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How Ayade’s defection may reshape political space of Cross River

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In the days of President Ibrahim Babangida’s christening of Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC), Cross River was not a monolithic state dominated by one party.

It was always a fierce battle, as the then Governor Clement Ebri of NRC narrowly beat his SDP rival, late Dr. Mathew Ojong by whiskers to emerge as governor in 1992. In the House of Assembly it was SDP 13 and NRC 12. In the Senate it was NRC 2, SDP one while for the Green Chamber, SDP also had upper hand over NRC.
In 1999 the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Peoples Party (APP), dominated the political space.

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Senator Liyel Imoke, former governor Donald Duke, Senator Gershom Bassey and business mogul, Etubom Bassey Ndem, former deputy governor, late Chief John Okpa and few others were the political gladiators in PDP while former Senate President, Dr Joseph Wayas, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, Chief Eyo Etim Nyong, an aspirant of APP that lost the ticket in a controversial circumstance to the governorship candidate of APP, Mark Ukpo, late Eyo Okon Eyo and few others held sway for APP.

PDP won the governorship with Duke but APP won 10 local councils while PDP had eight. In the House of Assembly PDP had 13 while APP got 12. PDP in the state also had the majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

But in 2003 the political equation changed. APP had a factional split in the country and metamorphosed into All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), that tendency encouraged an ethnic battle against the Duke-led PDP government coming under an ethnic colouration of “Atam Congress” but they were decimated. That was the beginning of one party dominating the state as PDP commanded landslide victory in all elections, which forced some strong APP members to decamp to PDP.

Former Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly, Otuekong Orok Duke sums it thus, “in 2003 the Secretary of APP was made a paramount ruler and this helped to weaken the APP, a deliberate coup to decimate the opposition”.

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Until May 20, 2021 when Governor Ben Ayade decamped to APC, PDP operated as one family and dominated the political space in the state. Holding PDP ticket then was as good as winning the election. PDP was a like a religion in Cross River State.

That was what Imoke inherited from Duke in 2007 and sustained till 2015 when he handed over to Governor Ben Ayade. It was PDP all the way.

Governor Duke from Cross River South Senatorial district had facilitated the zoning arrangement by handing over to Imoke from Central in 2007 and Imoke, despite some challenges sustained the zoning arrangement by allowing governorship ticket to go North and Ayade who had picked PDP form to go back to the Senate was caused to go for governorship by the powers that be. That was how PDP ensured equity and maintained the zoning formula. Similarly there were micro zonings of other positions.

Today the story is changing. Since power was handed over to Ayade, there has been mutual distrust between him and stakeholders, even though PDP sustained its dominance over other parties.

Stakeholders and National Assembly members have accused Ayade of destroying PDP family and tradition. They accused him of not listening to elders, not taking part in party affairs, arrogating all powers to himself and his brother, Frank. The party started whittling down his powers and that set agenda for his exit.

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Stakeholders in the state and majority of State’s National Assembly Caucus who did not like the leadership style of Ayade began to work against his interest.

Back in 2019, a youth group under the aegis of Cross River State Peoples Democratic Party Support Group led by its national coordinator, Chief Edet Essien Asoquo and Robert Ani asked the National Chairman of PDP, Uche Secondus and the National Working Committee (NWC), to deny Ayade, the party’s governorship ticket for second term election, citing alleged breach of trust, poor leadership and covert alliance with the ruling APC, among others.

However after intensive lobby, Ayade was able to overcome the storm as he grabbed the PDP ticket and won election. But the cold war continued, culminating to his loss of state party structures. The stakeholders and National Assembly caucus were able to secure control of the wards and chapter executives from him.

This did not go down well with Ayade who formerly dumped PDP for APC.

Operation show evidence of joining APC
Since his defection, things have not been the same. To maintain firm structure and control of politics in the state, Ayade insisted on operation show your evidence of joining APC before salaries of political appointees and elected officers are paid. The policy forced all the18 local government chairmen, vice chairmen, most of the councillors and more than 6,000 appointees who had in April at the Millennium square staged a solidarity rally for Ayade to “swim or sink with him”.

Liyel Imoke

However some commissioners who refused to go with him have resigned while the allowances of the eight House of Assembly members that refused to decamp with him are being toyed with.

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The PDP said it was illegal to seize their salaries, entitlement. Caretaker chairman and former deputy governor, Mr, Efiok Cobham said: “It is criminal to seize elected officers’ salaries and allowances for not defecting to APC with you. It is true that all benefits and entitlements due PDP legislators at the Assembly and some councillors have been stopped because they are keeping faith with their party”.

However, Speaker of the House of House of Assembly, Mr. Jones William Eteng, said he was not aware that some members’ allowances have been seized and maintained that all salaries due members have been paid.

On the cost of Ayaade’s defection to the State, chairman said, “The defection of Governor Ayade to APC is to cost Cross Riverians N2b. This is what Ayade needs to buy defectors from even his cabinet to follow him to APC. He can readily spend N2b to find his defection to APC because he has ready cash from the almost N19b recently paid to Cross River State as refund for federal road maintenance undertaken by the PDP administrations of governors Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke.”

Ayade’s government denied misappropriation of funds and his Chief of Staff, Mr. Martin Erim said, “Governor Ben Ayade inherited a broken system and had to bear the burden quietly as a people oriented governor. The worst enemies of Cross River State are those telling you that you should not follow Governor Ben Ayade to APC”.

Erim said “let me tell you all one secret that we have concealed in the Government House for the last six years. People castigating Governor Ben Ayade today have borrowed the future of Cross River State and the next three governors in Cross River State cannot pay off the money they borrowed.

