James Ibori
James Ibori

By OBINNA EZUGWU

Since 1999 when the swashbuckling Londoner, James Onanefe Ibori, who had returned to Nigeria from England in the mid-90s to serve as consultant to then military head of state, General Sani Abacha, swept his way to power as governor of Delta State, aged just 39, he has maintained a firm grip on the state’s politics, deciding who becomes what from governors to national assembly members and everything in between.

And not even his long periods of incarceration in England on conviction for fraud was able to stop his control of the state’s politics.

Indeed, sometimes last year, a picture showing the Senator representing Delta South Senatorial District, James Manager, kneeling before Ibori who returned to the country in 2017 after being released from jail, went viral and elicited reactions from many Nigerians. It spoke to the level of influence Ibori still wields in the state.

But as Delta, and indeed Nigeria, marches towards another election cycle in 2023, Ibori’s grip on the state is coming under a stern test, no thanks to the continued inroads being made by Nigeria’s emergent ruling party, the All Progressive Congress (APC) into the state, the complexities of the state’s politics, as well as the incumbent governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa’s alleged move to chose his own successor.

Zoning Challenge

Delta, like all states of the Nigerian federation, is made up of three senatorial zones: Delta North, the predominantly Igbo speaking Anioma areas made up of nine local governments, among which are Aniocha North, Aniocha South, Ika North, Ika South, Ndokwa East, Ndokwa West, Oshimili North, Oshimili South and Ukwuani; Delta Central, the Urhobo zone comprising of eight local governments of Ethiope East, Ethiope West, Sapele, Okpe, Ughelli North, Ughelli South, Udu and Uvwie; and Delta South, which is an admixture of Itsekiri, Ijaw, Isoko and Urhobo divided into eight local governments of Burutu, Bomadi, Isoko North, Isoko South, Patani, Warri North, Warri South and Warri South West.

Power rotation has been key in maintaining a semblance of stability in the state’s politics, and Ibori who is Urhobo from the Central District had handed over to his cousin, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, an Itsekiri from the Southern District, and upon the completion of his tenure in 2015, Uduaghan handed over Dr. Okowa from the Delta North.

Okowa will be completing his eight years in office in 2023, and in line with the rotation structure set up by Ibori, power is billed to return to the Urhobo of the Central District. And with this in mind, Ibori is said to have since penciled down David Edevbie, his core loyalist who was his Finance Commissioner and later Principal Secretary to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, as Okowa’s successor.

Apart from Edevbie, who also served as Okowa’s chief of staff, other Urhobo sons who are in the race within the PDP ranks are: Speaker of the state Assembly, Sheriff Oborevwori; immediate past commissioner for Works, James Augoye; businessman and former minister of State for Education, Kenneth Gbagi; former Commissioner for Justice, Peter Mr Akpor; a former commissioner, Fred Majemite; former senator and managing director of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Emmanuel Aguariavwodo, among others.

Indeed it’s along this line of thought that prominent traditional rulers from Delta North led by the Asagba of Asaba, Chike Edozien, recently argued that it was only right for power to return to the Central Senatorial District in 2023.

But there’s been a twist in the tale. The Ijaw, which make up a significant portion of the Southern Senatorial District, as well the Isoko who are also a significant group in the zone, are aggressively making a case for the coveted seat. Their argument being that since the Urhobo, the Itsekiri and the Anioma have had power, it’s only right for them to do so, too. In essence, they argue that rotation should be based on ethnic groups and not senatorial zones.

At the forefront of the Ijaw quest for power are such notable figures as Chief Edwin Clark, former federal minister and leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), and importantly, Chief Government Ekpemupolo, popularly known as Tompolo, both of whom are prominent Ijaw nationals from the state.

Last week, Chief Clark, in response to the position of Delta North traditional rulers, insisted that zoning doesn’t exist as far as he was concerned, as according to him, every governorship election since 1999 had been contested for by people from different zones.

“Ijaw is not campaigning for 2023 governorship that it is the turn of Delta South, we are saying that we too want to have it, that we produce most of the oil, we will like to have it, not on the condition of senatorial zone,” he said in an interview with a national daily. “What Ibori did was in abuse of his office as governor of the state and he paid dearly for it.”

Similarly, in a statement few months ago, Equity Group of Isoko (EGI), an Isoko pressure group urged other tribes in the state to support the Isoko bid for power in the interest of equity and fairness.

The group said in the statement signed by its coordinator, Deacon Mazno Ovadhe, that it would be unfair to rotate the state’s seat of power on the basis of zones rather than ethnic groups, and on that call, he noted that the Urhobo have produced governor of the state on two occasions, with Chief Felix Ibru and Chief Ibori, while an Itsekiri man, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan has also an ruled and an Ika man, Dr. Okowa is currently the governor of the state.

