By OBINNA EZUGWU
Ask ten Imo residents, and you are likely to have similar response: ‘In the race for the state’s governorship, nothing is certain, there are no clear favourites and there is confusion everywhere.’
“Imo is scattered,” says an Orlu resident and political watcher, Bosco Nnaemeka, “No one can say which way it will go, but people say that (Ifeanyi) Ararume may be the strongest contender.”
It is hardly unusual. Since the return of civilian rule in 1999, Imo has developed a unique character of political theatrics that have more often than not, led to surprising outcomes and throwing up unexpected occupants of the Douglas House, the state’s seat of power.
In 2007, Ikedi Ohakim from a relatively unpopular party, PPA, capitalised on the crisis in PDP and APGA to emerge governor. In 2011, Rochas Okorocha, running under APGA, beat the odds to emerge governor at the expense of the incumbent Ohakim who had joined the PDP.
However, ahead of 2019, there is a consensus that the stakes has never been higher, and atmosphere more intense. And the contenders have never been better matched.
“Rotation agreement is the main thing that may help (Emeka) Ihedioha,” Nnaemeka, notes. “And indeed, he stands a better chance because even though Ararume is strong, the way he emerged candidate has now divided APGA. It depends on how much they are able to reconcile.”
For emphasis, the contest is a three-horse race involving three political parties: the All Progressives Congress (APC), the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
But listing the political parties involved is where the easy job ends. Apart from the PDP which has settled for Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, as its candidate in a relatively seamless primary election, the choice of governorship candidate for the other parties remain subject of controversy, heated verbal exchanges and ultimately, court litigations.
But at the moment, Senator Hope Uzodinma and Senator Ifeanyi Ararume are candidates of the APC and APGA respectively, being those whose names were submitted to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) by the leadership of both parties.
Primary crisis in APC, APGA
The choice of Uzodinma as APC candidate meant that the incumbent Governor Rochas Okorocha has been denied the chance to install his in-law, Ugwumba Uche Nwosu as governor. It has been months of political infighting in the ruling party between the governor’s camp made up mostly of his family members, and senator Uzodinma’s group comprising the senator himself, the deputy governor, Eze Madumere, Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu and indeed, the who-is-who in Imo APC who closed ranks to stop what was seen as Okorocha’s third term bid through Mr. Nwosu.
The resultant crisis has practically ripped the state APC chapter apart. On the losing end, the governor is threatening fire and brimstone.
But his, was always a mission impossible. A relatively political lightweight in Imo politics, Okorocha had spent the best part of his second tenure trying to build a political dynasty. It was always going to crumble; more so because Nwosu, according to many, remains a political novice.
“Nwosu is nobody; you can’t say this is his pedigree,” argues Okey Okoroji, former governorship aspirant and APGA chieftain. “Okorocha is looking to extend his tenure using him; it’s like asking for third term.”
For the governor, the first sign of things to come was when he was practically outmaneuvered in the ward congresses held on the 5th of May, and the follow up local government congresses held on Monday May 14th during which he practically lost hold of the party. He attempted to join APGA, but was shut out.
But he saw a leeway. It was during the reign of Chief John Oyegun as APC National Chairman. The prospect of the current chairman, Adams Oshiomhole replacing Oyegun offered that leeway. He allegedly struck a deal with Oshiomhole to help him actualize his chairmanship ambition in return for his handing back the party structure to him once he assumes office.
The Imo chief executive, who could speak fluent Hausa, was said to have taken up the task of convincing his Northern colleagues who were uncomfortable with the choice of Oshiomhole as party chairman because of his close ties with Bola Tinubu. He succeeded and once Oshiomhole took over, he cancelled the Imo congresses and demanded that another be held. Okorocha was back in charge.
But it lasted only a while. As it happened in the initial congresses, it happened in the governorship primary. The apparently more organised Uzodinma camp once again, outmaneuvered the governor. Uzodinma emerged candidate in the primary conducted by Ahmed Gulak sent by the National Executiv e Committee. And although the election was cancelled and another – boycotted by the Uzodinma group – held in which Nwosu emerged candidate, the party has eventually settled for the Orlu Senator.
But Okorocha and Nwosu have insisted they could not be stopped. In a press conference in Abuja on Sunday last week, Nwosu maintained that he won the primary election and could not be stopped from becoming governor.
“I won that (primary) election,” he said. ‘I remain the candidate of the APC and nobody can take it away from me. It might take a while but let me state it and state it clearly, I am the candidate of the APC and by the special grace of God, come 2019 I have no doubt that I will be the governor of Imo State.”
Verbal war between the governor and Oshiomhole who he accuse of betrayal have continued unabated.
