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Ajimobi, Shittu and the politics of caretaker chairmen appointment

Senator Ajimobi and Alhaji Shittu

Few weeks after the recent appointment of caretaker chairmen for the 55 local government areas and Local Council Development Authorities in Oyo State by Governor Abiola Ajimobi, the ripple effects have continued to manifest in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, with political observers noting that the development might have set the stage for an epic political struggle ahead of the 2019 governorship election in the state.

Governor Ajimobi had, on April 7, 2017, inaugurated another set of chairmen for the local councils in the state, following the botched local government election scheduled for February 11, 2017. The latest inauguration meant that the Ajimobi-led administration, since its inception in 2011, had continued to run the local government system with appointed chairmen, a situation it attributed to long drawn litigations instituted by members of the then Oyo State Independent Electoral Commission (OYSIEC) in 2007, challenging the dissolution of the electoral commission by the Senator Rashidi Ladoja led administration.

But in February 2017, as all appeared set for the government to conduct the first local council election in over five years of its lifespan, however, another litigation by some traditional chiefs from Oyo town against the recent creation of 35 local council development areas in the state in January 2017, threw spanners in the works of the Oyo State Independent Electoral Commission (OYSIEC), leading to the governor renewing the tenure of some of the chairmen while others were freshly appointed. The injunction granted by Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court, Abuja, which ordered OYSIEC not to proceed with its plan to hold the election, prompting it to be postponed indefinitely, however, had greater impact than just the continuation of the status quo of caretaker chairmen controlling the affairs of the local governments, it opened a new vista in the politics of the state, one in which the peace and cohesion of the ruling APC, was being threatened.

Though the governor was criticised by opposition parties, especially the Social Democratic Party (SDP), for what they described as perpetual illegality in the state, noting that the continuous appointment of caretaker chairmen was a deprivation of the people’s inalienable rights, the battle that has begun to assail the APC over the development is proving to be more from the “enemy within.”

The SDP, speaking through its spokesperson, Alhaji Akeem Azeez, had described the appointment as “an illegality taken too far and aberration to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” But the SDP’s opposition to the appointment of chairmen has since turned out to be a flash in the pan, with the father of all battles threatening to break out in the APC between the camps loyal to the governor and those, who appear not to be on the same page with him. Underlying grievances by some members of the APC had been brought to the fore immediately interested parties got wind of the makeup of the 57-man member to take charge of the local government system for the next three months.

No sooner had the governor released the names of the nominees, than it became clear that all might not be well in the APC camps, as some party members, especially from the 10 local governments in Oke Ogun, condemned the list, alleging that only party members loyal to the governor were considered for appointment. The dissident members had gone as far as mobilising party members to Ibadan, the state capital, to protest the governor’s decision.

Before the House could consider the list of appointees, nerves became frayed in the party, with the boiling point of grievances over the nominations from Oke Ogun zone of the state. Within the Oke Ogun zone, immediate past chairmen for Atisbo, Oorelope, Itesiwaju, Kajola, Olorunsogo, Iwajowa, Saki East and Saki West were billed for re-appointment while those of Irepo and Iseyin were replaced, a development that divided the party in Oke Ogun along the Chief Samuel Adekola faction, which lauded Ajimobi’s appointments as fair, and the Alhaji Kareem Adebayo divide, which condemned the appointments as devoid of wide consultations, saying the appointments were tilted to favour a group loyal to Governor Ajimobi, known as SENACO.

Like the Biblical allusion of one being for Paul and the other for Apollo, APC faithful in Oke Ogun became divided into LAMISTS vs SENACO groups, with the former accusing the latter of being the only ones ‘eating the good of the land’ while LAMISTS, a group of those belonging to the political camp of former Governor Lamidi Adesina, were left in the political wilderness.

Adeyemo, Oyo Speaker

The agitations that immediately followed the announcement of names  soon gravitated from press releases and statements to a violent clash between the pro and anti-Ajimobi groups on April 3, 2017. Venting their displeasure that day, a party leader in Oke Ogun zone, Mr Ahmed Ayinla asked that the appointments be reviewed, saying: “The 10 local governments in Oke Ogun express our displeasure at all the happenings in the party. The appointments are lopsided. A majority of us worked for the governor to succeed, but few are enjoying the dividends to our displeasure. We are here to express displeasure at the appointments whereby we the party as a whole, was not consulted. All alien names therein, given critical appointments, are to our displeasure.”

In addition, the chairman of the APC in Saki West Local Government, Alhaji Kareem Adebayo, described the appointment as an imposition of chairmen on them by the governor without recourse to wider segments of the party, saying that “the fact that the governor has the prerogative to pick the chairmen does not say that he should not consult the party. Good governance thrives only when the people are allowed to elect their leaders based on merit. How will the governor know those he appointed more than we do?”

