The people of the South- East geopolitical zone are in for interesting times as the country’s leading political parties battle for the area’s votes ahead of the 2023 general election, FELIX NWANERI reports
It is an early race for the votes of the people of South-East as the country’s two main political parties – All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) intensify efforts to consolidate on already gained grounds or to expand frontiers in the five states that make up the zone. Ordinarily, the bid by the ruling APC to expand its political frontiers in the South-East would have been a Herculean task given the fact that the zone, before now, was under the firm control of the PDP with the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) having some pockets of elective positions, mostly in Anambra State. The PDP won all the five states of the South-East – Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo – during the 1999 general election, a feat it repeated in 2003.
However, the party’s fortune in the zone witnessed a setback in the 2007 elections as the Peoples Progressive Alliance (PPA) took over Imo and Abia states. The PDP, which was then the ruling party at the centre, had before the 2007 general polls (2016) lost Anambra to APGA through the court.
The party’s loss in Imo and Abia, however, turned out to be temporary, when Ikedi Ohakim and Theodore Orji, who won the respective states through PPA, dumped the party for PDP. Consequently, the PDP had four states – Imo, Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu until 2011, when it lost Imo to APGA.
With that development, PDP and APGA became the dominant parties in the South-East with two states (Anambra and Imo) for APGA and three states (Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi) for the PDP. However, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) that held sway in the South-West at that time made an in-road into the South-East, especially in Anambra State, where it won a senatorial seat through a former governor of the state, Dr. Chris Ngige as well as pockets of House of Representatives and state Assembly seats in the 2011 elections.
While many argued then that another party outside PDP and APGA would find it difficult to make incursion into Igbo land, the defection of then Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha (APGA) to the APC upon the party’s formation in 2013, opened the window for the party to win the “Eastern Heartland” in the 2015 elections.
APC is the product of a merger deal between then main opposition parties – ACN, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and a faction of APGA by Okorocha, who at that time described the party as the fastest political vehicle for the realisation of a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction.
Having won the governorship of Imo State and pockets of legislative seats the South-East as well the presidency after 16 years unbroken rule of the PDP in the 2015 elections, APC chieftains in the South-East became more optimistic that the party would sweep across more states in the zone in the 2019 general election.
Their hope was, however, dashed as PDP not only retained Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi, but regained Imo through a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives,Emeka Ihedioha. But politics, being a game of the possible in which nothing is foreclosed, the Supreme Court annulled PDP’s victory in Imo State and to the consternation of many and declared APC’s candidate, Hope Uzodinma, as the winner of the election.
According to some analysts, the twist in Imo and APC’s victory in three out of the 15 senatorial seats in the South-East as well as pockets of House of Representatives and states Assembly seats the party won mainly in Imo and Abia in the 2019 elections, which many described as an appreciable result compared to that of 2015, when the party was almost rejected in the zone, leaves the South-East open for grab by any of the leading parties in the next general election. To APC chieftains in the South-East, their party has all it takes to sweep the south eastern states in the 2023 elections given emerging developments in the polity ahead of the polls.
While most of them predicate their belief on the assumption that the ruling party is likely to look towards the zone for its candidate in the forthcoming presidential poll, others say the area has benefited in terms of infrastructure from the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration compared to PDP’s years in power.
Though these suppositions are subject of debate among Ndigbo de-pending on which side of the political divide they find themselves, the belief that the battle for the political soul of the South-East between APC and PDP in 2023 would be interesting was strengthened with the defection of Ebonyi State governor, David Umahi, to the ruling party.
The governor stated that he dumped the PDP for the ruling party to protest the injustice it meted to the South-East. According to him, the people of South-East have remained faithful to PDP and voted for its candidates in the present dispensation, but have not been treated fairly by the party.
Umahi did not only berate the PDP, he declared during his formal declaration for the APC that the entire South-East will soon move into the ruling as the people of the zone are tired of empty promises by the main opposition party. “The South-East as known today will all move to APC. We have to launch out to the centre, we are tired of empty promises, we want action now,” he said.
The Caretaker National Chairman of the APC, Governor Mai Mala Buni, who received Umahi and his supporters commended the governor for his action, describing it as timely. “Your Excellency, your entrance is timely and appropriate because you are coming into the party at a time we have started rebuilding this party from bottom up,” he said.
