Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first African-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet.
Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica.
The PDP is now under pressure to either field a late replacement for Prof. Ikonne or accepts the inevitable bitter loss of governorship power…. The bleak prospects of the PDP in the next governorship contest in Abia are further deepened by the unimpressive performance of the incumbent governor Ikpeazu himself.
With the familiar face of Mr. Alex Otti, former Managing Director of Diamond Bank and two-time governorship candidate, as its flag bearer in the state, Labour Party has been increasing in strength and followership, a clear indication that Labour Party could produce the next governor of the state.
The governorship contest in Nigeria’s southeastern state of Abia may shift attention to the dynamics of succession contests in Nigeria’s 36 states. The governorship candidate of the ruling party in Abia (Peoples Democratic Party), Professor Eleazor Ikonne, has just died on January 25, 2023, after a period of illness. At the national level, the PDP is an opposition party wracked by internal dissension and deep governance liabilities at the local state level.
Now, it has to grapple with the complications of replacing its governorship candidate, literally on the eve of a crucial election.
In the run-up to Nigeria’s general elections in late February, the focus has been mostly on the presidential contest. Yet in Nigeria’s ‘winner takes all ‘ presidential system, it is most important to ordinary people who govern each of Nigeria’s sub-sovereign 36 states. But media attention has hardly focused on the factors and subterranean forces at play in the various states. Developments like the sudden leadership problem of the PDP in Abia state signal the kind of internal crises that political parties in the various states have to deal with in the selection of their next set of governors.
In the South East zone, Abia state which is also the home of Aba, the vibrant commercial and light manufacturing hub of the region, has peculiar political challenges and in many ways may foreshadow the surprising outcomes of the elections in many states in Nigeria.
Prior to the onset of the active campaign season, the outlook in the Abia governorship succession looked quite predictable. The state has remained a sure bet for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Outgoing governor Okezie Ikpeazu is the third in a succession of PDP governors following after Orji Kalu and Theodore Orji, both serving senators respectively. Kalu is however currently in the ruling APC. Governor Ikpeazu is himself in the race for the Abia South senate seat in the February election. If he succeeds, Abia would acquire the curious distinction of being the only state in the country where all three senatorial seats are occupied by former state governors.
After the last party conventions, it seemed obvious and natural to expect that Dr. Ikpeazu would be succeeded by a PDP candidate of his choosing. Political gladiators in the state mostly gravitated towards the incumbent governor and his choice of a successor to get their bearing.
The relative strength of the PDP and governor Ikpeazu in particular in Abia state derives from his support base in the Ukwa -Ngwa axis. The zone which coincides with Abia’s southern half boasts of a convenient demographic majority which, for a long time, had been marginalized from the governorship position in the state for a long time. From inception, power in the state has been dominated by persons from Abia North.
It was only under the tenure of Theodore Orji that the governorship seat moved to Abia Central which consists of Umuahia and parts of the Ukwa -Ngwa axis. Under Mr. Theodore Orji, based on pragmatic considerations, there was a political understanding called the “Abia Charter of Equity” with an understanding that gubernatorial power would shift to the core Ukwa -Ngwa axis after Theodore Orji’s tenure. Governor Ikpeazu is the first beneficiary and product of that understanding and therefore the first Ngwa man to hold the office of governor in Abia state. The position of the Ngwa sub-ethnic group in Abia politics is socio-economically strategic because Aba, the economic and revenue nerve center of the state, is located in Ngwaland.
In terms of party affiliation, there was, up to the immediate post-convention period in May 2022, no credible threat to the PDP hegemony in the state. The All Progressive Congress (APC) was the next most powerful contender for the governorship seat. The major presumptive governorship aspirants from the APC are Mr. Uche Ogar, immediate former minister of Solid Minerals, and Mr. Ikechi Emenike, a freelance businessman and close associate of the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari.
However, both men (Ogar and Emenike) have kept each other busy in a slew of lawsuits. By the latest series of conflicting rulings, both men have now neutralized each other to the point that both of them are literally handicapped from effectively contesting the February election. That largely seals the fate of the APC and leaves the field open to the other contending parties.
