Stakeholders in Delta State appear divided along ethnic lines in the war over who governs the state even as Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, for the second time, battles the opposition who are in court to void his election. And across the state, the fear is real that social and economic development may be unduly slowed down
At over 80, elder statesman, Nosike Ikpo, a First Republic senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, should be having a most deserved rest and retirement from politics, having traversed the political field for the greater part of his life. But taking such a bow at this time may well be too much of a luxury he cannot afford; otherwise he would be acting like the Roman emperor, Nero, who went to sleep while Rome was on fire.
Like Nero’s Rome, Delta State, his home state, is on fire. It had been for over four years now, and the octogenarian politician, is not in the least, comfortable that his state is in such political turmoil. The apparent lack of unity and cohesion among the political class in the “Nation’s Heartbeat” (as the state is fondly referred to) has become a big burden he has taken upon his fragile frame, in collaboration with some other concerned elders in the state, to shoulder.
When the magazine met him at his modest Ibusa country home in Oshimili South Local Government, LG, last week, Ikpo was about to go into a meeting with like-minds from other senatorial districts on how to resolve the protracted political crisis rocking the state. The elder statesman lamented, “There is no unity in Delta State. The only thing that unites us in this state is the government.” Interestingly, the challenge before the peacemakers is not about those united by government but about some seemingly implacable elders and their followers united against it.
Since 2007 when Emmanuel Uduaghan, a medical doctor-turned politician, became the governor of the state, neither he nor the state has known peace. His political opponents, led by the Ijaw national leader and a minister of information under the General Yakubu Gowon regime, Edwin Clark, made sure of that. Clark’s anger, as he has repeatedly voiced it, is that “Uduaghan was imposed on the state by Ibori his cousin.” Even after he had gone through two different elections after his 2007 victory was annulled November 8, 2010, with the former governor out of the way, it has been the same old refrain.
For the Ijaw leader, with the sacking of Uduaghan and order for a re-run of the governorship election by the appeal court, Uduaghan was as good as gone, and he pulled all manner of intrigues to make sure that he was not returned as the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, candidate. When it became obvious that the President, Goodluck Jonathan, was not ready to sacrifice Uduaghan on the altar of perceived ethnic bias, Clark decided to dump his party’s candidate to embrace Great Ogboru, the candidate of the opposition Democratic Peoples Party, DPP.
Even on a day the President led a powerful delegation of the party from the national secretariat to Warri for a campaign rally ahead of the re-run election, the Ijaw leader was busy working against the electoral fortune of the PDP, his party. At a press conference at his Kiagbodo country house, Clark called on Deltans not to vote for Uduaghan but Ogboru. Political observers viewed this as an anti-party activity and a spit on the face of the President. In spite of the gang-up by Clark and his aggrieved group of Delta Elders, Leaders and Stakeholders Forum, DELSF, Uduaghan won the January 6, 2011 governorship re-run election. He also went ahead to win the April 26, 2011 general elections. The DPP candidate is, however, contesting the outcome of the two elections at the Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal sitting in Asaba, the state capital.
Initially, the Clark-led DELSF was a formidable group, comprising such prominent elders and leaders like Benedict Ijomah, a professor of Sociology, James Otobo, former deputy premier, Midwest Region, Ikpo, Godwin Obielum, a retired assistant commissioner of police, Esther Uduehi, Sam Oyovbaire, a professor and former information minister, former Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Young Igbrude, incumbent state chairman of the PDP, Peter Nwaoboshi, and a host of others. But they have all abandoned the group because, according to Ijomah in an interview with a national daily, all the allegations against the governor could not be substantiated or sustained before former President Olusegun Obasanjo, chairman of the PDP’s Board of Trustees.
