Towards 2023 general elections, the build-up to governorship race in Cross River state is generating diverse interests among party faithful and stakeholders across party lines. This is in view of the re-alignment of interests and high profile cross-carpeting of politicians between the major political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The issue of zoning, which has been on the front burner, is still generating interest. The APC seems to have resolved the controversy about its zoning agreement going by the declaration of the state governor, Senator Ben Ayade while receiving some founding members of PDP into APC fold in Calabar. Ayade assured that the rotational principle in the state, which has been in place since the return of democracy in 1999, would be retained.
He said, “It is against this background that I will keep to my words. 2023 is a harbinger of peace, equity and justice so that every one of us will have a sense of equity and a sense of balance to maintain and sustain our politics. This will enable everybody to know his turn at every given time.”
On its part, PDP is yet to take a decision on the contentious zoning. It’s state chairman, Mr. Venatius Ikem disclosed that the party will decide on where to zone its governorship ticket at the appropriate time.
When Ayade left PDP on May 20, 2021, some PDP loyalists in his cabinet resigned, while few members of the State House of Assembly refused to follow him. Most of his loyalists moved with him, as political appointees were mandated to produce evidence of APC membership. Since that time, things have not been the same within the ranks of PDP.
However, some morale booster recently came the way of PDP as former Governor Donald Duke, who had abandoned the party for some years, returned and reunited with his friends – Senator Liyel Imoke and Senator Gershom Bassey.
The development brought some verve to the party. In like manner, former state chairman, Ntufam Ekpo Okon, who dumped the party in the wake of the 2019 elections to contest deputy governorship on the platform of APC, returned. So did a former Deputy Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Mr. Dominic Aqua Edem and his supporters.
The ovation that greeted their return had barely subsided when on December 16, former Commissioner for Lands under Duke’s administration, Etubom Bassey Ndem, former Deputy Speaker in the State House of Assembly, Otuekong Orok Duke and a former Commissioner for Local Government Affairs under Imoke, Mr. Edem Ekong dumped PDP for APC in a grand ceremony that was described as “Tsunami.” Both Ndem and Orok Duke were founding members of PDP.
Describing PDP as a “hemorrhaging party”, the governor said he has the moral obligation to ensure that Cross Riverians do not remain there, and that with exit of the defectors, PDP in the state was finished and empty. “When I turned my back and looked at Cross River from Obanliku to Bakassi, I wonder where the opposition is coming from. PDP in Cross River is finished; it is now an empty shell because APC is in total control. Anybody who wants us to remain in opposition does not wish us well. We have moved to the centre and APC has come to stay in Cross River. Our state is better off with APC and the array of political juggernauts joining us were the men who made PDP thick. Today, they have joined APC. So, where is PDP in Cross River? The party is dead.”
Speaking after receiving the broom, the symbol of APC, Ndem said he joined APC for equity and integrity “because His Excellency, at several fora, had stood on the principle of rotation and by rotation, he simply means turn by turn. I am not in doubt that the governor will stand by that because he is a man of proven integrity.”
Ndem, who played a very significant role in installing the government of Duke (1999 to 2007) and Imoke (2007 to 2015), said his second reason for leaving PDP is that, “Governor Ayade needs to be supported to finish strong as it concerns all projects and programmes. Those projects belong to the people; he must be supported. And I will give my sweat, blood, cash and all to make sure he finishes strong.”
APC chairman in the state, Alphonsus Eba said the “Tsunami” movement was an equivocal manifestation that God has answered APC prayers by taking away all liabilities and replacing them with political assets.
Eba, who is fondly referred to as Okadigbo because of his political doggedness, said, “When we entered office 60 days ago, we went to the mountain to pray that God should take away liabilities and desperate souls from our party and replace them with political assets. What we experienced today is an equivocal manifestation that our prayers have been answered. APC is on a voyage of splendor. We have given a fatal blow to oligarchy and we have sent the opposition into a state of oblivion.”
Justifying his action for quitting the party he helped to form, Otuekong Duke said, “The essence of joining a political party is to help organise and take over government and do for people what they cannot do for themselves. At this stage, we had vowed that it is the turn of the South to produce the next governor and when I spoke with the governor, he gave me the assurance that no matter what, for APC, the governorship has been zoned to the South. So, I have no business whatsoever hanging around a party that is not capable of keeping to the terms and agreement of an association; a party that cannot keep the promise made in the past. It is not who establishes the market that sells, hence I have decided to move not for myself or because I need to benefit from that fight. Our fight is to make sure governorship comes to the South. I don’t need to be a beneficiary but it must be somebody from the South.”
Political observers are of the opinion that PDP may be indifferent to zoning because all the three senatorial districts in the state had at one point produced the governor of the state. But there are arguments among some party members that rotation of governorship should return to the central where it all started. They argued that the 1980 accord on power rotation is obsolete and there is no laid down agreement on power shift or rotation.
Buoyed by this position and the said backing of his friend, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, the Senator representing central senatorial district, Ntufam Sandy Onor recently appeared before the party executives and made a formal declaration to contest for the governorship in 2023.
To worsen matters, PDP chieftains, under the aegis of stakeholders in central and north senatorial districts in separate meetings on December 15 and 16 in Ikom and Ogoja respectively, issued separate communiqués, insisting that governorship can start from anywhere and at the same time declared support for Onor.
