Thursday, 8th June 2023

Plugs in Southern governors’ coalition

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
26 September 2021   |   4:20 am
There are three emergent political power foci in the Southern Governors’ Forum. Right from May 2021, when the 17 state governors held their historic initial meeting in Asaba...

Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi

There are three emergent political power foci in the Southern Governors’ Forum. Right from May 2021, when the 17 state governors held their historic initial meeting in Asaba, Delta State, these three have continued to pander towards consistent intervention in the socio-political progression of the country.
After the Asaba conclave, where the governors made the unequivocal declaration against open grazing, they have held two similar meetings in Lagos and Enugu. However, from the outcomes of the three meetings, particularly the nature of attendance and utterances from stakeholders, the emergent points of convergence would determine how far the Southern governors can go to achieve their set targets.
These tendencies have come to be represented by three second-term state governors, namely Oluwarotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, Engineer David Umahi of Ebonyi State and Nyesom Wike of Rivers State.
Within the past one year, these three state governors have pushed some socio-economic cum political talking points that are impacting on national discourse. And, to some extents, their backgrounds help to underscore the various tendencies they push to the front burner.

Apart from the issue of background and political orientation, it could be seen that these leaders represent or try to reflect the viewpoints or interests of either geopolitical zone, their state or political progression.
In all these, as the governors try to influence the budding Southern coalition, it could be deduced that concerns or calculations for the 2023 Presidential politics influence their stance to some extent.
For instance, despite the fact that Governors Akeredolu and Umahi belong to the same political party, the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), they do not seem to agree on the issue of states collecting and holding Value Added Tax (VAT) accruing from their domains.
Arising from the Asaba meeting, it was obvious that the nearly all the 17 governors acknowledged the imperatives of tackling insecurity in the South. It was after the Lagos meeting, which threw up the issue of zoning of the 2023 Presidency, that political considerations began to seep in. Governors from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) saw the talks about 2023 as a bargain chip of their counterparts from the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) to underscore the inviolability of the party’s (APC) promise to Southwest that it would throw up President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor after his second term.
While that political angling was playing out, Rivers State government secured a favourable court ruling that restored the right of states to collect and keep revenue accruals from the Value Added Tax (VAT) levies. The judgment sparked national debate and invariably set the tone for further engagement by the Southern Governors’ Forum.
Unexpectedly, before the next Southern Governors’ meeting, which had to be scheduled for Enugu, Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had bought in fully into the VAT controversy. And as the stage was set for the Southern Governors to adopt a common stance, Ebonyi State governor, Umahi, who doubles as chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum, opted for a different position, choosing to support the status quo in VAT collection and distribution by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) on behalf of the Federal Government.    
But, unlike Sanwo-Olu, who provided back up support for Wike, Umahi’s stance seemed to have been endorsed by the other four Southeast governors, but one. Yet, the Southeast governors’ seeming opposition, which must have informed their absence from the Enugu meeting, was opposed by experts and individuals from Southeast.
For instance, a certified financial and investment advisor, Dr. Nnaemeka Obiaraeri, dismissed the Ebonyi governor’s argument, stressing that the Southern Governors’ efforts to adopt a common stand is the best way to rebase the country’s socio-economic realities.
Obiaraeri maintained that the South’s governors “need to speak with one voice” to show that a beggar does not threaten his benefactors, even as he compared the VAT figures to the voting records from Kano and other northern states.
Making a comparative analysis of number of votes cast in June 12, 1993 Presidential and those generated from the 2019 poll, the investment banker said “southern leaders must insist on full fiscal federalism now. We must revert to the 1960/1963 constitutional framework or we risk a break up of this country into six regions.”
Obiaraeri stated that while votes scored in the 1993 poll were, Kano (442, 300), Lagos, (1, 033, 297); Rivers, (I, 011, 551) and Oyo, 627, 000; in the 2015 poll, Kano, Lagos and Rivers states returned the following: 2, 128, 821; 1, 443, 686 and 1, 487, 075, respectively.  
“No country,” he argued, “is ever built on the foundation of lies, propaganda, falsehood and unbending criminal falsification of official data and records needed for careful planning.” 
On the 2020 VAT fight, Obiaraeri said it was revealing that “if you remove Lagos, FCT and Rivers from the equation (as a result of the headquarters effect), you will discover clearly that Oyo State generated N64billion, which is far higher than the N24billion by Kano and N22.6billion by Kaduna. 
“Oyo State is one state, whose demographics and numbers are reflected clearly by empirical facts – VAT generation, IGR (internally Generated Revenue) generation, school enrolment, mobile phone Sim Card registration, BVN (Bank Verification), TIN (Tax Identification) numbers.”
However, despite the difference in the political grouping of the Southern governors, while Akeredolu and Wike agree on the VAT issue, the same could not be said of their stance on the question of powershift to the South in 2023.
Against that contrasting background, it could also be seen that while Akeredolu holds views that resonate with his Southwest colleagues, Umahi and Wike advance causes that are more reflexive on their individual states. There are other nuances that could help explain what some commentators describe as discordant tones from the South.

