Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State initially strongly vilified the All Progressive Party (APC) but he is now in their fold. LEON USIGBE examines what has changed.
GOVERNOR Dave Umahi of Ebonyi state used to hold politicians who decamp from their political party to another in some sort of odium. He made this clear when, at the time he was hobnobbing with President Muhammadu Buhari in 2018, rumours swelled about his impending defection from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressive Congress (APC).He said: “Mr. President or any APC person has never asked me to come to APC, and they will never ask me, and there is no reason for me to leave my party PDP of which I am the party chairman, deputy governor and now governor. I have always insisted in character. People that jump from one party to the other should examine their characters, except if there is any problem within your party. As for today, till tomorrow until Christ comes, there is no crisis in PDP. Even if there is a need for me to leave PDP, I can never leave PDP to the kind of APC in Ebonyi State. Because with the kind of leaders in Ebonyi APC, leaders that have failed Ebonyi State, I can never be on the same political platform with them.” “The fever that has been griping me since the day I was elected was for me to do my job, the dividends of democracy and the plight of our people. So, they should leave me alone with this their dirty politics. I am focused; I am PDP. As a member of PDP, I have benefited on the platform to be a party chairman, to be a deputy governor, and now a governor. I am a man of character.”
Despite his above assertion, on November 17, 2020, Umahi confirmed the long-nursed fears of some people that he had left the PDP on the grounds that the party had not properly served the interest of the south east region. A few days before his declaration for the APC, the hierarchy of the PDP led by its national chairman, Prince Uche Secondus, was holed up with him in Abuja in a last ditched attempt to convince him to stay, seeking to assure him that the PDP remains the best party for him given the fading popularity of the APC. He listed conditions to remain among which was that the main opposition party must zone its 2023 presidential ticket to the south east. He was also said to have explained that his action was not just about him as he suggested that the PDP could work for the emergence of any of the south east leaders as the party flagbearer should the ticket be zoned to the region. He told the PDP leaders to ruminate over what he demanded of them.
Driven by principles
Before the PDP could digest the issues raised in the meeting, APC governors and other party chieftains gathered in Abakaliki to formally receive Umahi into their folds. President Muhammadu Buhari wasted no time in welcoming him to the party, describing the defection as “a bold move driven purely by principle rather than opportunistic motives,” affirming his pride in the governor “for taking this bold decision in accordance with his conscience and principles rather than any external influence or coercion.” Buhari further said: “Good governance is very important to us in the APC, and I’m glad that the governor has cited this as a major factor in his decision to join us. I urge our citizens to pay less emphasis on identity politics if we want our democracy to make a positive impact on our country,” noting that “with men like Umahi, I foresee a brighter future for our democracy because the voters will be more motivated by performance records of parties and their candidates.”
The president however recognized that Umahi would face a backlash from some quarters, which he said is part of the price he would pay for obeying his conscience. “Let me once again; commend the boldness of Governor Umahi for taking this courageous decision in a country where principles are in short supply among many. I know people might call him names, but that is the price men of principles have to pay for acting according to their conscience and convictions,” Buhari added.
There were obvious signs early on that Umahi preferred the company of Buhari and his APC to the PDP. This clearly showed in 2019 when the APC was planning it presidential campaign in Abakaliki. He did not only ask the PDP to vacate the Abakaliki stadium for Buhari and his party to hold their rally there, but he also mobilized 2000 PDP members to cheer the president and his party and provided buses to convey APC supporters from other states to Ebonyi for the rally. “At least, 2, 000 PDP members would receive the President at the stadium while you go about your rallies in your various zones. I have identified those who will receive the President; so, when you see our people at the stadium, don’t be angry, because it is my arrangement. We would even help them (APC) with buses to get people from Enugu and Abia.” he had confessed.
What has changed?
Umahi joined APC despite his earlier less-than-complimentary opinion of the party, causing observers to wonder what has changed. He anchored his exit from the PDP on the fact that the party had not zoned the ticket to the south east. “And I am saying what is wrong? Don’t we have anybody that since 1998 going to 2023 we cannot be asked to fly the ticket? It is an insult on the collective sense of the Igbos. It is very insulting and nobody talking to me to stay back has been able to convince me. What is wrong in convening a National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting to say, ‘Yes, we are talking of justice, let us give the south-east the opportunity?’ Whether we win or not, other people have been given opportunities and they did not win; but it will be on record and I am sure that you will love to compete with your peers,” he said. This has come to pundits as a huge surprise given the opportunities he has enjoyed as a member of the PDP as well as the prominent position other people of the south extraction have played under the PDP federal government compared to the APC. From emerging as the acting Ebonyi state chairman of the PDP in 2007, Umahi has traversed several key party positions in an unbroken trajectory until he became governor in 2015. Two of his family members also occupied key party positions including his elder brother who was until the governor’s defection, the south east zonal chairman of the PDP.