The communiqué by central and signed by Ntufam Gabe Obi Oji, former PDP Publicity Secretary, Chief Joe Obi Bisong and eleven others said, “We believe in the unity, progress and development of Cross River State based on justice, equity and fairness, hence we reaffirm that sharing of electoral positions, especially the governorship, is not and has never been exclusive for a particular senatorial district or zone in any election. We affirm that Senator Prof. Sandy Ojang Onor has performed creditably well due to his capacity and desire for service delivery. Therefore, we are wishing him to further explore the political coast for the development of the people and the state by contesting election as governor of Cross River State”.
Similarly PDP stakeholders in Ogoja, in a communiqué issued by Mr. Idi Baba Yakubu and Dr. D.C Enamhe and 28 others, also rejected zoning, saying, “We make bold to state that for the governorship, the ticket is open to all senatorial districts.”
Similarly, stakeholders from the South Senatorial district in a communique endorsed by Senator Henshaw and seven others, maintained that south stands for governorship and anyone from the zone who accepts to run as deputy or coordinator for anyone outside the district running for governor is on his own.
They said, “As countdown to 2023 elections begins, we the leaders, stakeholders and indeed the entire people of Cross River State southern senatorial district find it expedient to speak with one voice and having met this day to ask for the continued enforcement of spirit of Calabar-Ogoja accord of 1980.
Whereas, we are not unmindful of the inalienable rights of every citizen of the state to aspire to the political office of Governor, however the principles of sequential rotation/ zoning will ensure equity and peaceful co-existence among the people.”
In 2018, PDP stakeholders of Northern/Southern senatorial districts of the state formally agreed on zoning system to rotate position of governorship among the three senatorial zones of the state. The meeting, which was chaired by a top business mogul and politician, Chief Asuquo Ekpenyong had in attendance top politicians from the South and North and they resolved that, “the principle of rotation and zoning of governorship seat should be maintained and sustained among three senatorial districts of the state in all future elections. That such rotation and zoning consists of allowing each senatorial district complete its eight years of two terms, as this was the case in the Southern and Central Senatorial districts of the State. Upon completion of the second term of the Northern senatorial district, which will be in 2023, the rotation/zoning shall recommence in the Southern senatorial district and followed in that sequence as earlier instituted”.
Disturbed by the position of some PDP stakeholders in the Central and North, Director General of Gershom Bassey Campaign Organisation, Mr Ekpo Ada, doubted the chance of the party to win election if it zones the 2023 governorship ticket to central senatorial district, as the party was losing key members to other parties due to perceived injustice, citing the recent defection of Mr Edem Ekong and Etubom Bassey Ndem to APC as signal that PDP in the state may be inching towards disintegration.
Ada warned, “If PDP does not come out strong within the next one month to state its position on power rotation and zoning, the consequences on the party may become disastrous. If PDP does not put its house in order by streamlining party members’ aspirations, the party may be heading for a total rejection in the Southern senatorial district whose turn it is to produce the next governor of the state come 2023.”
He insisted: “The Southern senatorial district will only support parties that zoned power to the South. Cross River cannot be an exception as other states in the country have embraced zoning as a workable policy to achieve peace, equity and political stability.”
Cross River youths, under the auspices of National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN), with Comrade Dan Obo as its chairman, said the council is totally in support of power shift and rotation to south in 2023 because, “it is the turn of the South as all the senatorial zones have taken their turns.”
Significantly, all the aspirants from the south, including Mr. Ben Akak, Commissioner for Ministry of Rural Transformation, Mr. Edem Effiom, Commissioner for Finance, Mr. Asuquo Ekpenyong jnr, (all of APC); Sir Arthur Jarvis Archibong, Senator Bassey, Mrs. Toyo (PDP) have declared support for power rotation, except Senator Onor of PDP from central.
Effiom said, “In terms of zoning, north waited for 16 years before it had its turn in Sir Ben Ayade as governor. South also stayed on the queue for 16 years. Central that is clamouring has only waited for eight years. Why can’t they wait for their own 16 years? Where lies our sense of equity and judgment? People doing this are leaders in churches, why can’t they face the truth? How would anybody in the Central want to contest when they know that they have only waited for eight years?”
Reacting to the latest decamping of its key members, state chairman of PDP said it would in no way affect the fortune of the party in 2023, saying, “It is the season when people align and realign, so there is nothing strange about it. What I do know is that they are merely celebrating what happened since Ayade decamped. Those that left PDP few days ago are people who never identified with us since Ayade left our party. Their departure is not a big threat as they have always been with Ayade but were just waiting for an opportunity to celebrate as a counter to the crowd that has been migrating from APC to PDP.”
On the controversy over zoning, the PDP state chairman said, “It is the normal thing and our position as an executive is that we cannot be stampeded into what anybody thinks. PDP has a robust history of presenting candidates and winning elections in the past years. So, we will do what is appropriate for our party at the appropriate time. I prefer to allow politics to play out and listen to the sentiments and ultimately take a decision.”
When asked if delay in taking a decision on zoning would not be counterproductive to PDP, Ikem said, “Absolutely not. The truth is that we are not the party in government and we need all aspirants to galvanise all support before we sit down and resolve all issues. So, having a plethora of aspirants is an advantage as an opposition party. As you can see, everybody is crisscrossing the state, mobilising support for the party. That is why we are weighing the advantages against whatever perceived disadvantages there are. You can look at the other party, nothing is happening and that certainly for us is not the way to go.”
On the possibility of people from Cross River south senatorial district producing the governorship candidate for PDP, he said, “I cannot decree that. It will be on the strength of the politics that will play out. While we watch the development, at the appropriate time, the appropriate organs of the party will sit down and discuss and take a position. But for now, our position is that everybody is entitled to aspire.”