“If there had been any gentleman agreement by politicians in the state in rotating governorship position the Senatorial arrangement is oppressive without merit and equity. We urge other tribes in our dear state to vote enmass for an lsoko candidate, irrespective of political party,” the group had said.

“In fairness, Isoko, Ijaw and Aniocha who have not ruled the state, should be given the opportunity. We want to put the records straight, that, the votes of ljaw and lsoko people are one of the highest. Why should other tribes relegate these tribes to the background?

“We also frown at comments credited to some Urhobo leaders that it is the turn of an Urhobo person again to become the next governor of Delta State.“

EGI argued that there was never any “gentleman agreement” in Delta State,” noting that, ‘If we have to believe, why was there interference from the Central Senatorial District in the last gubernatorial race?

“For the records, when Chief James Ibori aspired to be governor of the state, his kinsmen fought for him to be governor… “We therefore, urge all stakeholders irrespective party affiliation to support an lsoko candidate.”

The Urhobo who are the single largest ethnic group, are however, standing their ground, with the Urhobo Progress Union, UPU, rallying support for their quest, and Ibori their son knows he will find it difficult not to acquiesce to their demand for power. But at the same time, the Ijaw, whose three sons: Senator James Manager, currently representing Delta South under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) platform; Deputy Governor of state, Deacon Kingsley Otuaro and former commissioner, Braduce Angozi, who are major contenders for the governorship, will present a huge headache for the former governor.

Votes from the creeks inhabited predominantly by the Ijaw, have been instrumental to Ibori and PDP’s successes in the state and Tompolo, who is the lord of the creeks, is said to be maintaining his ground that it is the turn of his kinsmen to produce the next governor.

Ibori, perhaps knowing that he is in a very tight position in this regard, had last week, for the first time since he returned to London, paid a visit to Tompolo in his home town of Oporoza, Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri South West Council Area to negotiate with the warlord. It is unclear what the outcome of the the trip is, but it may also be difficult for Tompolo to take a position his own people would consider as betrayal.

APC on Ascendancy

In Delta, as in most of the South South, the APC is making huge inroads, and will be looking to snatch up victory in the 2023 governorship election in the state, which would mean that the era of Ibori dominance is over.

In 2019, Chief Great Ogboru, an Urhobo with significant political clout, became the APC candidate for the umpteenth time – his candidacy was eventually nullified by the court which recognized Prof. Pat Utomi as the rightful candidate – but he ultimately lost to Okowa, the incumbent PDP governor who, apart from wielding power of incumbency, had Ibori’s backing.

Ogboru with some historical baggage could not muster up enough federal might to tip the scale in his favour, and the federal government which had allegedly negotiated Ibori’s return to Nigeria in the understanding that he will use his influence to ensure peace in the restive oil rich region, may not have been keen on interfering with his territory.

Ahead of 2023, however, with deputy senate president, Ovie Omo-Agege, another prominent Urhobo, as its leader in the state, the APC will be hopeful of a better outing. But the party is also facing its own contradictions, with minister of state for labour, Festus Keyamo, among other party stakeholders, at loggerheads with Omo-Agege, even as it remains unlikely that the federal government will want to significantly undermine Ibori given his strategic role in guaranteeing peace in the region.

“If the likes of Ogboru, Omo-Agege and so on can come together, they may be able to challenge Ibori,” said a prominent journalist and political analyst from the state who craved anonymity. “But I don’t see that happening. Omo-Agege is not strong enough to take on Ibori, and I don’t think Abuja will want to play too much because of Ibori.”

Okowa Caught Between Two Allies

The outgoing governor, Dr. Okowa is an integral part of the Ibori political family. Indeed, his emergence as governor in 2015 was down to the fact that Ibori stood solidly behind him amid plots to deny the people of Delta North the governorship slot.

Both men remain very close, but Tompolo is also an ally of the governor and he is said to be favourably disposed to an Ijaw candidate, notably the deputy governor, Mr. Otuaro, and had stirred up some controversy when he was quoted to have argued against zoning in this regard. The governor is also said to be particularly opposed to the choice of Edevbie, who is Ibori’s Urhobo candidate.

The above complications have led to suggestions that Okowa may be on collision course with Ibori, but that’s unlikely, given their closeness, even as it’s obvious that the governor doesn’t have enough political clout to challenge Ibori.

“Okowa is caught between the Ijaw and Urhobo,” said Mr. Richard Obaka, a political commentator. “His ally, Tompolo is Ijaw. Tom is also Ibori’s ally, so it’s a complex situation. But what is clear is that Okowa and Ibori will eventually reach an agreement.”

 

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