Umahi, Ebonyi State Governor and Chairman, South-East Governors' Forum

By OBINNA EZUGWU

Since he walked into the Ebonyi State government house, Abakaliki as the third civilian governor of the agrarian state, after serving as deputy governor for four years under his predecessor, Elder Martin Elechi, Engr. David Umahi has defied the impossible and has, within six years, turned the state into, somewhat paradise. His accomplishment in infrastructure is odd defying as it is audacious. But with his reign as governor coming to an end in a little over two years, the 57-year-old may have set his eyes on even more audacious project: the 2023 presidential ticket of the country’s ruling party, the All Progressive Congress (APC).

Weeks of rumours about the governor’s impending defection to the APC, last week culminated into a visit to him by members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) National Working Committee (NWC)led by its National Chairman, Prince Uche Secondus at the Ebonyi State governor’s lodge, Abuja, the nation’s capital in what was a last gasp effort to convince him to remain within the opposition party’s fold.

With Secondus in what was a high powered delegation sent in desperate attempt by the opposition party to keep control of one of its states going into the all important 2023 presidential election, were Deputy National Secretary, AgboEmmanuel; National Organising Secretary, Austin Akobondu; Financial Secretary, Abdullahi Maibasira; National Women Leader, Mariya Waziri and Senator Sulieman Nazif.

But it was too little too late. Umahi was said to have received them well, but nonetheless, insisted on abandoning the PDP for the APC because, according to him, the ruling party would zone presidency to the South East in 2023.

The Ebonyi governor was said to have promised to stay in the party under whose platform he rose to political prominence – moving from state party chairman to deputy governor and eventually to governor – only if its leadership could make a pronouncement that it would zone the Presidency to the South East, perhaps with him as candidate.

But it’s obvious that his condition will be a tall order for a party seeking to regain power, and which must be aware that its chances may critically lie in fielding a Northern presidential candidate and perhaps a Southeast vice presidential candidate. And either way, he is destined to lose out.

In the meantime, the opposition party is said to have summoned an emergency National Executive Council Meeting for Thursday in what is another push to stop the Ebonyi governor’s impending move, even as himself is looking to lure Abia governor, Okezie Ikpeazu to move with him to the APC.

Whilst he was still a first term governor seeking a second term in 2019, Umahi, alongside former deputy senate president, Ike Ekweremadu and a few other political leaders in the South East, had kicked when the eventual PDP presidential candidate, ex-vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar chose former Anambra State governor, Mr. Peter Obi as his running mate.

Evidently, the Ebonyi governor, despite being due for second term as governor, had his eyes on Abuja. But he was destined to lose out, Atiku being resolute about having Obi as VP candidate.

Going into 2023, Umahi would be completing his second term as governor. His quest for Abuja has apparently become even stronger as there is no longer a fall back position. And he is aware that his chances of emerging presidential or vice presidential candidate in the PDP are farfetched. The opposition party is almost certain to field a Northern presidential candidate, and Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, who has since emerged its key strongman, evidently has his eyes on the number two slot, with his Sokoto State counterpart, Aminu Tambuwal expected to be backed by him for the presidential ticket.

The other possible alternative will be a repeat of the Atiku and Obi ticket in 2023, either way, the Ebonyi governor will be out of the equation.

Given the scenario therefore, he has set his eyes elsewhere in the potentially very competitive APC ticket.

In a sense, his reported insistence on joining the APC is fairly understandable. He has had close relationship with Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari since 2015, even though both are on opposing political divide. His being confident that the ruling party will zone presidency to the South East may in part, derive from this very fact.

Overall, there is growing believe among members of the APC in the South East that the party will cede its presidential candidate to the zone. In a interview with our correspondent last week, Dr. Chidozie Nwankwo, Wichtech Group CEO and a leading governorship aspirant on the party’s platform for the 2021 Anambra State polls claimed that, “70percentofallAPCmembersareveryhappytorotatepowertotheEast.”

