By OBINNA EZUGWU
Since losing the APC presidential ticket, which indeed looked inevitable from the day he opted to join the party, Umahi has been on a race against time to save his political future with a trip to the senate, but suffered a major setback at the Federal High Court sitting in Abakaliki on Friday, capping what has been months of troubles for the Ebonyi governor who now stares political oblivion, post 2023, in the face.
When in November 2020, David Umahi, governor of Ebonyi State officially dumped the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), on whose platform he was elected state party chairman, deputy governor and eventually governor on two occasions, and pitched tent with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), it had all the trappings of a hare-brained political move.
Though having been hobnobbing with ruling party up to that point, his eventual defection did not come as a surprise to many, even if it was difficult to understand, Umahi, however, had his ideas. He had sights on the presidency, and having been convinced that he would not get the main opposition party’s presidential ticket, he took the APC gamble, hoping to secure the backing of President Muhammadu Buhari.
But in the event, Buhari chose not to back anyone, and Bola Tinubu, former Lagos State governor who had the most financial power and wider support within the party, eventually trounced him and others to take the presidential ticket.
Upon losing the APC presidential primary, Umahi returned to take the Ebonyi South senatorial ticket. Austin, his younger brother, had ‘won’ the ticket in an apparent fall back arrangement for the governor.
However, things haven’t gone as planned. Though Austin promptly stepped down from the senatorial race to pave the way for his brother after he lost the presidential primary, and the party held another primary which Umahi won, Princess Ann Agom-Eze, the runners up in the original primary, insisted, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) agreed, that she was the right person to take the ticket if Austin had elected to step down.
Boxed into a tight corner Umahi made efforts to reach an understanding with INEC, but ultimately failed, prompting him to drag the commission to the Federal High Court in Abakaliki, and on Friday, the court gave judgment against the governor.
Umahi, had through his Counsel, Roy Nweze Umahi, sought to compel the commission to recognise him as the authentic senatorial candidate for Ebonyi South. But Princess Agom-Eze, on Tuesday, approached the court and urged it to reject the governor’s senatorial bid. And on Friday, the court recognized her as the authentic candidate.
Delivering his judgement on Friday, Justice Fatun Riman, cited section 115 of the Electoral Act 2022, saying the governor was not an aspirant and cannot participate in the election or pre-election matters of the All Progressives Congress as regards the Ebonyi South zone, whose primary held on the 28th day of May, 2022.
According to the above section of the new Electoral Act, the governor neither procured forms for nor participated in the election and cannot claim any right based on the primary election.
The decision, which means that the fate of the likes of Ahmad Lawan, senate president; Aminu Tambuwal, Sokoto State governor; his Bauchi State governor, Bala Mohammed, as well as Godswill Akpabio, all of whom sought senatorial tickets after losing presidential bid, remain uncertain, came on the heels of a revelation by the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini, that politicians who procured multiple forms were criminals and risk two years imprisonment.
Meanwhile, reacting to the High Court decision on Friday, counsel to Mrs Agom-Eze, Barr. Nwonu Nnaemeka, said his team’s argument was that its client, upon the withdrawal of Austin Umahi from the primary, she should claim all her rights as regards the exercise, being the second runner-up.
The court’s decision means that the Ebonyi governor, having lost out in the race for the presidential ticket, has also failed to secure the Ebonyi South senatorial ticket of the party, even as his quest to produce his successor hangs precariously in the balance.
The governor who, while he was in the PDP, had control of the party’s state structure, appears to have found himself in political wilderness of sorts in the APC, Umahi had three months ago, during the burial of the father of one of his cabinet members in Okposi, Ohaozara LGA, anointed Francis Nwifuru, Speaker of the state house of assembly, as his successor, but is facing stringent opposition in his quest to install the Speaker as governor.
His decision to anoint Nwifuru generated controversy and resulted in the conduct of a parallel governorship primary election in APC, with Nwifuru and Elias Mbam, former Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) chairman emerging as candidates.
Since the governorship primary, there has been raging battle between supporters of the two candidates, over who should be recognized by INEC. While Mbam has the support of Ogbonnaya Onu, former minister of science and technology and original leaders of the APC in the state, Nwifuru is backed by Umahi and his team.
On Friday, the governor’s group claimed that Nwifuru has been recognised by INEC as the authentic governorship candidate of the party in the state.
Briefing Journalists in Abakaliki during the conduct of the APC Local Government Chairmanship Congress, the chairman of the party, Stanley Okoro Emegha said the party is currently happy with the name of the speaker being recognized by INEC as the authentic governorship candidate of the party.
He said, “the man that will start from where the governor David Umahi stops has emerged as a candidate of APC and he is Mr. Francis Nwifuru, the Speaker of Ebonyi state house of Assembly, EBSHA.
“You have now noticed that the independent National electoral commission, INEC, has finally uploaded and published the name of Nwifuru as the authentic APC governorship candidate in Ebonyi state. It is good news for us.”
