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Revisiting PDP’s hold on Akwa Ibom State after Akpabio’s ‘uncommon defection’

By Eno-Abasi Sunday
14 May 2019   |   4:19 am
After a careful observation of politicians, their trade and nuances, legendary American author, columnist and radio commentator, John Calvin...

Governor Udom Emmanuel. Photo/Twitter/MrUdomEmmanuel

* ‘Voters saw through APC’s façade, rejected the party roundly’
* ‘APC not defeated, suffered consequences of INEC’s compromise’
* Stakeholders blame woeful performance on membership of ex-governor

After a careful observation of politicians, their trade and nuances, legendary American author, columnist and radio commentator, John Calvin Thomas, came to the conclusion that, “one of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective.”

Thomas, author of The Death of Ethics in America, Blinded By Might and The Things That Matter Most among others was not far from the truth, given contemporary politicians’ capacity to see black, when indeed all is immaculate white.

His compatriot, statesman and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, had earlier sounded a note of caution thus: “politics is such a torment that I advise everyone I love not to mix with it.”

What recently played out in Akwa Ibom State, in a way appears to give the impression that Jefferson’s admonition, though a timeless truism may not be the thinking in these climes. It partly accounts for the surprise alignment of political enemies and hitherto divergent forces in the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), all in an attempt to oust incumbent governor, Udom Gabriel Emmanuel, of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Akwa Ibom State.

Barely six years ago, Godswill Obot Akpabio spotted and fell in love with former bank executive Emmanuel, made him Secretary to the State Government (SSG), and against all odds, facilitated his emergence as governor of the state. Emmanuel, a banker of repute, who only just got into the political mix, had barely completed his first term as governor when Akpabio, his erstwhile political godfather, started tormenting him. Akpabio eventually parted ways with PDP, and thereafter declared an all-out war against his estranged godson, and the party that brought him to limelight.

Before the spat between Akpabio and Emmanuel became a full-blown crisis, it had festered underground for a while even as both men kept denying any feud between them, and shared cosmetic smiles whenever occasions demanded. However, what looked like the first major crack popped up when Akpabio accused Emmanuel of abandoning projects that he initiated in his Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District, better known as Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District.

Before long, things got into overdrive with aides of both titans in a dilemma over how to explain the worsening relationship between their principals. Akpabio, sacrificing his office as Senate Minority Leader and his eventual “uncommon defection” to APC, effectively drew the battle line and gave his aides the latitude to fire from all cylinders. Apart from being a common denominator in the Akwa Ibom takeover bid, he was also the generalissimo, who eventually commanded the APC squad to a battle, which the party eventually lost.

Barely two months after the election in the state, political watchers are still battling to fix the jigsaw puzzle that the 2019 general elections became, and to fathom how the opposition party collapsed in a spectacular fashion despite the assurances given by maverick Akpabio in the wake of the remarkable volte-face that he made. Indeed, what many people are still trying to come to terms with is how a band of strange bedfellows managed to congregate in APC with the intent to oust a party that they had been part of at different times even when the government and the party still enjoy cult-like followership from the governed.

This development led many to conclude that as far as this dispensation is concerned, nowhere in the country other than Akwa Ibom is the saying that “in politics, there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends; only permanent interests” more applicable. This is what aptly describes how a constellation of political heavyweights ended up in the same boat with their erstwhile political foe as their leader.

Boosting the opposition
Since the return to democracy in 1999, the opposition in Akwa Ibom State has largely remained in name and without capacity to cause the ruling PDP much headache. That is perhaps why the slogan that “PDP is like a religion” in the state has kept on gaining currency.

The closest the opposition came to causing the PDP any form of discomfort was in 2011 when Akpabio squared up against Senator John James Akpanudoedehe of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). The atmosphere was so heated that supporters of both parties were maiming and killing themselves in different parts of the state, especially in areas where Akpabio and Akpanudoedehe hail from.

“The grand finale” of that season of madness was when the supporters of both men clashed in Uyo, the state capital, and the ensuing melee led to deaths and the razing down of over 300 brand new taxi cabs at the State Secretariat, along Abak Road. Till date, no one has been held accountable for the mayhem. Akpanudoedehe whom the state charged for arson among others was discharged and acquitted, while the state lost billions of naira. The main dramatis personae, Akpabio and Akpanudoedehe, are now political allies.

Apart from claiming to join the APC in order to ensure that Akwa Ibom is mainstreamed into the politics at the centre, Akpabio equally shocked many when he claimed that in 2015, his heart was with President Muhammadu Buhari. This was at a time when he was still one of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s main backers, as well as one of the PDP’s poster boys.