Umahi will be basking in this same euphoria, as he pushes to be the first Igbo executive president of Nigeria in the country’s history. But the odds are enormous. Given the political configuration and the divergent interests in the APC, observers say the idea that the ruling party will zone its presidential candidate to the South East is unrealistic, even as many point out that in the unlikely event of such happening, the Ebonyi governor may not be the choice presidential candidate of the party in the zone.

“Umahi thinks APC will give its ticket to him? How can APC leave its founding leaders, even in the South East and hand over their 2023 ticket to an opportunist that just come?” wondered Hamma Hayatu, social media commentator and member of Atiku campaign team.

Indeed, other than the unlikelihood of the APC handing its presidential ticket to a new comer, observers say Umahi, despite his enviable infrastructural accomplishment in Ebonyi, would be a hard sell even in his zone of origin.

“I think his decision to leave the PDP for the APC is opportunistic,” said Okey Okoroji, Lagos based constitutional lawyer and analyst. “He is driven by self interest and has no overall interest of the Igbo at heart.

“I doubt that the APC would cede its presidential candidate to the South East, 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?

“Yes, the Igbo should produce president in 2023, but we don’t 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 to support of a home structure to succeed, but let’s see how others can make him president without the support of his people.”

For many, Umahi’s impending sojourn into APC is akin to leaping before looking. With the North evidently determined to keep power, the possibility of relinquishing same to the South appear very unlikely. And even in the unlikely event that such happens, the South West which formed part of its foundational base is pushing for it.

Former Lagos governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu is known to have been in the picture and pushing for the job. But even with his political clout, his chances are fast dissipating with the North apparently out to ensure that he doesn’t become a threat.

Fortnight ago, Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai and his Ekiti State counterpart, Dr. Kayode Fayemi used the 50th Anniversary of Arewa House to hold a public lecture and indirectly announce their power bid. It is already shaping up to be a tough battle for the party’s ticket, one that Umahi, being a possible new entrant would stand little chance of winning.

Regardless, however, the South East political elite are pushing resolutely for the top job, and for Okoroji, it is only fair that the rest of the country gives the zone a chance.

“The South East remains the only zone that is yet to produce an executive president since the country’s independence,” he noted. “Yes, I know that some Yoruba are also interested, but I think it’s only fair that they throw their weight behind the South East in the interest of equity and Justice, and I know that they are fair minded people and will do just that. Don’t forget that since the return of democracy in 1999, the South West has had power for eight years, and by 2023, they would have had vice presidency for another eight years.”

At a meeting with a presidential delegation led by Chief of Staff to the President, Ibrahim Gambari in Enugu fortnight ago, the Umahi led South East Governors, forum demanded that the Igbo should be given the opportunity to produce the President of Nigeria in 2023.

There is a consensus among the South East political elite that the zone deserves power in 2023, and Umahi evidently feels that he is a potential candidate and the APC is more likely to provide him the platform. But not many believe he has much chance.

“The question is, what has he done to deserve to be president?” quipped Chief Abia Onyike, a known critic of the governor and former commissioner for information in Ebonyi State. “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 is his antecedents? You cannot say because you were governor for eight years, you are now qualified to be president of Nigeria.”

Onyike argued that the governor’s decision is self serving and not informed by the quest to uphold the collective aspirations of the Igbo.

“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 to 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 Jonathan’s attackers instead of standing up for Jonathan.”

For members of the ruling party in the Southeast, however, the governor’s impending defection would be a big boost for the party and the zone’s chances of emerging its presidential candidate.

“Umahi joining the APC will be a big plus for us,” said Comrade Kevin Ezeoha, the party’s chairman in Enugu South. “We are looking forward to receiving him.

“His joining the APC will help our chances in 2023. He has done creditably well as the Governor of Ebonyi State. He will have my vote if he runs for president. He has the pedigre, and am certain our stakeholders will do the needful.”

A few days ago, the party’s chairman in Ebonyi, Mr Nwachukwu Eze, noted that the party will welcome the governor with ‘open arms’ if his reported defection becomes true.

“We will not be against his joining us though nothing has suggested such to me or my office and none of our national leaders has communicated us to that effect,” he had said.

“We, however, want our party to grow, spread its ideology all over Nigeria and make Nigerians believe that it is the party to identify with.”