Desperate moves by forces loyal to Governor Ifeanyi Okowa in Delta State to whittle down the political influence of one-time governor of the state and acclaimed godfather of Delta politics, James Ibori, which led to the exit of Emmanuel Uduaghan, the immediate past governor from the PDP now threaten the cohesion of the hitherto formidable Ibori political family as Okowa’s reaction to the defection sparks off a war of words between the two camps
Between the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in Delta State and the All Progressives Congress, APC, which is the party at the centre, the battle line is drawn ahead of the 2019 general elections. The contestation for the soul of the oil-rich state would be a fierce and decisive one between forces that are determined to maintain the status quo on the one hand, and the ones that are desperate to upset the political applecart as represented by the APC. Against all entreaties to him to have a change of heart in his decision to leave the PDP, a party on which platform he served as commissioner for health, secretary to the state government, SSG, and two terms of eight years as governor, the immediate past governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan last week ditched the party. From all indication, the PDP had become rather suffocating and it became commonsensical to seek a breath of fresh air elsewhere.
Though there was no formal announcement of his defection, Uduaghan caused quite a stir with his dramatic appearance last Tuesday night at the caucus meeting of the APC at the presidential villa, thus finally laying to rest months of speculation and vacillation over exactly what he had up his sleeves. Next was a press statement explaining reasons for his decision to bid his former party goodbye. Careful not to add insult to injury, Uduaghan’s statement was guarded and measured. But not quite so for the reaction that followed from the state government. In his personally signed statement entitled “Moving on to the Bigger Playing Field”, Uduaghan refrained from the usual political brickbats or mudslinging as other defectors were wont to do but simply explained that he had decided to jump ship in the larger interest of the people of Delta State, and the Niger Delta region. The medical doctor turned politician said given the key role he played in cessation of hostilities in the once restive Niger Delta region, in the course of which he had put his life on the line visiting the creeks in the night without security when he served as governor, he would support any government doing its best to solve the myriads of problems confronting the region. Uduaghan noted that in spite of not scoring the required 25 percent in the 2015 election in the region, the president, Mohammadu Buhari, had given direct focus to the development of the region.
According to him, “… once Mr. President was able to set his priorities pursuant to creating an environment for peace in the region, it became incumbent on every well-meaning Niger Deltan and Nigerian to assist the process of building an economically prosperous nation” stressing that
“In this era of partisan politics, it is necessary for the people of the Niger Delta, and Delta State, in particular, to identify more with the Federal Government led by the APC. By so doing, we can push some of the agreements between our leaders and the Federal Government through, and also engage the government to do more”. Emphasizing that “Politics is about interests”, Uduaghan underscores the very reason he was switching party loyalty.
“The Niger Delta is a major area of interest for me because I staked my life going into the creeks severally without security and sometimes coming back at night negotiating peace. I will, therefore, give the strongest support to any President that shows commitment in the affairs of the Niger Delta”. He, therefore, called on, and enjoined, other well-meaning leaders in the region, who might have very useful contributions to make, “to come on board and join hands in helping this Federal Government to pursue a robust development agenda that would uplift our people”. Dropping the bombshell, the former governor who nurses a senatorial ambition, said: “I have, therefore, after series of consultations and prayers, taken the decision to leave the PDP and join the APC”. Uduaghan thanked the numerous leaders, supporters and interest groups that have been urging him to remain in the PDP. Giving an indication that his defection would open the floodgate to other defections in the state, Uduaghan said “I am happy that after explaining some of the deeper issues to you, some of you that are politicians have agreed to join the APC in the near future. So I am going into APC as “John the Baptist” to the numerous Deltans that are coming in, soon – very soon”.
Reactions to Uduaghan’s defection by his former associates had been prompt. While the state chapter of the PDP was cautious in its reaction, the state governor was not so charitable. Speaking to Punch newspaper through his chief press secretary, Charles Aniagwu, the governor said the defection of his predecessor in office to the APC would not affect his re-election bid in 2019. Okowa said the defection would equally not dim the chances of the PDP from retaining power in the state and at the national level, adding that the party was solidly rooted in the state. Taking a swipe at the former governor, Okowa noted that the APC was now a “safe haven” for politicians of questionable character, adding that his performance in the past three years would be the basis for his campaign in 2019 as his administration had built confidence and brought peace to all parts of the state.
