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As Ondo’s day of reckoning beckons

In another 24 hours, the people of Ondo State will file out to the polling booths to exercise their rights in electing another governor for the state. This election had stoked apprehension across the political space and built up tension among the political leaders across the state. HAKEEM GBADAMOSI examines the situation ahead of the exercise.

The people of Ondo State are on the march again as they will, in about 24 hours’ time, file out to constitutionally pick another helmsman for the state, as the two-term tenure of the incumbent governor, Dr Olusegun Mimiko, expires in February 2017.

Initially political observers had predicted that the governorship election will be a re-enactment of the 1983 scenario when the state was thrown into apprehension over general election of that year. This anxiety might be responsible for the deployment of over 26,000 security personnel to the state to check and control whatever crisis may precede or be the outcome of the election.

 

Issues before the election

The acclaimed leaders of the three main political parties in the contest have been at loggerheads. In the APC, one of its national leaders, Senator Bola Tinubu, has been sitting on the fence, as he was not in support of the candidature of Mr Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) as the party’s standard-bearer.

Tinubu’s bone of contention, it had been said, was with the process that gave Akeredolu the APC ticket. In the attempt to resolve the complaints of three of its aspirants, Dr Olusegun Abraham, Senator Ajayi Boroffice and Olusola Oke, the APC leadership constituted an appeal committee, which reviewed the process and recommended the cancellation of the primary that produced Akeredolu.

But rather than implement the committee’s recommendation, the party leadership eventually settled for the former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as the APC candidate, a decision that rocked the APC’s boat, leading to a court action by Abraham. Boroffice opted to remain a passive party member, while Oke, who had defected to APC from PDP shortly after the 2015 presidential election, moved out of the party with his team of followers to pick the governorship ticket of the Alliance for Democracy (AD).

The emergence of Akeredolu also led to enmity between those who were once political allies, thus widening the gulf between the top ranks of the party.

PDP also had its fair share of crisis over who eventually flies the party’s flag. First was the crisis between the two factions of PDP led by Senator Ali Modu Sheriff and Senator Ahmed Makarfi respectively. The battle for the soul of the party between the two contending factions, however, came to an end, albeit, temporarily, with the resolution of the Court of Appeal, last Wednesday, which affirmed Makarfi as the PDP national chairman.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had initially recognsed Eyitayo Jegede (SAN) from the Makarfi faction as the PDP candidate. But in a twist of event, the electoral body recognised Jimoh Ibrahim as the party’s candidate for the same election, following a ruling by Justice Okon Abang, which recognised Sheriff as the PDP national chairman. However, the return of Jegede into the race as the PDP candidate, some 72 hours to the poll, had surely altered the calculations in the state, in respect of the election. But for the decision of the last Wednesday decision of the Court of Appeal, which affirmed Jegede as the PDP candidate, not quite a few pundits had averred that the state might be thrown into political turmoil.

Another major pre-election issue in the state had been the involvement of the northern political establishment in the entire process leading to the election. This development, which has been said to be a source of concern to some South-West leaders, was considered as an affront on Yorubaland. The concerned South-West leaders were said to have been particularly irked by the sudden keen interest of the presidency in the Ondo election, with informed observers noting that the election would be adopted as a testing ground for future political battles in the South-West geopolitical zone.

 

The contenders

While about 20 political parties have fielded candidates for the election, the reality is that the candidates of three of the parties would be the cynosure of all eyes as the people of Ondo State cast their votes tomorrow. These candidates include Olusola Oke of AD; Rotimi Akeredolu of APC and Eyitayo Jegede of PDP.  But some analysts are of the view that Dr Olu Agunloye of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) should also not be written off.

 

Olusola Oke

Of the leading candidates, Oke is the only one who will be going into the electoral contest unencumbered by any legal tussle. This was, however, after an initial suit filed by the AD National Legal Adviser, Mr Kehinde Aworele, challenging Oke’s candidature, was withdrawn.

