Rising and falling of Delta State political family and consequences

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*Okowa, Ibori

Magnus Onyibe

An internecine war of anarchic proportions has ensued in Delta state. And the state that has been governed by the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP since the return of multi-party democracy in 1999 is in turmoil. In fact , it is on the verge of tipping over and into the grasp of the opposition party, All Progressive Congress, APC,if the war persists.

That is because the incumbent state Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa’s preferred candidate, Sherriff Oborovwori who is currently the speaker of the house of assembly has literarily mauled his opponents in the gubernatorial primaries contest held on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He clinched the victory by polling a whopping 590 votes of the 825 delegates.

That means that only about 265 delegates voted for the rest of the contenders for the office of the governor of delta state in 2023. In some states like Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Cross Rivers, etc the governors ‘anointed’ candidates scored landslide victory, leaving the opponents winning votes that can be counted on the fingers of a single hand or at best two hands.

So compared with the results of the party primaries in the aforementioned jurisdictions, prying out votes in excess of 200 from the grasp of the anointed candidate in delta state can actually be considered a feat. Drawing from the wisdom in an adage that is popular amongst my tribesmen, which is that it is the person that has the knife and the yam that is at liberty to decide the portion of yam that he/she shares out to  others, the party delegates elections for producing the candidates for 2023 general elections were bound to go the way they have turned out.

And it is doubtless that transparency in how delegates list is drawn up by the governor of a state without enough  involvement of other stakeholders and not within a set of rules which are immutable, is amongst the grey areas that future reviews of the electoral laws of our country should focus attention in order to improve on the process of recruitment of political leaders at the grassroots level.

Relying on the aphorism, if the foundation of a building is weak, the integrity of the structure would be in jeopardy, a grossly undemocratic practice of democracy at the sub-national level as evidenced by the manipulation of state electoral agencies by the governors and the production of party delegates list whimsically, instead of being based on established and strictly observed parameters, (as is largely the case with INEC) is tantamount to attempting to build a house on sinking or quick sand. And such incongruity as reflected by the flawed system at the grassroots level needs to be urgently addressed, altruistically. The assertion and observation above is justified or derives from the fact that those who may be benefiting from the abnormalities today, would ultimately be the victims tomorrow.

Since a system standing on a foundation of clay, instead of solid rock of democracy, would not withstand a stress test, the structure would soon after its erection go  with the winds.

Arising from the above scenario , a situation whereby the party delegates list is drawn up at the behest of the sitting governor is antithetical to democracy. That is simply because, equity and fairness would be presumed to have been trifled with by the state governor, who as the leader of the party in the state, would ensure that the names that make it into the delegates list are those that are malleable by him.

Against the backdrop of the circumstances highlighted above, it is unsurprising that the closest rival to the winner of the PDP primaries in Delta state, David Edevbie, garnered a mere 113 votes compared to the 590 number of votes polled by the winner, the speaker of the house of assembly, Sherriff Oborovwori ,who is the governors preferred candidate. Rather than lament, the man who polled the second highest votes in the contest has been stoic as if he has acquiesced with the loss by hinging it on the common philosophy: win some, lose some.

That is the attitude of Edevbie, a former commissioner for finance from 1999 to 2006 under chief James lbori as governor, and later, commissioner of finance in 2015-2019, that also served as chief of staff to the incumbent governor, Okowa, until a few months ago.

Another ranking member of the class of 1999, who was commissioner for works 1999-2003, under lbori’s watch as governor, senator James Manager, received a paltry 83 votes to take the third position in the race. He too has taken the loss like a sportsman.

That is in spite of the fact that he is the pioneer chairman of the ruling party, PDP at its inception in 1999.

The rest of the contestants, particularly, the incumbent deputy governor, Kingsley Otuaro, and the immediate past commissioner for Works, Peter Mkrapor, tied with 9 votes apiece.

When the total votes cast for the other contestants against the speaker, Oborovwori are combined, it is a little more than 200 votes. As such, the votes drawn for the winner by and large are more or less a tripling of the combined votes cast for other contenders.