On several occasions, Akpabio also alleged that his unquenchable desire to remove his estranged godson from office was simply to get the state linked to the politics at the centre so that it could attract more dividends of democracy.

He further alleged during his electioneering that Governor Emmanuel, whom he picked, against all odds, was not living up to the expectations of the people, and has also become a huge clog in the drive towards sustainable development.

More importantly, he further claimed that the PDP’s order that has existed in the state since the return of democracy in 1999 had become anachronistic, causing the state to seriously need a new political order, which only the APC has the capacity to install.

The opposition that has always been more like a sleeping giant in the state came alive on August 8 last year when Akpabio formally announced to the world that he had defected to APC, a move many now conclude may have cost him his political career.

Apart from the reasons Akpabio adduced for ditching the party, many other reasons trended for lengthy periods in and out of the state. But one of the most believable versions was that he embraced APC with a promise to specifically deliver Akwa Ibom State to the ruling party, help to deliver the South South in order to be spared prosecution for his alleged financial crimes.

Right from his defection rally, the APC crowd began to swell and commissioners sacked by Emmanuel for being part of Akpabio’s reception party at the Victor Attah International Airport promptly joined him. So also did a handful of special assistants, special advisers and others, who resigned from Emmanuel’s cabinet in huge numbers. Akpabio was also alleged to be the major force behind the botched attempt to impeach Governor Emmanuel, as well as the Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Onofiok Luke, late last year.

Akpabio’s arrival in APC rejuvenated it, brought verve into its campaign, attracted new members, and also caused the ruling party an initial loss of sleep that necessitated a radical review of its campaign strategy.

The presence of some major serving and former government dignitaries all of whom knew the PDP like the back of their palm, also added to the party’s worries. Other than Akpanudoedehe, others former PDP brass hats that waged war against the party included President Buhari’s aide on Senate Matters, Senator Ita Enang; former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Atuekong Don Etiebet and former deputy governor and APC’s governorship candidate, Obong Nsima Ekere.

For now, the outcomes of the general elections have clearly confirmed two things. One, it showed that whatever momentum Akpabio’s defection to APC conferred on the party was pyrrhic. Secondly, it strongly underlined the reality of the devotion of the people to PDP as a party, and to Emmanuel as their governor.

From uncommon defector to uncommon loser
Upon resigning as Senate Minority Leader, Akpabio took a number of steps, which gave APC the impression that he had something to offer the party. Apart from convincing the party and indeed the Buhari Presidential Campaign Council to flag off the presidential campaign in Uyo, he also boasted at campaign grounds that the presidential elections in the state would be concluded within three hours.

With his self-acclaimed role as Akwa Ibom kingmaker, it was easy for him to underrate his people and his challenger to the senatorial seat, Obong Christopher Ekpenyong of PDP. He externalised his assessment of Ekpenyong’s capacity when he declared that the contest would be “a walkover.” In the same fashion, he failed to explain to the bulk of his constituents why he jumped ship, expecting that they would follow him wherever he goes.

Akpabio’s constituents comprise a group known as Abak Five, who have been denied the Senate seat over the years. They also include the people of Ini and Ikono Local Government Areas, who elected not to cower in the face of intimidation, as well as the people of Obot Akara Local Government Area, who were left with no option than to back Ekpenyong, their son.

The rage of elders, stakeholders and the electorate in Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District knew no bound when without consultations with them, Akpabio was reported to have declared: “I can stand alone and win my election to the Senate, even without belonging to any political party.”

It was at this point that some of his die-hard kinsmen including the current PDP National Legal Adviser, Emmanuel Enoidem Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien, his brother, Sir Emem Akpabio, his cousin, Prince Ukpong Akpabio and others stakeholders took a resolution to remain with Emmanuel in PDP and abandon the senator, who in their estimation had overrated his political prowess.

Peeved by the defection and the mayhem that enveloped them during the election, the people of Essien Udim Local Government Area equally gave him cold shoulders for betraying them. At a press briefing in Uyo, addressed by a certain Prince Ukpong Akpabio, said to be a cousin of the former governor, they accused the former senate minority leader of unleashing violence and terror on them.

In a communiqué signed by the stakeholders and leaders, which Imo-owo Okpokpo read, Essien Udim people urged Akpabio to desist from further advertising “his declining and dwindling political status through various press interviews as such would continue to deepen his failing image. We have totally rejected him as a people.”

Little or nothing was known about Akpabio politically until Obong Victor Bassey Attah in 2002 appointed him Commissioner for Petroleum and Natural Resources. Between 2002 and 2006, Akpabio went ahead to serve as commissioner in two other ministries- Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, as well as Lands and Housing.

