Understanding Umahi’s politics of ambivalence
If there is any state governor that knows the power of federal might and courts it that governor must be the Ebonyi State’s Chief Executive, Mr. David Nweze Umahi. As a politician who began his career as acting state chairman of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Umahi knows the rudiments of doublespeak and is an expert at killing two birds with one pebble.
Before his steady rise in politics from chairman of Ebonyi State chapter of PDP, Umahi’s trade as a civil engineering contractor and petroleum distributor made way for him in his home state, where political appointees nominated his firm for jobs from his Port Harcourt base.
Serving previously as party chairman and deputy governor under the administration of Chief Martin Elechi, Umahi knew that the power rotation arrangement would favour his Ebonyi South Senatorial District, he started currying the favours of PDP National Working Committee (NWC) members, particularly the then chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur.
Earlier as caretaker state chairman, Umahi deployed his ‘generosity’ to stave off the imminent dissolution of his committee, which was considered illegal by the Dr. Okwy Nwodo-led NWC, a development that further endeared him to Governor Elechi, who braved all odds to make him caretaker chairman.
At the build-up to the 2015 election, when it became apparent that he was no longer Elechi’s first choice of preferred likely successors, Umahi reached out to the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency through the first lady and the then Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, and to the Adamu Mu’azu’s NWC through former Ebonyi governor, Senator Sam Egwu and immediate past National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh.
Having gotten the national leadership of the party and the presidency on his side, it was easy for the then deputy governor to mobilize funds from his Anambra State political financiers to battle his estranged principal and benefactor, Elechi, to a stand still over the Ebonyi State governorship ticket of the party.
So stiff was the battle for the soul of PDP in Ebonyi State that by the time Elechi realised that he was holding the shorter end of the stick, Umahi was already named PDP’s standard-bearer, leaving Elechi and the former Health Minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, to grapple with feeble protests and effete litigation.
In the last analysis, Umahi contested and won the 2015 gubernatorial poll after forcing out Elechi’s supporters and compromise candidate, Dr. Edward Nkwegu, out of PDP and into the Labour Party (LP), from where they relocated to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
Of six or half a dozen
IT was therefore against such lofty background that when recently some PDP stakeholders from two local government areas, Ishielu and Onicha, paid him New Year homage that he warned those planning to join APC to think twice, saying he also has a foothold in the opposition party in his state. Although the governor’s decision to speak in Pidgin English helped to mask the veracity of his disclosure: “If you say you dey there (APC), know I am already there. If you go to APC, I am an APC member. If you go to PDP, I am there.
“I am the only person that does anti-party and nothing will happen. Any other person that does anti-party is gone. So, I am representing you in APC while you all stay in PDP. If you like, go and write it on social media.”
Those who were jolted by Umahi’s confession were confused as to whether by talking about six, the governor was actually referring to half a dozen. But across party lines in Ebonyi State most political actors remember that right from the announcement of APC presidential candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, as the winner of the 2015 election, Umahi set out to ingratiate himself with the emergent presidency and new ruling party.
First, shortly after his inauguration, the Ebonyi State governor met with the then APC ‘navigator’, former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He extended a similar fraternal visit to Buhari at the Presidential Villa, where he told State House reporters that he would implement policies and programmes similar to those of the APC, especially a return to agriculture and fight against corruption.
Not long after, it took testimony by the former SGF, Babachir David Lawal, at a thanksgiving church service at the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), Wuse II, for Nigerians to know that the Ebonyi State governor had been sending assorted ‘gifts’ to him.
It was also discovered that through the office of the SGF, Umahi was said to have succeeded in fueling the division within the Ebonyi State chapter of APC, which was bedeviled by a supremacy battle between the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu and the 2015 governorship candidate, Senator Julius Ali Ucha.
So, was Umahi’s statement on January 6 a Freudian slip? There is nothing to support that train of thought because there are indications that such seemingly off the cuff statements of fact are not a recent pastime. For instance, in April 2017 the governor delivered what could pass as a deliberate anti-party statement when he declared that he would not vote for a PDP presidential candidate in 2019 if President Muhammadu Buhari decides to seek a second term.