The main opposition PDP, however, said its fortune in the South- East is intact despite Umahi’s defection and the party’s loss of Ebonyi State. The party’s National Chairman, Prince Uche Secondus, who made the declaration at the 90th National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting of the party, said PDP will not succumb to blackmail of injustice against the zone raised by Umahi, which he described as provocative. Secondus added he had assurances of party leaders in Ebonyi State including former President of the Senate, Anyim Pius Anyim and former governor of the state, Senator Sam Egwu that Ebonyi remains a PDP state.
His words: “We have refused to join issues with him (Umahi) in any way, but we cannot bow to any blackmail. What I can report to NEC is that the strength of our party in Ebonyi State and South- East is intact and the NWC has taken necessary steps to protect and guard it.”
While both parties continue to trade words over control of the South-East, there are indications that the people of the zone may jettison their traditional political inclinations and back any party that zones its 2023 presidential ticket to the area.
On paper, power is expected to shift to the South in 2023 after eight years of President Buhari given the zoning arrangement between the country’s two geographical divides, North and South, which took effect from 1999. Whereas there have been arguments for and against rotation of the presidency, the belief in most political quarters at the moment is that the PDP is likely to zone its presidential ticket to the North given the body language of the party’s leadership. This conviction is despite the insistence by most southern leaders that anything short of the presidency in 2023 would not be acceptable.
For the APC, the belief is that the leadership of the party will give the South the 2023 presidential ticket given that the North would have spent eight years in power through President Buhari by 2023, but some leaders of the party are insisting that the contest should be thrown open.
It is against these backdrops that the people of the South-East are insisting that 2023 is the time for one of their own to lead the country. They predicate their quest on the principle of equity and fairness as according to them, no Igbo has led the nation in the last 50 years.
Findings by New Telegraph revealed that it has not only become obvious that the political loyalty of the South-East will go to the ruling party if it offers the zone the presidential ticket, but it is more of an unspoken consensus that only the presidency of the country is good enough for the Igbo nation come 2023. Already, prominent Igbo political leaders within the APC and PDP have started positioning themselves, a development some say, was informed by their “knowledge of something that may not yet be public” and the 2021 governorship election in Anambra State is likely to be an acceptability test for both parties in the South-East.
The PDP is plotting to regain power in the state after 14 years but it is not a secret that Governor Willie Obiano enjoys a good measure of cordiality with APC stakeholders as well as the presidency and it is expected that the ruling party may leverage on these strategic linkages. At the moment, South-East APC boasts of notable personalities, who likely to take a shot at the 2023 presidency. Similarly, there are eminent Igbo sons and daughters in the PDP, who are qualified for its presidential ticket.
Despite having personalities across the two main parties, the belief is that the PDP leadership may give in to the argument in some quarters that since the last president produced by the party is from the South; it would be wise to give the 2023 presidential ticket to the North in line with the party’s zoning arrangement.
This, perhaps, informs why APC leaders in the South-East have been beckoning on their compatriots in the opposition to look towards the ruling party if their aspiration of a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction is to be realised in 2023.
A chieftain of the APC, who spoke with New Telegraph at the eve of Umahi’s defection, revealed then that Obiano and Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, are also been lobbied to join the ruling party in the days ahead. “We are expecting Igbo governors like Dave Umahi, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Willie Obiano to come as that will boost South-East’s chance of producing the next president of Nigeria in 2023,” he said. The party stalwart added: “Besides the expected defection of the governors, Igbo leaders are appealing to the General Abdulsalami Abubakar-led National Peace Committee to ensure that the major political parties zone their presidential tickets to the South-East the way it was done in 1999 for the South-West,” he said.
The Director of Planning and Strategy for Pan Nigerian President of Igbo Extraction (PANPIE), Hon. Pat Anyanwu, who spoke on emerging political developments in the South-East ahead of the 2023 elections, said the zone will not be voting for any party but its core interest. According to him, any party that identifies with the core interest and current aspiration of the average Igbo man in Nigeria will get the support of the zone. His words: “The problem we’ve had in the region is that we always approach politics with emotion and unprofitable sentiments. But the truth remains that the biggest currency in politics is interest and not emotions or sentiments.
