Akwa Ibom still searching for strong opposition, 20 years after
INIOBONG EKPONTA writes on the uncommon phenomenon in Akwa Ibom State where there has not been a viable opposition, strong enough to give the ruling party in the state, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a run for its money, 20 years after the advent of democratic rule.
“The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is like a religion in Akwa Ibom State”. This is the usual refrain by Obong Paul Ekpo, the state chairman of the party in the state. At the last general election, the catchphrase reverberated at every campaign train from the PDP stakeholders and other chieftains, including Senator Emmanuel Ibokessien, Senator Anietie Okon, Senator Effiong Bob and Otuekong Idongesit Nkang, among several other leaders of the party in the state.
At the return of democracy in 1999, Obong Victor Attah, the first civilian governor, did not encounter any serious opposition to his re-election in 2003. However, politics of ethnicity, self-aggrandizement and alleged betrayal gave room for some semblance of opposition to emerge to challenge former Governor Godswill Akpabio’s election in 2007 and his re-election in 2011.
The major voice of opposition that questioned Akpabio’s election in 2007 was the late James Iniama, who, arguably, was described as “the true face of opposition in Akwa Ibom”. Iniama contested in 2007 as the governorship candidate of the then Action Congress (AD) and fought ex-Governor Akpabio up to the tribunal, but surprisingly dropped the matter at the Appeal Court, following pressure allegedly mounted on by some traditional rulers and stakeholders in the state to withdraw from the case.
In 2011, the AC, which later metamorphosed into the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), acted as the major opposition party in the state, with the former Minister of State for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Senator John Akpanudoedehe, as the new leader of opposition. The former Minister, who chaired Akpabio’s campaign organisation in 2007 and campaigned across the 31 local government areas of the state, was later rewarded as Akpabio nominated him as the minister representing Akwa Ibom.
But about two years into the job, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua had to drop him from the cabinet following alleged feud with the then Minister of the FCT, Alhaji Modibbo Umar. It was alleged that Akpabio did not do anything to prevent the removal of the former minister from office. He was therefore said to have been forced to form what was described as ‘the Abuja Front’, a group galvanised to stampede the home government with critical opinions for imminent defeat in future elections.
First, it started like a mere rumour that John Akpanudoedehe had decamped from the PDP into the ACN until he gave vent to the issue at a press conference, tagged “The road to Eldorado is not the only way”, held in his campaign office in Uyo, the state capital. At the election proper in 2011, the ACN cleared him for the contest, but the run-up to the contest was blighted by political violence, leading to the destruction of several vehicles, homes and several tricycles and cars bought and kept at the party’s state secretariat to be deployed into the transport system.
Udoedehe was arrested and charged for treason, but the ACN national leader, Senator Bola Tinubu, was able to rally over 50 lawyers, led by the current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) and Chief Niyi Akintola (SAN), to engage the state government in a legal tussle to free the former minister.
The PDP went ahead to clear the polls, but the matter dragged up to the Supreme Court. In 2015, Udoedehe was up again to lead the governorship race on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). He was however denied the ticket which given to the then Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Umana Okon Umana, who currently held sway as the managing director of the Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Authority (OGFZA), Onne in Rivers state.
Irreconcilable differences with Akpabio had forced Umana to quit the PDP after being eased out for allegedly nursing the ambition to rule the state after Senator Akpabio. The former governor had, by then, already anointed the current governor, Udom Emmanuel, who was serving as the SSG, as his successor. He won the poll, amid protests over the allegation that the exercise was manipulated to produce a pre-determined outcome for the PDP and its candidate. Like others, Umana also fought his case to the Supreme Court where Governor Emmanuel was affirmed as having won the poll with the most valid votes.
In 2019, former Deputy Governor Nsima Ekere, was the face of opposition, but could not galvanise the opposition forces into wresting power from the incumbent Governor Emmanuel. The defection of former Governor Akpabio into the APC in August 2018, along with some political forces drawn from the PDP, Governor Emmnauel’s cabinet, the House of Assembly and National Assembly, according to some analysts, “would have combined to change the political status quo in Akwa Ibom since 1999. But the development was viewed as a mere gang-up against the person of Governor Emmanuel, instead of a sincere political movement to liberate the people from the shackles of ignorance and poverty”.
Although the re-election of Emmanuel is still a subject of legal determination at the Appeal Court in Calabar, Cross River State, observers believed deciding the case for the opposition is akin to pulling the chestnut out of the fire, given the fact that the PDP candidates have won the polls on the ground, at the tribunals and others so far decided at the appellate court.
Corroborating the fact that was no strong opposition in Akwa Ibom, Mr Gabriel Umoh, a professor of Agricultural and Development Economics at the University of Uyo, expressed worry that “there is no credible and consistent opposition with excellent verve that could galvanise the people into seeking better alternative”.
Although the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the President on Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Ita Enang, has been accusing the PDP-led government of alleged mismanagement allocations meant for the state and urged the people to “ask Udom where Akwa Ibom monies are?”, Professor Umoh dismissed such allegations as mere sentiments borne out of personal disposition.
“That is not opposition because opposition is supposed to analyse the policies and programmes of government, pick holes and provide a viable alternative platform that that could be better than the one in power. What I expect Ita Enang to be doing at the national level is to negotiate at the centre and bring Federal Government’s presence to his state,” Umoh said.
The state government, Umoh said, has faltered in some core areas of governance, especially in creating agencies to perform functions already under ministries, adding that the opposition should have cash in and launch fierce and constructive attack so as to draw legitimacy from the electorate.
The university don argued that “it is wrong and waste of funds to create other agencies or committees to perform the same functions already designed for parent ministries like agriculture” and urged the opposition to entrench ethical values, jettison selfishness, if they must provide effective opposition.
In the same vein, former chairman of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) in Akwa Ibom, Mr Clifford Thomas, a lawyer, argued that opposition in the state only exist on paper. Vibrant opposition, Thomas pointed out, “should be able to engage the government in power seriously after proper scrutiny of the policies and programmes of government”.
“Like the Calabar-Itu road, a federal road completely devastated by years of abandonment, the central government should be able to fix it so as to serve as reference points when the opposition is criticizing the government in power in the state.”
Going into another general election in 2023, political bookmakers in the state said the status quo might remain should the political gladiators in the opposition fold failed to return to the drawing board and get their act right.