Beyond this, PDP has been quick to call for comparison between its treatment of the south east zone with what the APC is doing now to discern which of the party has done better for the region. It flaunts the positions that were occupied by Igbo people during its time in power, including selecting from the zone, five Senate presidents, one deputy president of the Senate, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and party national chairmen, Chief of Army Staff, Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Minister of Finance and Coordinating minister for the economy, Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Secretary to the Government of Federation (SGF), and vice presidential candidate.
Even though Umahi alleges PDP injustice against the south east, he is unsure whether the APC will give the region a better deal and has confessed this much in an interview. “How will you know about a house you have not entered? I am still outside the house. When I enter the house, I will know but I want you to know that my moving to APC is not because they will give their ticket to the south-east or they will give it to me.”
As feared by President Buhari, Umahi’s move to the APC has drawn pungent condemnation from PDP stakeholders and numerous observers who point out that there is more to it than meets the eye. Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, reacted angrily to Umahi’s claim of south east maltreatment, tying the defection, instead, to Peter Obi’s selection as the PDP’s presidential running mate in 2019. He said: “When we had the 2018 convention that produced our presidential candidate then, the Waziri of Adamawa, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, as presidential candidate, he consulted widely, and came up with Peter Obi, to be his Vice, Umahi was livid because he wanted to produce or he wanted to be Vice-President…What disturbs me, why do you think that if anything comes to south-east it must be you? Why do you think so?”
Like many other PDP stakeholders and observers, Wike believes that Umahi has shown himself to be an ungrateful man for insisting that he left the PDP to protest the party’s injustice to the south-eastern region since 1999.
Otherwise, after all he has enjoyed in it including the latitude of freedom to make his brothers senior party officials, he would have been more circumspect in his allegations. “If he believes in equity and justice, will he be doing such? It is because he has planted these people that the State House of Assembly had such effrontery to give the National Working Committee (NWC) ultimatum to zone the presidency to the East. Where does such a thing happen? No other party has done any zoning. You can imagine the level of selfishness,” Wike fumed, adding: “I know it’s not correct. If not for Pius Ayim that impressed it on former Governor Elechi, would Umahi have become governor? So, he can’t say he’s the one who has built PDP. The party made him what he is and if he denies it, it only tells you the kind of person he is.” Former Ekiti State governor, Ayo Fayose, also knocked Umahi over the excuse he gave for joining the APC, affirming that the governor had in fact left the PDP a long time ago. “Governor Umahi defected to APC long ago before this unjustifiable move, which clearly has nothing to do with the interest of the Igbo nation. This is a reflection of the type of leadership our country parades. Though his action dampens hope for liberation, I’m sure Nigerians will laugh last because sometimes, it will appear to have gotten so bad before it will begin to get better,” he said.
In a move that pours cold water on Umahi’s defection, Ebonyi State National Assembly Caucus would not join him in the APC. All Senators and House Representatives members have distanced themselves from the governor, saying that they remain proud card-carrying members of the PDP. They are Senators Sam Egwu, Obinna Ogba and Mike Ama Nnachi; Honourables Sylvester Ogbaga, Igariwey Iduma Enwo and Chukwuma Nwazunku. And Honourables Edwin Anayo and Livinus Makwe. Egwu, a former Ebonyi State governor, who leads the Caucus outlined its position. “For the sake of clarity, we wish to state that not a single member of the Ebonyi State PDP caucus of the National Assembly is defecting to the APC. The three distinguished senators and five House of Representatives members remain proud card-carrying members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the platform under which we contested and won elections in 2019…While we support that it is the turn of the south-east to fly the presidential flag of any of the major political parties come 2023, yet we consider it impolitic, indecent and unwise to give ultimatums and conditionalities in a bid to secure zoning.”
Umahi has also received a less than enthusiastic welcome within the APC as some members have questioned his presence. Chief Egwu Chima, an APC chieftain and a former Commissioner for Information and State Orientation in Ebonyi state, boldly asserted that Umahi’s defection to APC would not add tonic to the APC, reinvigorate or enhance its fortunes but would hurt its integrity. Chima, a one-time chairman of Afikpo South local Government Area, said that Umahi’s mission in the APC was known only to him. “While in the PDP, Umahi’s love for President Muhammadu Buhari was a singsong though Buhari has lost every election in the governor’s polling unit, ward and local government,” Chima declared.
PDP unmoved, Buhari’s dereliction of duty
After its failed attempt to convince Umahi to stay, the PDP now says it is unmoved by his exit as its structures in the state and, indeed, the south east remain intact. It chastised President Buhari for allegedly scavenging politicians in the main opposition rather focusing on the business of leading the country. This came after the presidency wasted no time to issue a statement welcoming Umahi to the APC. The PDP posited that the action exposes how the nation was brought to her knees as compelling demands of office are made to suffer while the presidency gloats over trivial issues. The PDP argued that Buhari’s comment further exposes his incompetence and poor understanding of the tenets of leadership, statesmanship and expectations of his office. The party asserted that if Buhari had used the same urgency he displayed in commenting on Umahi’s defection to address the issue of police brutality, the crisis situation, death, arson, destruction of public and private property witnessed in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protest would have been averted.
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