By OBINNA EZUGWU
The only time since the return of democracy in 1999 that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Nigeria’s erstwhile ruling party, now main opposition, had not been in charge in Abia State was between 2007 and 2010 when the Progressive People’s Alliance (PPA) formed by Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, then governor of the state, produced Chief T.A. Orji as his successor.
Kalu, who was originally a PDP governor, formed the PPA in 2006, following his falling out with the then president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. And although he unsuccessfully ran for president on the party’s platform in 2007, he managed to ensure the emergence of T.A., his then chief of staff, as his successor on the party’s platform.
However, the duo fell out in the lead up to the 2011 general elections, over an attempt by Senator Kalu to deny the former second term as governor. In 2010, T.A. promptly returned to the PDP, and not only retained his seat, but ensured that the main opposition party solidified its hold on the state, using its structure to retain power in 2015 and 2019, with the election and reelection of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu as governor.
However, as the country heads into another election in a matter of weeks, the future of the PDP in Abia has never been more uncertain, and barring radical turn of events, the party, beset by internal crisis, and facing true test of popular support for the first time on account of electoral reforms, could very well bid farewell to the Umuahia government house it has occupied for over 20 years.
“The PDP cannot ordinarily win elections in Abia except by rigging,” remarked Mr. Peter Okorie, a veteran journalist based in the state. “And now, the party is divided. There are different camps; those with Atiku Abubakar (the party’s presidential candidate) and those with Governor Ikpeazu.”
Though generally unpopular with the masses on account of poor performance, the PDP had relied on its solid structure and deals to retain power in the state. In 2015, Dr. Alex Otti, former bank CEO and then governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) was poised for victory, having won in majority of the local governments, but an intervention by PDP governor, who stormed the state office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), changed the story. In the end, Dr. Ikpeazu was declared governor-elect and victory was effectively snatched from Dr. Otti’s hands.
In 2019, the party, it was gathered, reached a backdoor agreement with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) The deal being that the ruling party secured, at least 25 percent of total votes in the presidential election, with Kalu taking the Abia North senatorial seat, in return for it to retain power. In the event, Ikpeazu returned as governor, and the APC governorship candidate, Uche Ogah, was announced as runners-up, while Dr. Otti of APGA placed in third.
Heading into the governorship election in March, however, the party faces mounting challenges. The new electoral act signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari last year may have put paid to massive rigging of elections in the country, and with internal crisis to contend with, it would take extraordinary turn of events, many observers note, for the PDP to retain the state.
“In Abia at the moment, and as we approach the election, the PDP is in big trouble,” said Favour Onyiriogwu, a political watcher in Umuahia, the state capital.
“As it stands, Alex Otti and Gregory Ibe are the two top candidates, but I feel that Otti is more likely to win because of the Labour Party wave, and the fact that he’s been there over time. He will get sympathy votes. There are people, who say they will vote for him because he’s been running since 2015.”
An opinion poll commissioned by Anap Foundation, and conducted by NOI Polls in October last year, placed Dr. Otti ahead of the pack with 20 percent, followed by Prof. Uche Ikonne of the PDP at nine percent, while Gregory Ibe of APGA came third with four percent, and APC’s Ikechi Emenike fourth with three percent.
“Abia presents an interesting scenario. It is a PDP state but our opinion poll shows that the person that has an early lead as at the time of our poll at the end of October is Alex Otti of Labour Party,” said Atedo Peterside, founder of Anap Foundation. “Up to 20 percent of voters said they would vote for Alex Otti. The next candidate, PDP has 9 percent. APGA came in at 4 percent and APC at 3 percent.”
In politics, however, a day is a long time. Since October, events have continued to unfold in Abia, one of which is that on account of Ikpeazu being part of the five governors of the PDP, who are opposed to Atiku’s candidacy, the party has slid into deeper crisis, with him and his influential predecessor, Senator T.A. Orji belonging to two different camps.
“T.A. is supporting Atiku, and Charles Ogbonnaya, who is Atiku’s campaign director in Abia State, and former Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs in the state, is his man,” said Okorie. “So, Ikpeazu and T.A. are not together, and T.A. is not backing Ikonne for governor. He is in support of power shift back to Abia north, with Gregory Ibe as his preferred candidate.”
