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How Soludo, Obi’s face-off is shaping Anambra Central Senatorial contest

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
19 January 2023   |   4:00 am
Heads were turned and emotions flared, when Governor Chukwuma Soludo fired his long essay deprecating the presidential aspiration of Mr. Peter Obi on the Labour Party (LP).

Soludo. Photo/twitter/CCSoludo

Heads were turned and emotions flared, when Governor Chukwuma Soludo fired his long essay deprecating the presidential aspiration of Mr. Peter Obi on the Labour Party (LP). But, only those in the know saw the governor’s rough tackles on the LP presidential contender, as a rehash of the long-standing political rivalry between the two Anambra politicians.

Two recent events in Anambra State after Soludo’s negative review of Obi’s presidential run, have gone ahead to highlight how far the face-off between the two men could go to shape the February 25 presidential and National Assembly poll.

The two events include the showdown between the PDP and APGA Senatorial candidates – Senator Uche Lilian Ekwunife and Hon. Dozie Ferdinand Nwankwo – at the annual Iguaro in Enugwukwu, and the pulling down of campaign billboards of the APGA presidential and Senatorial contenders – Obi and Senator Victor Umeh, by the state government.

Those two encounters perfectly underscored the criticality of Anambra Central Senatorial seat to the contests on February 25. Both Soludo and Obi have a stake in what happens to the contest for the Senatorial seat, even though none of them is on the ballot for the contest.

As incumbent governor, Soludo sees the Senatorial contest as a referendum on his ten months’ leadership of APGA, while Obi, who hails from the Senatorial District would want to prove that his presidential aspiration has the imprint of home support and acceptability.

APGA Senatorial candidate, Hon. Nwankwo, is a second term member of the House of Representatives, who defeated the former national chairman of the party, Umeh, at the party’s primary election in May 2022. Piqued by what he perceived as an underhand method to get him out of the system, Umeh moved over to Labour Party and effortlessly picked the Senatorial ticket for the February 25 poll. Then, the incumbent Senator, Ekwunife, one of the two female Senators from Anambra State, is in her second term.

Ekwunife and Umeh tangled in the 2015 poll, before her victory was cut short by Umeh’s success at the Election Petition Tribunal, which faulted the process that threw her up on PDP platform. However, clinching the PDP ticket for the Senatorial contest, Ekwunife contested unsuccessfully for the November 9, 2021 governorship ticket of PDP.

Having been married from Anambra South Senatorial District to Anambra Central, it was alleged that Ekwunife worked surreptitiously for the eventual electoral triumph of Governor Soludo. Both Ekwunife and Soludo hail from the old Aguata union of Anambra South Senatorial District of the state.

Sources within the PDP alleged that the incumbent Senator supported Soludo from behind to undermine the PDP governorship contender, Mr. Valentine Ozigbo, an ally of Obi. Ekwunife’s supporters claimed that Obi influenced the emergence of Ozigbo, the former CEO of Transcorp Hilton, a development they said prompted their principal to support “her brother” during the governorship election.

Now, as the election draws close, Soludo seems to have been caught between and betwixt, dangling over whether to align with party loyalty, which means identifying with Nwankwo, or satisfying the dictates of political IOU earned by Senator Ekwunife through covert support during the governorship poll.

Although Nwankwo was said to have supported Soludo’s governorship campaigns with some hefty dollars in addition to other logistic inputs, the governor sees Ekwunife as a formidable candidate that could battle the LP Senatorial candidate, Umeh, who is basking in the euphoria of Obidient Movement, Obi’s supporters.

It was also gathered that Governor Soludo is leaving all cards open regarding future prospects in PDP. Chief Executive Officer of Oranto Petroleum, Prince Arthur Eze, expatiated on the prospects during the ofala festival of his brother, Igwe Robert Eze, the Dunu of Dunukofia. On the occasion, Eze disclosed how he pleaded with Peter Obi to drop his presidential ambition, noting that the political calculation was that Atiku would hand over to Soludo.

The former Vice President had also assured the Southeast that he remains the stepping-stone for Igbo Presidency, even as he remarked that his relationship with the former CBN governor transcends politics. “We are united in the idea of a united and progressive Nigeria,” Atiku had stated.

On his part, Soludo had explained that he had to cut short his travel to receive the former Vice President, noting that Anambra people were ready to hear from him on his plans towards economic prosperity of the country.

But, while the banter was going on between Atiku and Soludo, the situation in Anambra State chapter of PDP does not seem so bright for future deals to be concretised. Although some insiders claim that Soludo’s romance with PDP was ostensibly to escape the leadership crisis between embattled Ozonkpu Ike Oye and Chief Edozie Njoku, there are hurdles he would face.

One is the possibility that Senator Ekwunife, if she wins the Senatorial contest next month, might decide to also contest the 2025 governorship. Not that alone, Prof. Obiora Okoronkwo, who yielded the Senatorial ticket to Ekwunife in 2019, is currently the Director General of PDP Presidential Campaign Council for Anambra State. Like Ekwunife, Okonkwo participated in the last PDP governorship primary in 2021, but was shortchanged through the belated substitution and supplanting of delegates.

Peeved by that breach of process, Okonkwo, who is also the Chairman of United Nigeria Airlines, left PDP and joined the Zenith Labour Party (ZLP) on which platform he eventual participated in the November 9, 2021 governorship poll.

Some PDP national leaders, including Senator Ben Ndi Obi and immediate past Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, were said to have mounted pressures on the United Nigeria Airlines boss to return to PDP. And having hearkened to the pleas of the well meaning and high heeled party chieftains, Okonkwo continued from where he stopped in supporting the party financially.

