By OBINNA EZUGWU
Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki is currently fighting a tough battle for survival. Ahead of the state’s governorship election in 2020, the odds are increasingly stacking against him. Several prominent members of his party, the All Progressive Congress (APC) have vowed to ensure he does not return. Their case against him is betrayal.
But the embattled governor appears to have a few lifelines. He has generally performed well as governor. His predecessor, Adams Oshiomhole, now APC national chairman has kept mute amid the ensuing battle with many insiders saying he is likely to back the governor but doesn’t want to say so yet in order not to ruffle feathers.
And ultimately, the calculation of Edo Central and Edo North is that it would be better to endure another four years under him and take power than risk waiting for another eight years with another Edo South candidate.
Edo is made up of three senatorial zones, the most dominant being the Edo South populated by the Binis. The second in the perking order is Edo Central, the Esan group. The third is Edo North comprising of Etsako, Owan and Akoko Edo in that order. There, Etsako is the most dominant group, followed by Owan, with Akoko bringing up the rear.
The return of democracy in 1999 saw the emergence of Lucky Igbinedion from the South as governor. He did eight years and was succeeded by Oserheimen Osunbor from the Central. However, Oshiomhole from the North later defeated him through the court. The former labour leader handed power back to the South with Obaseki after eight years.
The unwritten agreement therefore, is that after eight years, the South will hand over to the Central which had produced Ambrose Alli in the past. Replacing Obaseki after only one term therefore, could mean another fresh eight years for the South.
Not minding the calculations however, the governor continues to come under pressure, mostly from his own people in Edo South. His troubles, one could say, was an inevitability. He was, for the original party men, an intruder who was to be merely tolerated and given benefit of the doubt. But given his background, he was sure to betray interests and inadvertently set himself up for antagonism.
Obaseki was, before 2016, a professional economist plying his trade in Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos. He founded West Africa sub-regional investment bank, Afrinvest and perhaps never imagined himself a politician, much more a governor.
But his job sought him out. He had proved an invaluable economic consultant and a partner of sorts to Oshiomhole, his predecessor. He headed Oshiomhole’s Economic and Strategy Team inaugurated in 2009. And upon leaving office in 2016, Oshiomhole anointed him as his successor, much to the disappointment of the various political stakeholders in the state who wanted one of their own.
Oshiomhole’s decision to back Obaseki ruffled feathers. He was not part of the system and people feared, not only that he didn’t have the necessary reach to win, but that he didn’t also have understanding of the workings of party politics.
Edo operated a kind of party structure similar to what is obtained in Lagos, where various groups hold down specific areas of the state and spoils of office distributed thereof. Under Oshiomhole, contracts for projects where allegedly awarded to these party leaders who took 40 percent from the budgetary provisions for such projects and used the remaining 60 percent to hire professionals to execute them.
Party chieftains in various local governments were adequately catered for and accommodated in the Oshiomhole government. As one member of the party put it, “Oshiomhole was a good party man.”
“The reason people are taking action against Obaseki is that before he came, every single structure or arm of politics in Edo State rejected him. Out of about four or five candidates, he was the least favoured,” a member of the ruling party who craved anonymity explained.
“Oshiomhole was the one who coerced everybody to accept him. He assured everybody that he is the man to support and that he will carry on from where he stopped.
“There were several political committees and Obaseki kept coming 5th in the acknowledgement of everyone of the committees. He never came first, even in the palace. But he had a working relationship with Oshiomhole, he was chairman of his economic team. He and Oshiomhole were working together.”
The case against him precisely was that in his eight years of economic team headship, he never participated in any political activity. He simply concentrated on economic matters. As a result, he was largely unknown. Thus, when his name came up on the list of contestants, few months to the primary, everyone said he should go and sit down. But Oshiomhole insisted.
Prior to the party’s primary election ahead of the governorship election in 2016, these groups held mock elections to ascertain who, from about five leading contestants at the time, had more acceptability across the divide. And in each of the elections, Obaseki was last.
Regardless, Oshiomhole, determined to ensure Obaseki’s emergence, insisted. As pointed out earlier, Obaseki had handled his finances as governor and speculation became rife that he was looking for someone who had details of his financial dealings and could therefore protect him.
Again, a trend of outgoing governors seeking out professionals with little or no political experience and structures had become fashionable on account of Bola Tinubu’s success with Babatunde Fashola and Akinwunmi Ambode in Lagos State. The professionals are seen perhaps, as people with no political structures to support them and would therefore, remain loyal to their godfathers. In Akwa Ibom, Goodwill Akpabio had sought out former banker, Udom Emmanuel.
As governor and leader of the APC in the state, Oshiomhole was able to convince key stakeholders to accept Obaseki. He assured them that he was going to do something for everyone. So they brought money to fund his campaign. Indeed, it became a race as each one tried to outdo the other.
During primary, many were said to have cornered delegates from their areas of influence, paid them handsomely and only released them on the morning of the primary. “They wanted to make sure that Obaseki won their wards and local governments to remain relevant,” one source said.
However, the support of the stakeholders was never going to be enough. Oshiomhole’s popularity had vastly waned too, and his backing of Obaseki was no guarantee. Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu, former chief of staff and SSG who was candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was clearly the more liked candidate in the state and was going to win a free and fair contest.
Oshiomhole and his men mapped out strategies. He literally took charge of the campaign and the various party leaders mobilized funds, with Obaseki offering little. But even their best efforts were not enough to convince the majority of Edo people to vote the Lagos professional ahead of Ize-Iyamu.
On the election-day, when it became obvious that the PDP candidate was headed for victory, the APC, BusinessHallmark had observed, took matters into their own hands. Buses conveying electoral materials were diverted, in some instances, burnt and figures allegedly cooked up. In the end, Obaseki was declared winner.