Indeed, PDP’s headache is further compounded by decision of Ikpeazu to pick Prof. Ikonne, a fellow Ngwa man, from the central senatorial district, as his anointed candidate, when ideally, in line with the principle of power rotation, the seat ought to return to Abia North district, from where it started in 1999, with Senator Kalu as governor.
The Ngwa subgroup, which though are prominent in Abia South where Ikpeazu comes from, also extends to the central district, had, it was gathered, insisted on retaining power among their kit, and thus, Ikpeazu opted for Ikonne from the central, though still an Ngwa person. The decision has not gone down well with other stakeholders in the state, who have maintained that power should shift to Abia North.
Last week, stakeholders of the state including elders, senior lawyers and academics, insisted that the rotation and zoning arrangement must be respected
The elders and opinions leaders made the resolution in a statement on Saturday last week, by the Media Office of Orji Kalu, the former governor, now chief Whip of the Senate.
Part of the statement read, “Prominent Abia sons like the former President of the Senate, Adolphus Wabara, former Governor Theodore Orji, former SSG, Dr. Eme Okoro and many others have spoken like prominent elders endorsing the return of the governorship back to Abia North Senatorial District.
“It is pertinent for other Abians to speak up now and support the return of power back to Abia North.
“Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu from Abia North in 1999 took the first slot, followed by Theodore Orji from Central Senatorial zone and now Dr. Victor Ikpeazu from Abia South Senatorial zone.
“Having witnessed this tradition persist, it has gone beyond mere politics, to a phenomenal entrenchment of power rotation within the political ecosystem of Abia State.
“For equity, justice and fairness, it is expedient that the governorship seat is returned to Abia North Senatorial District. It is morally wrong to support any candidate outside Abia North Senatorial District.”
It is instructive that apart from Ikonne who is from the central, other leading contenders, namely, Dr. Otti of Labour Party, Mr. Ibe of APGA and Emenike of APC, are all from Abia North.
The Labour candidate, who has continued to lead opinion polls, is originally from Arochukwu, though he grew up in Ngwa land.
For Ikpeazu and his political future, the situation is even more complex. Having fallen out with his predecessor, T. A., and having a hard time trying to sell his chosen governorship candidate, Ikonne, his senatorial ambition is under threat, courtesy of Enyinnaya Abaribe, the incumbent Abia south senator who is running on the platform APGA.
“Ikpeazu’s hold on Abia PDP is tenuous,” said a party source, who craved anonymity. “He’s not on the same page with T. A. Orji, who is supporting Atiku. Now, Charles Ogbonnaya, a loyalist of T. A. is the coordinator of the Atiku campaign in Abia, not Ikpeazu.
“T.A. and Ikpeazu fell out when Ikpeazu wanted to choose a successor and T. A. wanted to pick one for him, but he refused. He told T. A. that nobody picked a successor for Orji Uzor Kalu and nobody picked him on his own behalf.
Initially, T. A. agreed, but insisted that he must bring his chosen candidate to him to endorse.
“Ikpeazu brought four people and he rejected all of them, but eventually agreed with the choice of Ikonne. However, he gave Ikonne some conditions which he (Ikonne) rejected, and he withdrew his support. Now, he is supporting Gregory Ibe of APGA, the owner of Gregory University. Actually, T. A. has a major stake in that university, he’s the core investor, but people assume that Ibe is the owner.
“At some point, T. A. also wanted Ikpeazu’s deputy to succeed him, but he refused. And Ngwa people also did not want the seat to return to the North. It’s a fluid situation for Ikpeazu. And because of this their G5 thing, the party has almost scattered. He would find it difficult to even win the senatorial election because Abaribe is strong.
“Now, we hear that Ikonne suffered partial stroke because T. A. is not backing him, and Ikpeazu is not bringing money for campaign. But I hear that they want to do vote-buying on election day, cause crisis in places they are not popular and also try to manipulate the INEC BVAs.”
Beyond party politics, Ikpeazu is also generally unpopular in the state. Apart from not delivering infrastructure as expected, he is accused of not paying pensioners and resident doctors in the state, among others, who have been owed months of salary areas.