By OBINNA EZUGWU
Once in the life Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, National Chairman of the All Progressive Congress (APC), he was the darling of the masses, an epitome of uprightness and a soldier in the war against government oppression; a man many looked up to in times of obnoxious policies, to lead the fight for a better deal.
As the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) in the days of Olusegun Obasanjo presidency, Oshiomhole was a thorn in the flesh of that administration. The NLC was the only formidable opposition to a government, which despite being civilian saw itself largely as a military regime. And to make matters worse, the country lacked the benefit of a strong opposition party.
But Oshiomhole stood in the gap. He called for industrial actions whenever Obasanjo refused to yield. And more often than not, he got the obdurate former military general to concede positions. Through his activism Oshiomhole negotiated a 25 percent increase in the country’s minimum wage in 2002. And in return, the NLC backed Obasanjo’s second term bid in 2003.
But once he secured another term in office, Obasanjo moved – compelled by the breakdown of local refineries leading to more reliance on imports – to increase price of petroleum products.
Oshiomhole led strikes and demonstrations against the increase, during which he faced arrests, tear gas and temporary blockades of union offices. Obasanjo would later introduce legislations aimed at making NLC strikes more difficult. He didn’t quite succeed. And when Oshiomhole bowed out from as NLC presidency, his reputation as a defender of the weak and a staunch advocate for good governance had soared.
So when he decided to run for the office of governor in his home state of Edo in the 2007 general election, it was only a matter of whether or not the then ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), would let the people’s will to prevail.
That year, Oshiomhole ran for governor under the Labour party and won – although, Prof. Oserheimen Osunbor of the PDP was initially declared the winner; Oshiomhole was able to reclaim his mandate in court in 2008 with the backing of then Action Congress of Nigeria led by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.
Coming from the background of an advocate for good governance, Oshiomhole’s government was welcomed with great expectation by Edo people. He was to practice what he preached as a labour leader; pay workers a healthy wage, create employment for the unemployed and improve infrastructure in a state reeling from poor governance which it had been subjected to in the immediate past days of his predecessor, Lucky Igbinedion.
But his administration turned out to be a mixed bag. The question about who performed better between him and his predecessor remains a subject of hot debate in Edo. While some praise him for doing roads, at least more than Igbinidion, others argue that whatever projects he did better, he has cancelled out with the pile of debts he left for the state, and probably for his successor, and now estranged godson, Gov. Godwin Obaseki, to clean up.
“When you compare his administration with that of Igbinedion, there is no doubt that he did better,” said Amaechi Ezema, a textile dealer in New Benin. “He completed a number of roads and other infrastructure. What he did at Ring Road is a marvel till today.”
However, Kelvin Osazuwa, a graduate job seeker in the capital city saw it differently. “The only thing he did was that he piled up debts for the state,” he said. “The current governor is crying now. I would say Igbinedion focused more on job creation by promoting sports and industries.”
Indeed, Oshiomhole did have penchant for borrowing. And for some, the most outstanding legacy he left, besides the eye-catching mansion he built for himself at his home town, Iyamho, Estako West local government alleged to have cost billions of naira, and perhaps the roads, is the fact that under his watch, Edo became one of the most indebted states in the country with foreign debt profile of $279 million and domestic debt of N69 billion, second only to Lagos which bears the chunk of it all.
In the Edo case, the borrowed money, if you ask some, was practically squandered on frivolities and election.
In 2014, his alleged attempt to borrow $200 million (N15 billion) from the World Bank which was blocked by then Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, led to his constant verbal attack on the ex minister, whom he severally attempted to link with the infamous $2.1 billion Dasuki-gate. The former governor was quoted in one of his tantrums, to have insisted that the ex minister should be prosecuted.
“The issue is whether the Nigerian president under the constitution has the power to approve funds belonging to local, state and federal government – funds that have not been appropriated by the National Assembly,” he was quoted as saying in 2015.
“That is a criminal offense for which Okonjo-Iweala ought to face criminal prosecution. These things are just discussed and wished away. For me, I will stick for the truth and don’t care what people will say,” he said.
But the former minister had responded in kind, explaining in a statement by her spokesperson, that she stopped the then governor from taking “a highly suspicious N15 billion loan” which is why he decided “to make false allegations against her while hiding behind the constitutional immunity granted state governors”.
“As recently confirmed by the Debt Management Office, analysis showed that Oshiomhole’s loan request which was based on using low interest World Bank loan to offset high interest commercial loans would have left Edo state with a heavy debt burden and the state would have found it very difficult to pay back,” the ex minister had said.
The ex governor was said to have, nonetheless, gotten the approval to borrow N14.7 billion from the World Bank upon the coming on board of the Buhari administration, which is why the state’s foreign debt piled up to $279 million.
