BY LEO SOBECHI
ABUJA (THE GUARDIAN) -- The Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe’s recent declaration of interest to contest the 2023 gubernatorial ticket of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has sparked off concerns and discussions about the anticipated intensity of divisions in Southeast, especially in the buildup to the 2023 general elections.
Although what Abaribe did could be described as a political ambush on the outgoing incumbent, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, it exposed how far crisis of electoral ambitions would shape the politics of Southeast, particularly regarding the governorship seats.
Abaribe is not alone in the quest to transit from the Legislature to the Executive. He has a fitting ally in the immediate past Deputy President of Senate, Dr. Ike Ekweremadu. Together they parade unparalleled records as the oldest occupants of their senatorial seat from the Southeast.
However, just as it is not possible to attribute a possible connivance or resolve to unsettle the home front, the fact that the immediate past Deputy President of Senate, Ekweremadu, is also oiling his political machinery to seek the governorship ticket of People Democratic Party (PDP), makes the development very intriguing.
Both ranking federal lawmakers have incumbent PDP leaders as their state governors. But, this is just about the least factor that raises the red flag to their gubernatorial aspiration.
Although Abaribe was elected for a first term in April 2007 and sworn in on May 29, 2007, he earned repeat electoral victories in 2011, 2015 and 2019. Having therefore been a constant face in the Red Chamber of the National Assembly for close to 12 years, it is obvious that 2023 should be his final passing out.
On his part, Ekweremadu, who considers himself as the lucky star of Enugu State politics, started featuring in the Red Chamber from May 29, 2003. And going by the four years’ period of each term, by 2023 the Mpu, Aninri Local Government Area would have occupied the same seat for 16 years.
In his alma mater, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he read law, admission is only given to those who are 16 years of age in addition to possessing other academic criteria. That could explain why the former Deputy Senate President wants to graduate from the Senate to the Lion Building, the seat of Enugu State Government, as governor.
If Ekweremadu’s desire to transit from the Legislature to the Executive follows the natural argument that change is constant, Abaribe’s ambition to be governor seems to be on the retrogressive instead of the progressive path. At the start of the fourth republic, Senator Abaribe was elected alongside current Senate Chief Whip, Orji Uzor Kalu, for the governorship seat. But, two months to the end of the term, Abaribe jumped out of the boat in order to scuttle his captain’s attempt to drown him through impeachment.
The people of Abia State still recall the cat and mouse relationship between the deputy governor, Abaribe and Kalu, the governor. Sources disclosed that Abaribe survived countless impeachment plots, even as he was accused of being a dissembler and divisive character, which Kalu could not stomach.
However, unlike Abaribe, Ekweremadu was not a deputy governor, but enjoyed a cozy political closeness to former Governor Chimaroke Nnamani, who appointed him, first as Chief of Staff and later, Secretary to the Enugu State Government. Yet, like Abaribe, Ekweremadu was also accused of dissembling and overzealousness.
Before Governor Nnamani propped him up to represent Enugu West Senatorial District in the Senate, the former DSP was alleged to have moved some members of the Enugu State Executive Council to Calabar, where they were administered with fetish oath to support him for the governorship. Being a power player and political tactician, Governor Nnamani decided that “we have to send Ike to Abuja, he has to give us chance to finish what we are doing for Enugu people.” In a cabinet reshuffle that trailed the muse, commissioners and appointees loyal to Ekweremadu were tactfully dropped.
Again, just as Abaribe moved over to All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) to contest the 2003 governorship of Abia State, it was from the All Peoples Party (APP) that Governor Nnamani brought Ekweremadu to serve as his Chief of Staff.
The contrasts did not end there. Both Abaribe and Ekweremadu are known to have fought against the political interests of their former principals. Apart from contesting the governorship against Orji Uzor Kalu, who was seeking a second term in 2003, the Senate minority leader has continued on a parallel political path with the Senate Chief Whip.
