By OBINNA EZUGWU
Since he walked into the Ebonyi government house in May 2015, Engr. David Umahi has pursued a radical infrastructural development, transforming a once backwater state into a 21st century modern one. And on account of which he built massive amount of goodwill. But over the last few weeks and months, things have gone downhill for the governor. His goodwill has vastly dissipated, largely on account of his eventual defection from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressive Congress (APC) with possible 2023 presidential run in mind. The move has thus far, proved counter productive.
As far as the 2023 presidency is concerned, observers say, he has started losing from Ebonyi, even as he now fights an intense battle for survival, amid allegations of corruption against his government.
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 matter in the state’s politics. His administration, too, has been characterised by alleged intolerance of opposition views, critics are known to be haunted – a reality laid bare by his recent run-in with journalists.
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 recent 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.
When on November 17, 2020, Umahi finally pitched tent with the ruling APC, it was a huge political gamble that was either going to pay huge dividend, or cost him dearly. And as the days roll by, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the latter is the more likely outcome.
Though months in the making, his eventual dumping of the PDP – a party under whose platform he was elected governor twice, citing injustice against his home region, the Southeast – became the hottest political topic for a period.
It triggered a flurry of anger within the opposition party’s ranks, and heightened concerns about other governors of the zone following in his footsteps. Notably, it set the Ebonyi governor up for a heated spat with his Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike, one it seems he is yet to recover from.
Less than three months down the road, the jury appears to be out. Contrary to speculations, no other Southeast governor joined him in the ruling party. In his home state of Ebonyi, he has practically 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 the Minister of Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, who has closer ties to Abuja, remaining its de facto leader.
The governor’s attempts to gain foothold on the ruling party in the state since he joined, Business Hallmark learnt, has fallen like a pack of cards, even as his alleged behind the scenes moves to gain a measure of control over the PDP structure through his loyalists, have been unsuccessful, with string of court decisions going against Chief Onyekachi Nwebonyi, who was chairman of the party in the state prior to the dissolution of the state executives in the aftermath of his defection.
Within the ruling party’s ranks, Dr. Onu, sources say, is by far more regarded, even in their Uburu home town, with Umahi unable 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.
“What we hear now is that he is considering joining the APGA (All Progressive Grand Alliance), but I can’t say for certain yet.”
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.
And perhaps obvious too, is that his design for the nation’s top job was his key motivation. The decision is increasingly proving to be a bad gamble, even as sources close to him say he now regrets same.
“Things did not pan out as he expected,” one of his aides who craved anonymity said. “There was the agreement that other leaders of the party would join him in APC. That didn’t happen. So, in a sense, there is a feeling that it could have turned out differently.”
The governor had contended, following the affirmation of loyalty to the PDP by Anyim and the state national assembly caucus led by Senator Egwu that the plan behind his defection was for Anyim, and other leaders in PDP to join him in APC two weeks after he must have successfully defected.
Speaking at a meeting with APC stakeholder in Abakaliki in late November, he argued that Anyim backed out of the plan because he went to see President Muhammadu Buhari ahead of the defection plan. He had also said he consulted all the National Assembly members and Elders from the State over his defection to APC, claiming that all them approved his move and even agreed to subsequently defect with him.
But the Assembly members denied his claims, even as Anyim subsequently issued a statement, saying that the governor only came to him amid the heated reactions that trailed his defection.
“Unable to contain and manage the unsavory reactions from the public he ran to my home in the company of some high-profile people, on the 20th of November 2020, and pleaded with me to defect to APC, saying that if I do, others will follow suit. I pointed out to him that his approach has made it almost impossible for anybody to defect,” the former SGF said.
“He pleaded with me that if I cannot defect now, I should not attend any PDP meetings, and I said no, I must attend PDP meetings as long as I am in PDP. He realized that he could not persuade anybody when he saw the crème of Ebonyi Elders and citizen that gathered for the inauguration of PDP Caretaker Committee. He could no longer sleep and declared war on everyone who has refused to defect with him.”
The governor has, however since sued for peace, having perhaps realised that taking on the likes of Egwu, Anyim among other political heavyweights in the state, would be too much of a headache. Overall, his APC sojourn is turning out to be an anti climax. He has lost the PDP where he had much following, and can’t gain same in APC for obvious reasons.
“He is now hanging in the air,” said Chief Abia Onyike, a former commissioner for information in the state, and known critic of Umahi. “Nobody is happy with him, he runs the state like an emperor.
“On Saturday, the people of Uburu decided to confer on Chief Ogbonnaya Onu with the highest chieftancy title in their land. Umahi is from there too, and I learned that when he heard about the event, he sent some security people to disrupt it, but when the security people went there and saw the mammoth crowd there, they couldn’t do anything. So, they went back to the governor. Having realised that he could not stop it, he decided to attend the ceremony, and when he went there, the people largely ignored him.”
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 has, evidently set his eyes on the biggest stage, and perhaps with good reasons. His reign as governor has heralded rapid infrastructural development.
Within five years, he transformed Abakaliki, the state capital into a beautiful city, with infrastructure imprints in various places in the state. But perhaps Nigeria’s seat of power is a target too far, and the quest appears to have quickly ended even before it began.
“The question is, what has he done to deserve to be president? Being a governor for eight years in a state made up of two provinces like Ebonyi cannot qualify you as a presidential material. The question is, what are his antecedents? You cannot say because you were governor for eight years, you are now qualified to be president of Nigeria,” Onyike said.
“His decision to join the APC is self serving, he only cares about his own ambitions and not the desire of his people, and he is not loyal to anybody or any course. Remember that it was Martin Elechi who brought him into the PDP and made him chairman of the party in Ebonyi State. Elechi later made him deputy governor, but he later turned against him.
“In 2015 when he was running for governor against Elechi’s wish, it was the likes of former Secretary to the Government, Anyim Pius Anyim who supported him and encouraged President Jonathan to back him. But when he became governor, and Jonathan was being attacked by the then APC government of Buhari, he went and made friends with Jonathans attackers instead of standing up for Jonathan.”
Umahi has close relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari, even while he was a PDP governor, apparently hinging his hopes of becoming president on anticipated support of the president and his Northern constituency. But observers say he is not likely to secure the support of the North, given the interest of some in the region to retain power in 2023.
“I doubt that the APC would cede its presidential candidate to the Southeast, and even if that becomes the case, Umahi cannot be the ideal candidate. Who is he and what has he done? What is his position on matters that affect Ndi Igbo in Nigeria?” Okoroji wondered.
“Yes, the Igbo should produce president in 2023, but we dont want someone who will only be a stooge for other interests outside of the zone. He is one person who thinks that what he needs to become president is the support of the caliphate. He doesn’t reckon that he will need the support of a home structure to succeed, but lets see how others can make him president without the support of his people.”