Apart from his appointment as the chairman of the Presidential Campaign Committee, a role reserved for state leaders, Okonkwo is believed to be waiting in the wings to re-contest the governorship poll on PDP ticket. Consequently, how Governor Soludo’s relationship with PDP would impact on the gubernatorial ambitions of Okonkwo and Ekwunife would be an interesting development. But, the sentiments within the fold of the Atiku camp is that if next month’s poll favours the former Vice President, he would serve for just one term and yield the space to a Southeasterner. That suggestion presages a possible one -term governorship for Prof. Soludo

However, such easy postulations do not factor in the political interest of the presidential running mate, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, who would serve as Vice President. Such easy political scenarios can only be feasible on paper and in the dreamland.

But, the immediate bridge to cross is the February 25 presidential and National Assembly elections. Apart from Umeh’s stint, APGA has never produced a Senator for Anambra State. This could explain Governor Soludo’s covert for Senator Ekwunife in the belief that she stands a better chance than Nwankwo as an incumbent to square up to Umeh in the contest for Anambra Central Senatorial contest.

The fear in Awka is the possible interplay of bandwagon support for Obi and the political need to throw up a Senator that could serve as the Labour Party’s insider in the 10th Senate. Umeh is being sold as a strong voice to mainstream Obi’s cost-cutting and other legislations that would define his presidency if he wins next month’s presidential poll.

Soludo’s stake in the election is not limited to calculations for future political aspirations. The governor is said to be worried that a win for Obi and Umeh would engender LP’s ascendancy in the state. The imperative of such prominence is the immediate atrophy of embattled APGA. It is also believed among Anambra politicians that in the event that Obi and LP routs APGA, Soludo would have to defend his 2021 victory in a possible rematch with Valentine Ozigbo, who was the PDP standard bearer in the previous gubernatorial poll.

Yet, knowing the capacity of Senator Victor Umeh to dominate his immediate political environment, the governor is said to be doing all in his power to ensure that the February 25 poll would not be an easy road to power for Obi and Umeh.

It is apparent that in the continuing effort to avoid the combined political firepower of the former governor and former APGA national chairman, that the state government decided to pull down the campaign billboards of the Labour Party candidates from strategic positions in major cities.

Although Tony Ujubuonu, the Managing Director of Anambra Signage and Advertising Agency (ANSAA), rejected insinuations that Governor Soludo ordered the removal of the billboards, he admitted that the campaign materials were pulled down by the agency.

But, the state chapter of LP accused the governor of directing the removal of the large billboard bearing the images of Obi and Umeh at the Unizik temporary Site junction, stressing that the advert placement was fully paid for and deployed by a firm that was registered with the Advertising Practitioners’ Council of Nigeria (APCON).

A staff of the agency, who pleaded anonymity, claimed that ANSA disclosed that the government does not want Labour Party advert at the city centre and was refunding any fees paid for such big bill boards, including the one at border town between Anambra South and Anambra Central Districts in Afor Nnobi.

APGA, recently kicked off its campaign for the forthcoming general elections, but the spat between Governor Soludo and Obi and Labour Party seems to have diminished the fact that the party is participating in the election, especially against the background of alleged plans by the party to endorse the candidate of PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, for the presidential poll.
Origin of hostility

The differences in political orientation and preferences between Soludo and Obi are not a recent development.  Peter Obi was the chairman of Fidelity Bank Plc long before Soludo as the Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank (CBN) rolled out the banking consolidation policy in the country. However, their political paths crossed around 2010, precisely in the build up the Anambra State governorship poll, when Obi was seeking a second term in office as governor.

Having left the CBN, Soludo was drafted by former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua into the governorship race in his home state as a preparatory ground. But, emerging as the governorship candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in a contest that paraded as many as 47 aspirants roughened the former CBN governor.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, party enforcers managed to impose Soludo on the PDP, just as Yar’Adua’s ill-health weakened Soludo’s chances at the February 10 governorship poll. Meanwhile, as an incumbent and member of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Governor Obi had to strike a political understanding with the then Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, whom fortuitous circumstances placed in a strategic position of acting President in Yar’Adua’s absence due to long medical leave.

And so, bereft of the legendary federal might, Soludo flunked the governorship poll, as Obi rode on his record of achievements and understanding of the Jonathan Presidency to net his most cherished second term in office.

Towards the tail end of Obi’s governorship in 2013, former Education Minister, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili pleaded with the outgoing governor to consider supporting Soludo to succeed him as Anambra State chief executive so as to hold aloft the development paradigm in the state.

Having promised the Anambra North Senatorial District that his successor would come from their area, Obi could not assure Ezekwesili of the feasibility of her request. However, based on the discussion and belief that Soludo’s pedigree could sway the delegates during the governorship primary, the former CBN governor joined APGA and announced his governorship intentions.

But, no sooner than he joined APGA than then national chairman, Umeh, set up a governorship screening committee to vet the aspirants that had purchased the nomination forms. The highpoint of the screening exercise was the disqualification of Soludo and Dr. Chike Obidigbo, who primed as the consensus choice of Anambra North Senatorial District.

With the popular aspirants out of the way, APGA chieftains found it easy to return Chief Willie Obiano as the party’s candidate for the 2013 poll. Ever since that second political baptism of fire, Charlie Nwamgbafor, as Soludo is called, appears not to have forgotten both men, Obi and Umeh.

Barely ten months into his governorship, Soludo is up to another round of political battle with his two old foes, who had found favour in Labour Party. It is left to be seen how far the renewed political supremacy battles among these Anambra politicians would go to define the forthcoming general elections.

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