“The previous administrations of Governor Donald Duke and Senator Liyel Imoke left a debt of N403 billion for Governor Ayade. The debt of $100 Million today is being deducted from source, every month Cross River State pays N1.8 billion for money that was borrowed by the last two governors.

“Governor Ayade realised that if he does not move to join the centre, the state will soon navigate to zero allocation because the situation is getting critical.”

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Since Ayade’s defection there have been political alignment and realignments. PDP immediately dissolved the state caretaker committee of the party led by Ntufam Edim Inuk and put in place a new one with Mr. Cobham as chairman.

A rally and press briefing was immediately held where Imoke said, “I have to come back, for me I thought I have retired and handed it to some people, thinking that they will keep the tradition, because there is a traditional institute, but they did not keep the tradition, so we have come back to redeem our party, to take it back”.

PDP moved and acquired a new office along Mary Slessor Avenue, Calabar, as the Ayade had forcefully seized its old office at Murtala Mohammed highway.

The National Chairman of PDP, Prince Uche Secondus at the inauguration of the secretariat said, “this is a quit notice to Governor Ayade, he should begin to pack his load and we also know that he is regretting joining APC because more governors are joining the 14 PDP governors from the ruling APC.”

As plots to counter Ayade’s defection thickened, Imoke and Duke settled their differences after throwing tantrums at each other. Duke had returned to PDP fold after about 14 years.

Duke and Imoke hosted two meetings where the three musketeers (Imoke, Duke and Senator Gershom Bassey) with other founding members and stakeholders met behind closed doors and formed a formidable front to recapture the state from APC.

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Duke amidst cheers and applause said, “it’s not about winning elections, we are trying to build people and not just winning elections and I think that is what politics is all about. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of people are waiting to hear from us and waiting to see that our house is in order and I want to say something; this house is in order.

“Right now, there is greatest thing at stake, which is the corporate unity of all of us. I may have gone on sabbatical and temporary retirement but you will find no record of me retiring from PDP. We have work to do and we can’t sit down here to do this work. Just as in 1999 we traversed length and breadth of this country. Let us go back to that root and once again traverse the length and breadth. Let our children who we want to put into the system see that their fathers are still around and are laughing because you can inherit anything.”

Now that Ayade has taken a walk, one of the stalwarts said the main option open to PDP is to effectively and deliberately galvanised its members given that the state is familiar with PDP. By so doing they may decimate the “alert strategy” (food on the table strategy) of APC.

For the state’s National Assembly caucus leader, Senator Gershom Bassey, the slogan to PDP members especially to those in Ayade’s government is “join but don’t move.”

Another challenge to PDP and APC is how they can manage the existing zoning arrangements.

In 2018, elders of Northern and Southern senatorial districts had formerly agreed on a zoning system to rotate governorship among the three senatorial zones of the state and promised to meet with elders of central in a subsequent meeting to cement the arrangement.

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The meeting had in attendance from the north a former military Administrator of Rivers state, Brigadier General Anthony Ukpo; a PDP chieftain, the late Chief Linus Okom; former chairman of NRC, Chief J. I. C. Igbe; a top businessman, Mr. Idih Yakubu, former General Manager Nigerian Chronicle, Chief Charles Abuo; former House of Assembly member in the days of defunct SDP Mr. Marc Enahme, the Northern Senatorial District Forum’s secretary Mr. Leonard Anyogo; Mrs. Theresa Ezama and others while those from south included the host, Chief Ekpenyong; former House of Representative member, Amb. Nkoyo Toyo, serving House of representative member, Mr. Eta Mbora; a former commissioner in the state Prof. Ayara Ayara, former State Chairman of PDP, Elder John Okon, former commissioner for lands in Donald Dukes era, Chief Bassey Ndem and few others.

Florence Ita-Giwa

Consequently, they resolved that “the principle of rotation and zoning of governorship seat should be maintained and sustained amongst the three senatorial districts of the state in all future elections. That such rotation and zoning consists of allowing each senatorial district complete its eight years of two terms, as this was the case in the Southern and Central Senatorial Districts of the State.

“Upon completion of the second term of the Northern Senatorial District, which will be in 2023, the rotation/zoning shall recommence in the Southern Senatorial District and follow in that sequence as earlier instituted”.

However, 2023 is by the corner and both parties are struggling with the issue of zoning.

Ayade has severally said the next governor will come from South but some top persons in government have alleged that Ayade’s body language may not honour the standing zoning arrangement as the governor is said to be interested in handing over to his friend in central, Mr. Chris Agara, while his younger brother, Frank whom the governor had in the early days of his administration declared as the alternate governor, prefers someone from South.

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On the other hand, PDP is also keen on having a candidate from South but rumour on ground is that Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State wants to install his close friend, Senator Sandy Onor, who is currently representing the Central in the Senate.

Whatever way both parties want to go, their choice on zoning may either lift or sink them.

A chieftain of PDP and former Deputy Speaker in the House of Assembly, Otuekong Orok Duke said, “with the movement of Ayade, APC will not win anything unless they rig.”

On zoning and speculation that zoning will now start from Central, he said, “that is an illiterate talk. Nobody begs for power. Whatever they want to do let us see how it plays out and I wish them good luck. But I strongly suspect what is right to everybody will prevail. But the next governor will be from the South and I will not preclude anybody from contesting, after all, when Liyel contested somebody from North challenged him.  After all, it was Liyel that spearheaded the hand over to north. What is fair is fair, everybody believes in justice, fairness and equity. Although in every twelve there must be a Judas, let them come out, we are waiting for them”

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