While noting that it was the right of the former governor to join any party of his choice, Okowa wished that he had remained with the PDP which brought him to the limelight. On the other hand, the PDP in the state in its terse statement signed by its state secretary, Ifeanyi Michael Osuoza, said the party wished “to express its warm and sincere felicitations to His Excellency, Dr. Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, the immediate past Governor of Delta State, who until recently, was a well-respected leader of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP family in Delta State”. The party said, “Although it is sad that he has decided to join a new political family, we appreciate the fact that he has his right to freedom of association, but we believe that in no distant future, he will do some soul-searching and come back to his original political family. We do not claim to possess any knowledge of the factors or circumstances that may have influenced or inspired his decision to join another political family, but it is only to be expected that a family will surely feel a sense of loss under the current circumstance”. The party assured its teeming members in the state in particular, and Nigeria in general, “that Delta State PDP Political Family remains strong, indivisible and we shall continue to forge ahead in our preparation for the forthcoming general elections”.
However, not many political observers would share the party’s optimism. Uduaghan’s defection, many believe, has dealt a big blow to the hitherto cohesive Ibori political family, and the PDP family as a whole, which the governor had been an integral part of since the formation of PDP in the state. The party, it is believed in some quarters, was being economical with the truth when it claimed that not to have any knowledge of the factors or circumstances that may have influenced or inspired Uduaghan’s decision to join another political family since the perceived alienation of the former governor from the party and government was common knowledge. The party, political observers noted, could not also feign ignorance of the governor’s unfavourable disposition towards his predecessor’s senatorial ambition in spite of consultation with him. Indeed, this appears to be the sore point in the soured relationship between the erstwhile long-time political allies. The governor, from his body language, seems to favour the incumbent senator, James Manager representing Delta south senatorial district who is doing his fourth term in the red chamber of the National Assembly against the unwritten rotational agreement amongst the three ethnic groups that make up the senatorial district – Isoko, Ijaw, and Itsekiri.
The magazine gathered that Okowa is rooting for Manager, an Ijaw, in spite of the apparent inequity in his holding onto the seat since 2003, for personal political consideration. Ijaw is the largest ethnic group in the area and therefore delivers more votes than the other two. Sources who should know, however, hinted the magazine that Okowa’s seeming lack of support for Uduaghan goes beyond the former governor.
James Ibori, one of the reliable sources told the magazine, is actually the target while the Ijaw national leader, Edwin Clark is the one beating the drum Okowa is dancing to. If what allegedly transpired at a meeting between Manager and some councilors at Emevor in Isoko South and North local government legislative arms as reported by an online medium, Sahara Reporters is anything to go by, then another fierce battle has started between Ibori and Clark on the one hand, and the Ijaw and Itsekiri nation on the other hand. The feud may also sign-post a total collapse of the Ibori political family, with Manager, a notable stakeholder in the family, seemingly revolting against the leadership of the Oghara-born politician who had held sway as the undisputed godfather of Delta politics since 1998.
An inside source at the meeting last weekend told Sahara reporters how Manager threw tantrums vowing that only “over his dead body” would he relinquish his seat to anyone from Itsekiri extraction. “He told us that if Isoko is not ready for the Senate, even if it’s 100 years, he will remain in the Senate, and will never leave the seat for any Itsekiri man,” the councilor said. While reminding the medium that the Itsekiri are in the minority, the source quoted Manager as further stating that “under normal circumstances, an Itsekiri man is not supposed to be Governor in Delta State when the seat was zoned to Delta South. It was supposed to be given to an Ijaw man with the largest population, or an Isoko man, not an Itsekiri man with scanty population. But the whole thing was forcefully taken and given to an Itsekiri man”. What this means in effect is that the animosity against Ibori for handing over to his younger cousin from a minority ethnic group, and age long rivalry between the Ijaw and Itsekiri, have now been rekindled. The question is now that Uduaghan has left the PDP to seek an alternative platform will Manager still continue to hold onto the ticket?
A source privy to the Ijaw apolitical interest hinted the magazine that Clark is pursuing a selfish agenda, which is actually to position an Ijaw man to take over from Okowa in 2023. So, his game plan is to replace the present deputy governor, Kingsley Otuaro with Manager so that in 2023, Manager would succeed Okowa while Otuaro would replace him in the Senate in 2019. The magazine, however, gathered that Okowa is not favourably disposed to Manager being his deputy. He was said to have stated clearly that he would prefer to work with Otuaro as his deputy than have someone else. The reality of the situation is that the Ijaws are bent on holding onto the Senate and the deputy governorship positions for as long as they can continue to have their way.
The point of disagreement between Manager and Ibori was said to be the latter’s insistence that an Ijaw will not be the next senator to represent Delta south having been holding the position for the fourth consecutive time. Ibori reportedly stated that it was not just about him, but about the principle. He was said to have questioned the equity and fairness in one person wanting to occupy the seat for five tenures of 20 years in an area where you have three ethnic groups? “So, this is the injustice Ibori is fighting against that made Manager to revolt against him, and that is the ethnic fight Clark is fighting when as an elder statesman, he should be seen to be bridging the gap of disunity amongst the various ethnic nationalities in the state”, a PDP chieftain told the magazine. According to him, “it had been E. K. Clark’s primary agenda to destroy the Ibori political family and he has succeeded but that has not in any way whittled down Ibori’s political influence. He is still in charge”.
