Edo 2020: Obaseki ‘boxed’ in a tight corner

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The 2020 governorship race in Edo State has gathered momentum with the intense struggle for the gubernatorial tickets of the two leading political parties in the state, namely the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
In this report, Assistant Editor, ‘Dare Odufowokan, examines the chances of incumbent governor, Godwin Obaseki, who, in spite of the lingering intra-party crisis rocking his ruling APC, has declared his interest in seeking a second term.

EVEN as the political face-off between his camp and that of his predecessor and national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) rages on, Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State has left no one in doubt of his determination to get re-elected for another time when his current term expires later this year. Amid fears that he may not get the APC governorship ticket owing to his not being in the good book of Oshiomhole, some of his supporters have been quick to vow that rather than go home after his current term, Obaseki will seek the ticket of another party and challenge whoever the APC fields.

When he won the election to become governor in September 2016, Obaseki, who came into governance from the private sector as the head of then Governor Oshiomhole’s economic team before being drafted into the gubernatorial race, had the APC national chairman as his godfather and the ruling party was without any form of crisis whatsoever. He defeated his main rival and candidate of the rival PDP, Osagie Ize-Iyamu, with 66,310 more votes. Obaseki polled 319,483 votes as against Ize-Iyamu’s 253, 173 votes.

In April 2017, with Oshiomhole still supporting him, the governor trounced Ize-Iyamu and the PDP again, as the governorship election petition tribunal, sitting in Benin-City, threw away the suit filed by them against the outcome of the September 28, 2016 election. Ize-Iyamu and his party had run to the court to contest the declaration of Obaseki, the candidate of the APC, as winner of the election. Reacting to the judgement back then, Oshiomhole had said: “Pastor Ize-Iyamu and the PDP have no case in the first place. I think because there is no cost, people tend to go to court with frivolous reasons.”

Three months later, the supreme court upheld the election of Obaseki as the governor of Edo, dismissing the third appeal filed by Ize-Iyamu and his party, the PDP, against the outcome of the state’s 2016 governorship election. The duo of Obaseki and Oshiomhole, still allies then, rejoiced and promised the people of the state to work together towards ensuring that the ruling APC deliver on its promises to the people of the state. But that promise was soon to be jettisoned as political godfather and godson soon found themselves on the opposite divides in the struggle for the control of the ruling party.

Today, the rift between the two is so serious that many observers of the politics of the south-south state are ready to wager anything to the effect that Oshiomhole and his men in the APC will block Obaseki from picking the party’s gubernatorial ticket. While some feel the move will shake the ruling party to its very foundation in the state and beyond, others see nothing happening beyond Obaseki losing out and seeking alternatives or accepting his fate. “No doubt, there are quite a number of hurdles for the governor to cross ahead of the 2020 gubernatorial election,” a party leader in the state said.

APC: Still ding-dong affair

A chieftain of the APC in the state, Charles Idahosa, while insisting that many leaders and members of the party will not allow the governor to be denied the ticket, recently warned that denying Obaseki the guber in the 2020 election will spell doom for the party in the state. This is just as another chieftain of the party and lawmaker, Washington Osifo, appealed to chieftains and members of the party to do away with thoughts of fielding Obaseki for second term, as the governor “can never win re-election.”

Idahosa, a former political adviser to Adams Oshiomhole, said “Nobody can push Obaseki out of APC, unless they want to kill the party in Edo. Edo is the only APC state in South-South and South East. If by error of omission or commission, he is forced out, then, APC is finished here​ in Edo state. Now, Oshiomhole can’t run away from the actions and inactions of Obaseki because he brought him to us that we should support him. The two must resolve their differences in the interest of the party and the forthcoming election in the state. Oshiomhole should go and settle with Obaseki.”

But Osifo disagrees with Idahosa, saying that the ruling party does not need Obaseki to win the election. According to him, aside from fighting too many political wars at the same time, Obaseki has performed poorly in governance. He said the governor lacks the capacity to run the government. “Can’t you see even by yourself the difference between the development during the time of (Adams) Oshiomhole and so-called development during this time? The city is in ruins, there’s no power anywhere at night and the whole place is dark,” Osifo alleged.

To press home his belief that the APC doesn’t need Obaseki in its quest to retain the state in its kitty beyond 2020, Osifo, who is one of the lawmakers in the state assembly that have been at loggerhead with the governor, added that “he is fighting too many fronts. Do you fight when you are going into election or do you make peace when you are going into elections? When you are going into election, even your enemies you will go and beg and make peace because even a vote counts.”