His financial dealings as governor is the reason a Federal High Court, Abuja recently ordered that court processes be served on him over alleged financial fraud while in office.
Justice Anwuli Chikere, gave the order while ruling on the ex parte application with suit No FHC/ABJ/CS/628/ 2018, and filed by Dr. West Idahosa on behalf of the plaintiff, brought before the court by Bishop Osadolor Ochei, which has Oshiomole and EFCC as 1st and 2nd respondents respectively.
The application sought an order of mandamus to compel Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to arrest and commence criminal proceedings against Oshiomole for allegedly diverting state funds into personal use.
Idahosa had, while praying the court to grant the request of his client, referred the court to 86 exhibits filed in support of the application. He stressed that there were documents and electronic pictures of palatial houses of the former governor, whose earnings all his life cannot acquire and that there were evidence of how Oshiomhole allegedly diverted money meant for Edo State project to his personal projects.
The counsel added that there were vouchers of exorbitant air fares that the former governor incurred, and that the amount of air fares was enough to buy air carrier for the people of Edo State. The court has adjourned the matter till October 23, for arguments from parties in the suit.
In all, it is evident that Oshiomhole as governor had become sharply different from Oshiomhole as labour leader. And Oshiomhole as APC chairman has, some say, become much worse. Now much of a controversial figure, it could be said that whatever good reputation he acquired in his days as a labour unionist he has squandered in politics.
The masses for whom he stood for as NLC president, he stood against as governor. He was to have thrived on the recruitment of casual workers, some of whom he was alleged to have dismissed at some point without pay.
Another highlight of his administration was when in 2013, he told a widow, Mrs. Joy Ifije, who was crying over her destroyed wares to “go and die.”
It was a gaffe that cost him tremendous amount of goodwill. The outrage it generated compelled him to apologize to her and compensate her with N2 million and an employment offer.
As governor, Oshiomhole did all that the average politician would do; and many more. He is said to have instituted election rigging machinery with which he got himself reelected in 2012. And with which he installed his successor, Godwin Obaseki in 2016.
The election of 2016, which was basically a contest between two Benin sons, Obaseki of the APC and Osagie Ize-Iyamu of the PDP, saw what many have described as an unprecedented vote manipulation where figures were manufactured from out of nowhere.
On June 23, Oshiomhole was elected chairman of the APC to replace one of his predecessors in Edo government house, John Oyegun. Just months into the job, his tenure is already overtaken by controversies with many of the party’s stakeholders, including governors allegedly demanding his resignation over his handling of the recently concluded primary elections of the party.
Indeed, no sooner had he resumed office, than the party’s already simmering crisis got to a head with many of its chieftains, including governors of Sokoto, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal; Benue, Samuel Ortom; Kwara, Abdulfatah Ahmed as well as several lawmakers, including Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki left the party.
But it is the chairman’s poor handling of the primaries that has become a major talking point. Starting from the controversy over whether the party should adopt direct primary, indirect primary or let individuals states decide which mode to adopt based on peculiarities, to allegations of imposition of candidates, the ruling party is now riddled with crisis.
The Oshiomhole led leadership had put nomination and expression of interest forms of the party at exorbitant prices – ranging from N45million for presidency to N850,000 for state House of Assembly – and many party faithful were encouraged to buy with the promise that everyone would be given equal opportunity.
But Oshiomhole may have had other ideas. In nearly all the states of the federation, allegations of manipulation and imposition of candidates are rife. Bitterness is simmering within the ranks of the ruling party.
The party’s governors were said to have met with President Muhammadu Buhari last week to register grievances against the party chairman, at the end of which they insisted he should step down.
Last week, there was tension within the national headquarters of the party as aspirants for the Senate and House of Representatives besieged it to know the final list of candidates the party sent to INEC, a list which the party leadership had made a top secret.
At the time of writing, however, it was already known that the party eventually submitted list of candidates for Zamfara despite not meeting the electoral body’s deadline for the conduct of primary in the state.
In the other crisis-ridden state, Tonye Cole’s name was submitted for Rivers, meaning that Senator Magnus Abe lost out. In Imo, Uche Nwosu, Governor Rochas Okorocha’s son-in-law, was chosen instead of Senator Hope Uzodinma.
In Ogun, Dapo Abiodun made the list at the expense of Governor Ibikunle Amosun’s candidate, Adekunle Akinlade. While in Cross River, John Eno’s name was submitted ahead of the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Mr. Uguru Usani. And in Kaduna, Senator Shehu Sani eventually lost out as his name was omitted in the list.
The party could yet be bracing up for further crisis, and possible defections, especially given the lack of managerial skills displayed by Oshiomhole thus far. With Amosun having already threatened to dump the ruling party for Accord Party, the decision to omit his candidate in the final list could mark a turning point for him.