As Commissioner for Chieftaincy and Local Government Affairs, he interfaced with a good number of those that matter in all 31 local councils in the state, and in the process built reasonable political goodwill, which came in handy during the PDP’s governorship primaries in 2006.

With the power rotation arrangement brokered by elders of the state, Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District was in line to produce the political leadership of the state at the end of Attah’s tenure. But Attah’s attempt to foist his son-in-law, Dr. Udoma Bob Ekarika was met with stiff resistance. In the equally stiff party primary that followed, Akpabio, a lawyer by training, carried the day among the over 50 aspirants.

Since emerging the third civilian governor of the state in 2007, and at a time that monthly allocations to the state were huge, he carved a niche for himself by building on Attah’s legacies, and also spearheading several developmental projects of his own, even though analysts are still raising eyebrows about the cost of most of his signature projects till date.

In 2011, Akpabio got re-elected for a second term in office. He was later elected pioneer chairman of Peoples Democratic Party Governors Forum in 2013, a breakaway faction of the Governors Forum.

While serving as governor, Akpabio started manifesting the image of an emperor, who brooked no dissenting voice in his empire, neither did he watch with glee, as aides or lieutenants of his nurture their political ambitions without his knowledge, or blessings. It is on record that his administration had the highest turnover of deputy governors – three in all. That is Patrick Ekpo Otu, Nsima Ekere and Mrs. Valerie Ebe in that order.

Some of the aides whose ambition he did not sanction, and who were eventually “disciplined” for attempting to forge ahead without his blessings are Ekere and former SSG, Umanah Okon Umanah, who was given the boot and replaced with Emmanuel in controversial circumstances. Akpabio also spared no expense in blocking Umanah’s governorship ambition on the PDP platform.

Irked and frustrated by Akpabio’s disposition towards him, the former reliable ally, who was then seen as the brain box of Akpabio’s government, defected from PDP to APC, where he squared up against Emmanuel in the guber election and lost.

Akpanudoedehe waning political relevance
One of the chieftains that APC banked on to help it capture Uyo Senatorial District in particular and Akwa Ibom State in general was Senator Akpanudoedehe, who was Akpabio’s campaign chief in the 2007 governorship election.

Before joining ACN where he got the governorship ticket to challenge Akpabio’s re-election, Akpanudoedehe was a frontline party man in PDP and was thought to still muster sufficient political clout. But PDP’s resounding victory in his senatorial district confirms his waning relevance and clout.

Akpanudoedehe, who was before now something akin to a needle under Akpabio’s ampit, fought the former governor and even joined Obong Attah to stop Akpabio from having a second term. Ekarika, Attah’s son-in-law, ended up serving as Akpanudoedehe’s governorship campaign manager when he attempted to unseat Akpabio. He equally lost at the polls.

Last year, Akpanudoedehe equally joined the governorship race yet again, but failed to win the party’s ticket. After polling only 2,015 votes in the contest where the winner Ekere got a whopping 167,896, Akpanudoedehe rejected the result saying, “I am rejecting the result in totality,” alleging that the primary was characterised by “outright rigging, misuse of the police force, and high-level corruption.

“In 2015, John Oyegun came to this town and presented Umanah Okon Umanah before me, and said this is the new face of APC in the state. It was unwarranted. What do they have against me? They told me ‘Oh, Umanah has money, you don’t have money!’ Today, it is the same thing. Must I be the managing director of NDDC to steal money before you know I have money to run election?

“The system cannot continually be against one man. I have done nothing wrong; rather, I have sacrificed so much for this party. What kind of evil is that?” Akpaudoedehe lamented that he had only been betrayed, but not defeated.

Nsima Ekere

Ekere’s perennial quest to govern Akwa Ibom
Before venturing into politics, Ekere was the Principal Partner at Ekere and Associates, a firm of estate valuers and real estate development consultants. He also sat on the board of Voice of Nigeria (VON), as well as served in some other outfits.

Long before he was made deputy governor by Akpabio, Ekere had in December 1997 contested and won election into Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly during the Abacha transition period on the platform of Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM). Abacha’s death prevented his inauguration and truncated the transition.

He joined PDP at the start of the General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s transition programme in 1998. Ten years later, he was made Executive Chairman of Akwa Ibom Investment & Industrial Promotion Council (AKIIPOC). He also served as Chairman of Ibom Power Company.

On May 29, 2011, he was appointed deputy governor, but after just about one year and a half in office, Ekere hurriedly resigned from office on Wednesday, October 31. This was to beat his planned impeachment by the state Assembly. It later emerged that Ekere had fallen out with Akpabio over his governorship ambition, especially the way he went about pursuing it. Ekere was the leader of a group of 22 PDP governorship aspirants that protested against the manner in which the December 2014 PDP primaries were conducted.