As it is raging in APC, it is burning in APGA. The party failed to hold a successful primary in the state and in the dying minutes, smuggled in Ararume’s name as its candidate in an exercise allegedly marred by series of bribery and manipulation. Ararume was said to have hijacked the whole process with his thugs, imposed himself and has since named Daniel Kanu who is widely considered the actual winner of the party’s ticket, as his running mate.
However, Ararume could not have been alone in his plot. Sources say it actively involved the Victor Oye led APGA leadership which sold, some allege, to the highest bidder.
“Greed, selfishness destroyed APGA, this is an unmitigated disaster caused by (Victor) Umeh, (Victor) Oye and (Willie) Obiano, at the end of the day Igbo land is the biggest loser,” laments Chief Ziggy Chibuzo Azike, one of the aspirants.
“After collecting so much money in all manner of currencies, from diverse aspirants, the party which had promised free and fair primaries started orchestrating confusion and deliberately aborted the primaries,” Azike allegeds.
Ararume’s name remains with INEC as APGA candidate, even though he was until the eve of the primary, a member of the APC. Other contestants have continued to insist that he is not their candidate, nonetheless, and that as far as they are concerned, the party has not held a primary election.
“What they did was to submit someone’s name to INEC to beat the headline,” argued another contestant, Sam Amadi, “so that afterwards the party will conduct a primary. The primary has not been conducted.”
In the meantime, the aggrieved aspirants numbering about fourteen have since floated a breakaway faction of the party, New APGA. Like the APC, APGA seems poised to defeat itself.
Power rotation: Imo is a state that stands on the tripod of three senatorial zones: Imo East (Owerri zone, Imo West (Orlu zone) and Imo North (Okigwe zone) and there is always the argument that power should rotate among the three zones in the interest of equity.
“Imo state was built on a tripod of Okigwe, Orlu and Owerri. The way it has always been is that one zone will hold power and another zone will take over,” says Chief Goddy Uwazurike, president emeritus, Igbo think tank, Aka Ikenga. “We have never failed to observe it until seven years ago and that is the cause of all the crises. It’s the unwritten law.”
Of the three zones, Orlu zone with 12 of the state’s 27 local governments, have dominated governance since 1999. Owerri zone with nine local governments is yet to taste power while the Okigwe zone six local governments have had four years only.
The return of democracy in 1999 saw the emergence of Achike Udenwa, from Orlu zone as governor. He governed for eight years, from 1999 to 2007, at the end of which, Ikedi Ohakim, from Okigwe zone took over in 2007. But power would eventually return to Orlu zone in 2011 after Ohakim was defeated by Okorocha who will be completing his eight years in office in 2019. Therefore, by next year, Orlu zone, where Uzodinma hails from, would have had 16 of 20 years, Okigwe four years and Owerri none.
In view of this, there is the argument that power should go to Owerri zone – the zone of Emeka Ihedioha – which is yet to produce a governor. But the Okigwe zone, where Ararume is from, which had only four years are also staking a claim of not being allowed to complete eight years.
The zoning arrangement presents a bit of a confusion, but seems to favour the PDP candidate and to a lesser extent, the APGA flag bearer. But it is hardly as straightforward. And candidates are using choice of running mates to dilute the possible impact of this argument.
“Ararume went to Mbaise (Owerri zone) to take running mate. Ihedioha went to Oguta/Egema (Orlu zone) to pick running mate,” explains Nnaemeka. “It could complicate the whole thing. The APC is yet to pick running mate because they are not settled yet.”
But even when settled, it would seem Uzodinma whose zone has had most years in power, 16 of 20, will have a difficult task getting people to buy into his bid. But for Nnaemeka, he is quite a deal maker.
“Hope is a silent mover” says Nnaemeka. “He does underground runs so it’s really uncertain. There is confusion everywhere.”
Political party: In Nigeria political space generally, political parties tend to play even bigger roles in leadership selection than individual candidates’ competence because more often than not the sentimental attachment is to the party, as opposed to individual candidates. In Imo, and across the South East, there is a general resentment for the ruling party, the APC. It will be the one huge drawback for Senator Uzodinma.
In a way however, many people seem to be just happy that he was able to wrestle the ticket from Okorocha and his in-law, Nwosu. Thus, while ordinarily, the APC is unpopular, Uzodinma’s feat may endear him to the electorate.
“We thank God for Uzodinma,” Okoroji says. “He has been able to engineer the system in such a way that he now has a say in the party.”
But as far as parties are concerned, APGA has consistently shown the capacity to win massive votes in Imo in part because it is generally accepted as Igbo party with attachment to the late Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. It is on the party’s platform that Okorocha defeated Ohakim of the PDP in 2011 before leaving for the APC. APGA remains a strong platform in the state, but its internal crisis may prove its greatest undoing.