The various party chieftains and political groups who had committed resources to ensure his emergence expected rewards for their efforts in the form of contracts and creation of sundry schemes. But they were to receive a shocker. As soon as he was sworn in, the new governor paid no heed to party leaders and focused on governance. The political meetings held under Oshiomhole he abandoned
Coming from a background of finance and economics, Obaseki adopted “global best practices” in governance. He awarded contracts to real contractors – what is known in Edo APC circles now as “Lagos people” – bypassing party leaders and scrapped all the parastatals and agencies his predecessor had set up ostensibly to settle the boys.
As one party member put it: “Na American style he bring; he no sabi all those gragra party politics.”
The party leaders became embittered. One particular group led by Osakpamwan Eriyo, then APC youth leader in the state and Chairman of Road Transport Employers Association, decided to take matters up with the governor. They were said to have met with the governor. But when it became apparent that he was not cooperating, Eriyo was said to have stamped his fists on the table and insisted that, “Look Mr. governor, you have to listen to us.”
A coalition of Oshiomhole’s supporters under the aegis of Edo Peoples’ Movement, EPM, had decided that next year’s polls will determine who is in charge of the state politically. This development has caught Oshiomole in the middle, hence his apparent silence in the unfolding scenario.
He is disappointed with Obaseki for betraying his political base but also aware that he dare not challenge or turn against the governor who is covering all the skeletons he left in his cupboard. Obaseki can easily destroy Oshiomole’s political career.
Unease with the emerging threat with the party in the 2020 election, President Buhari was last reported to have wielded into the matter to ensure the parties come together for the election. He has reportedly tasked Oshiomhole and the governor to sheath the sword and reconcile their differences.
The governor was said to have instructed the security to take him away. He was taken all the way to Oko prison. The governor later leveled sundry charges against him. The man spent three months in prison and that further incurred the wrath of many stakeholders.
“These were people who even had to shoot guns to make sure that Obaseki won,” a party source said. “The governor said that anybody who has been affiliated with government should not come near government house. These people have formed a coalition against him and are now waiting for the next election.
“My own father is the leader in our own local government. Obaseki has not called them once to sit down for any meeting. Oshiomhole used to call them every three months to celebrate them, give them money and when contracts are out, he will make sure that 40 percent is for the leaders. But this man is not empowering any political leader in the state; people are coming from Lagos and Abuja to do the job here. So the stakeholders are waiting, wondering if those people from Lagos and Abuja will come and do primary for him.”
He conceded, however, that the governor has performed infrastructure wise. “It is not as if Obaseki has not done well, he has done roads, bridges etc, but he has not still done well because he relegated the people he ought to pass through in doing those things. He is even calling them greedy people who he cannot share money with.”
Confronted with the opposition, the initial reaction of the Obaseki group was that he couldn’t care less about second tenure. But no one leaves power at will. Ahead of the party’s primary, the governor has literally thrown his hat in the ring and is said to be doing everything possible to win amid opposition by those feeling betrayed.
In an interview with an online newspaper recently, Mr. Henry Idahagbon, an APC chieftain and immediate past Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in the state, vowed that the leadership of the party would give the governor the “Ambode treatment.” He lamented that it was a mistake to have supported him in 2016.
“Leaders of APC made a fundamental mistake in 2015 when they brought a political neophyte, somebody who has never been in government, somebody who has never done anything tangible or worthwhile as governor. We made a mistake of electing somebody who had been rejected by his people, the most aloof governor we have ever had in Edo State.”
The party chieftain maintained that: “He (Obaseki) has succeeded in alienating the party; he has succeeded in marginalising other members of the party under the bogus claim that he doesn’t have the resources to satisfy the private greed of party members. No party member wants the governor to give them money or dash them money. I ask the question: for the eight years that he was Chairman of the Economic Team under Oshiomhole, was he dashed money?
“Comrade is somebody that if he spends a thousand, he wants to get N2,000 value from every thousand that he spent. But party members are entitled to patronage from government having worked assiduously to enthrone the government. Those who are contractors can be patronised in the area of the contract they specialised in, I am not a contractor, I have never done any contract and I don’t want no contract, but I should have access to my governor, a governor that I worked day and night for, a man who did not even know how we made him governor.”
The governor who has had to contend with heavy debt burden accumulated by his predecessor insists regardless, that he has no money to settle “greedy political leaders.” The state has foreign debt profile in excess of N276 billion, second only to Lagos with N1.4 trillion; and domestic debt of over N68 billion.
The governor spoke when he received Muslim faithful who were at the Government House, Benin, to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast with him last week. Alluding to the gang up against him, he maintained that only God gives power and that he would not pay attention to those he called detractors.
“Only God gives power. What is going on in Edo State is the handiwork of detractors who want to frustrate the administration so we can fail in delivering the dividends of democracy to the people. But that will never happen.” He said he would not bow to pressure to share the people’s money to “a few greedy persons.”
“We will continue to do our best in paying our workers and pensioners and will continue to develop the state as the time for sharing money is over. The resources of the state are meant for the people of the state.”
For the governor, it is an uphill task to retain his seat. A lot will depend on Oshiomhole who is at the moment, keeping mute.
“Oshiomhole has not said a word for or against the governor at all,” Silvester Amune, a member of the party told BusinessesHallmark. A lot, he said “will depend on where Oshiomhole stands. But right now, nobody can say for sure.”
He explained that while a lot of party leaders are angry with Obaseki, some, particularly in Edo Central and North Senatorial zones will still prefer him to complete four years in the expectation that the former will take power afterwards and the latter subsequently. When the chips are down, Obaseki remains the incumbent with certain powers at his disposal.