When Akpabio met Ekere in APC, he assured him that he would pull all stops to make him governor. Akpabio, many alleged, abandoned his personal campaign and was pushing the “Emmanuel must go” agenda to the detriment of his re-election bid. Both bids have since failed and both the former NDDC managing director and the former governor are at the election tribunals.

Emmanuel as new kid on the bloc
What is still baffling many is how politically unskilled Emmanuel, who does not posses the kind of clout or oratorical powers that his estranged godfather has, was able to triumph in a battle that has similarities with the biblical David and Goliath war. Now, with no umbilical cord to tap nutrition from his estranged godfather, Emmanuel, a sworn enemy of the “uncommon defector”, has to grow up fast and begin to reciprocate the confidence reposed in him by his people.

However, apart from turning to God with his “Divine Mandate” campaign team, which catch word, “Only God” resonated well with his followers, he equally locked the grassroots in a warm embrace, explaining to them at every given opportunity what he had done, and what he was still capable of doing.

In countering narratives from the Akpabio-powered APC campaign, allegedly backed by the Federal Government in its mission to oust the governor for no reason, Emmanuel urged the people to reject the APC, and used every opportunity to emphasise his achievements thus: “We have done over 1,700 Km of roads, built 15 industries, empowered the youths on agricultural and other vocational skills, provided empowerment, health and free education programmes for our people. Yet, the opposition says we have not done anything.”

APC has nothing to offer
Still basking in the euphoria of its comprehensive defeat of the opposition, PDP says Akwa Ibomites deserve a pat on the back for seeing through the veneer of lies, keeping faith with the facts, and staying with their first love.

The publicity secretary of the party in the state, Ini Ememobong, recently told The Guardian, “The APC in Akwa Ibom State had nothing to offer the electorate. Their promises were shallow and transparently unattainable; the people saw through the facade presented by them and roundly rejected them. The opposition APC was acting true to their other name: Aggrieved Peoples Conglomeration (APC). Their campaign was bile-filled and hateful. Instead of serving the people with a roadmap, they dished raw hatred and undiluted falsehood. The people had no option than to reject them at the polls.”

On what made the people to keep faith with the party despite the heated campaigns and the promises of connection to the centre, he said, “PDP entrenched deeper internal democracy in her affairs from 2015. This boosted the confidence of the electorate, as they had seen the exit of imposition and impunity from the party.

“Additionally, the Udom Emmanuel-led administration engaged in people-centric governance, where soft spots like healthcare and education became the focus, with hospitals reconstructed in different areas and tertiary institutions face-lifted.

“For the first time in our state, government attracted industries that were viable and running. The metering and the syringe factories kick-started operations in earnest and people saw the products in the market. The launch of Ibom Air was like a miracle and the people erupted with joy. These are few of the many things that the party and government did that earned it the goodwill and loyalty of Akwa Ibom people, translating into a superlative electoral victory for the party.”

Despite the deep-seated acrimony induced by the elections, Ememobong said the “party still runs an open-door policy. So, we are willing and ready to revive anybody who is genuinely interested in nation building. We were established as a national party, and a vehicle for the attainment of fast-tracked development. So, if people who left come to that realisation and decide to return home, we’ll of course receive them, purge them of their political iniquities and reinstate them.

“APC was a bed filled with many strange fellows, galvanised to achieve the sole aim of grabbing power. Politics must be value-based, where the players subscribe to those values. The APC couldn’t totally harmonise their position before the elections. So, a common pursuit with wholesome disposition was impossible.”

On how the party coped in the wake of Akpabio’s departure, Ememobong, a legal practitioner, said: “Chief Akpabio was a great beneficiary of the party’s benevolence, and the party was disappointed and pained at his defection. But it had to immediately move beyond the defection and plotted strategies to remain in firm control of the power levers at all levels in the state. It is manifest now that PDP has a winning machine powered at different times by different people. That machine won for Akpabio like it did for Obong Attah and Governor Udom Emmanuel. So, in essence PDP won elections for Akpabio and not the other way round. With Akpabio leaving the party, and the machine still intact, it was activated to win all the declared seats available in the state. The lesson to be learnt is that no man is indispensable and pride goes before a fall.

“Additionally, the God factor that Governor Udom Emmanuel relied on was definitive throughout the entire process. It is said that when you challenge a man who is carrying God’s grace, you’ll end up disgraced. We give God all the glory for the victory he has granted us.”