However, party sources told Business Hallmark that the matter is still in contention.
“I can tell you that the question about who is the real governorship candidate of the party is still unanswered,” said Tony Nwede, a member of the party in the state.
“The delegates list released by the national leadership of the party was the one that produced Mbam, but the governor used his influence to manipulate the entire process. The court will eventually settle it.”
Indeed, Umahi who at some point, was seen as a high flier, has in recent months, seen his political capital dissipate rapidly, not helped by his penchant for abusing Southeast leaders.
But for some, this day was always inevitable. For all his impressive infrastructural accomplishments, Umahi, many say, has an obvious character flaw; conceited, undiplomatic and mostly focused on the next ambition.
On account of this, he has fallen out with practically every individual that matters in the state’s politics. His administration, too, has been characterised by alleged intolerance of opposition views, critics are known to be haunted.
Some have attributed it to a kind of delusion of grandeur. And a more obvious display of this trait over the last few months, have led to what now looks like the crumbling of his ‘political empire.’
His fortunes appear to be going rapidly downhill, even as reports on some media outlets that he allegedly engaged in illicit financial flows from the state coffers to his company, Brass Engineering and Construction Limited to the tune of N3.6 billion, has only compounded his simmering image problems.
The Ebonyi governor has largely become a lone ranger, shunned by other political heavyweights he had expected would follow him to the APC; such as former Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim; ex governor, Sam Egwu and the state national assembly caucus he leads, among others.
“His defection to APC has not served him well,” noted Mr. Okey Anya, a PR consultant based in the state.
“The whole national assembly refused to go with him. Not everybody in the state assembly went with him. The only people he recruited into APC are those he put into office as local government chairmen. They are, of course, like his appointees. Those are the people singing his praises.”
Whilst still in the PDP, Umahi had a measure of control over the party’s structure, and therefore, a relatively formidable political base. But now in APC, apart from the ruling party not being as strong in the state, it had since broken into factions, with Dr. Onu exerting a measure of control.
Within the ruling party’s ranks, Dr. Onu, sources say, is by far more regarded, even in their Uburu home town, with Umahi unable to exert much influence.
“In PDP, he had greater leadership influence. In APC, there are different factions and Ogbonnaya Onu is the leader of the main faction,” Anya said.
“Ogbonnnaya Onu is a long time leader in APC. He has his own camp with very strong following. And there is no way it would be easy for Umahi to supplant him, given that they are not in good terms. They are from the same area, Uburu, but they are not in good terms.”
Efforts to get the government to comment on this was not, however successful. The commissioner for information, Mr. Uchenna Orji, did not answer calls to his phone line and did not respond to text messages.
Indeed, Umahi’s decision to dump the PDP is increasingly proving to be an ill-thought political decision; one, observers note, is symptomatic of a penchant for the country’s political leaders taking decisions without recourse to the electorate.
The Ebonyi governor owes much of his political attainment to the wide acceptance of the PDP in his state, and indeed the entire Southeast. This, he apparently didn’t put into consideration, believing perhaps that the people are accountable to him and not the other way around.
“His decision to leave the PDP for the APC is opportunistic, said Okey Okoroji, constitutional lawyer and analyst. He is driven by self interest and has no overall interest of the Igbo at heart. People voted him as governor under PDP, and he just left without putting how they feel into consideration. That’s one sad thing about our politics.”
Though Umahi had ostensibly said he was joining the ruling party to offer himself as a martyr to achieve Southeast presidency in 2023, noting that he wouldn’t care who, among the politicians in the zone, gets the nod to be on the ballot. But it was certain that such rhetoric wouldn’t be enough to sway his political base, which largely saw his defection as a sort of betrayal.
But Umahi, no doubt, is a man with great ambition. And his rise to political stardom has been stellar. Brought into politics from his base in Port Harcourt by then deputy governor of the state, Professor Chigozie Ogbu in 2006, he became state chairman of the PDP a year later in 2007, courtesy of Elder Martin Elechi, then governor of the State. He would only four years later in 2011, become deputy governor, again, courtesy of Elechi.
And in the lead up to 2015 general election, he fell bitterly apart with Elechi over the latter’s choice of successor. Elechi, for some reasons did not want him as successor, and had backed former Health Minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu for the PDP ticket. But Umahi, backed by other leaders of the party in the state, emerged PDP candidate.
And although Elechi opted to support a certain Edward Nkwegu, candidate of the Labour Party, with most of his loyalists defecting to the party, Umahi ultimately emerged governor in 2015, going from state PDP chairman to deputy governor and governor in a space of eight years.
Having attained the highest office in the state, within a relatively short period, the Ebonyi governor set his eyes on the biggest stage, but that’s ambition that has come crashing down, and unable to also secure the APC senatorial ticket, it seems like he may join Elechi in retirement in 2023.