Aworele, relying on Article 21.4 of the AD Constitution, had argued that any governorship candidate must be a member of the party for, at least, six months before he or she can be given the ticket. However, the party leadership opted out of court and settled the issue as Aworele was reported to have said he discontinued the action to avoid any action that might affect the AD victory at the poll.

Oke did not immediately defect to AD after falling out with the APC. He once romanced with the Action Alliance (AA), but due to the perceived interference of the northern political leaders in Ondo politics, some leaders from the South-West were said to have persuaded Oke to contest on the AD platform.

He was asked to defect to AD, as the argument was that the people of the state would easily identify with the party, having originated from the zone. It was in this regard that AD leaders across South-West were said to have rallied round Oke. The support he received from these leaders was also informed by the initial setback suffered by Jegede in the hands of his traducers.

Aside the AD/South-West support, Oke also found favour from some sections within PDP, being a former national legal adviser of the party, a factor which may swing the pendulum in his favour. In this wise, the PDP crisis was said to have helped his campaign a great deal. After the court quashed Jegede’s candidature last month, hundreds of PDP faithful in the state had joined forces with him to realise his governorship aspiration, having seen him as one of their own.

However, with the legal victory of Jegede at the Court of Appeal and as indirectly affirmed by the apex court, on Thursday, it would not be out of place to say ‘everybody unto himself and all unto God.’ Indeed, the support gathered by the Oke camp has been deflated in less than 24 hours after the judgment.

 

Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN)

The greatest strength of the APC candidate lies in the support of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, naturally being the APC standard-bearer in the election. The party’s national leadership has not left anyone in doubt as to its quest to win Ondo State as part of the strategy to win and further consolidate on its influence in 2019.

For Akeredolu’s supporters, his candidature is the best thing to happen to Ondo State. Those who share this view always refer to Akeredolu’s stewardship as the president of the NBA and his roles in pursuing election petitions for the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN).

Informed watchers of political developments in the state have also maintained that Aketi, as he is fondly called by his loyalists, may be able to ride on the wave of the change mantra of the APC, which dominated Ondo State during the 2015 presidential election and led to the victory of the APC in the election despite its being governed by PDP. For those in this school of thought, the fact that APC could win two of the three senatorial seats in the state meant that the party could not be wished away.

It is also of note that the ranks of the APC had been swelled by defectors from the PDP and the agelong campaign and sentiment always predicated on the foibles of a ruling party, which new parties often capitalise on to discredit the ruling party, as it was the case in the 2015 general election.

However, the process through which Akeredolu emerged as the APC candidate remains his albatross. Also, the role allegedly played by some northern political leaders in ensuring Akeredolu’s emergence has already created an image crisis for him, not only in Ondo State, but also in the entire South-West. The song on the lips of virtually all prominent voices in the zone is to liberate the Yoruba from the northern grip.

Apart from the perceived undue interference from the northern political establishment, Abraham is already in court, challenging the process that produced Akeredolu as the APC candidate in tomorrow’s election.

Dr Olusegun Abraham, an acolyte of Tinubu, has relocated to his political base in Ondo North, where he holds regular political meetings with his supporters. As of the time of filing this report, it remained uncertain which party Abraham and his supporters will side in the poll, but insiders in the camp informed Nigerian Tribune that “it is almost certain that it will not be APC.”

 

Eyitayo Jegede (SAN)

The battle for supremacy between the two factional leaders of the PDP at the national level, which dovetailed to Ondo State, notwithstanding, Jegede who, until he entered into the race, was the state Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, remains a strong contender.

He emerged through a primary of the party conducted by the Makarfi-led faction and put campaign machinery in motion ahead of other candidates, before Ibrahim, who temporarily became the PDP candidate, via another primary conducted in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, threw spanners in the wheels.