Other reliable party sources, especially within the governor’s camp, have been reiterating the resolve of the group to ensure that Obaseki is on the ballot papers for the governorship election. According to some of the governor’s aides, beyond what they described as noise from those opposed to the candidacy of the governor on the platform of the APC, majority of party members in the state are solidly behind the governor, and as such, it will not be difficult for him to pick the ticket of the ruling party during the primary election later this year.

Reacting to rumours that he may be forced to dump the APC, Obaseki said he will not leave the party, stressing that nobody could force him out of the ruling party. “I have said it clearly and I told my cabinet yesterday that second term for me is not negotiable. I am demanding it because I deserve it and I think I have earned it. We need to have it so we can continue what we are doing today. I want to assure you that this is a fight that we will prevail. We will fight and succeed. If anybody thinks I will back out, he must be day dreaming because it is not my fight, it is about fight for the right thing and cause. I am not going to back off because I know victory is sure,” the governor said.

Also, Obaseki’s Special Media and Communications Adviser, Crusoe Osagie, said there was no iota of truth in the report that the governor was planning to dump the APC. He said the governor was firmly in charge of the party structures in the state. “I have said it repeatedly that Governor Godwin Obaseki is firmly in charge of the structures of the APC in the state. Whatever rumours out there that the governor is leaving the party is completely false. You don’t leave a house that you built and you are in control of. As far as we are concerned, nobody can force Governor Obaseki out of the APC. He is firmly in control of the party,” he said.

But Henry Idahagbon, a prominent leader of APC in the state, who is also the immediate past Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Edo State, insists that party leaders across the three senatorial zones are opposed to Obaseki’s second term ambition. “I assure you that in 2020, we will determine who becomes governor. The battle is on. There is no retreat, no surrender. During the next primaries he will lose very woefully and then we will bring a governor that will be popular, that will be acceptable, that will carry the people along, and will deliver solid dividend of democracy to our people.

“Not a governor that will appropriate NDDC projects, appropriate SEEFOR project and claim to be state projects, even after amassing a whooping N100bn debt for the state. We will tell him that we are politicians and that we have been in this business before him. If the current romance with the PDP big wigs will save him, we would be very happy. In fact we would seek the services of the best Benin musician to celebrate his exit from government house. We made a mistake of electing somebody who had been rejected by his people, the most aloof governor we have ever had in Edo State,” he said.

Ready contenders

Already, not less than six aspirants are reported to have indicated interest in slugging it out with Obaseki for the APC ticket should he remain in the party to participate in the primary. “And I can reliably tell you that none of these is a pushover in the politics of Edo and or the internal dynamics of the ruling party. The APC primary with or without the governor is promising to be very interesting. Our party is not lacking in quality aspirants. What we will ensure is a free and fair process to select the flag-bearer,” a source told The Nation on Friday.

In a move that further reveal the hurdles before Obaseki if his plan is to acquire the APC ticket, four APC governorship aspirants in the state announced a coalition during the week and vowed to ensure that the governor is not presented as the candidate of the ruling party during the forthcoming governorship election later in the year. The aspirants who said they have no problem working together for one of them to emerge as the flag-bearer, blamed crisis rocking the party on Governor Godwin Obaseki, accusing him of deliberately alienating party leaders and members from the government.

The aspirants, Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu, Engr. Chris Ogiemwonyi, Dr. Pius Odubu and Major General Charles Airhiavbere, spoke at a joint press briefing in Bénin-City, the state capital. Odubu, while speaking on behalf of the aspirants, said they were very concerned about the current situation in the state under Governor Obaseki. He lamented the inability of the state House of Assembly members elected on the platform of the party to perform the responsibility of lawmaking as unprecedented. The APC aspirants vowed that they would not sit back and allow Edo State slide into abyss.

“We maintain our unalloyed support and confidence in the leadership of our party in Edo State headed by Col. Dr. David Imuse (rtd) and at the National level under Comrade Adams Oshiomhole. On our part, we are committed to ensuring full compliance with the party directives as we go into the elections and urge our brother Governor Obaseki that in a multi-party democracy, everyone no matter how highly placed must be subject to party laws and rules. Therein lies the respect, order and decency in the interrelationship between government and the people.”

The aspirants said after consultation with other critical stakeholders, they welcomed the intervention of the newly-constituted Ahmed Lawan-led reconciliation committee for the party. “We collectively desire a party that is stable, virile and viable for us to realise our individual and collective aspirations. We also believe and rightly too that the attempt to close the political space and shut the doors against potential contestants for the office of the governor of the state by the incumbent governor is antithetical to the established norms of democracy. We must all be allowed to subject ourselves to the democratic process without let or hindrance.”