Such is the power of incumbency that enables the governor under whose watch the election is held to exclusively draw up the delegates list with minimum input by other stakeholders which is to be relied upon by all the contestants, including the favored and disfavored. It is worthy to state that the outcomes of the primaries conducted in the various states where the candidates chosen by the governors won the contest are similar to how state electoral commissions always ‘deliver’ the candidates of the ruling party in the Local Government Chairman and counselor elections.

That is simply because, since it is the governors that appoint the state electoral commission members, they are often obliged to do the governor’s bidding. Which is in consonance with the dictum, “he who pays the piper, dictates the tune.”

That anomaly or perfidy, if we must call a spade by its name, is the bane of democracy at the grassroots level which is reflected by the trend whereby the two major parties, APC and PDP enjoy predominance of their members as local government chairmen and councilors courtesy of their ‘dutiful’ electoral agencies . Thus, there is hardly any APC or PDP led state without all the LGA chairmen and councilors being members of the state’s ruling party.

As a democracy advocate, it would remiss of me not to point out  that , no matter whose ox is gored that such an anti-democracy practice is deplorable and needs to be condemned, and replaced with a more transparent process that is guided by and under-guarded with democracy ethos. This is the way to improve the fidelity of the process of recruitment of politicians at the grassroots level and the concomitant deepening of our democracy at the subnational and national levels.

Imagine what would have become of our democracy at the national level, if the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC were to be at the beck and call of the president of Nigeria as state electoral commissions are made to function like departments in the office of state governors? Autocracy or monarchy, rather than democracy would have been entrenched in Nigeria and that could have been akin to what obtains in Russia or at best, the nation of Morocco , Syria or Turkey.

It is curious that INEC had hitherto exhibited some modicum of independence, until the recent decision to shift its timetable for the elections which critics allege was done to serve the narrow interest of the ruling party, APC.

Before the delegates’ election contest in delta state, governor Okowa had not hidden his preference for the current speaker of the state house of assembly, Sherrif Oborefovwori to take over the reins of government from him, as opposed to Edevbie, who is the candidate favored by Urhobo Progressive Union, UPU, a socio-cultural group of the largest ethnic stock in Delta state.

Off course, it is within the ambit of the governor to have a choice of successor and on whom he has anchored his support. After all, President Mohammadu Buhari had stated in a television interview that he has a preferred candidate that he would like to succeed him as he exits Aso Rock Villa next year. Indeed, decoding who that candidate really is has been as tasking as untying the proverbial Gordian knot by APC members keen on stepping into Buhari’s shoes next year and indeed the entire country that is currently waiting to hear from president Buhari about who the mystery candidate truly  is. That is even as the APC delegates congress that should have been wrapped up on May 30, has been postponed for the umpteenth time while waiting for Mr. President’s weighty utterance on the matter.

But ordinarily, the president does not have as much latitude as a state governor has to literally produce a candidate by fiat or via manipulation of the delegates list.

The underlying reason for his limitation is the fact that the national delegates list for the election of a presidential candidate comes from all 36 states and 774 local councils nationwide. In light of the fact that stakeholders in the states and regions may have their own peculiar agendas to pursue , it is more daunting for a president to impose his candidate in a direct or an indirect election exercise .

Except via a consensus process, that is if the president is charismatic and venerated by his party men and women, perhaps like president Buhari.

A major stakeholder in the Delta state governorship election is chief James Ibori, who is the pioneer governor of the state following the return of multi-party democracy 1999-2007 and therefore the political father of all the aspirants to most of the political leadership positions.

He also supported David Edevbie.His backing of Edevbie is derived from the fact that he was the erstwhile commissioner for finance under his watch,so he is considered an integral part of the state’s political class of 1999, also known as the Ibori political family.

After all had been said and done, (with the backing of the incumbent governor) the other contestants were practically turned into spectators in the event as the counting of the votes was going on with the winner’s name mimicking a sing-sing and sounding like music to the ears of his supporters as the announcer kept repeating Oborovwori Francis as he picked up the ballots 590 times until he finally announced Sheriff Oborovwori, as the winner of the party primaries.

It is clearly a manifestation of the raw power of incumbency which made it possible for the governor’s will to prevail forcefully. And the outcome is doubtless a disruption of the governorship succession model in delta state which had more or less become entrenched since 1999.

