Oshiomhole, Obaseki

By OBINNA EZUGWU

Ahead of the All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship primary in Edo State, billed to hold on June 22, each of the principal gladiators in what promises to be a tough battle, the incumbent governor, Godwin Obaseki and his predecessor and National Chairman of the All Progressive Congress (APC), Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, are currently in last gasp plots to outwit the other.

The primary polls will be the climax of what has been years of heated political battle between the governor and his predecessor, Oshiomhole who had practically installed him as governor in 2016 at the detriment of then People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu who was by far the more popular candidate, and had, in many people’s reckoning, won the popular vote but was ultimately undone by Oshiomhole’s APC machinery.

The table has since turned with Obaseki and Oshiomhole now bitter political enemies, while the former labour leader is now all out for Ize-Iyamu, a former Chief of Staff and Secretary to the Edo State government under Chief Lucky Igbinedion.

An intellectual who served as head of Oshiomhole’s ‘Edo State Economic and Strategy Team’ from its inauguration in 2009, Obaseki would upon taking office as governor in 2016, put a stop to the politics of business as usual. The tenure of Oshiomhole had witnessed constant greasing of palms of party leaders in form of contracts and sundry avenues. And upon leaving office in 2016, he convinced the skeptical party men to throw their weight behind the finance expert and founder of Afrinvest West Africa Ltd, a foremost investment banking firm based in Lagos, promising that when he is elected, he would patronise them in return.

But on taking office, Obaseki, determined to deploy global best practices in governance, decided to put an end to the practice of settling party leaders, insisting that he had only come to serve Edo people and not to feed ‘greedy politicians’ in the state. In addition to awarding contracts directly to real contractors as opposed to party leaders, Obaseki also ended the practice of using thugs to collect levies in markets.

But It was a move that immediately pitted him against the various interest in the state, especially the party leaders and Oshiomhole’s men who had deployed resources to ensure he became governor and had hoped to recoup their investment once he took office.

While Obaseki’s first four-year tenure has witnessed unparalleled infrastructure development in the state, his denial of various political interests in the state access to state funds has meant that vicious opposition against him had persisted, ultimately pitting him against Oshiomhole who has been apparently under pressure from his men who want the governor out.

While both men had for a long while, pretended to be at peace in spite of the political tension in the state, they eventually collided following Obaseki’s nocturnal inauguration of the state house of assembly last year, in a bid to ensure that his loyalists took control of the house to forestall possible impeachment. Oshiomhole demanded a reversal, Obaseki persisted and an open confrontation began.

The confrontation has since continued, defying all efforts by various individuals, including the late former Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, Mallam Abba Kyari, to reconcile both men. And ahead of the primary election next month, in preparation for the main governorship election billed for September 19, the last battle line has been drawn.

Although Oshiomhole, who survived an attempt by Obaseki and other interests in the party to oust him from office as APC national chairman by the whiskers, had promised to ‘reconcile’ his style with those of his adversaries, and indeed part of the condition reached for truce was a certain agreement to give automatic tickets to Obaseki and his counterpart in Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu who is also seeking reelection this year, the APC chairman has since began a new song and is said to be leveraging on his control of the party’s National Working Committee (NWC) which is to organise the primary, to outwit Obaseki.

The Oshiomhole led NWC is said to be favouring direct primary, while Obaseki controlled Edo APC are angling for indirect primary. But at the moment, the NWC has largely kept its plan to itself, leaving Obaseki at bay. But in the meantime, the state chapter of the party has vowed it will not be bound by the decision of the NWC regarding the primary election.

“There is tension. The governor is working hard. The NWC is yet to decide whether it will be direct or indirect primary,” a government house source who craved anonymity said.

“The governor’s best bet was to ensure that Oshiomohle did not return as APC chairman. He did not succeed with that. Now he is battling hard.”

In the course of last week, Obaseki went to Abuja in last gasp effort to reach an agreement. But the effort has ultimately failed as both camps continued to exchange verbal blows into the weekend, with even Kassim Afegbua, member of the PDP and spokesperson for former head of state, Ibrahim Babangida adding his voice to the attack against Obaseki.

Upset about recent developments, former APC National Chairman, Chief John Oyegun on Wednesday berated his successor, Oshiomhole while demanding for a free and fair governorship primary in the state.

Oyegun who is himself a former governor of Edo, in a veiled message directed to Oshiomhole said “some persons in the leadership of the party (APC) are part of the contrived crisis in Edo state and must not be allowed to plan, participate or supervise the primary election in the state,” reminding President Buhari about the outcome of reconciliation in the party, which he said part of the agreement was the decision to give automatic second term tickets to Obaseki and Akeredolu.

Oyegun argued further that Obaseki deserved reelection because he has neither offended party constitution nor brought the party into disrepute and has fought infrastructure battle and presided over a peaceful state. On the ground, tension has continued, with Ize-Iyamu now front line contender in the Oshiomhole camp.

