes belligerently what he believes. That strength is also his weakness. He is a warrior, a no-mean warrior. When he fights, he does not pull punches. He fights to destroy the enemy and to win.
Different groups in Rivers State have tasted a bit of his warrior’s temper. And when the IPOB fellows thought they could annex Rivers State as part of their territory Wike told them, “don’t dare.” Igbo leaders apparently thought that it was an exhibition of his hatred for the Igbos. They went to Port Harcourt to see the gadfly who told them that he has no problem with Igbo but the territory he governs is not part of Biafra. That brought the matter to a close. Mr Wike is not much loved by some Muslims who thought that by demolishing a mosque in Rivers State he did not want Muslims in his state. But the reason for doing so seemed genuine apart from the fact that he also offered them an alternative site for the building of another mosque. Such gutsy demonstrations of principle are often likely to be misinterpreted by victims of such actions. The wounds may get healed eventually but the scars remain unerased for long.
It was the belief by some northern leaders that if Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State did not step down for Atiku Abubakar during the presidential primaries, Wike was likely to defeat Atiku. That was why the northern leaders persuaded Tambuwal to drop his ambition and team up with Atiku so as to defeat Wike. The perception of Wike by many politicians is that he wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, that he is a domineering figure who wants to be the only cock that crows. That generates feelings of hatred towards him. And the situation is not helped by the sharpness of his tongue. It cuts people, friends and foes into pieces like a razor blade. That leads to some people perceiving him as being abrasive while others think he is someone who simply says what needs to be said at any given time.
Some of his opponents accuse him of being the one sponsoring crises in some states, a part of his empire-building strategy, crises in some states such as Edo, Cross River, Ebonyi, Delta and Anambra. This may or may not be true but those who wanted his head on a plate during the fight for the vice presidential slot used that piece of information to work against him. He was roundly perceived as arrogant.
For such analysts the voting strength of Rivers State did not matter much. By the 2019 voter registration figures, Rivers State has 3,215,273 voters while Delta has 2,845,274, a difference of more than 300,000 voters. Both men are from the South South, which is the backbone of the PDP in the South. They are both from significant oil producing communities, which constitute the country’s cash cow. Picking a vice presidential candidate from there may likely ensure that there is little restiveness in the oil producing communities. That, in turn, will contribute to the stabilisation of the economy.
Okowa brings to the ticket the image of a quiet achiever who is known as The Roadmaster in Delta because of his strides in infrastructure development. He has built a harmonious relationship with the ethnic and religious groups, Christian and Muslim, which has guaranteed relative stability in the state. He is the chairman of the South South Governors Forum who has handled the affairs of the Forum with sagacity, even handedness and humility.
Even though he is a respected medical doctor, a senator and a two-term Governor of a state he carries himself without airs but with unvarnished dignity and simplicity. Perhaps one of the reasons that worked in his favour was the fact that he straddles two zones of the country. While Delta State is one of the six South South States, he as an Igbo also enjoys the benefit of being from a place that speaks the same language as all the five states in the South East zone. Igbos then have to make the decision to vote for either an Igbo man who is vice president of one of the two major parties or for an Igbo presidential candidate in one of the minor parties, that may not make any significant impact in the polls. That will be the choice to make: Okowa or Peter Obi.
By the figures of registered voters (2019) South East has only 10,052,236 while the South South has 12,844,279. This low voting strength is perhaps one reason why the big parties have not given the South East a premium consideration in their calculations. Of the six geopolitical zones South East has the lowest voter registration figure. So while fair-minded people ask for fairness and equity for the South East on the issue of presidency to the zone the politicians are largely interested in the voting numbers because it is numbers that win elections.
Despite the choice of Okowa the PDP officials have some fence mending to do if they want to go into the elections next year like a united team. They need to pacify those who feel hurt by their choices of the presidential and vice presidential candidates of the party.