And if there is a further proof that the Ibori political family may be in disarray, the evidence came Monday, August 27, during the 27th anniversary of the creation of Delta State. At a thanksgiving service held at the Government House chapel to commemorate the event which was usually attended by past governors of the state, the trio of Ibori, Uduaghan and his former deputy, Amos Utuama, a lawyer and senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, was conspicuously absent sending tongues wagging that they must have chosen to boycott the event to register their unhappiness with the treatment meted out to them. Ibori is said to be unhappy that Okowa had spurned all overtures to him to support Uduaghan’s senatorial ambition. This development had fueled the speculation that Ibori and his loyalists may be planning to dump the PDP for the APC. Political observers were quick to point to the last sentence of Uduaghan’s press statement where he talked about going into APC as “John the Baptist” to the numerous Deltans that are coming in, soon, very soon”. Accordingly, one of Uduaghan’s supporters told the magazine that “That statement is pregnant with meaning. A ‘John the Baptist’ implies that someone greater than him is coming. And who could that be if not Ibori?”
A former aide to Ibori told the magazine that the Emevor meeting would not be the first time Manager would be exhibiting such disrespect to Ibori. An instance was given when at a meeting of the caucus of the political family in Oghara comprising past governors, chairmen, and senators, the issue of Delta south senatorial seat was discussed, and Manager started bandying words with Ibori, insisting that he would not step down. A visibly angry Ibori was said to have called his bluff telling him that his brother could get the ticket from any other party and he would win and Manager reportedly apologized for his rudeness.
With the reality of Uduaghan’s defection and the seeming disharmony in the state PDP cum the Ibori political family, it’s been trading of words amongst the various camps. It was a war of words last Wednesday when the chief press secretary to the governor and a chieftain of the APC, Alex Eyengho were pitched against each other on the Channels Television programme, Politics Today. A visibly upbeat Eyengho described Uduaghan’s defection as a “big deal” because according to him, “this is the biggest person to have defected to the APC in Delta State” being a former two-time governor, former secretary to the state government and a former commissioner for health. In his words, “for us in APC in Delta State, we feel like break-dancing and we are already break-dancing. This has been on and people have fasted and prayed for it to become a reality and today, it is a reality”. Reacting to Aniagwu’s claim that Delta is a PDP state, Eyengho posited that “by the first quarter of 2019 after the general election, he will know that PDP in Delta State will be described as a party that used to be in government because they are going to be kicked out”. Optimistic that with the coming of Uduaghan the narrative would change, the APC stalwart believed “the political calculation will change. And like he said in his statement, he’s like John the Baptist who had just come to prepare the way; that more PDP bigwigs will still come in”. Eyengho believed that “the APC is in panic mode” insisting that Uduaghan’s defection is a big loss to the PDP Delta State, and a big gain to the APC in the State “and we are going to cash in on it”. While noting that the PDP pushed the former governor to the wall, Eyengho was excited that “the Ronaldos of the politics in Delta State are coming in droves to APC. And in 2019, Deltans will vote against non-performance, they will vote against disunity, and they will vote against everything negative that the current governor represents”.
Aniagwu had dismissed Uduaghan’s defection positing that Delta State is a PDP state. The spokesman to the governor recalled how over 5,000 persons had also joined the PDP from other parties stressing that “We are not going to prevent individuals from making choices but we do believe that when the election comes, the people of Delta will vote for performance which Okowa epitomizes, they will vote for harmony which Okowa epitomizes, and they will vote for unity which Okowa also epitomizes”. Commenting on the issues of development of the Niger Delta raised by Uduaghan in his press statement, Aniagwu stated cheekily that his principal decided to take development to some of those areas that his administration did not remember when he was in office, mentioning Ode-Itsekiri in particular, which he noted is the headquarters of Itsekiri kingdom where he said the Okowa administration had built roads, as well as Okerenkoko and Ogulagha.
Dismissing Eyengho’s excitement that Uduaghan’s defection would shake the PDP to the roots, Aniagwu retorted: “Let me tell you that it will not shake the leaves, not to talk of shaking the roots. What we are banking on is what the governor has done. He said something about doing one kind of dance. But our people have been dancing because, since 2015, they have been seeing projects. If it’s now they are thinking of how to begin to dance, we will tell them our people have danced a very long time and that dance will to a large extent determine what they will do when they approach the ballot in 2019”. With more of such battle of words expected as campaigns start in earnest, political observers are keeping their fingers crossed to see who wins the supremacy battle come 2019.