IN ABIA, IT'S BATTLE OF THE ZONES
Abia State was created out of the old Imo State in 1991 by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. The widely spoken language is Igbo with slight dialectical variation. The culture is homogenous with common identity and traditional heritage.
The adopted catch-phrase is : ' God's Own State', while the traditional occupation of the people include farming, trading and artisanship. In recent times, the state boasts of a large corps of professional manpower. It has two main urban centers of Umuahia (state capital) and Aba, a leading commercial nerve center in the nation. The present administration is the third democratically elected and the 6th since its creation.
Presently, the state has 17 local government areas, dispersed along Abia North, Central and South.
The Abia Charter of Equity
In 1981, in the heat of the agitation for the creation of Abia State, the Premier of the defunct Eastern Region, Dr Michael Okpara championed the preparation of a document known as the constitution of the group.
According to the charter, the capital of the proposed state would be known as Abia City and located at a virgin land situated between the boundary between Aba and Umuahia. This was, however, ignored by the General Ibrahim Babangida regime that eventually created Abia State. Part of the principles enshrined in the charter is that the people of the proposed state ' believe in, recognize and accept the cardinal principle of equity of all senatorial zones and all the people, and the recognition of Isuikwuato as a district'. The charter was intended to allay the fears of domination of one zone over others.
Those who drew up the charter also agreed that it shall be binding on all persons of Abia State, who may hold public offices, 'especially elective, and major appointive offices in the running of government affairs so far as the provisions of this charter of equity are not violations of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979, of even development and equitable distribution of amenities , positions etc.'
The charter allotted areas to each of the zones as follows: Aba zone( Aba, Isiala-Ngwa, Obioma Ngwa and Ukwa local government areas), Umuahia zone (Afikpo, Arochukwu /Ohafia, Bende, Ikwuano/Umuahia and Ohaozara local government areas and Isuikwuato district.
Part of the ingredient of the rotational principle is that ' a very special note and consideration for the principle of rotation shall be taken by registered political parties within the state in the nomination of their candidates for elective public offices and combination of key political posts.'
That charter also recommended that all candidates for election as governor would be made to sign and abide by a written pledge to observe and uphold the principles and objectives of the charter. It was signed by 29 Abians holding various offices in the movement.
Those who make quick reference to the charter may have forgotten the caveat in it that members of the Abia State House of Assembly shall be persuaded to introduce a bill incorporating the provisions of this charter.
No political or pressure group has relied more on the charter than the Ukwa\Ngwa socio-political group and this has tested the soul of the state many times.
A founding father of the state, Nze Macaulay Nwankwo, believes that the charter was documented for posterity. He agrees that since Abia North and Central has held the governorship slot since 1999, good conscience , and equity demands that it should go to another zone. He said where it should go should be agreed on a consensus basis. He also contends that the charter should be reviewed to include issues that were not prevalent at the time it was drawn up.
Another politician, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, dismisses the issue of taking it to the House of Assembly before it would be made a law. ' After all, who passed into law charter of the United Nations Organisation. Has it not been in force because world leaders know its usefulness?'
A political observer of the state, Nnamdi Ikechukwu, however, calls for caution, urging leaders of thought who fought for the creation of the state to meet and iron out grey areas in the charter.
How the charter became the issue
In 1998, when the ban on political activities was lifted, two dominant political parties , the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP ) and the All Peoples Party(APP) now All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) emerged as top contenders for the political control of the state. Between these two political parties were the leading political titans in the state, which made the contest of the 1999 governorship election very bitter and tenuous.
When the PDP , led by Orji Uzor Kalu won and took over the reins of government , the ANPP relapsed into reticent polarisation which engendered a mass exodus of its members and leaders to the PDP, thus creating a weak opposition.
The apparent weakening of the ANPP and registration of many ' mushroom political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission ,(INEC) led to the infusion of more strength and vitality to the PDP, which combined with the good performance of the government returned the party to power in 2003. The invincibility of the PDP in the state created the informal adoption of the slogan ' the state that cannot be taken.'
In the post 2003 elections, the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) became a political force and gave the ruling PDP a good run in terms of propaganda , membership strength and popularity. But the real contention for power lay within the PDP which managed to draw most of the political juggernauts of the state unto its platform.