According to the renowned sociologist, many of those around the Ijaw leader had failed elections. “…They were driven there because they couldn’t win primaries in their local government areas and senatorial districts. So he appeared to be a focal point of those who lost out in their areas.” As far as Ijomah is concerned, this is not a honourable thing to do, stating that, “I lost election and the world did not come to an end. They rigged me out in the primaries in 1999, I am still a member of PDP.” It was against this backdrop that another group of elders sympathetic to the governor came together to form a parallel elders’ council led by Otobo. The Delta State People’s Elders Council, DSPEC has in its fold Ikpo, Godwin Iwegbue, secretary of the council, one Senator Obi, Ebimami and Gabriel Mabiaku, the Iyase of Warri Kingdom. Otobo told the magazine that the sixth person, Fred Brume, a representative of Delta Central, dumped the group to join his kinsman Ogboru, before the election and that position had remained vacant.
So, apart from helping to stabilise the Uduaghan government, the Otobo-led elders’ council has also been engaging in trouble-shooting between the Clark group and the governor though such efforts have not yielded the desired result. Ijomah who recalled how one of such efforts was frustrated some time ago by the followers of the Ijaw leader said, “When you have a collection of angry persons who have lost relevance, it is difficult to use them to bridge the gap…Some of them fall for Chief Clark to get one appointment or the other.”
But as far as Francis Okpozo, Second Republic senator, is concerned, the elders on the side of the governor are hungry people. He accused them of compromising themselves for filthy lucre. “The government will be taking money to bribe them. So they have lost direction… They have made them to be poor people and they go to beg for alms…” His anger against Uduaghan, however, seems to be that he had been around for too long. “Was he not the secretary to the state government for how many years? Was he not a commissioner? He has spent four years in government. If you add all those years together right from 1999 till the present time, is he the only one in Delta State? Is he a perfect man? So, the people say let there be a change.” (See box interview).
Otobo, however, fired back at Okpozo for the perceived insult. According to the 86-year-old political warhorse, “Uduaghan does not need to give Otobo money… When it comes to the question of credibility, character, honesty and so on, Otobo is a household name. I was in politics for so many years; I didn’t build a single house. I went through three different operations, I paid by myself. In other words, as far as Otobo is concerned, that kite won’t jump and everybody knows it in Nigeria, including Obasanjo. Okpozo is not an issue now in Delta politics…I am on this side; he’s the one getting contracts from everywhere. He’s the one building roads. Did he not get N250 million contract from DESOPADEC?” (See box interview)
In spite of the brick-bats, the Otobo-led elders’ council has forged ahead with its peace shuttle, said to be at the behest of the governor, the latest being on June 19, 2011, when it met Clark at his Abuja residence. Apparently frustrated by the rebuff of his peace moves, the governor told the magazine that “I will not put all my time in trying to pacify people who claim they are aggrieved”, stressing that “I have a job to do and I need to face my job.” (See box interview). He was to reiterate this during the swearing in ceremony of 22 commissioners in Asaba, recently.
In the words of the governor, “We do know that there are distractions; we do know that there are people who cook distractions, we do know there are people who feed on distractions, but let me assure every Deltan that I will not be distracted. I have a job to do. All I pray is for God to give me strength, to give me the wisdom, to give me the health to do the job He has given to me and the God that has always answered my prayers is still answering my prayers today.” The governor said the era of blackmail was gone.
Otobo told the magazine that the only condition given for peace by Clark was that a town hall meeting be convened by the government where all knotty issues affecting the party would be thrashed out. How this works out remains to be seen; given the pent-up anger by Clark and Okpozo over the outcome of the April 26 governorship and House of Assembly elections in which their candidates who contested on the platform of the opposition party lost. And given the roles they both played, questions are being asked if they are still members of the PDP. When the question was put to Okpozo for instance, he gave the impression that he did not belong to any party. “I am an elder statesman”, he told the magazine. But Otobo, his Isoko kinsman, insisted he is a DPP member. This much was confirmed when on Wednesday July 6, 2011, he rose in stout defence of a DPP member who was arrested in Ozoro over his alleged involvement in an attempted murder during the April elections. But speaking with newsmen in Ozoro, Okpozo reportedly alleged that members of the DPP in the state were being victimised by the police and the PDP, stressing, “his arrest is a calculated attempt to distract DPP supporters in the state.”
