Umahi and the path to political relevance
Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi shocked the polity, when he dumped the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on November 17, 2020, for the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Defending his action, the governor said he took the decision in the best interest of Ndigbo, adding that it was an opportunity to try a new political platform, since PDP, which the Igbos had supported since 1999, has not protected the interest of the people.
He assured that APC would offer greater opportunity for the people of the region to express their political aspirations, especially their ambition to produce the next president of the country, adding that he joined APC because President Muhammadu Buhari had shown readiness to address the plight of the region.
Until his decision to quit PDP, Umahi doubled as the Chairman of the PDP caucus of governors of the region, as well as chairman, Southeast Governors’ Forum.
Indeed, many who expressed dismay over his decision to quit PDP did so basically because, in the commity of governors of the party in the region, his voice had been the loudest. He was looked upon to champion the cause of Ndigbo in PDP.
There were others who felt the movement was a wrong way to pay back a party that offered the governor the platform that enabled him to climb to his political height. They insisted that he had benefited more from PDP than any other member of the party in the state and therefore, should not have left the party the way he did.
Umahi joined politics and became the acting chairman of Ebonyi State chapter of the party between 2007 and 2009. He was later elected the substantive state chairman of PDP in 2009, a position he held till 2011.
In the same year, he teamed-up with Chief Martin Elechi, and they contested for the position of the governor of Ebonyi State. Umahi became the Deputy Governor following their victory in the gubernatorial election and was sworn in on May 29, 2011 for a term of four years.
On April 11, 2015, he used the PDP platform to contest the election that brought him as governor of the state. He has occupied the office till date. In 2019, he again, relied on the PDP’s platform to win his reelection, after beating the candidate of APC, Sonnie Ogbuji. Umahi polled over 393,000 votes to emerge winner of the election.
It was these votes that the Federal High Court, Abuja voided on Tuesday, March 8, 2022 when Justice Inyang Ekwo ordered the governor to vacate his seat alongside his deputy, Kelechi Igwe for defecting from PDP to APC.
The Judge stated that his movement from PDP to APC was illegal and unconstitutional and ordered PDP to immediately nominate candidates that should replace Umahi and Igwe as governor and deputy governor in Ebonyi State.
In the alternative, the court asked the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct fresh elections in the state to fill the “vacant” positions of the governor and deputy, as well as the 16 members of the State House of Assembly that left with the mandate of the PDP to APC in the state.
Although the governor has initiated appeal to quash the decision of the federal high court, amid several other debates for and against the ruling by the people, Umahi’s current political trajectory began as speculations and rumours in November 2020.
Several sources in the state and southeast had predicted his movement into the ruling APC, especially with the way he had spoken glowingly about the style of administration of President Buhari. Even with the growing penchant among Ndigbo that Buhari has not treated them well, as he has done to other regions in the country, Umahi believed otherwise and held the view that those fanning the anti-Buhari’s stance in the zone were being economical with the truth. He went further to demonstrate his love for the President with the number of visits Buhari paid to Ebonyi State, among other projects he promised to execute in the state.
In one of those occasions, Umahi prayed God to give “Nigeria another President like Buhari in 2023,” a statement that did not go down well with many Nigerians, including the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, who openly criticised the governor as one that hated the Nigerian masses. The open confrontation the issue generated between the two governors heightened the speculations that Umahi was, indeed on his way to APC.
While the rumour mills were on, he developed sympathy for APC in the state, nurtured the party and allegedly planted a crisis in PDP that led to the factionalisation of the party.
On November 17, 2020, however, the governor personally took to the centre stage and formally announced that he had joined APC “for good”.
Addressing the press in Ebonyi State, he stated that he had no regrets leaving PDP, stressing that he moved because of “injustice” meted out to the Southeast by the PDP.
He noted that he had no deal with APC or any member of the party with regards to the zoning of the presidential position to the region and added: “I want to clear the air that I never sought PDP presidential ticket and I will not. So whoever said that I moved to APC because they refused to zone the ticket to me is being very mischievous.
“Even if PDP promises somebody a presidential ticket, how does it work where over 8,000 delegates will be voting. And such a promise cannot happen with more than 10 or 20 people, so people are being very mischievous about that.