A galaxy of failed political office contestants and federal government political office appointees, otherwise known as 'Abuja Group' executed an elaborate programme of opposition to the state government, often creating tension in the state. The group was led by former minister of External Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, and had as its core members the likes of the immediate past National Chairman of PDP, Prince Vincent Ogbulafor , who then was at various times Minister of Special Duties and Party National Secretary, as well as Chief Ugochukwu Onyema, then chairman of the high profile Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
The group worked in liaison with acknowledged local leaders and self styled godfathers like Chief B.B. Apugo and the former state chairman of the party, Chief Tony Ukasoanya to provide a frenetic opposition to the government of Orji Uzor Kalu. Backed to the hilt by the Federal Government of Olusegun Obasanjo , which was at the receiving end of Kalu's blistering criticisms, the heat was turned on the state.
That was the golden era of the PDP in the state. At the turn of the 2007 election, these political upheavals metamorphosed into the formation of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), by Kalu, on which platform he contested for the presidential seat and took power from the PDP in the state. Today, across the state, there is a discernible acceptance of the PPA at all layers of government. It has a senatorial seat ( Abia North), 5 House of Representatives seats, and controls all the 17 L.G.A's.
The State deputy governor, Comrade Chris Akomas rationalized the control of the politics of the state by the PPA, when he told Daily Sun that ' we derive our strength and support from the people. So, without the goodwill of the people, it will be difficult for us to perform. Yes, there may be pockets of opponents here and there; throwing darts and saying things, challenging and trying to cause distractions. But then, to a great extent, we have been able to walk with the people and continue to march forward'.
But given the peculiar status of the PPA government led by Chief Theodore Orji, which is circumscribed by a majority of PDP members of the House and the National Assembly, and of course the circumstance of his victory at the polls, which he did while in detention, , he says: ' since they have the majority both in the state and National Assembly, they try to lord it over everybody, they try to take power by force, instead of allowing the normal democratic process to flow. They try to intimidate you with the apparatus of government, which is very wrong.' And so having lost power, they raked up the charter to seek relevance and gain what could be said to be the shadows of a passing cloud.
The new front
As the 2011 general election draws near, there is palpable political re-engineering in the state. While APGA and the ANPP which gave a good run in the pre-2003 and 2007 elections respectively reel in relative dormancy and retrogression, the PDP which still makes no pretensions about its natural claim for the state is lying prostrate from its unexpected vanquishing in the 2007 elections and its failures in the courts. The concomitant effect is that while the influence of the parties are waning, the PPA is getting even stronger and extending its tentacles more to the grassroots.
However, a leading governorship aspirant on the PDP platform, Chief Reagan Ufomba disagrees. He explains: ' the current governor is of PPA , but we are not afraid of powers of incumbency. There are several examples all over Nigeria, where sitting governors failed elections. Besides the present governor, there are other strong contenders even in the PDP and other parties like APGA. But the fact remains that the place to be is PDP. It is the party at the centre, the strongest in Nigeria , largest in Africa ,and the biggest in the black world'.
The jostling has brought back to the fore the perennial permutation and zonal configuration. Of the 17 local government areas in the state, Abia South (Ukwa/Ngwa axis ) has 9. It is the only zone that is yet to produce a governor since the creation of the state in 1991. The first democratically elected governor, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu is now in Ebonyi State. No indigenous military personnel ruled the state in the intervening military period. While Kalu is from Abia North, Governor Orji is from Abia Central.
Of recent, rumours of a brewing feud between Orji and his deputy , Akomas, have filled the air, on alleged marginalization of Abia South where the latter comes from. Akomas was also said to have been instigated by his people to gun for the governorship ticket of the PPA in order to address the acknowledged imbalance.
Akomas denied the rumours as untrue and the handiwork of mischief- makers bent on driving a wedge in the excellent relationship he has with the boss.
While APGA and ANPP are merely convalescing from the defeat in the last election, PDP is raring to make a big comeback with an array of governorship aspirants. So far, about eight people including the last governorship candidate, Ugochukwu Onyema have indicated interest to run. But power play from the erstwhile national chairman of the party, Prince Vincent Ogbulafor and undue intrigues have made the comeback bid of the party confusing, disorganized and without a strong focus.
While the PDP is fiddling, the Action Congress (AC) is making a determined and powerful foray into the state. It has begun building structures across the various wards and local governments of the state with its nerve center in Abia South, where a governorship aspirant and former Commissioner of Works in Orji's government, Mr. Paul Ikonne is launching an ambitious governorship bid.
