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Why southeast governors ‘chickened out’ of Southern governors’ meeting

By Lawrence Njoku (Southeast Bureau Chief)
21 September 2021   |   3:02 am
Last Thursday, governors of the Southeast stunned their colleagues from the south when they failed to attend a meeting of the 17 governors hosted by Enugu State governor

Ugwuanyi

Last Thursday, governors of the Southeast stunned their colleagues from the south when they failed to attend a meeting of the 17 governors hosted by Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi.

It was not an emergency meeting. The meeting was fixed during a previous one held in Lagos on July 5, 2021. There was also a reminder that was circulated among the governors about the meeting and its venue.

That could account for the preparations and efforts put into it by the host state to ensure there were no hitches; the Government House, Enugu, venue of the gathering wore a new and fresh look with reconstructions, artworks, designs and decorations that were stupendously displayed to give guests an evergreen memory. The entertainment also left no one in doubt about the readiness of those who put the event together.

Except for Ugwuanyi (the host), the governors of Imo (Hope Uzodimma); that Abia (Okezie Ikpeazu) and Ebonyi State (Dave Umahi) were represented by their deputies, while Anambra State governor, Willie Obiano neither attended nor sent any representative.

However, if there was a meeting the governors of the zone were expected to attend fully, it should have been the Enugu meeting. That is because it was being hosted in the zone and the fact that they would have to travel short distances to be present. Their presence would also underpin their commitment to their newfound alliance.

Again, except Uzodimma, they were all present during their first meeting held on May 11, 2021, at Asaba, Delta State, where they resolved to ban open grazing in the Southern region as well as reiterated the need for concerted efforts at tackling worsening insecurity in the country.

As soon as they concluded the Enugu meeting, which was the third this year, various interpretations had been adduced to the absence of the governors. While some had said it was a  “betrayal”, on the part of the governors of the Southeast region, others have insisted that it was part of the politics of “who gets what” in 2023. There are feelings that the politics of individualism being practiced by the governors of the zone was responsible.

It is hard to remember the last time the current governors collectively pulled any successful effort since their coming on board to tackle any challenge in the zone. Their resolutions had always ended as wild dreams.

There are others who feel that certain critical issues that emanated from previous meetings since they started, that have tended to challenge the policies and powers of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government may have contributed to the lethargic attitude of some governors.

One of the issues reportedly unsettling the governors and the federal government is the ban on open grazing in the southern region reached during the Asaba meeting. It was gathered that the decision could not have been possible if there was no meeting of the governors. The decision had unsettled the presidency, leading to open hostility and confrontation.

A source told The Guardian after the Asaba meeting, that as a counter, the Presidency had set up a committee to review grazing routes, adding that the move for the creation of Integrated Farm Estate at every senatorial zone of the country was still part of the ploy to dwarf the move by the governors.

It added that to avoid confrontations with the Presidency, (especially for those angling for political patronage in 2023), some of them have started developing cold feet on further meetings.

Indeed, this manifested on July 5, 2021, at the meeting reconvened in Lagos. Only Ugwuanyi as governor had the courage to attend from the southeast region. Kelechi Igwe, Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State represented Governor Dave Umahi; Ude Oko Chukwu, Deputy Governor of Abia State represented Governor Okezie Ikpeazu and Prof Placid Njoku, deputy governor of Imo State represented Governor Hope Uzodimma. Anambra governor, Willie Obiano did not also have a representation and did not attend.

It was at the Lagos meeting that a timeline of September 1, 2021, was set for the promulgation of anti-open grazing law in all states of the South as well as the claim that the next president of the country in 2023 should come from the region.

Sources hinted that the cold attitude already being exhibited by Southeast governors to the Southern governors meeting was not new. They observed that such attitude was currently playing out in the Southeast Governor’s Forum (SEF).

Uzodimma had not attended the meeting since he became governor; Willie had always been represented by his Deputy, Nkem Okeke. Despite the disturbances in the zone, the meeting has not been held for some time now.  

Previous decisions reached it was never implemented. The only time they were all present was during the meeting were held with Ohanaeze Ndigbo leadership in Owerri, Imo state, where they agreed to float the “Ebubeagu”, as the zone’s regional security outfit. It was at the peak of the attacks on security formations and insecurity in Imo State. Several months after the idea of Ebubeagu was conceived, it has remained stillborn.  It does not feature among the issues in the zone any longer, as there are no commitments shown towards its implementation.

The Enugu meeting was supposed to be used to review the level of compliance to some of the resolutions reached in the two previous meetings, reaffirm earlier decisions and probably chart a new course on the region.

But since May 11, in which the decision to ban open grazing was reached and the timeline set for its promulgation on July 5, 2021, how many governors in the Southeast region have signed to it?  

Investigation by The Guardian revealed that only the governors of Enugu and Abia States have so far signed the law. Other governors in the zone had continued to play the ostrich, by either whipping up sentiments on cohabitation or some existing understanding in their states between herders and host communities. That was why they stayed away.

 
Uzodimma had attracted the anger of certain elements in the Southeast when he went to the Presidency to deny endorsing the move a few days after the governors met. Speaking shortly after a meeting with the President in Abuja, the governor had allegedly disowned the open grazing ban on the pretext that the state has got an existing law regulating the practice. Obiano and Umahi are yet to sign or initiate actions towards enacting the law. They are also hinging it on an understanding in the various states.