Rotimi Akeredolu. Photo/faceboo/rotimiaketi

Akeredolu: Steamroller
AKETI is a governor like no other. He kick-started the bold move to confront the incursion of killer herders into the South, through his quit notice to itinerant cattle rearers occupying the Ondo Forest Reserves.
Perhaps, on account of his disdain for political correctness and decision to overlook the likelihood of his stance injuring his re-election chances, it was not surprising that the Southern governors adopted him as their chairman.
After winning his second term mandate, Aketi continued with activism, culminating in the Southern Governors’ coalition that debuted at the Asaba, Delta meeting in May. He demonstrated lack of constrains or concerns for his political future, despite belonging to APC.
Recently he made what many commentators saw as ambivalent statements when he declared that APC’s future was uncertain even as he declared the former Lagos State governor and national leader of the party, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, remains the Political ‘capone’ of Southwest APC.
Speaking when he appeared on a national television programme, Governor Akeredolu had declared: “I am an APC person and I have said it over and over that I won’t leave APC. Once I am through, I am going back to my chambers where I find more comfort. So, whoever the APC brings, I will support.
“For the national leader, we are waiting for him to come so that critical decisions could be taken. He is our leader in the South and the one we can call our Capone.”
To show that the intensity of North versus South contestation for socio-economic cum political equilibrium was more defined in the governing APC, the chairman of Southern Governors’ Forum did not waste time to respond to insinuation by Governor El Rufai of Kaduna State that the anti-open grazing law, which Akeredolu steered, was not implementable.
Expressing the possibility that Governor elRufai might have been quoted out of context, Akeredolu, who spoke through his Commissioner for Information, Donald Ojogo, declared: “There is no wisdom in condemning/banning open grazing, prohibiting inter border movement of cattle in the North, including Kaduna, with an accompanying disapproval of a law that gives bite to same, in another part of the country.
“For emphasis, any such comment like that of the Kaduna Governor…merely seeks to encourage anarchy under the guise “of resentment of a Law by affected stakeholders.

“It’s a ploy beyond the ordinary. It must, however, be noted that the Anti-Grazing Law, especially in Ondo State, has come to stay. It shall be zealously guarded and conscionably deployed to protect all residents of Ondo State, notwithstanding their ethnic and religious biases. Those who have nothing evil to perpetrate have nothing to fear as regards the Law.”
From his actions and utterances, some stakeholders infer that the Ondo governor is exercising authority on behalf of the South, his state, and Southwest interest in APC.
But however his position is being evaluated, vis avis the 2023 Presidential permutations, nobody as associated him with any latent or obvious electoral intentions.

Umahi: Adamant Bridge Builder
WHEN he migrated from the opposition PDP, on which platform he was elected on two occasions, Ebonyi State governor, David Umahi, decried the political marginalisation of the Southeast by the party despite 20 years of electoral loyalty.
At his defection, Umahi was received as a big plus to APC, especially given that he is the chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum and the perception in the zone that performed more than his peers in the areas of infrastructure and political sagacity.
Governor Umahi is also being accused of pandering to whims of enemies of Southeast just to enhance his perceived presidential aspiration. That fact came to the fore when he adopted the stance of dissent on the collective effort of his Southern colleagues to line behind the pronouncement of court that states are constitutionally empowered to collect and retain VAT accruals.

Opponents to the governor, including groups and individuals like Oganihu Ebonyi and Obiaraeri, respectively, did not waste time to take the governor up on his position on VAT. But, while Governor Umahi insists that his position was inspite of the fact that Ebonyi returns the highest VAT figures in Southeast, he wanted the Federal Government to retain the right of collection and redistribution for the sake of balancing economic differentials.
In the recent statistics released by the Finance Ministry, the returns by Southeast states show the following VAT figures: Abia, N2.29billion; Anambra, N5.94billion; Ebonyi, N7.89billion; Enugu, N5.48billion and Imo, 1.94billion.
Also, in the total value of goods and services produced by the Southeast states, Ebonyi came top with N105.2billion, while it is being trailed by Anambra (N79.2billion) and Enugu, N73billion.
Whether corruption and insecurity combine to explain the lagging figures from Abia (N30.5billion) and Imo (N25billion) seems out of the question, but the Ebonyi governor said he was mindful of the general economic picture of Southeast than the lack of capacity of his state to collect VAT.