For Ekweremadu, despite launching out political on the goodwill of Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani, the former Deputy Senate President was said to have mobilized resources to stop Nnamani from accessing the Senate for a second term. As former political godsons, Ekweremadu and then incumbent Enugu State governor, Sullivan Chime, stonewalled the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2011, Dr. Nnamani founded the Peoples for Democratic Change (PDC) on which platform he contested the Enugu East Senatorial election.
Apparently, in attempt to retire their former principal to political oblivion, Governor Chime and Ekweremadu propped up the Deputy Leader of the House of Representatives, Gilbert Nnaji against Senator Nnamani. Riding on the combined forces of power of incumbency and federal might, Senator Nnamani was denied a second senate seat to represent Enugu East.
The same scenario was repeated in 2015, but the masses revolted and protests filled the length and breadth of the senatorial district, including parts of the state capital.
Pained by the cycle of political wickedness against their principal, incumbent Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi ensured not only the return of Dr. Nnamani to PDP, but also ensured that the mischiefs of 2011 and 2015 were redressed by support the return of the Ebeano political godfather to the Senate.
Watchers of Enugu State politics say Governor Ugwuanyi employed an uncanny political strategy to thwart Ekweremadu’s plans to use Senator Gil Nnaji to propel his governorship ambition. With Senator Nnamani back in the Senate, as well as his rock-solid grassroots support, it would be seen how any PDP governorship candidate can win without the support of Enugu East.
Across the entire length and breadth of Enugu State, former governor Nnamani retains popular acclaim in addition to his charismatic mass appeal. It is said that by bringing Senator Chimaroke to his corner, Governor Ugwuanyi, showed that he possesses the political ‘Urim and Thumin’ of Enugu State politics, especially with his ecumenism style of leadership.
It is doubtful of if Governor Okezie Ikpeazu would support Abaribe’s governorship, because as the outgoing governor, the incumbent should follow the tradition of propping up his preferred successor for the PDP ticket. Talks about Governor Ikpeazu’s possible switch over to All Progressives Congress (APC) have been making the rounds in Abia State, but the governor has literally sworn that there is and there would be nothing like defecting.
In the absence of overt support for his governorship ambition therefore, it is left to be seen how Abaribe intends to snatch the PDP ticket from the incumbent governor, particularly given that both hail from the same council area.
If Abaribe is to consider an alternative platform, his best option would be the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), because talk of APC would be akin to asking the Maduforo Ngwa to count the teeth of crocodile with his fingers.
For Ekweremadu, the first hurdle to cross is the zoning arrangement in Enugu State, which the masses seem to be religiously attached to in the interest of peace and social harmony. However, supporters of the former Deputy Senate President contend that at no time did any political party or stakeholders sit down to draw a charter for power distribution in the state.
Going by the rotation of the governorship slot, Enugu East Senatorial District is the next in line to throw up the next governor. But, citing former Governor Chime’s observations during an interaction with journalists in 2018, Ekweremadu and his supporters insist that there is nothing like zoning. Chime had noted that it was for fairness and need to reduce tension that he supported Enugu North Senatorial District to produce his successor and not based on any zoning plan.
The recent Anambra State governorship election, which former Central Bank governor, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo won, reinforced the zoning debate in Southeast. Soludo, who hails from Anambra South Senatorial zone defeated 17 other candidates drawn from the two Senatorial zones of Anambra Central and South.
While proponents of zoning thumb their chest that the outcome of the election was more of a triumph of zoning, others maintain that Anambra voters chose the best candidate, arguing that it is only in the absence of a qualitative candidate from a favoured zone could produce a different result.
Abaribe and Ekweremadu are entitled to their democratic right to stand for election, but whether that right vitiates voters’ right to adopt an unwritten convention would be seen at the end of the ballot on March 6, 2023.
BOTH Abaribe and Ekweremadu stand tall as giants of Nigeria Senate. While the representative of Abia South Senatorial District emerged as the voice and conscience of the Senate, especially in the Eighth and Ninth plenaries, Ekweremadu’s election by his colleagues on three consecutive occasions as Deputy President of Senate is not a mean record.