With the prevailing emotions on both sides, it will be a pleasant surprise if something good comes out of the demanded town hall meeting. Both Clark and Okpozo are so bitter with Uduaghan that they claimed they could never forgive him. Political observers believe that more than Ogboru’s loss, Clark is very angry with the governor for the humiliating defeat his son, who contested the House of Assembly election on the platform of the opposition party, suffered in his own Burutu constituency.
The January 6 and April 26 governorship elections have, however, thrown up new issues in the polity. Political observers are worried that the voting pattern seemed to suggest ethnic sentiments. Ikpo, from Delta North Senatorial District, noted that “the dangerous thing now in Delta State is the ethnic voting introduced by the Urhobo people”, stressing that “that is the greatest danger that is facing the state.” Ogboru disagreed, contending, “Delta politics is not ethnicised. If there is ethnic politics, it is Uduaghan himself who is responsible.” Evance Ewurihe, another DPP chieftain who at various times served as commissioner and special adviser in the administrations of Ibori and Uduaghan, described the issue of ethnicity “as just a fabrication” noting that “there are millions of people who want a change in Delta State because there is no development.”
But not many will wave aside the perceived ethnic factor during the last two governorship elections in the state this year. Reuben Abati, former Editorial Board chairman of The Guardian newspaper, now the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, in a paper, submits that ethnicity was a key factor during the elections. At an inaugural lecture entitled: Ethnic Challenges and the Development of the Niger Delta, held in Asaba, May 28, 2011, Abati observed that “the majority of ethnic group in the state, the Urhobo, voted massively for the DPP’s gubernatorial candidate, Chief Great Ogboru, an Urhobo.” According to him, “out of the eight local government councils in the Urhobo area, seven voted for Ogboru with the exception of Ethiope West where a former governor of the state, Chief James Ibori, hails from. The Itsekiri, the incumbent governor’s kinsmen, also ensured that in their domain, Ogboru failed in the elections as they voted massively for Emmanuel Uduaghan.”
The voting pattern in Oshimili South LG, however, posed a riddle to the guest lecturer. Asaba, the state capital, is in this local government. While stating that the performance of incumbents has been acknowledged as a major determinant of voting pattern in the 2011 elections, Abati said “this may not explain the results from Oshimili South Local Government in the April gubernatorial elections in Delta State.” He noted, “In four years, the Uduaghan administration had worked hard to provide infrastructure and transform the Asaba area and yet lost the area to the opposition. To compound the puzzle, PDP, the governor’s party, won the State House of Assembly, National Assembly and the presidential elections in Oshimili South but lost the governorship.”
Abati then raised a poser. “Could this be the case of a section of Delta North aligning with the majority ethnic group in order to position itself for the gubernatorial slot in the future? It may not be necessarily so. Political analysts believe that it may have to do with the same ethnic sentiment. Asaba, being the state capital and seat of government, has a large population of Urhobo either in the civil service or doing one business or another and this may have been responsible for the good showing of the DPP in the area.
But Abati feared that this development might be “sowing the seeds for future conflicts.” In Delta State, this may already be happening. Before now, the unwritten zoning arrangement in the state, particularly in the PDP, was that after Uduaghan’s tenure, it would be the turn of the North senatorial district to produce the governor. Out of the three senatorial districts, it is the only area that is yet to take a shot at the governorship since the creation of the state almost 20 years ago. But political observers say the voting pattern of the people in the area has not shown their enthusiasm to realise this ambition. According to them, what is needed is effective mobilisation of people in the area towards achieving this goal.