APC’s counter-narrative
Apart from allegedly abandoning his campaign and focusing on Emmanuel’s removal, Akpabio’s arrival in APC caused friction, especially because of the number of political enemies he met in the party whom he actually drove away as governor. Consequently, he had no choice but to beg for forgiveness at the first caucus meeting of the party that he attended after his defection. Truth be told, not many APC members embraced his defection in the party, especially the leading lights.

That notwithstanding, the Chairman, Committee on Information and Strategic Communication and spokesperson, APC Campaign Organisation, Eseme Eyibo, insisted that there was no iota of rancour in the party occasioned by Akpabio’s arrival.

According to him, “Senator Godswill Akpabio came and met a united, coordinated and well-bonded All Progressives Congress in Akwa Ibom State… The party was never unsettled by Senator Akpabio’s membership. Rather, the party was emboldened with the complement of Akpabio’s political capital. APC in Akwa Ibom State has strategic resource mobilisation value chain that was disrupted by INEC’s institutional compromise.”

Eyibo, a former member of the House of Representatives, added that contrary to the widely held belief, “APC never suffered any heavy electoral defeat in the 2019 elections. But properly put, we suffered the consequences of the complicity and compromise of the electoral umpire and its REC. APC was more than 80 per cent prepared in organisation, acceptability, coordination and capacity to win the poll. The non-redeployment of the state REC by his employer INEC amidst the REC’s barefaced intransigence, compromise and ethical breaches was the abatement that occasioned the wrong.”

On what is next for APC in the state, Eyibo, who also the chairman of Cross River Basin Authority and the Dean, Committee of Chairmen of River Basin Authorities, said, “APC in Akwa Ibom State has approached the tribunal with preponderance of evidence of electoral malpractice and breaches with a view for restitution and redress.”

PDP’s victory not because of creditable performance
Human rights advocate, Inibehe Effiong begs to differ that PDP’s resounding victory in the state was a consequence of its high performance index.

According to him, “PDP has a political advantage in the politics of Akwa Ibom State. It is true that PDP has a stronger, solid footing in the state. However, I do not agree that this is as a result of creditable performance by the incumbent governor. The success of PDP was more about the rejection of APC and the APC-led Federal Government than the acceptance of PDP. PDP won because people have contempt for what APC represents and not because PDP is doing well. It is a product of monolithic politics.”

On APC’s claim that it was more than 80 per cent prepared in organisation, acceptability, coordination and capacity to win the poll, but the non-redeployment of the state Resident Electoral Commissioner, Mike Igini, by INEC amidst alleged bare-faced intransigence, compromise and ethical breaches by the REC made things awry for the party, he said nothing could be farther from the truth.

“I do not agree that APC prepared well for 2019 elections in Akwa Ibom State. APC relied on the illusive federal might, which as we all saw was resisted and defeated. The defection of Akpabio to APC contributed to the woeful performance of APC. Akpabio is the face of imposition and politics of brigandage in Akwa Ibom State, which was rejected by the people. Had Akpabio not defected, APC in my estimation would have fared better. I do not agree that Mike Igini as an individual was compromised by PDP. I believe Mr. Igini’s reputation is solid. APC complained not because Igini was compromised, but because they could not compromise him.”

Having failed to make any impact in the recent polls, Effiong, a legal practitioner, said he expects to see APC members begin to defect.

“I expect defections,” he said. “Politics in Akwa Ibom State is not about service delivery, but the stomach. Most of the political actors depend on the government and political patronage for survival. They are not driven by any ideology. Members of APC and PDP are ideologically destitute.

“APC is only focused on elections in Akwa Ibom State. They are not interested in issues that affect the common man. Now that they have lost out in the power game to their half-brother, PDP, the party will basically wait for the next election. It has always been about power grab for them.”

But do Akwa Ibom citizens have any reason to expect good governance from the ruling party as a reward for their keeping faith with it? Effiong retorted: “I will be deceiving myself if I tell you that Akwa Ibom people are expecting the PDP-led government to deliver on good governance. Good governance is in contrast with PDP in Akwa Ibom State. The current governor, despite receiving humongous amounts of federal allocations, has failed to deliver on the most basic responsibilities of a government. It has been a case of moving from frying pan to fire for Akwa Ibom people.”

Effiong was effusive with praises for Igini for the role he played in ensuring that the polls went peacefully in the state by remaining unbiased.

“I believe that the role of INEC’s REC, Mike Igini, contributed to the elections being reasonably peaceful in the state,” he said. “However, there were still cases of violence and malpractice. But on the whole, I believe the election was relatively peaceful compared to the bloodbath of 2015 that ushered in the current governor.”