On a scale of acceptance, it could be an even contest with PDP. With a strong structure and a relatively peaceful primary election, they seem to be the most stable platform both at the national level and in Imo. The party, as is the case in the South East, has wide acceptance in Imo. Indeed, as long as party is concerned, Ihedioha seems to be on the strongest footing.
Financial muscle: Increasingly, elections in Nigeria are being decided on the depth of the pocket. In an era of vote buying, as witnessed in Ekiti State, Osun State and elsewhere, being able to pay voters on election -day could prove pivotal.
And with respect to this, Uzodinma and Ararume have an edge, being more established politicians whose wealth, some say, remain questionable, over the PDP candidate, Ihedioha.
“His (Ihedioha’s) challenge may be funds,” says Professor Max Nduaguibe, APGA chieftain. “I doubt if he has the financial muscle to run an effective campaign.”
Power of incumbency: The APC demonstrated how far it can go in using federal might to influence the outcome of elections in recent elections in Osun, Ekiti and Edo states.
It is this might that most candidates of the party in the South East are relying on to win elections since the party on its own, is unpopular. As a matter of fact, APGA is also trying to hang onto this. This explains Ararume’s attempt to campaign for President Buhari alongside himself.
Uzodinma would be looking to cash on this. Indeed, his chances might well depend on to what extent the party will go in using the instruments of the state in his favour.
However, with the governor against his candidacy, the power may be diluted. Again, it will be during a general election and the party will not have the luxury to concentrate its resources and power in on state.
How the candidates stand
Unlike in previous elections when there were candidates whom the masses rallied behind, the 2019 polls is going to be a tough call and may ultimately boil down to which political party is able to get its acts together and mobilize for support.
At the moment, only the PDP house appears to be in order. But it’s candidate Ihedioha, carries a baggage, just like everyone of the three contestants. Essentially, as some residents have pointed out, it is going to be a question of choosing who among the trio is a lesser evil.
Emeka Ihedioha (PDP)
On a scale, the Mbaise born former lawmaker holds a slight advantage. The prevailing sentiments tend to favour him. He was beaten to second place by Okorocha in 2015, but the political dynamics has changed since then. If Mbaise will ever produce governor of Imo State, this is perhaps their best chance.
First, he has his party, with its solid structure, behind him. Second, he is from the Owerri Zone, the zone which has not produced governor since 1999 and has very legitimate claim to it. He is also best positioned to benefit from the fallout of the crisis in APGA and APC.
But his major setback is the fact that he is from Mbaise, a town which Imo people are generally uncomfortable with. Indeed, even Owerri people in the same Owerri zone, despite desiring one of their own as governor, may be reluctant to back an Mbaise person for governor, and may instead prefer to back Ararume from Okigwe.
“For me, I’m supporting Ararume. I believe he has a better chance,” said Pastor Uzo Uneze, a political enthusiast in Owerri. “Although we in Owerri zone are asking that we be allowed to produce the next governor, but because the Owerri zone candidate, Ihedioha is Mbaise, people are not keen anymore,” he notes.
“There is a way they behave. People are not comfortable with their character. When they are in a place, they take over everything and won’t allow others to participate. If Ihedioha becomes the next governor, he will still behave like them. That’s the problem we are having. Otherwise, we should have been supporting him because he is from Owerri zone and not Ararume who is from Okigwe zone.”
Ifeanyi Ararume (APGA)
Ararume, a two time Imo North senator, is widely regarded as man of means who possesses the political strength and reach to win power.
2019 would be his fourth bid for governorship. In 2007 he won PDP governorship ticket, but was opposed by then President Obasanjo and the party. The ticket was eventually handed to Engineer Charles Ugwu. But Ararume went to court to stop the move, and was subsequently expelled from the party.
In 2011, he contested on the platform of Action Congress of Nigeria but lost to Okorocha. And in 2015, he lost PDP ticket to Ihedioha.
This time, he comes with vast experience, but also with controversy. He emerged APGA candidate in controversial circumstances. Other chieftains of the party may work against him and that will ensure that his quest for governor remains elusive.
But in all, he stands a good chance. Indeed, some argue that given the status of APC in the state, the contest is between him and the PDP candidate.
Hope Uzodinma (APC)
Many have praised the Imo West senator who only recently defected from the PDP to the APC for being able to wrestle the ruling party’s ticket from Okorocha’s in-law. He has a bit of goodwill as a result. He also has the financial strength. But in the end, he is still in an ‘unwanted’ party and this goodwill may not be enough.
Uzodinma would have to rely heavily on federal might, but this is sure to be diluted by Okorocha who has vowed to work against the party in the state, should his in-law be denied ticket.
As it stands at the moment, Ihedioha stands the best chance. The next being Ararume, while Uzodinma brings up the rear. But it’s still early in the day and the equation can change.