Umahi’s perceived presidential ambition seems to be clouding his reasons for the stance on VAT, just as experts like Obiaraeri express shock that the Southeast has continued to underperform on the various economic indices.
In a post, Obiaraeri stated that since Kano, Oyo and Kaduna states, each generated VAT revenues and engaged in production of goods and services  that are far greater than that of the entire five Southeast states, the leadership and people of the zone should be so ashamed of themselves. 
Varying his stance on the VAT issue, Obiaraeri stated: “I still insist that VAT revenues should be distributed equitably to reflect; 50 per cent to the constituent units, from where the revenues were collected; 35 per cent to the federation account to be shared by others and 15 per cent to the federal government.”
However, another expert, Ikenna Omeje, expressed doubts as to the fidelity of the statistics, even as he praised Obiaraeri for his ability to “put in huge econometrics to the published data on VAT attributed to  Southeast vis – a- vis the figures of some states in the federation. 
“Some of these econometric statistics bandied about are out from the kitchens of some “chefs” who cooked them. Some of us who deal on inferential and nonparametric statistics often find such data un-chartable and non-predictive, and you can’t use them to trend over a development plan period,” Omeje stated.
All the same, a group, Oganihu Ebonyi, in a statement said they prefer the stance of Southern Governors to that of their governor, stressing that the VAT debate would stoke fiscal federalism.
In the statement signed by Dr. Laz Ude Eze; Ani Nwachukwu Agwu; Dr. Ezeh Emmanuel Ezeh; Zacks Onwe; Comrade John Ogbu and Charles Out, among others, the group endorsed the position of Southern Governors led by Akeredolu. 
The group declared: “In what some experts have accurately termed Feeding-bottle Federalism, the current structure midwifed the emergence of ineffective and “lazy” states given to fiscal irresponsibility and profligacy; worsened by the country’s colonial origins and legacies of post-independence military regimes. Driven by the quest for social justice, Oganihu Ebonyi believes that a new structure and fiscal regime are overdue and inevitable for shared progress and development.
“On the recent Value Added Tax (VAT) “war” between states and the Federal Government (FG), we are mindful of subjudice, but strongly opposed to the position of Ebonyi State Government, represented by Governor David Nweze Umahi, that the status quo be maintained, whereby the FG should continue to collect VAT and share to the states.  Rather, we support the position of Southern Governors Forum (SGF) for states to collect VAT as a matter of constitutionality and subnational jurisdiction.”

Wike: Cheeky Checker
GOVERNOR Nyesom Wike likes to brag that he is one state chief executive that does not take pleasure in running to Abuja. The governor has been an unbending critic of the governing APC and President Buhari.
Many observers believe that the heavy federal allocation to Rivers State contributes to the governor’s perceived headiness, especially the fact that he contested his election and re-election for a second term as governor without effective challenge from the opposition APC.  
When the Federal Government paid the Rivers State government the sum of N78billion being money meant to reimburse the state for expenditures it incurred in rehabilitating federal roads in the state, many Nigerians felt that would quell the governor’s antagonism to the federal Government and Buhari.
But, espying the constitutional provision that mandated state governments to collect VAT and sales tax, Wike rushed to Court. The court delivered its ruling on the matter this year.
Relishing the court victory in the emerging VAT spat, Wike was joined by his Lagos State counterpart, Sanwo-Olu, even as he claimed that the Federal Government and some other governors were pleading with them (Rivers and Lagos) to stop further moves to collect VAT directly.
Wike in apparent rebuff of such overtures asked those pleading for understanding on the matter to first of all “accept the illegality of the central government collecting VAT, instead of states.” Wike spoke when his Gombe State counterpart, Bello Muhammad Yahaya urged other states to wake up to the reality on the ground.
The Gombe State governor contended that should the income from VAT cease, it would be extra difficult for state governors like him to pay salaries. Such sentiments must have informed the decision of Court of Appeal to order that states like Rivers and Lagos that were ready to begin collecting VAT to maintain status quo.

Yet, adamant, Wike maintained that VAT, which is not even in the concurrent list falls under the residual list, stressing, “It is not arguable. That yesterday nothing happened does not mean that today nothing will happen, or tomorrow something will not happen.”
Displaying a carefree attitude suggesting that he could do the VAT battle alone irrespective of what his colleagues in Southern Governors’ Forum might do, Wike said as a federation, states should be encouraged to have resources to develop strong economies.
“The issue of VAT did not start from Rivers State alone. It started in Lagos State, when Lagos State challenged it in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court said Lagos shouldn’t have sued the Federal Government.
“Some people say, be your brother’s keeper. I have no problem in being my brother’s keeper. But, why not come out and say, let us tell ourselves the simple truth. As it is being provided in the law, who is the person responsible to collect VAT?” he stated.
As the Court of Appeal ensues temporary reprieve in the VAT crisis, would political consideration douse the fervour and unity of Southern Governors’ Forum? A lot depends on the various plugs generating dissonance in the group.