He made it clear that alongside his supporters, he would not vote along party lines come the 2019 general elections despite the fact that PDP had not chosen its standard-bearer. Umahi, who is also the chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum, made the remarks when he met with traditional rulers and town union presidents in Government House, Abakaliki.
He stressed: “When it comes to (the) presidency, we no dey do party. It is the man that will help us to develop this state, that’s the man we will support. But, for the governorship, National Assembly and State Assembly, don’t go there. Nobody will touch it. For the presidency, we will negotiate; we will like the person to discuss with our traditional rulers as stakeholders.”
Perhaps, as if the meeting was ostensibly convened to run an idea through the traditional rulers, seven months later, precisely on November 14, 2017, President Buhari was decorated with the titles of Enyioma 1 of Ebonyi State and Ochioha Nd’Igbo 1 during his visit to the agrarian state.
Grinning from ear to ear, Umahi, while delivering his remarks, disclosed that President Buhari had a special love for him, saying that it explained his selection to join the president on his trip to China.
But noticing the look of disapproval on the faces of his APC colleagues, particularly Dr. Onu and Senator Chris Ngige, the president, in his acceptance speech, explained that there was no special love except that his protocol office listed names of state governors to accompany him on the trip.
It was therefore not unexpected that at the build-up to the 2019 general elections, speculation was rife that the chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum was finalizing arrangements to cross over to APC. Those in the know disclosed that the Ebonyi State governor had been paying nocturnal visits to the Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari, who became his new anchor after Babachir was rigged out of the presidency.
So strong were the claims that the governor had to come out to personally debunk the rumours in July 2018, contending that he had no reason to dump PDP, which he said catapulted him from party chairman through deputy governor and governor. The governor, who spoke to journalists, noted that he was focused on speedy development of the state and would not want to be distracted by men of questionable integrity and dirty politics.
He had stated: “Mr. President is my boss and the relationship is personal. Mr. President or any APC person has never asked me to come to APC, and they will never ask me, and there is no reason for me to leave my party, PDP…
“I have always insisted on character; therefore, people that jump from one party to the other should examine their character, except if there is any problem within your party… Even if there is a need for me to leave PDP, I can never leave PDP for APC in Ebonyi State. So, I can never be on the same platform as them.”
But despite his denials, midway into the electioneering for the 2019 governorship poll in the state, the APC standard-bearer, Senator Sonni Ogbuoji, pointedly accused Umahi of hobnobbing with APC leaders in Abuja. It was alleged that after sensing that the Abakaliki bloc, which comprises Ebonyi North and Central Senatorial Districts, wanted to use their superior demographics to defeat him in the governorship poll, the governor approached Kyari and pleaded with him to ensure that APC fielded its standard-bearer from Ebonyi South in line with the power rotation arrangement in the state.
Sources confirmed that as a result of that intervention the delegates’ list for the APC governorship primary was skewed against Prof. Bernard Odoh, who resigned from office as Secretary to Ebonyi State Government (SSG) in Umahi’s administration, to favour Senator Ogbuoji, who had by then defected from PDP to APC after some vacillating drama at the Senate plenary.
Going to town with the narrative that the Abakaliki bloc would have to wait for eight instead of four years if Ogbuoji, the APC candidate, gets elected at the poll, Umahi was returned for a second term, in addition to assisting President Buhari and APC to garner 25 per cent of total votes cast in the state.
Although it was alleged that Umahi was asked to nominate candidates for appointment as ministers, sources in the presidency said apart from Ucha, the governor sent in names of PDP members, which president spurned and returned Onu as Minister of Science and Technology.
After the 2019 general elections were won and lost, most political actors in the Southeast recalled how Umahi, as chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum, came out to repudiate the method the PDP presidential candidate, Atiku, adopted in choosing former Anambra State governor, Mr. Peter Obi, as his running mate, complaining that stakeholders were not consulted.
It was also alleged that alongside the immediate past Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, Umahi worked towards the emergence of Sokoto State governor and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal.