This literally left the winning field at first open to the PDP. Mr. Ikpeazu’s preference for a successor is Professor Ikonne, former Vice Chancellor of Abia State University. That choice sent ripples across the PDP membership in the state. Opposition to the choice was based on his age (he is above 70) as well as the implicit defiance of staunch party loyalists. Governor Ikpeazu stood his ground and got away with his choice since Prof Ikonne is also an Ukwa-Ngwa man. But even among the Ukwa-Ngwa political elite, the choice of Ikonne has remained a contentious matter, especially among the youth.
There are now two twists to the tale of the governorship contest in Abia.
First, the PDP candidate’s death literally leaves the PDP’s winning chances rather vulnerable and dicey. His sudden death has both alleviated the tension and created new ones.
The sense of vacuum in the party is now no longer limited to the absence of the flag bearer. It has all along been intensified by Ikpeazu’s flirtation with the governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers state who leads the Group of Five dissident PDP governors opposed to the Atiku Abubakar presidential ticket.
Ikpeazu has spent more time in recent weeks following the politics of party dissidence at the expense of his succession challenges and even the basic governance of his state.
This sense of vacuum has thrown the PDP into uncertainty and confusion. The party is now under pressure to either field a late replacement for Prof. Ikonne or accept the inevitable bitter loss of governorship power in a state that has remained a presumptuous PDP state.
The bleak prospects of the PDP in the next governorship contest in Abia is further deepened by the unimpressive performance of the incumbent governor Ikpeazu himself. By most standards of evaluation, Mr. Ikpeazu’s administration is ranked very poorly among state governments in the country. It could in fact be the worst administration in the history of the state itself. At the time of this writing, doctors in the state health care system have been on strike for weeks over unpaid salaries for as much as 25 months on end. The story is worse in educational institutions owned by the state such as the Abia Polytechnic in Aba which has lost its accreditation as a result of funding problems including over three years of unpaid staff salaries.
For the forthcoming election, while the PDP has been grappling with the natural but unfortunate misfortune of the ill health of its governorship candidate, the Peter Obi-led Labour Party (LP) has come onto the national scene as a formidable political force. With huge and raging national followership, the Obi movement has quickly garnered massive support in Abia state as in the rest of the southeast and indeed the nation.
With the familiar face of Mr. Alex Otti, former Managing Director of Diamond Bank and two-time governorship candidate, as its flag bearer in the state, Labour Party has been increasing in strength and followership. Recent reports have indicated massive daily decampments of PDP members into the Labour camp in support of both Peter Obi for president and Alex Otti for governor respectively.
If this trend continues, the clear indication is that Labour Party could produce the next governor of the state. But Mr. Otti has carried a burden of ancestry in his political career and contests for the governorship of the state. He hails from Arochukwu in Abia North but grew up and is resident in Ngwa land. He is by right a full citizen of both zones of the state. He is both an Ngwa man and an Aro son. This has been something of a burden as some politicians in Ngwaland have been reluctant to recognize him as a son of the zone. But the crisis in the PDP seems t have played largely in his favour by replacing those ancestral issues with a more compelling national and pan-Igbo interest in Peter Obi’s emergence.
Nonetheless, the other minority party, the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) showed some initial promise. But again the party is bedeviled by a long-standing legal struggle between the camps led by Mr. Udensi, an original founding member of the party on the one hand, and Mr. Greg Ibe, a governorship aspirant on the other hand.
But of all the remaining aspirants to the office of Abia state governor, none has the name recognition of Alex Otti of the Labour Party. He had previously run as a governorship candidate under APGA. It is important to note that APGA had previously built up an impressive support base in the state when the party was positioned as a key pan Igbo party in the mold of the Awolowo-led Yoruba interest parties of old hence its dominance in Ojukwu’s Anambra state. Former Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, having failed to occupy center stage in the old NPN was driven to form an ethnic-based political party in the mold of the late Obafemi Awolowo. He was seeking to control the political destiny of the Igbo states, at least. That was the origin of APGA.
If the present configuration of political forces remains as is, the fortunes of the PDP in Abia state seem rather bleak. The threat of internal crisis has increased with the death of Prof. Ikonne.
On the other hand, the chances of a Labour Party governor in Abia state are indeed clear, present, and bright. For peace and stability in the state, Mr. Alex Otti looks good to succeed the rather clueless and inept outgoing Okezie Ikpeazu. For one thing, Mr. Otti holds a strategic advantage in terms of the geo-politics of the state as he straddles both Abia north and Abia south, making him the enlightened resource manager and bridge builder that the state badly needs at this moment.