While Orji is understandably basking in the euphoria of the popular acceptance of his government and the massive strides his government has notched up in its transformational agenda, Ikonne is falling back on the much touted 'Abia charter of equity' believed to have been conceived by the founding fathers of the state at inception. According to Ikonne, the AC has zoned its governorship ticket to Abia South (old Aba zone). 'It is for people to decide. We have local governments and we can produce a governor.' he said.
Ikonne is also accusing Orji and the previous governments in the state of deliberately neglecting Aba, an acclaimed commercial cum industrial hub. 'Don't forget that Aba, which is part of Abia State used to be one of the major commercial centres in the country. You talk of Aba, Kaduna and Lagos. But today, Aba is nowhere near the others, and Aba is the pride of the state,' he said.
New tendencies and calculations
There is no zonal consensus in the governance of the state. The charter of equity conceived by the founding fathers of the state more than 19 years ago had never been given teeth, even as many people see it as the most convenient and fluid way of ensuring justice among the disparate groupings in the state. The charter comprises basically of the old Aba and old Bende areas. Old Aba consists of Isiala-Ngwa North, Isiala Ngwa South, Obingwa Ukwa East and Ukwa west. Old Bende is made up of Ikwuano, Umuahia North, Umuahia South, Isiukwuato, Umunneochi, Ohafia, Bende, Arochukwu.
In practical terms, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, who is from old Bende, rode on the crest of the understanding to power in 1999 and ruled for eight years. During his tenure in office, he had crisis of confidence with his deputy from old Aba, which apparently led to a re-jigging of the order into the now operational three senatorial zones structure. The current charter, it was learnt, preceded the current geo-political zone structure in the country.
Thus in 2007, the three senatorial zones structure – Abia South, Abia Central and Abia North were adopted. It was a political masterstroke.
The governorship slots of both the PPA and the PDP were taken to Abia Central which comprises Umuahia North, Umuahia South, Ikwuano, Isiala Ngwa North and South and Osisioma. The last three local governments belong to old Abia zone and are Ngwa speaking people. In Abia central, the population of Osisioma local government alone is bigger than Umuahia North and Umahia South local government put together.
In utter non-recognition of the said 'charter of equity', the political parties demurred in utilizing the three senatorial zones structure by not ceding their governorship slots to Osisoma, Isiala Ngwa South local government areas which undeniably commands more population.
Ikonne rationalizes the decision of the parties thus: 'hitherto, the old Bende used our people against each other. The old Bende have been in power for a long time. Old Aba zone have never ruled. From the time Abia was part of Imo State, the slot of deputy governors have been consigned to the old Aba zone. In the second republic, Isaac Ikonne from Aba zone was deputy to Mbakwe, under Ogbonnaya Onu in the third republic, the same rule applied. There is just no fairness to the zone.'
In the ruling PPA, there is yet no known governorship aspirant apart from the widely expected belief that Governor Orji will run for a second term. State chairman of the party, Ezeugo Emeka Onuoha gave the faintest indication of the return of Orji for a second term in office when he told Daily Sun that 'we have a winning team, so we will put all our efforts together to make sure that those things we were unable to do in this tenure, we will do them in the next tenure especially if the current financial situation from the federal government improves.' Deputy governor, Akomas again explains: 'What we do is limited to the available resources. Three years on, there are things to show. The desire to do more is there. We have partnered with our partners on issues that require funding and we have not lagged behind.'
While the PPA in the state appears to be cohesive and working towards 2011 elections with great optimism, the PDP is rocking rancorously with a legion of aspirants, mostly from Abia Central and South.
The seeming cut-throat contest for the party's ticket has engendered bad blood and tension and may in time lead to a much expected schism that will truncate its comeback bid. The control of the structures of the PDP in the state has assumed a frightening dimension. Ogbulafor as National Chairman of the party ensured that he held the ace as he tactically suspended most of the kingpins of the party who kicked against his man, Chief Ndidi-Okereke as party chairman. With him out of the way, and the persistent calls by a group known as the 'PDP reform group' led by former Senate President, Ken Nnamani, the situation is akin to existence in a jungle, where survival is predicated on who is the fittest.
With electoral reforms in the country imminent, popularity rating of contestants will likely soar above party, which when assessed on previous electoral indices may enthrone the best and the brightest. On this score, a more organized campaign strategy by a party or individual may provide the magic wand.
So far, there is no formal declaration of any aspirant for the seat of governor. Apart from restricted caucus meetings in the PPA and PDP and perhaps AC, all other structures in the other parties are virtually dead in the state.
