FELIX NWANERI reports on the recent return of a former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which he left in 2018 for the Social Democratic Party (SDP)
In advance democracies, reasons adduced by politicians for defection include divergent views on the operations of parties’ philosophy, crisis or division, and party leaders reneging on agreements, but in most defection cases in Nigeria, they have mainly been informed by personality clash, power tussle and most importantly, personal interest.
From 1999 to date, many politicians at the local, state and federal levels have moved from one political party to the other. Some did so abandoning the parties through which they were elected into power, while others after losing elections, found it the best time to jump into another party.
Cases of defections were in trickles in the early years of the present dispensation but rose to a height ahead of the 2015 general election. The trend continued after the polls with most members of the then ruling party Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) moving in their numbers to the All Progressives Congress (APC) after their party was defeated in the presidential election.
The allure of the ruling party further attracted members of the opposition PDP ahead of the 2019 general election, while those, who could not withstand internal wrangling within the party left for what many describe as the lesser parties to actualize their respective ambitions. Among those who opted for the lesser parties was a former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke.
The once poster governor of the PDP, announced on September 4, 2018, that he would be leaving PDP to contest the 2019 presidential election on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Duke had taken the politics of Cross River State by storm in 1999, when he emerged as governor. He was then 38. Reports had it that Duke, Liyel Imoke and Gershom Bassey, had prior to the 1999 general election, sat at the Ikoyi, Lagos residence of Imoke to plan on how they will play prime roles in the politics of their state in the Fourth Republic. Against this backdrop, the trio agreed to return to the state to contest for executive posi tions, which will allow leadership succession over a 24 year period between three of them before it would be allowed to get into the hands of “a stranger.”
It was on the basis of this that Duke was allowed to take the first shot at power and he was elected during the 1999 governorship election on the platform of the PDP. He went ahead to spend eight years in office (1999-2007). But politics, being what it is, a game of interest masquerading as a contest of principles, Duke, at the tail end of his tenure, was reluctant to work for Imoke, who was then Minister of Power and Steel, to emerge as his successor.
Imoke, who at time was the most politically experienced among the trio, found a way round the hurdle to emerge as governor in 2007, also on the platform of the PDP.
Like Duke, he also governed the state for uninterrupted eight years. By 2015, when everybody thought that Bassey will mount the saddle based on the agreement reached between the three friends, Imoke introduced zoning into the political lexicon of the state and pronto, most political stakeholders in the state bought the idea. Imoke, who is from Abi in Cross River Central senatorial district told the people that Duke, who hails from the Southern senatorial district had governed for eight years and that natural justice demands that after him, the North senatorial district should take its turn.
To pacify his friend, Bassey, Imoke ensured that the then senator, representing Cross River South senatorial district, Senator Bassey Otu, was shoved aside and Bassey given the ticket. Bassey is still in the upper chamber of the National Assembly.
Although the issue of a bust-up between Duke and Imoke was discussed in hush tones prior to the 2015 elections, it became very clear, when Duke brought Goddy Jeddy-Agba to vie for the PDP governorship ticket. Imoke countered the move by hurriedly handing over the ticket to Prof. Ben Ayade, who is also from Obudu, just like Jeddy-Agba. Ayade, then representing Cross River North senatorial district, emerged as the PDP’s governorship candidate and won the 2015 gubernatorial election.
The aftermath of the 2015 polls was a cold war between Duke and Imoke’s camps. However, many said that it was a matter of time before it becomes a full blown conflict. The belief came to pass, when the duo publicly took themselves to the cleaners. Duke fired the salvo, when he alleged some misdeeds by the administration of Imoke given his comment that the Tinapa Resort initiated by the Duke administration was “wrongly conceptualized.” Duke also accused Imoke of squandering money left in the states Reserved Fund. In his response, Imoke declared that “the death of Cross River State happened in 2007.” He also reiterated his position on Tinapa, saying that Cross River was paying so much for the project through various deductions of funds that would have been used to develop others parts of the state. The aftermath of the brickbat was that Duke became indifferent to issues concerning the PDP in the state. Three years later, he left the party for the SDP. But in a twist of fate, the former Cross River State governor, on May 25, announced his return to the PDP. In a statement titled ‘My Statement of Return,’ Duke wrote: “Dear Friends, a lot is being said about my return to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
Truth is, I reunited with the party almost a year ago now, but in spirit never left the ideals for which the party was founded upon. “It is rather unfortunate that Governor Ben Ayade who constantly egged me to rejoin the party has himself had cause to leave. A rather unfortunate decision for which I neither sup port nor condemn, as I’m not privy to the details except his complaints of being stifled and unappreciated by the leadership of the party and certain elements of Cross River State origin at Abuja.
“In our early to mid-thirties buoyed by optimism and faith in our state and nation, we took a plunge into the unknown world of politics. Providence smiled at us and thrust us into the limelight and leadership of national politics.
“In Cross River State, we took on the establishment and won a razor thin victory in 1999, but through firm and adroit leadership and adherence to the democratic principles of inclusion we soon brought largely all the political class in the state under the PDP and by 2007, we were perhaps the most PDP state in Nigeria.
“However, post 2007, the party’s fortune started ebbing. An autocratic leadership style emerged, communication with its followers declined and emergence in the party was determined largely not by the party constitution or structures but by the whims of the State’s Chief Executive.
“This is the structure Governor Ayade inherited and has largely led us to where we are today. The very top-down political style we fought against prior 1999, instead of consultation, accommodation and inclusion reared its head to the extent that founding members of the party in the state including former state Chairmen, Senators, members of the National Assembly and I, over time opted out and this attrition has continued unabated to the extent that the Governor himself has left to seek pasture elsewhere.”
Already, it is uneasy calm within the Cross River PDP fold, following Duke’s return to the party despite his declaration he believes that lessons have been learnt and necessary adjustments would be made to give everyone a sense of belonging.
Many are of the view that the former governor is likely to meet some form of resistance from his former friends – Imoke and Bassey – who have taken over what is left of PDP’s structure in the state, following Ayade’s defection but given his influence in the state, which cannot be wished away, it would herculean for any individual from stopping him from taking his rightful position in the party. Duke is widely revered in Cross River State.
His legacy, particularly, the clean sanitary condition of the state is credited to him. He is also the architect of the yearly Calabar Carnival and Christmas festival that attract tourists from far and wide. He also brought the Obudu Cattle Resort to world reckoning.
For these and more, Duke enjoys the goodwill of the people till date. No doubt, Duke’s return to the PDP is a boost to the party ahead of the 2023 general election, but only time will tell whether the euphoria that heralded the homecoming will last given the tendencies in the party in Cross River State