Other Factors
THE political differences, alleged leadership vacuum in the region that have almost paralysed the zone with near-parallel governments, the inability of the governors to work together and the struggle for the political soul of the Southeast, beginning with the November 6, 2021 governorship election of Anambra State, may be added reasons to the absence of the governors during the meeting.

At the moment, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) share two states each in the zone. Anambra State, which is currently run by the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) is seriously being contested by the three major political parties. If the other two political parties subdue APGA during the contest, it is expected to give leverage to the victorious party in the 2023 general elections in the zone. As such, every effort is geared towards attaining political supremacy in the zone.

Prior to the Enugu meeting, a contention had arisen between the federal and Rivers State governments over the right of collection of Value Added Tax (VAT). Governor Nyesom Wike had claimed that it was the right of the state to collect VAT.  He demonstrated his seriousness over the issue when he took an action on behalf of the state government in court to compel the Federal Government to cede power to collect VAT to states. This has received the support of the Lagos State government.

Those who knew believed that the controversial issue would form the agenda of the Enugu meeting. It was gathered that not to be counted among those supporting the idea, Southeast governors decided to stay away from the meeting.
 
Umahi came close to confirming this, a day after the Enugu meeting, appearing on a Channels television interview, he had disagreed with the Southern governors on the VAT, saying that the Federal Government should be allowed to collect and share VAT with the states.

He said that Ebonyi State should be pitied because the mineral resources in the state were being stolen, adding that other states should be their brother’s keeper.

There was also a verbal war between Wike and Umahi over a recent prayer by Umahi that God should give Nigeria another President like Buhari in 2023. Wike had countered the governor, saying his prayer was a bad one, stressing that it was wrong of him to wish Nigerians another “Buhari” whom he said had failed the nation, a controversy that led to Umahi to ask Wike for a debate on the matter.

On the other hand, Uzodimma, who has been battling the cold war with Umahi over the headship of APC in the Southeast region and closeness with the presidency, also put up a verbal fight with the governor when he opposed his call for zoning of presidency to the Southeast in 2023.

Umahi told the leadership of the APC that it would be in bad taste to deny the Southeast presidency in 2023, adding that such was the desire of an average Igbo person. But Uzodimma felt otherwise. He told Umahi that Ndigbo were not interested in producing the president of the country in 2023.

For Obiano, a source said that he is more occupied with the election of his successor in the next few weeks. An official of the state government, who spoke to The Guardian on condition of anonymity, also said: “He has not been interested in such meetings in the past”, adding that, “he has always been represented by his deputy”.

Asked why the deputy was not in Enugu during the meeting, he said: “I really don’t know. But the deputy has been away in the United States for some time now. That may probably have been responsible for the absence of the state. It does not mean that the state is not committed to the meetings and implementation of resolutions of the Southern governors.

Gale of reactions:
Reacting to the absence of the four governors at the meeting, Emeritus President General of Aka Ikenga, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, stated that the ‘attitude of the governors is really demoralising.”

He added: “When the South-south hosted the Southern Governors meeting, the South-south governors were there. When the Southwest hosted, the Southwest governors were there.

“When the Southeast hosted, only the host governor was there. Anambra State was 100 per cent absent. Abia, Ebonyi and Imo sent their deputies. What is wrong with our governors? This is really mind-boggling.”

A Public Affairs analyst in Anambra State, Mr Jude Uwaoma, while deploring the four governors for not attending the meeting said it violates good taste.

“All things considered, the four of them might have had legitimate reasons that kept them away from such an important meeting. Yet, at such a time as this when the Southeast is almost up in flames, one begins to imagine what could be more important to these governors than a meeting whose outcome could douse the tensions in the Southeast.
 
“The optics are not right. This is especially with the reported backtracking of Governor Uzodinma on some of the previous resolutions of the Southern Governor’s Forum; and Umahi’s resoundingly denounced prayers that God visits Nigeria with another plague in 2023.

 
“It is a double tragedy for those of us in Anambra. While the other three Southeast governors sent their deputies to the meeting, neither Willie Obiano nor his deputy, Nkem Okeke, showed up!
 
“Those of us in Anambra are already counting in weeks before man Willie and his government is taken care of by nature. It is, however, terrible that not only does our government fail to implement resolutions reached by Southern Governors’ Forum, it now has the impudence to stay away completely,” he said.

The leader of the Concerned Igbo Stakeholders’ Forum (CISF), Mr Chukwuma Okenwa said that there was no justifiable reason that would be enough for the governors to be absent in a meeting of such magnitude.

According to Okenwa, it was wrong, particularly coming at a time when the region “is battling socio-economic and security concerns stemming from the sit-at-home order issued by the proscribed separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).”

He added: “The absence of the governors of Abia, Ebonyi, Imo and Anambra States leaves a lot to question the commitment of these governors to the growth and advancement of the Southeast in missing a crucial meeting held within their geopolitical zone”.

Okenwa further said that the body language of the Southeast governors in recent times leaves no one in doubt that they have magnified their personal interests above that of the region and Ndi-Igbo in general.
“Their gaze at the forthcoming elections in 2023 is becoming an unbearable distraction for them in delivering their mandate to the people,” he said.