“There are a lot of qualified people from the Southeast. Some people say I was promised lots of things by APC, there was no such discussion. APC never promised me any position; they never promised the Southeast any position.”
He continued: “I offered this movement as a protest to injustice being done to the Southeast by the PDP. Since 1999, the Southeast has been supporting PDP. At a time the five states were all PDP. One of the founding members of the PDP was from southeast, the late former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme.
“It is absurd that since 1999 going to 2023, the Southeast will never be considered to run for presidency under the PDP. And this is my position and will continue to be my position. It has nothing to do with me or my ambition.”
Umahi further told those that cared to listen to him that the decision to quit PDP was not driven by selfish reasons, stressing that he had decided to become the “sacrificial lamb” that would be crucified for the interest and good of the Southeast as a zone.
He justified his rejection of the PDP further: “In 2015, PDP had zoned the next presidential slot to the North against 2019. Then the statement in Bauchi that the Presidential slot is open to all parts of the country and the overtures and scheming to remove most members of the National Working Committee, these are some of the indications that the party has no intention of zoning it to the Southeast.
“The point is very simple. In 2023, I would have been in PDP between 23 and 24 years and southeast never really supported APC the way they are supporting PDP and in that 2023, they would have been eight years in office but it would have been about 23 years going.
“So, I believe strongly that the will of God will come to play but I believe that APC is amenable to working with Southeast from all indication, it’s amenable and I also believe that until justice and equity is implanted in this nation Nigeria, it is difficult for Nigeria to make progress.”
Despite the explanation of the governor, his opponents especially in the PDP believed that he decided to quit the party to enable him carve out an entity that he could preside over, having failed in his series of battles to completely assume leadership of the party and control of the state at will.
Those who held this school of thought disclosed that the presence of leaders like former Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim; former governor, Sam Egwu; some serving and former National Assembly members in the state made it difficult for the governor to reign freely and therefore, had brushes with them from time to time.
This wide held notion played out almost immediately after his defection, as some staunch members of PDP appointed into his cabinet however, resigned in the guise of rejecting his new platform. On the hand, several members of the House of Assembly, who were also elected on the PDP platform decamped to APC.
Although PDP had insisted that it was one of the best developments in the party, going by what the party leaders believed they had suffered in the hands of the governor in the state, they however, felt relieved that his leaving the party would not affect its dominance of the politics of the state.
These views were supported by a statement the Association of Ebonyi State Indigenes in the Diaspora (AESID) issued few days after his defection in which it warned APC to “tread cautiously with a man of insatiable greed, selfishness and lust for political power.”
President of the group, Pascal Onuchukwu, who signed the statement added: “This is a very defining moment and a period of great test of integrity for some politicians in our dear state and exhibition of downright foolishness laced with cowardice on the part of those who are still clutching to Umahi’s straws, despite his starvation rate of pay.
“We also wish to commend the likes of the two-term member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Lazarus Ogbee, Mrs. Rebecca Ogbuewu and other appointees, who resigned their positions as members of the State Executive Council.
“Our thumbs up also go to some of the elders and foundation members of PDP for maintaining their stand that they shall remain dyed-in-the-wool members of the PDP which has given so many dividends to our dear State in the past two decades.
“The APC national leadership should be aware that they are purchasing for themselves a disastrous baggage of controversies, deceits and distractions and must therefore be advised to tread cautiously with a man of insatiable greed, selfishness and lust for political power, who because he is often desperate can surrender or subjugate any interest to arm-twist others.”
It was this declaration of support by the people of the state that set in motion the case in court to recover the mandate given by PDP members to Umahi that enabled him won the election in 2019.
Dr Ali Odefa, National Vice Chairman (Southeast) of the party, who is an Ebonyi indigene had told The Guardian that “it was an insult on the party for Umahi to run away with its mandate”, adding that “PDP will do all in its power to recover the mandate of the party.”
He insisted that the mandate could have as well been given to any other member of the party in the election “and the person would have contested and won because Ebonyi is purely a PDP state and will remain so, as far as politics of Nigeria is concerned.”
With the stage set by the court that the mandate Umahi is enjoying belongs to the PDP and not APC, the governor would need to do a battle that he may not forget in a long time to serve out the remaining days of his administration, as well as secure his future in politics.