But while Ekweremadu was said to be optimistic of pairing with the former Speaker on the PDP presidential ticket, the Ebonyi governor, who was visible at the Port Harcourt convention, worked in quiet contemplation that coming from Northwest, it would be hard for the Sokoto governor to defeat President Buhari.
So, being adept at ambivalence and political correctness, Umahi was aiming to kill two birds with one stone when he admonished stakeholders from Ishielu and Onicha that were contemplating defection to APC.
By 2023, the governor would have served out his constitutionally allowed two terms, which leaves his political future beyond Ebonyi State. The governor, who recently also stated that he would not support any candidate born before 1964, his year of birth, has his eyes set on contesting the presidency and the Ebonyi South Senatorial seat in the event that the presidential ticket eludes him.
In September last year, the governor also made headlines when he threatened to sack any of his aides who criticized Buhari, even on social media. He was said to have cleverly stopped the member representing Ohaozara/Onicha/Ivo Federal Constituency, Hon. Linus Okorie, from taking advantage of the automatic return ticket gesture from PDP, ostensibly to pave way for his eventual Senatorial ambition.
Consequently, should his plan of supporting the current Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly, Hon. Ogbonnia Nwifuru, to succeed him in 2023 sees the light of day, the governor would make the better of two worlds by becoming political godfather and Senator.
BUT not long after discharging the burden on his conscience by painting the true picture of his ambivalent political stature, the governor has come under severe criticisms.
He might have spoken the truth to damn the consequences, but the implications of his statement have begun to dawn on him and his supporters, which include that even within PDP it would be hard for him to enjoy the confidence of other colleagues.
Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, revived the Jekyll and Hyde political disposition of Umahi, when he called him Buhari’s man to the discomfiture of the Ebonyi governor. Coming barely two months after the altercation with Wike over an unusual dalliance with the rival rural party, especially when Wike said some PDP governors visit Aso Rock Villa at night to see Buhari, Umahi’s statement seems to undergird the allegation of serial anti-party activities.
But in a swift move to avoid a major rift, the various organs of the party came out to describe the statements attributed to the governor as wrong. First, the Southeast Zonal Chairman of PDP, Mr. Austin Umahi, who is also the governor’s brother, said the alleged defection of the governor was far from the truth.
He said it was unthinkable that Umahi would leave PDP for a non-performing political party such as APC, describing the entire story as false and mischief that the general public should disregard. Next in line was the Ebonyi State Government. Speaking through the Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Uchenna Orji, who is also Senator Anyim’s ally, the government maintained that Governor Umahi “is still a strong member of PDP and not APC.”
While asserting that “it is a commonsense (knowledge) that no one party member in Nigeria can belong to another political party at a time,” Orji maintained that the governor merely rebuked those whose stock in trade was frolicking from one party to another.
Also, the PDP Governors’ Forum denied that Umahi physically belongs to the APC, stressing that “on several occasions and at all times even in the face of stiff opposition and blackmail, Governor Umahi has always proven to be a committed party man.”
And discounting video evidence that the governor actually said that he remains “the only person that does anti-party and nothing will happen, any other person that does anti-party is gone,” the Director-General of the forum, Osaro Onaiwu, in a statement, described the attributed statements as “blatant falsehood aimed at tarnishing the image of the governor.”
Despite the reactions from the PDP Governors’ Forum, the former Senior Special Assistant to President Jonathan, Dr. Doyin Okupe, said there was a need for the governor to personally confirm his position, even as he (Okupe) asked the party’s NWC to start an investigation into the governor’s declaration.
“The PDP must quickly investigate and confirm this for the sake of integrity and reputation of the party and discipline within its rank and file,” Okupe stated.
There is no doubt that the road to the 2023 election cycle is paved with a lot of bobby traps for the major opposition party. State governors serving their second term have always proved sources of friction, particularly as they struggle to carve out a rosy future for themselves after their stint in office.
Was Umahi a candidate for special interest in the ruling APC? What offers have been made to him? Does he see the ruling party as his comfort zone after his succession plan after leaving the office? Could it be that in the Southeast-for-President-2023 agitation, he foresees trouble in PDP and wants to carve out a negotiating space for himself in the ruling party? For now, Umahi alone understands his game!
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