By the time the 2023 governorship poll holds in Abia State, Senator Enyinnaya Harcourt Abaribe would be 68 years. The man he wants to succeed is not up to 60. Perhaps, Abaribe wants voters to determine which is easier between state governors retiring to the Senate for legislation or old Senators ascending to the executive seat of a state governor.
For Ekweremadu, he would be seeking the governorship ticket at 60 in a state where nobody above 55 had ever held sway. Although age is a matter of the mind, but the two giants of Nigeria Senate would have a lot of explaining to do to youth of their constituency why they should continue to dominate the public space instead of grooming others.
Both men have done their best to ventilate the yearnings and aspirations of their constituents, particularly on the much talked about Igbo position in the Nigeria project. Abaribe earned his stripes and scars from voicing opposition to human right abuses of secessionist agitators, including the members of Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
The Senate Minority Leader was arrested and detained in 2018 briefly by the Department of State Services (DSS) for being an IPOB sympathizer, especially given his role in signing the bail bond of the IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu.
On the score of relationship with the secessionists, Ekweremadu has both sweet and sore tales to tell. Although he was part of the high level stakeholders support for the release of the IPOB from detention in 2017, IPOB activists in Germany swooped on him during his visit to Nuremberg for the Annual Cultural Festival and Convention of Ndigbo in Germany.
About four young men among those who attacked Ekweremadu in Germany were later apprehended and charged for the assault. Unlike Abaribe, whose recourse to verbal darts against opposition, the former DSP is said to be adept at bipartisan collaboration in championing Igbo causes.
For instance, it was gathered that at the onset of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, Ekweremadu decided to run again for the post of Deputy President of Senate following the failure of Buhari to appoint either Dr. Ogbonnia Onu or Dr. Chris Ngige as the Secretary to the Federal Government (SGF).
Again, in 2019 Ekweremadu was said to have rebuffed overtures from the Governors’ Forum to allow Senator Ovie Augustine Omo-Agege to emerge his successor unopposed, especially given the withdrawal of Senator Francis Alimikhena. This time around, the former DSP resolved with his PDP colleagues that Omo-Agege must not be allowed to emerge unopposed after debasing the hallowed chamber in the Eighth Senate.
“It would have been sacrilegious to unanimously endorse the event of April 18, when armed hoodlums invaded the Senate to steal the menace, so it was not about winning or not winning for a fourth term as DSP,” a PDP source confided in The Guardian.
It was perhaps on account of his closeness to APC leaders that the impression stuck that the DSP was planning a move to the governing party for Enugu State governorship contest.
Despite their individual achievements in the Red Chamber, both Abaribe and Ekweremadu seem to be plotting their retirement from public office by swimming against the tide of public perception. Already, politicians across the political divides, especially with the main opposition PDP have begun to interrogate the fruitage of their long sojourn in the Senate for the people at the grassroots.
As the two Senators begin the journey towards liberalizing the politics of their respective states, it would be seen how far they can go to disrupt the lure of zoning and power of incumbency.
Sign Of Things To Come
PERHAPS what happened in Orba, Udenu Local Government Area of Enugu State on Friday December 31, 2021serves as a foretaste of the public perception about their ambition to be governor against the run of rotation. Leaders of Orba community, who were acting on the understanding that Ekweremadu should not be offered any platform to market himself, reprimanded a member of the community, Mr. Charles Mbah, for using his birthday as a campaign ground for the former DSP.
It was gathered that after fracas broke out earlier in the year following a football march sponsored by the former DSP, stakeholders of Enugu North Senatorial District resolved that no individual or group should invite Ekweremadu for any public function before the governorship primaries of PDP.
The leaders maintain that since Governor Ugwuanyi is a product of zoning, nobody should be supported to rubbish the power sharing arrangement in the state. They also contended that as the incumbent, their brother, Ugwuanyi, should be supported to guide the state on the path of peace and brotherhood in selecting the next governor.
The reprimand of Charles Mbah could be a potent sign that the masses in Southeast are high on zoning. As men of means and men, how Abaribe and Ekweremadu survives the people’s power would determine the strength of their conviction, particularly given the yearning of Southeast to produce President Buhari’s successor.