But the Chief Adekola divide had countered them, calling for support for the decisions of Governor Ajimobi as the party leader, admonishing party members in Oke Ogun to abandon divisive tendencies and forge ahead as one party. The group held that Ajimobi abided by the rule of law in the caretaker chairmen appointments.

“The party is not unaware of some complaints arising from the recently re-constituted chairmen of caretaker committees. We take these grumblings in good faith as part of ingredients of true democracy. The party has taken note of their worries and it is attending to it according to the merit of each case. On behalf of the good people of Oke-Ogun and Oyo State at large, we want to specially appreciate and thank our governor, Senator Abiola Ajimobi for his fairness in the distribution of appointments and development so far, most especially the newly appointed caretaker chairmen. We sincerely appreciate the sensitivity of the Governor on the opportunity given to new people, taking into cognisance the fact that it takes a whole team of APC to win elections,” the Adekola’s group held.

Sensing the danger in allowing the divisions to fester, however, the chairman of the APC in the state, Chief Akin Oke, had quickly waded in, noting that the grievances over the appointments were a normal phenomenon in politics. He argued that it was impossible to satisfy every party member in such appointments, expressing optimism that those left out had another opportunity in further appointments cum the expected local government election. Oke avowed that the party was not divided along the SENACO or LAMIST lines as said.

“The governor has tremendous say in who becomes caretaker chairman, though the party also has an input. The party has the major say in elections and for appointment. You can never get everything correctly. As long as those appointed are members of the party, we appeal to those not appointed to be calm. The governor has assured us that there will be an election, and we will have primaries and election. In politics, you cannot satisfy everyone. There are financial constraints now so the appointments cannot go round. I know that if we remain in power, such people who didn’t have opportunities will still have.”

Oke had also quickly dispelled the talks about the party being divided into SENACO and LAMISTS, saying “there is nothing like SENACO or LAMISTS, it is whenever there is such appointment that SENACO or LAMISTS comes up. The governor himself has publicly said that people promoting such only take advantage of situations. When we were campaigning in 2011 and 2015, there was nothing like SENACO or LAMISTS. And those people cannot openly say they are SENACO or LAMISTS.”

The Special Adviser to Governor Ajimobi on Communication and Strategy, Yomi Layinka, had also defended the governor, noting that in choosing the caretaker chairmen, he considered the fact that the nominees were APC members, had capacity to deliver, demonstrated loyalty and support for the party and government, had the intellectual, physical, creative, professional capacities to deliver, while diversifying to represents various groups.

“In looking at who fits the bill, you look at people within the APC. We have a number of people waiting on the wings to contribute to the development of the state. And at any opportunity to reinvigorate the system, you try to blend the old and the new. The governor working with the party and other stakeholders assembled the list of chairmen of local government and it was announced. In the event of the announcement, there were people who thought they should be on the list, but are unfortunately not on the. But everybody cannot be on the list at the same time.”

“Any leader is faced with the decision of making choices. You also need people who have capacity, are qualified in all manners, demonstrated capacity and support for the party, government, who has the intellectual, physical, creative, professional capacities to deliver, who represents diversity.

“Even the APC evolved out of the amalgamation of different interest groups and each of these groups must be considered. So, there are altruistic and practical factors that guided the choice of Chairmen that were announced and inaugurated. The replacement of some people does not mean they were excluded as they will all share in the proceeds. So, anyone who did not make the list this time must be modest and humble to say that he or she is not the only one who could have been there. The governor has made a clear point that it is only fair to create opportunities for other people within that system. Even if you had gone through election, the tenure of office would have expired after two terms. The governor has been fair to all interest groups,” Layinka said.

Despite the protestations, however, the Speaker of the Oyo State House of Assembly, Honourable Micheal Adeyemo, on April 4, 2017, read the list of chairmen nominees excluding those of Atiba, Afijio, Oyo West, Oyo East, Oriire local government areas and their LCDAs, owing to the litigation by some chiefs of those areas contesting the creation of local council development areas in the state.  From the original list of 57, the House of Assembly cleared 55 names excluding nominees for Irepo local government area and Asabari local council development area (LCDA), Mudashir Agbaje and Adeleke Taiwo respectively, for inauguration. However, following a call to order by the state House of Assembly to the executive on controversies surrounding the legitimacy of either Akeem Aransi or Abiodun Oladeji as Chairman of Lagelu West LCDA, Ajimobi, represented by Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters, Mr Bimbo Kolade issued appointment letters to 54 chairmen on April 12, 2017.