Ize-Iyamu on the ascendancy

Faced by a situation where his confrontation with Obaseki was increasingly looking like an affront to the Bini people of the state who are a vast majority of the state’s population, Oshiomhole late last year, it was said, reached out to Capt. Idahosa Wells Okunbo, a formost Benin businessman, investor philanthropist with the intention of presenting him as candidate, hoping to leverage on his influence to change the anti Benin narrative and take power from Obaseki. Okunbo however, was said to have declined, asking the APC chairman to instead choose Ize-Iyamu in his stead, while promising to deploy his resources to help make the former SSG governor.

Oshiomhole consequently reached out to Ize-Iyamu and convinced him to join the APC. And although he is the last entrant into the ruling party and should ordinarily rank below other governorship hopefuls, including former Deputy Governor Pius Odubu, General Charles Ehigie Airhiavbere, and Chris Ogiemwonyi, he has since emerged front-runner in the Oshiomhole camp and supported by Okunbo, he is increasingly looking like the man who will possibly end Obaseki’s reign as governor.

Late last month, the Oshiomhole group conducted mock primary to determine who among them would be presented as consensus candidate. It ultimately ended in a deadlock although Ize-Iyamu was said to have emerged winner.

Osagie Ize-Iyamu
Ize-Iyamu

“Ize-Iyamu is very strong, he is rugged. We hear that he has the backing of Bola Tinubu,” a party source in the state said.

“Of all the other candidates, he is the only one who can give Obaseki a run for his money without even relying on Oshiomhole. He has men on ground.”

Across the state, Ize-Iyamu’s popularity is growing, and although other aspirants are still pushing, he is most likely to emerge the consensus candidate of the Oshiomhole camp and may well stop Obaseki whose Abuja influence was affected by the death of Abba Kyari, which was a blow to Obaseki:

Until his death last month, Kyari, a known adversary of former Lagos governor, Tinubu, was said to have been the key presidential figure behind Obaseki in Aso Rock and had been the one engineering the plots against Oshiomhole.

Kyari, who was apparently opposed to the 2023 presidential ambition of Tinubu, Oshiomhole’s political godfather of sorts, who had heavily influenced his emergence as APC chairman at the expense of Oyegun, was said to have been the key figure behind the plot to oust the APC chairman. His death therefore meant that Obaseki lost a strategic ally in the country’s seat of power.

However, still undaunted, Obaseki has continued to fight on. A few days ago, he sacked his Chief of Staff, Taiwo Akerele. And while no clear word has been given on what exactly had transpired relating to him, insider sources say that he may have been relieved of his position simply because he could no longer be trusted being from the same senatorial zone as the APC chairman.

It is a similar claim that has been made about another APC chieftain, Tony Kabaka, whose hotel had been demolished months ago in what polity watchers say was a move to send signals to everyone else that only one person and the camp was in control of the political direction in the state. This time, the heat is allegedly being put further on him with claims that he has currently been slammed with an invoice to pay a princely sum of N18 million to the state authorities as costs incurred in the process of the demolition of his hotel.

Yet, only last week, a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the construction of the Edo Specialist Hospital and supply of equipment for the hospital came up with an indictment of the administration of Oshiomhole in respect of a breach of the state’s Public Procurement Law, a verdict that has equally sent his camp scampering to the courts in search of an injunction restraining the state government from giving heed to the content of the commission’s findings and ruling.

Presenting their findings to Governor Obaseki in Benin City fortnight ago, the Chairman of the Commission, Justice James Oyomire (rtd), said the award of the contract for the construction of the hospital had breached the state’s procurement laws. According to him, the procurement law clearly states that any contractor working on a government project should not receive more than 25 per cent upfront payment upon contract award.

However, “the immediate past administration paid 75 per cent of the contract sum upfront for the project to Vamed Engineering,” Oyomire disclosed.

Among others then, the commission’s eight-point recommendation includes the one instructing that the Ministry of Justice institute civil and criminal actions against those found culpable in the breach of the law.

Others include the strengthening of the state’s public procurement agency and ensuring strict adherence to the provision of the agency’s law on award of contract.

Responding, Obaseki affirmed that anyone found culpable, no matter how highly-placed, will be called to account for their action.

“We have been putting the right measures in place and if there are resources of government that need to be returned, we will not hesitate to ask for it,” the governor underscored.

The probe, analysts say, will further deepen the crisis in the state.

“I think such probes at this time will further deepen the bitter relationship between the two elephants in the fray and cause a further severing of the party structure,” said political analyst, Frank Uzeba.

“And as we know, no house survives in such an atmosphere of division. But at the moment, I foresee APC not getting over its internal fights very quickly to the point of presenting a common and mutually acceptable candidate to INEC at the end of the day; something in the mould of the sour grapes that played out in the Rivers State gubernatorial story only a few months ago. It could get that bad I am afraid to say.”