2019: The Middle Belt challenge
The build-up to the 2019 presidential race is already showing some interesting signals. Leaders of the Middle Belt have been locked in meetings with lea ders of the South-West, the South-South and South-East. An alliance appears in the offing but ahead of that, the Middle Belt released a shortlist of four presidential hopefuls. Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, examines the intrigues and the emerging coalition.
THERE appears to be a consensus of opinions among the key political parties hoping to field candidates for the 2019 presidential contest that the presidential candidate should go to the North. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is set to present its presidential ticket to incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari to seek a second term.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has also declared clearly that it was zoning the Presidency to the North. Other emerging parties including the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the African Democratic Congress (ADC), and the Action Democratic Party (ADP), among others, have also expressed readiness to field northern candidates.
But one unique step taken quietly some months back is what is crystallising as a huge challenge to what has been regarded as the norm in northern politics. The Middle Belt Forum, which prides itself as comprising members from the whole or part of 14 of the 19 states in the North, some months back, constituted a team of elders to screen possible presidential hopefuls. Twelve presidential hopefuls were said to have put in their curriculum vitae for the nation’s plum job and were x-rayed by the committee.
According to sources close to the forum, the decision to screen possible presidential hopefuls is to ensure that the Middle Belt comes out with its best foot. This, they claim, is in a bid to launch a huge challenge against the political order in the North.
Besides the decision to set up a screening committee, the Middle Belt Forum also entered into definitive talks with leaders of the Pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere; the Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and leaders of the South- South. The objective is to work together towards the restructuring of the country and produce a candidate who can deliver the goods.
After series of meetings, the Southern, Middle-Belt Forum launched out in the open with public sessions in Ibadan, Oyo State and Enugu, in the South-East. They have also held sessions in the South-South and North-Central. Within a short while, the Southern Middle-Belt Forum has since emerged as a political force whose comments on the political scene cannot be side stepped. Only recently, the group demanded the sack of the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over perceived collaboration with the ruling party ahead of the 2019 elections.
According to a release on Friday, leaders of the Middle Belt Forum had shortlisted businessman and a former Deputy National Publicity Secretary to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim and former Minister of Information and former member of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the PDP, Professor Jerry Gana. The two other shortlisted candidates of the Middle Belt include former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, and former Plateau State Governor, Senator Jonah Jang.
Sources said that the screening process involved each of the aspirants providing a detailed programme of action that would encapsulate their vision, mission and policy direction.
According to sources, the screening panel which was chaired by Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, shortlisted Olawepo-Hashim as the youngest presidential hopeful from the Middle Belt. It was gathered that he demonstrated a compelling display of a rich grasp of his knowledge in business and economy during the screening.
Besides Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, a former military administrator and one- time Nigerian envoy to Russia, others on the panel included former Adjutant-General of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Zamani Lekwot, former Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Ishaya Bamaiyi, former Governor of old Gongola State, Mr. Wilberfore Juta, former Governor of old Kwara State, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, Mr. Sam Ada Maagbe, and Chief John Odakun.
Sources also named other members of the panel to include Mallam Malo Garba from southern Borno, Elder Bassey from Yobe, Mrs. Mariam Yinusa, a former staff of the United Nations and another woman whose name was given as Mrs. Dogotiri.
It was confirmed that the panel is working closely with counterparts from other ethnic nationalities, including Afenifere, and Ohanaeze Ndigbo, as well as South South leaders and that the screening panel had informed the Afenifere and its other allies before making the list of screened aspirants public.
The Middle Belt region, according to the screening committee, comprised states including Kwara, Kogi, Niger, FCT, Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Borno (South), Bauchi (South), Kaduna, Kebbi, Taraba, and Nasarawa. There are 14 states in all, it was said. It was also said that the Middle Belt geographically accounts for 14 of the 19 states in the North.
Sources close to the forum had confirmed that the body screened 12 aspirants including the former national chairman of the PDP, Senator Barnabas Gemade, former presidential candidate in the 2011 contest, Dr. John Dara, a former Nigerian Ambassador to Canada and Mexico, Professor Iyorwuese Hagher, one former military officer whose name was given as Colonel Kontagora (rtd).
Forum members believed that it was high time the Middle Belt checkmated the core North in the race for the 2019 election by seeking alliances with southern socio-cultural and political organisations.
“The move is a massive one and there is the determination to checkmate the North this time. The core North has always taken the slot each time the presidency is zoned to the North. This time, we are presenting quality candidates, who are seasoned technocrats and we will market them to the whole country,” a source said.
It was also gathered at the weekend that leaders of the Middle Belt Forum will, this week, present the shortlisted aspirants to leaders of Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and the South South Forum in a bid to determine the ultimate candidate for the job.
A source in the know had said last week: “After the four shortlisted aspirants are presented to the coalition forces comprising the foremost geopolitical associations, the teams will meet to further screen the members and then determine one candidate to fly the zone’s candidate.” Sources said that the four regional groupings would hold another screening session to bring up a unity candidate which will ensure that the North is checkmated this time.
“If you look at the electoral map of elections in 1983 and 1999, you will discover that the Middle Belt delivered the presidency to Alhaji Shehu Shagari and President Olusegun Obasanjo in the two rounds of elections. The Middle Belt has always played key roles in resolving the electoral direction of Nigeria,” a source stated.
Professor Jerry Gana, who recently defected to the SDP, is a household name in the country, having emerged on the political scene in 1986 when he launched the Mass Mobilisation for Social and Economic Recovery (MAMSER). Ever since, he has remained in the power caucus and served in different dispensations as minister. It was learnt that his presidential ambition ensured he left the PDP for SDP recently.
Olawepo-Hashim, the youngest of the aspirants, was the first Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the PDP in 1999 and had since got enmeshed in the business world, emerging as chairman of some energy companies, oil and gas firms, communications sector and marketing.
He is described as an urbane businessman with cerebral qualities which were said to have been reflected during his periods at the University of Lagos and the Buckingham University, United Kingdom, where he emerged the best student, winning the MaxBerlof award for Global affairs.
It was learnt that the Middle Belt leaders, in picking him, are targeting young voters who could attract additional nine million votes from the region. Olawepo-Hashim is also credited with pro-democracy credentials, which began as a student in the University of Lagos. His activism back then earned him recognition as Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience in 1989.
He is a businessman with 26 years experience, who currently chairs Oilworld, the concern that operates OPL 241 in the continental shelf of Nigeria, and also chairs Bresson As Limited, owners of 90 Megawatts Magboro Independent Power Producing Company, aside a number of corporations locally and internationally.
Another aspirant shortlisted is the former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, who was said to have been picked for showing good understanding of the economy.
Dr. Obadiah Mailafia is a Career Economist, Banker and International Development Specialist who had served as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. He had equally served as Special Adviser to the President on Economic and Policy Matters. He was once an Official of the African Development Bank.
The fourth aspirant shortlisted as presidential hopeful is the former Governor of Plateau state, who is also a serving Senator representing the state in the upper chamber.
Jonah David Jang, 74, was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in 1969 and promoted to Lieutenant in 1970. He was named Military Administrator of Benue State during the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida and then as Military Governor of Gongola State between August 1986 and December 1987.
Following his voluntary retirement from the Nigerian Air Force in 1990, Jang returned to school to earn a Bachelor of Divinity Degree at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria between 2000 and 2002 and he became the civilian governor of Plateau State on the platform of the PDP in 2007, a position he re-contested and won in 2011.