But shortly after the inauguration by the governor and when people were beginning to think that the party had moved beyond the crisis, an unexpected twist was introduced with the Minister of Communication, Alhaji Adebayo Shittu, going public with criticisms against the governor for his high-handedness and impunity in the appointment of caretaker chairmen. The minister, on a television programme, accused the governor of ruling the state with impunity, noting that his refusal to conduct local government election was a disservice to the state and the constitution, a criticism which keen political observers saw as the drawing of a battle line between the pro-Ajimobi and anti-Ajimobi forces in the state ahead of the 2019 governorship contest. The pro-Ajimobi forces had equally replied Shittu’s salvo, speaking through the chairmen of the 18 local governments and LCDAs in Oke Ogun, who lambasted Shittu for what they described as an attempt to cause disunity in the APC.

Though the party had quickly waded in again to convince the public that all was well with the party and that contrary to insinuations of an impending implosion, its base remained secured, the minister gave a lie to the façade of peace in the party when he, in a statement on Sunday, April 16, 2017, came down heavily on Governor Ajimobi for trying to cause crisis in the party his base, Saki West Local Government. Shittu’s grouse this time was that nine of the 11 ward chairmen in the local government had, allegedly acting on the say-so of the governor’s camp allegedly spearheaded by a female permanent secretary from Oke Ogun area, removed the local government party chairman, Kareem Adebayo, who led the protest against the lopsidedness in the appointment of caretaker chairmen weeks earlier.

The minister had also reiterated his earlier position that the governor was ruling with impunity, citing the unconstitutionality of the attempt to remove Adebayo and also alleged plans to destablise him in his base. While the governor has refused to join issues with the minister on the two occasions, some of his loyalists, especially from the Oke Ogun axis where Shittu hailed from, have refused to let the matter slide, as they had on each occasion traded tackles with the minister for daring to go against Ajimobi, a development that is fast polarising the party into Shittu/Ajimobi factions. But informed political watchers told Nigerian Tribune that there “are other factions waiting in the wings to see who gains the upper hand between the governor and the minister,” noting that the development in the party was a test of might between the two leaders ahead of the 2019 governorship contest, which is likely to put the two against each other.

Shittu, a lawyer and former leader of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), one of the legacy parties that formed the APC, has never hidden his intention to govern the state, having contested for the number one position in 2011 and also attempted to clinch the governorship ticket of the APC following the merger of his party with others, including Ajimobi’s defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). His appointment as minister has, therefore, been considered as a major boost for his governorship ambition. On the other hand, Governor Ajimobi, who finishes his second term in office in 2019, will be more than interested in who succeeds him in office, a development that will only ensure that he holds tightly to the control of the party machinery, which he gained hold of as governor during the party’s ward, local government and state congresses prior to the 2015 elections. These dynamics, it has been argued, underpin the leadership tussle between Shittu and Ajimobi.

Noting that the APC might have begun to experience some sort of implosion that might threaten its very core ahead of the 2019 elections in the state if the two leaders do not close ranks, a member of the party, who pleaded not to have his name in print, stated that while Shittu had begun to speak like the leader of the oppressed in the Oyo APC, there were many others like him, who would not want to rock the boat despite their ambitions. He added that the minister could speak up because he had federal might and ambition to succeed Ajimobi, warning, however, that rocking the boat might have dire consequences for that ambition, as Ajimobi still “holds the ace in the party and might be important in determining who gets what ahead of 2019.”

Obviously recognising the need to purge the Oyo APC of internal wrangling and forge a united front before the promised local government election, Governor Ajimobi inaugurated the APC elders’ council, with members of the party, at different fora, identifying that the governor would need to play critical role in reconciling differences and ensuring that the party does not fall ahead of the 2019 general election. Speaking at the inauguration held at Lafia Hotel, Ajimobi said: “We have selected our elders to rejuvenate the party. With this one, we will go further in our restructuring and repositioning programme so that our party can remain strong and united. Now, we have government, we must also have strong party for now and for the future and to reposition it for comprehensive victory at the future elections.”

The Oyo APC leadership has continued to maintain that there is no division in the party, describing notions that all was not well with the party as a figment of mischief makers’ imagination. But the key questions political observers have begun to ask are how long will the proclaimed peace last, now that Shittu, a serving minister with a heavy purse and clout, has begun to look the governor eye-ball to eye-ball? How soon before the party members are made to make a choice between Ajimobi and Shittu, who appear to belong to different sides in the unfolding scheme of things in APC at the national level? Will the minister, who has hitherto not built enough political strongholds in the party, be able to garner the support of reportedly sidelined party members now or will the governor reach out to all sides and cement his hold on the party? The unfolding events of the next few months will tell, but one thing appears certain, the appointment of the recent batch of caretaker chairmen has upped the game in APC ahead of the 2019 elections.

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