A’Ibom: Emmanuel, Akpabio and 2023 power game

HE came into the political space almost midway into the administration of Dr Victor Attah, former governor of Akwa Ibom State when he served in three key ministries as commissioner in-charge of Petroleum; Lands and Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs and left in the twilight of the administration to dust up his political shoes in readiness to succeed his boss in 2007.

Attah, described as the grand-father of modern AkwaIbom politics, had courted Akpabio, perhaps due to his suave disposition to the political dynamics of that era. Attah had fancied his style and in search of his successor, the first civilian governor at Nigeria’ return to democracy in 1999, had reportedly anointed Akpabio, as his preferred choice before the State Executive Council (SEC) and urged the cabinet members to rally support for him.

Along the line, some other compelling forces worked to counter Attah’s resolution for Akpabio, forcing him to transfer the ‘anointing’ to his son-in-law, Dr Udoma Bob Ekarika, who was also a long-standing cabinet member in the administration where he  served as the Commissioner for Health and Works. Based on the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) zoning principle, Attah, of the major Ibibio tribe, by the stakeholders’ decision, was allowed to take the first shot for eight years (1999-2007).

The next majority tribe (Annang), mostly drawn from the eight local government areas of the state, was to take the turn next, a calculation that put Attah in a better position to make his choice, with Akpabio as first on the card. However, Attah was said to have been impressed upon by some elements that since the slot was zoned to Annang, “your son-in-law could be best suited for the position” to avoid likely compromise. Attah, who was busy traversing the country on campaigns to succeed former President Olusegun Obasanjo, was said to have quickly bought into the idea and immediately called for the support of Dr Ekarika. On his part, Akpabio quickly embarked on deft moves by mobilising popular support and other logistics in his quest to succeed Attah in office.He won the protracted 2006 PDP governorship primaries, which no fewer than 57 candidates vied for the ticket. He also won the governorship poll proper against a major contender, Mr James Iniama, of the then Action Congress (AC).

Since then, Akpabio’s influence, propelled by acumen, dexterity and the stupendous oil wealth of Akwa Ibom, which started during his tenure, gave him the needed edge to build on the development plans of Attah, a professional architect, who designed the development master-plan of the 31-year-old state. He completed some of Attah’s projects, including the Ibom Le Meridian Hotel and Golf Resort, the International Airport and others and also set his sight on building road infrastructure, human capital development, free education, housing, urban renewal and rural development, which gave him the appellation of The Uncommon Transformer.

Although most of what he achieved was during his first term, Akpabio second term was largely devoted to politics of succession, which he kept close to his chest until about a year to his leaving office, when the current governor, Udom Emmanuel, then Secretary to the State Government (SSG), was rail-roaded into the succession plan. Angry reactions came in droves, especially from the home-based politicians, who had beenholding different political posts. They were angry that Akpabio allegedly bent the rule of the game to favour Emmanuel, whom they described as a “total political greenhorn,” to take the mantle.

Against all odds, Akpabio was able to weather the storm and install his preferred successor, but not without stepping on the toes of some big political gladiators, including his former SSG, Umana Okon Umana; his former deputy, Obong Nsima Ekere; former Minister of Petroleum, Don Etiebet; Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Senate Matters, Senator Ita Enang and former Minister of State for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Pastor John James Akpanudoedhe, among others. Due to the irreconcilable differences, they all abandoned the PDP for Akpabio and joined Akpanudoedhe, who had earlier left in the run up to the 2011 polls to pitch tent with the main opposition party.

Akpabio installed Udom and the system calmed but not for too long as the godfather and his godson as it were in Abia State -Orji Kaluvs Theodore Orji; Rivers -RotimiAmaechi vs NyesomWike and other states where incumbent governors were always on the jugular of their predecessors.

When the heat became too much for Akpabio to bear, according to Chief InyangUmoh, the leader of Nka Uforo Akwa Ibom, a socio-political group rooted for good governance in Akwa Ibo, “Akpabio, like the former Abia State governor, Orji UzorKalu, had to move to the central ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).” Giving vent to his action, Akpabio had alleged that his godson failed to sustain his development roadmap by abandoning some of his legacy projects in Ikot Ekpene and Uyo. “Those are the things I should use to campaign for your re-election by convincing my people of Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District to vote for you,” Akpabio stated.

But some stakeholders believed that Akpabio did not consult wide enough before he left the PDP for the ruling APC. One of such gladiators is Senator Emmanuel Ibokessien, a staunch member of the Akwa Ibom Leaders’ Forum (AILF). “He left without consulting the same voters and stakeholders of his Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District which accounted for some of the reasons he could not deliver the state to the APC,” he said.