While the legal battle lasted, the PDP candidate was said to be silently pursuing his electoral campaign, using the door-to-door approach, even while being busy in the courts. While the emergence of Ibrahim had decimated the camp of Jegede, with many of his supporters defecting to either AD or APC, the dramatic return of Jegede to the race had undoubtedly upped the ante. Most of the PDP supporters and his loyalists were said to have ‘returned home,’ with a vow to work for the realisation of Jegede’s, nay the PDP’s dreams.

While it is no longer a fad, the power of incumbency will play a crucial role in what becomes of Jegede’s ambition tomorrow.  So will the Akure agenda, which had been argued to be a key decider in this election, as indigenes of the state capital have been said to be determined to have one of their own as Ondo State governor for the first time.

The incumbent governor, Mimiko, is bent on putting to shame his political adversaries and ensuring that he installs his successor at the Alagbaka Government House. Added to the Mimiko and the Akure factors is the sympathy Jegede attracted from the people, following his travails in the hand of Ibrahim.

According to observers, “if the ovation that greeted the Appeal Court judgment is anything to go by, Jegede can afford to go to sleep with his two eyes closed.” But this can rarely be the case in politics, where things are not as they seem.

 

Voting strength

Ondo State has about 1,546,081 registered voters. A senatorial district by senatorial district breakdown of the figure indicated that Ondo Central has 615,157, which represents 39.78 per cent; Ondo North 418,926, which accounts for 27.10 per cent, while Ondo South has 511,998 representing 33.12 per cent. The political space of the state has been reconfigured among the three leading parties, thus tomorrow’s election, all things being equal, will, mostly, be a contest between Jegede, Akeredolu and Oke and three factors will determine who emerges the winner.

First, the people of Akure (Ondo Central), who have always dictated who wins any election since the creation of the state, might naturally go Jegede, so as to ensure that an Akure son becomes the governor for the first time since the over 40 years of the state’s existence.

More importantly, the people of Akure may cast a protest vote against the APC, as it is largely believed that federal might was used to initially displace Jegede.

Akure zone alone, which comprises Akure North and Akure South local governments, has 302, 888 registered voters, almost half of the voting strength of Ondo North.

The three other local government areas in Ondo Central are of Ondo extraction where the incumbent governor hails from. The voting pattern of the two local governments in the ancient Ondo city and Idanre usually followed the same trend, while the people of Ile Oluji, who have geographical and cultural linkages with the Ondos and Idanres, though domiciled in Ondo South  Senatorial District, often followed the voting pattern of their kinsmen in Ondo and Idanre. Permutations are still ongoing as to whether or not Jegede would get these votes.

The PDP deputy governorship candidate, John Mafo, also hails from Ilaje Local Government Area in Ondo South. Ilaje has remained a stronghold of the PDP since the commencement of this democratic dispensation. Though the people of the area were aggrieved over the choice of Jegede who hails from Ondo Central like the incumbent governor, they might soft-pedal in their anger and rally support for Jegede because of Mafo.

Votes from Ondo North senatorial district, where Akeredolu hails from, might be divided between all contenders for the race, except those of Owo and Ose. While the APC candidate will get bloc votes from Owo, the same cannot be said of Akoko, which has about four local government areas out of the six from that district. Akoko may eventually cast a protest vote against APC, unless Abraham and Boroffice decide to bury the hatchet and openly endorse the Akeredolu candidature.

APC is sure of victory in some areas in the southern district, especially the highly populated Odigbo Local Government Area, as the residents of these areas have their attachment with APC in their states.

Oke picked his running mate, Ganny Dauda, from Akoko and this may count greatly in the election. But while Oke may garner many votes from Akoko, the region also produced the SDP candidate, Agunloye.

In Ondo South, Oke remains a force to contend with, as he has emerged as the leader of the late former Governor Olusegun Agagu’s political family, which largely determines the voting patterns in the district.

Indeed, the election, tomorrow, will be a three-horse race, just like it happened in the 2012 governorship election where the three top contenders hailed from the three senatorial districts in the state. But who will laugh last? What will tomorrow bring for Ondo State and its people? These are the questions that will be answered in the next 24 hours.