As a microcosm of Nigeria, Delta state had started manifesting what l would like to refer to as governorship rotation malady in the manner that Nigeria is under the throes of presidency rotation malaise that has seen the main opposition party, PDP, jettisoning presidency rotation arrangement which it had practiced since the return of multi-party democracy in 1999.

As if echoing the challenges dogging the continuity of the rotation of the presidency between the north and south in the central government , the governorship rotation initiative between the three senatorial zones introduced by chief Ibori before exiting office of the governor after his eight (8) years tenure expired in 2007, is being threatened.

And it is unsurprising that it took a considerable amount of bickering and arm twisting before the incumbent government decided to honor the agreement to allow the governorship pendulum to swing back to delta central which is the base from where the rotation started in 1999.

It may be recalled that Ibori institutionalized the process in the state as he was exiting in 2007.

Typical of political actors, spanners are often metaphorical thrown into the wheel of progress. But after all the horse-trading are done , the system had been sustained, albeit at a huge political cost to Ibori whom his Urhobo kith and kin are not happy with for not allowing them to enjoy the benefit intrinsic in the fact that they are the majority ethnic group in the state, and the majority in a democracy always carries the vote. That is assuming all Urhobos decide to vote based on the influence of ethnic sentiments.

It is by sheer grit that after him, and to the consternation of Urhobo and Ijaw nations, governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, then Secretary of the state Government, SSG, under Ibori, an Itsekiri by  tribe which is part of delta south senatorial zone, mounted the saddle and led for eight years.

Subsequently, in 2015, Ifeanyi Okowa, also a former SSG under Uduaghan’s watch and a senator, who hail lka ethnic nation of the north senatorial zone, took over the reins of governance, where he has been holding sway for the past seven (7) years.

As is common in politics, the transitions of the governorship position from one zone to the other since 2007 have not been rancor free. But whatever schisms ensued during the change of batons, a degeneration of the crisis was never allowed to persist. Hence ‘the big heart state’ has been fittingly tagged with the ‘one big political family’ appellation since 1999 before what l prefer to term the Big Bang that happened on the 25th of May.

That was the state of affairs until the recently concluded 2023 party primary elections for the PDP which commenced with the state house of assembly, followed by the House of Representatives and Senate before culminating in the governorship primaries where the incumbent governor had a divergent view on who becomes the next governor in 2023 with other stakeholders such as ex-governor Ibori and Urhobo Progressive Union, UPU that supported a candidate that is not the governor’s choice.

As governor Okowa has leveraged the power of incumbency to supplant the so-called Ibori political family after over 21 years run with his own surrogate, Oborovwori, (which suggests the birth of his own political family) can it be said that things have fallen apart in Delta political family? And can the PDP that has led the state since 1999 be able to sustain its hold by producing the next governor in 2023 with a divided house?

That is the question that those making a song and dance of the growing internecine war within the PDP family in Delta state, (who perhaps owing to how it is being celebrated appear to have awarded governor Okowa victory) must answer.

That attitude in my view is tantamount to a gambler counting his money while still at the gambling table.

Suffice it to say that the point that those gloating about the split in the PDP family seem to be missing, is that it is merely the battle that has been fought , lost and won ,while the real war is still ahead.

And the danger ahead of us is that the PDP may not win the war, as no military general, worth the rank, goes into a war on a limb. That is what it would amount to if the crisis within the PDP family is allowed to fester.

Another existential reality which the PDP family members need to brace up to , is that without a Ibori’s magnanimity in driving the rotation of governorship initiative between the three zones, the Urhobos being the majority tribe and in consonance with democracy grand norm ‘majority carries the vote’ would be producing the governor of the state in perpetuity as is currently the case in multiple states across the country. Such a political environment is usually prone to being afflicted with ethnic conflicts which was wracking the state at the point that chief lbori , assumed its leadership.

This media intervention is a note of caution to those whose gaze are laser-focused on now, while discountenancing the likely consequences of today’s actions and inactions tomorrow, thereby imperiling the future of politics of equity, fairness and justice that had become endemic in Delta state.

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