A good number of them have no state executive committees (SEC). This has bolstered the general belief that the 2011 elections in the state will be a straight fight between the PDP and the PPA. Deploring the stiff-necked politics of the state, Orji has this to say: 'The mistake people make is politics with bitterness. Do-or-die politics is still in the minds of our people.'
The hay makers
While there are still a sprinkling of godfathers in the PDP and PPA who may eventually decide who will fly the banners of the party as governorship candidates, the state also boasts of a number of revered 'big names' whose value may count in the elections.
Thus in recognition of this, the names of the late premier of eastern Nigeria, Dr. Michael Okpara and Nigeria's first military head of state, Gen Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi have become recurring decimals in various political discourses in the state capital, Umuahia (Abia Central). A few mementoes have been made in the name of Okpara, whose achievements in office especially agriculture still remain unbeatable several years after.
But will there be any difference in running elections on their names? Secretary to the state government Donatus Okorie differs. 'So to say, whether good governance can guarantee his coming back to power in 2011 is to state the obvious. He is coming back because he has kept faith with the people of Abia State and not with individuals.'
Chief Onyema Ugochukwu: A veteran journalist who rose to the position of General Manager (Publications) in the defunct Daily Times, Ugochukwu was a senior special assistant (Public Affairs) to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo before he became Chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
He was the governorship candidate of the PDP in the 2007 elections and is still contesting the outcome of the election in court. He is from Abia Central (Old Bende). His political structure and influence in the state has thinned down in the aftermath of the long drawn legal dispute of the elections.
His drawback is largely from the intractable crises in the party and his protracted legal tussle, which has left little room for ample re-strategizing for the next round of elections. He has a good media presence, but lacks the practical bulldozing skills of a grassroots politician. He is, however, respected in the state.
He is another top-flight journalist who consults and publishes for several international institutions including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, African Union, etc. In 2007, he flew the governorship banner of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and is reputed to have had the most far reaching grassroots structures in the elections. His resilience and hard work however failed to pay off. Today, he has defected to the PDP with his famed structures in ANPP. Emenike has youth and the power of elocution on his side. He has the financial war chest to oil the wheels of his ambition. Political observers in the state believe he stands in good stead to reap from the immanent crisis in the party. He is from Abia Central Senatorial zone (Old Bende).
This is not the first time he is showing interest to be the governor of the state. In 2007, he contested the governorship primaries of the PPA and lost. He left for the United Nigeria Peoples Party (UNPP) and became its candidate. Today he is back to PDP, but however he is linked to the current corruption charges against Ogbulafor and this may seriously affect his aspiration. Ikoh, a Port Harcourt based businessman and industrialist is from Abia Central (Old Bende).
He was deputy governor of the state between 1999 and 2003, and currently, a senator representing Abia South.
His governorship ambition has been long in incubation, but the public scandal he had as deputy governor, which eventually cost him the seat, is a big minus to his aspiration. Also his running battle with his former boss, Kalu, that dented his image among the vast majority of Abia people is another subtraction to his ambition.
The fact that he is from Old Aba zone (Ukwa/Ngwa), which controls nine out of the 17 local government areas of the state and with fewer governorship aspirants, is a boost to his dream.
He is a United States based nurse. In 2007, he ran for the Abia Central Senatorial seat of PDP and lost. His political horizon is not very vast as he only returns before campaigns and returns to base thereafter. He is from Abia Central and is eyeing the seat under PDP.
In 2007, he ran for the primaries of the PDP. In his own words, 'my ideologies are driven by package of revolutionary plans and objectives that will usher in a new lease of life for our people. As a true son of the state, a committed family man, a grassroots mobilizer, a strong party faithful and loyalist, a successful business man and a devout Christian with extensive public sector experience, my commitment to seeing Abia through these challenging times cannot be in doubt.' He is from Abia Central.
As the current governor of the state, he has the wherewithal to withstand the onslaught of the PDP. He has demonstrated unparalleled commitment to peace in the state, which positively translates to his bid to return for a second term.
Orji has also shown uncommon resilience in statecraft. The financial squeeze occasioned by the cut in accruals from the federation account has impacted on his ambitious developmental programmes negatively.
He still enjoys a good popularity rating in the state, and has a good chance of getting back to power in 2011. He is from Abia Central. Ufomba Reagan tacitly captured the Herculean nature of unseating him, when he said, 'I know it is not going to be easy, but it is not an impossible mission. The current governor is of PPA, but we are not afraid of powers of incumbency.'