Relying on his political superpower status, Akpabio, who was immediately given the status of the APC political leader in the state against the likes of Akpanudoedehe, Don Etiebet and other earlier migrants into the opposition party, was locked in a battle of wits with Governor Emmanuel and his former party, giving the impression that the APC was ready to take-over the state. However, his effort had a salutary effect and impression on those he was said to have stampeded out of the PDP, including Umana, who was removed as the SSG for nursing political ambition, as well as others such as Etiebet, Akpanudoedehe and Ita Enang. Akpabio had said the 2019 elections “will be over in just three hours of voting and that Akwa Ibom will be the first South-South state to fall.” But that was not to be, as the ruling PDP swept the contest in 29 out of the 31 local government areas in the state. His bid to return to the Senate is still a subject before the Akwa Ibom State Election Petition Tribunal following his petition challenging the declaration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of a former deputy governor of the state, Dr Chris Ekpenyong, as winner to represent the Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District (Akwa Ibom North-West) in the Senate. “He had focused on removing the governor and therefore was massively campaigning for his former deputy governor, Obong Nsima Ekere, believing that it would be a walkover for him against Ekpenyong.

”Akpabio never really believed in the power of the people when he told his constituents that whether he belong to any political party or not he was capable of standing alone and win the election,” Obong Asuquo Ekpe, a community leader in Oron nation noted, adding: “It was one of the causes of failure”.

Although people have come to criticise Akpabio’s sudden leap into the APC because of the huge scar the action, especially the fragmentation of the system along ethno-political lines left the resurrection of the former Senate Minority Leader with his appointment as one of the ministers-designate has further given an inkling into the shape of things to come as the country inches towards the 2023 general election.

“The tension of that period was further accentuated by the government’s decision to curb Akpabio’s powers by drawing to the system some of his core loyalists, including Prince Ukpong Akpabio, his cousin and former aide into Governor Emmanuel’s cabinet.

”On the other hand, Akpabio also forced some of the cabinet members to resign and join the APC, as well as the state House of Assembly and the National Assembly members, forcing the two camps to be up in arms against each other before, during and after the elections,” Williams Ekong, a youths activist in Akwa Ibom recalled.

Some of the PDP faithful had assumed that Akpabio had been retired to political oblivion, given the outcome of the 2019 elections. His inclusion in the list of ministers-designate may necessitate a rethink in some political circles. Right now, the hitherto tensed political space in the state has ebbed, with the PDP and the incumbent governor expected to return to the trenches for another round of brickbat ahead of 2023, as the snake is only scorched and not killed.

In 2023, the power baton is expected to return to the Uyo Senatorial District (Akwa Ibom North-East). The political leaders of the state will once again be in the centre stage in the process as a number of gladiators are already warming up to succeed Governor Emmanuel. He is said to have begun a search for his successor with one Mr UdomInoyo, a senior official of ExxonMobil’s management, being touted as a preferred choice.

Emmanuel’s choice will slug it out with experienced politicians, including Ita Enang (APC), Akpanudoedehe (APC), Senator Bassey Albert (PDP) and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly, Mr Onofiok Luke (PDP), who is currently in the National assembly.

With Akpabio’s commanding influence at the centre, serious consultations and meetings have been stepped up by some influential politicians from Akwa Ibom to build new bridges and reconcile with Akpabio. “The trend should be expected because through Akpabio’s benevolence, almost all of them were politically made. Akpabio, was only down but not out. He will play a very significant role in the politics of 2023 and this time, he will not make the same mistake that almost marred his adventure into politics.”

“Akpabio will galvanise other political forces with an admixture of the federal might to revamp the then political platform called ‘Abuja Front’ and deploy it to give Governor Emmanuel and the PDP a good fight politically, with a view to delivering the state to the APC this time around,” a political pastor who pleaded anonymity said.

Would the hitherto forces against the former Minority Leader of the PDP in the last Senate reach a compromise on the way forward for the APC in Akwa Ibom? What would be the terms of such mutual accord? In the interim, what kind of relationship would Governor Emmanuel enjoy with the ministry to be assigned to Akpabio by President Muhammadu Buhari? Will it be a friendship based on perpetual mutual suspicion or on the syndrome of permanent interest? Overall, what are the implications of the emerging dynamics and permutations for the 2023 general election?

Only time will tell if these permutations by the bookmakers will stand when the chips are down.