And from all indications, the underground work seems to have started, with Ifeanyi Okowa, a medical doctor and the incumbent senator representing the area, taking up the challenge. Okowa, who came very close to clinching the PDP governorship ticket in 2003, was a commissioner for health and secretary to the state government before resigning to contest the National Assembly election. Okowa said as the senator from the zone, “I appear to be the highest elected person in that zone. So, it is my duty to put processes in place to unite the people for the big battle in politics ahead of 2015.” The medical doctor-turned politician, said he had started “to get the opinion leaders and the elders to team up together, to learn to stay together so that we can create a strong base through which we can talk to our people and make them to realise that united we will be able to stand in the politics of Delta State.”
Those familiar with the politics of Delta North, however, believe this will be an uphill task for Okowa, given the republican, extra-competitive disposition of the people in the area. A source who expressed misgivings about the ability of the area to speak with one voice said, “My only worry is that they may cancel themselves out. There is this republican disposition by the people of Delta North. Igbos don’t have kings; everybody wants to be a leader so it becomes very difficult for the people to present a common front. Those who cannot get it might want to play the spoiler, like what happened to Okowa himself.”
The magazine, however, gathered that the Urhobo’s Central Senatorial District is warming up again to give the Anioma a fight. It is, however, not clear if it would be Ogboru again. A source, however, wondered why the Urhobo would continue to support one person “as if he is a crown prince.” Ogboru, who has never been in favour of zoning, told the magazine that “if anybody is telling you about zoning or no zoning, no. Delta State is one state where you have more mature minds, where people can make up their minds on the basis of merit, on the basis of achievements, on the basis of antecedents, discipline. Then, of course, based on your persuasion; (and) your manifesto.”
Giving examples of persons from Delta North who have at one time or another contested the governorship election but unfortunately could not make it, namely Peter Okocha and Godswill Obielum, Ogboru insisted that “the best candidate for that position today, is myself. And if tomorrow an Urhobo man comes out that is as good as myself or you have a man who is better from Delta North, the people of Delta State will vote for him. But forget about it; nobody is going to vote for you because you are from Delta North or you are from Delta Central.”
But whether anybody wants to admit it or not, ethnicity has become a big factor in Delta politics and the earlier the people took note of the danger signal the better. Abati pointed out the implication of this for the future politics of the state. He said that the last governorship elections have shown that there is pent-up anger in some parts of the state. “Emmanuel Uduaghan, an Itsekiri, has been able to build a new majority in the last two elections. With the Urhobo voting for the opposition, he still won. But the new majority is fragile because even those who supported the governor are likely to make more demands.” The guest lecturer wondered what the Urhobo were aggrieved about “even when it is clear that they can never win the gubernatorial election in the state by voting alone.” In his words, “political dexterity demands that this should be addressed.”
Abati counselled that “rather than govern with a new majority, the government of Delta State must seek to govern with a majority of all majorities, new and old”, stressing that “dialogue is central to this.” Unfortunately the road to dialogue in the state is fraught with landmines. While the Clark group is not willing to be quoted as having rejected the olive branch, it has put forward some demands that seem set to forestall this. That perhaps corroborates Abati’s postulation that achieving peace may take time “and task patience and result in unreasonable demands being made, but it is the only option.”
Talking about “unreasonable demands”, the question is how is the governor expected to react to the demand by the Ijaw national leader that Uduaghan should distance himself from his cousin, Ibori, as a condition for peace.” Is he expected to disown his brother for the sake of pacifying aggrieved political opponents in order to cling to power?
Little wonder the governor described himself as “the guinea pig of the current electoral process in the country.” An unfortunate victim of political brinksmanship, the political situation in Delta State should interest political scientists who may want to research into certain political behaviour, which confound known theories and logic. While that, in the long run, may throw up useful ideas and options, the current stalemate — largely powered by ethnic divisions — retards progress and wastes development capital. The frustration, in government circles and in the state in general, is huge. As an aide to the governor captures it, “If by being the guinea pig of the current dispensation in the country, His Excellency (Uduaghan) can be allowed to concentrate on governance, then the lot of this very promising state can be greatly improved. But instead, the problem is that his adversaries won’t allow him. That, I must tell you, is like putting the brakes to a speed train that has gathered momentum.”