Once your interest is accommodated you can justify whatever political leaning you choose. “Every Igbo group is rooting for a Nigeria president of Igbo extraction. Ohanaeze Ndigbo has been shouting and demanding for the presidency to be zoned to the Igbo nation.
So, there is no gainsaying the fact, the party that offers Ndigbo its presidential ticket will get the massive vote haul of the Igbo nation wherever we are in the country. “I must also add that there is nothing like ‘traditional party of the region.’
There is no such thing if that same party does not find us fit to fly its presidential flag in 2023. A lot of people think PDP own the region, but if the APC zones the presidency to our region, nothing can stop the mass movement for the APC in the region.”
Chief Chekwas Okorie, a chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, who expressed a similar view, while reacting to Umahi’s defection to the APC, said the governor has cleared the way for what may soon turn out to be a gale of unprecedented political defections in the South-East in favour of the ruling party. His words: “Nobody expected the PDP with its well established disdain for Ndigbo to spare a thought for the Igbo quest for the presidency of Nigeria on its platform. The PDP from its inception has always taken Ndigbo for granted… the excuse that it is too early to decide on rotation at this time is dishonest.
Any PDP stalwart from the South-East who is genuinely and honestly in support of the much orchestrated clamour for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction must align with the ebullient, courageous, pragmatic and patriotic Governor Umahi of Ebonyi State. Such personalities must stand now to be counted.
“If the National leadership of the PDP could meet at Abuja to seal the fate of Ndigbo, including dissolving the South-East Zonal Executive of the party without consultation, I do not see the reason, the South-East Caucus of the party should not urgently convene an extraordinary meeting to take their political destiny in their own hands.
This is the minimum leadership obligation they owe their members who are obviously confused at this time.” On how PDP administrations wronged the South-East, Okorie said: “No project of whatever size was ever started and completed by the PDP in the South-East in all of the 16 years it ruled Nigeria. Who would believe that it was the Private Public Power (PPP) project at Ariaria, Aba in Abia State, started by the Buhari administration and commissioned by the President in 2018 that is the first federal project started and completed by any Nigerian government since the war ended in 1970.
The under-development and subsequent abandonment of the sea and river ports in the Eastern coast lines were part of the deliberate policies of the PDP to annihilate the people of the former Eastern Nigeria, economically, politically and socially.” But a chieftain of the PDP and former Commissioner for Information in Ebonyi State, Senator Emmanuel Onwe, who disagreed with those who believe that APC’s presidential ticket would be handed to the South-East on a platter, said there are a number of perfect justifications that Umahi could have advanced for his defection to APC rather than the purported “injustice” meted to Ndigbo by the PDP.
In a piece titled: Umahi’s blind ambition is the nemesis of his conscience,” Onwe, who served under the Ebonyi State governor during first term, maintained that the governor’s reason betrays a complete absence of conscience as the “ludicrous claim” is fed by nothing but blind ambition.
He said: “In Igboland, individuals, organisations and institutions, including the PDP and the decamping governor, have previously articulated the catalogue of discrimination and ignominy we have endured at the hands of the federal administration in last six years. Igbo people have been crudely condemned as the five per cent outcasts. The practical reality of this outcast status is manifest in the composition of the federal government today, a powerful demonstration of a redefined anti-Igbo federal character.
“Above all, the proscription of Indigenous People of Biafra stands as the most stark example of the blatant inequity and destructive policy that the APC-led Federal Government is willing to levy on our innocent people and which these decamping governors fell over themselves to endorse, strengthen and make more wicked.
Yet, we are to accept the fabulist tale that our salvation suddenly lies in the lair of wolves?” Onwe, not only maintained that Ndigbo had it good under PDP but insisted that none of the attainments has been replicated under the current APC federal administration nor is it possible to envisage such replication.
He capped his submission with a declaration. “Here is a prediction: even if all the governors in the South-East were to decamp to the APC, the realization of Igbo presidency in 2023 by the agency of APC will not happen.” No doubt, the two main parties are not leaving anything to chance in their respective bids to take over the South-East in the forthcoming general election, but the question is: Will Ndigbo head back to the PDP or look towards the APC as an alternative? While it would be too early for anyone to proffer an answer to the puzzle at the moment, the fact remains that emerging trends in the zone will make the 2023 polls more interesting than that of 2019.