PDP: Growing uncertainty

And as the face-off within Obaseki’s party, the ruling APC, gets messier, many stakeholders, including close lieutenants of the embattled governor, are eyeing the opposition PDP as a possible alternative for the realisation of his threatened second term ambition. This is in spite of unending denials by the governor and his handlers. But if Obaseki and or his supporters are hoping for an easy entry into the PDP, then they may have to think further as unfolding events within the opposition party suggest a fierce fight ahead should Obaseki defect to the party and make a dash for its governorship ticket.

More indications emerge weekend that leaders of the opposition PDP are currently at loggerheads over the rumoured defection plans of the Edo State governor. Information available to The Nation suggest that the PDP Governors Forum, the National Working Committee (NWC) as well as the Board of Trustees (BoT) may currently be divided over whether Obaseki should be allowed to pick the party’s gubernatorial ticket unopposed or not. According to very reliable party sources, the governor’s contact within the party are allegedly seeking assurance that he will be given the ticket without a contest should he dump the ruling APC and join the opposition PDP ahead of the 2020 governorship election in the state.

The disagreement, which before now had been subtle, manifested during the week when a prominent PDP governor from the south-south told a gathering that had the national chairman, Uche Secondus, in attendance, of his objection to what he called ‘the secret plan of some governors to smuggle Obaseki into the PDP in Edo and dash him the party’s governorship ticket.’ While vowing to oppose the move, the angry governor, according to sources’ account, warned Secondus to avoid being used to destroy Edo PDP ‘the same way Bayelsa PDP was destroyed by these same set of people.

“The governor, who is one of the major financiers of the party before the last general elections, accused some governors as well as some BoT members of listening to the dictates of ‘some moneybags in Edo and working hard to impose Obaseki on the party for the forthcoming election. He said he will resist the move and ensure that “some eminently qualified chieftains of the party from Edo State, who have shown interest in being the party’s flag-bearer, are not pushed aside for a newcomer to pick the governorship ticket of our party in the forthcoming gubernatorial election.”

The governor’s reaction, which feelers say is currently tearing the PDP apart, is in response to alleged moves by another south-south governor to pave the way for Obaseki’s planned defection by ensuring that prominent party leaders within and outside the state support the idea that he should be handed the PDP governorship ticket unopposed. “That is actually the plan. If he defects to the party as a sitting governor, the PDP will do well to give him the ticket as he stands a better chance than any other aspirant the party may be considering,” a PDP leader in the zone said.

The said governor and another governor of the party, whose term is gradually winding up, are said to be favourably disposed to Obaseki’s rumoured ambition to contest the next election on the platform of the PDP. Plans have been underway for a while now and all seemed good until the surprise outburst of our other governor. And as one of the biggest financiers of the party, especially in the zone, there is no way he can be ignored. Definitely, his open opposition to the defection plan of the Edo governor is a big hurdle for Obaseki and his team to cross, if truly he plans to run on the ticket of the PDP,” our source added.

And as if the external oppositions to his rumoured defection are not enough, more trouble reared its head for Obaseki’s alleged PDP project when the state chairman of the PDP, Dan Orbih, recently started attacking the government and person of the governor, insisting that he is undeserving of re-election. “It came like a bolt from the blues. For the PDP chairman to openly condemn Obaseki, it simply means some things are not going as planned. Before now, we saw Orbih as one of those powering the Obaseki agenda within the PDP in Edo State,” a source claimed.

In a recent verbal attack, Orbih described Obaseki’s government in Edo State as an “abysmal failure” for allegedly not delivering the dividends of democracy to the people. In another statement, he accused Obaseki of emptying the state treasury through debts. Orbih dared Obaseki to declare the state of indebtedness to the people of the state, claiming Edo is the second most indebted state in Nigeria. He then challenged PDP’s governorship aspirants to prepare for hard times at government house because they are going to inherit empty treasury.

“I want to challenge Governor Godwin Obaseki to disclose the state of indebtedness to the people of the state. Indebtedness at the time he took over power and as at today but somebody whispered to me that he has record to show that as at today, Edo is the second most indebted state in Nigeria. That is why I’m calling on all our governorship aspirants to be prepared for hard times because they are going to inherit an empty treasury. We don’t need this kind of situation in our state anymore and the only solution to put an end to this political peculiar mess is to vote PDP back to government,” Orbih said.

But when asked about Obaseki’s rumoured defection and the challenges he is allegedly encountering, a factional chairman of the APC in the state, Anselm Ojezua, said he was confident that no matter what happens, Obaseki would never leave the party for the PDP or any other political party. “I will be very surprised if the governor accepts PDP’s invitation to join them. He cannot join the PDP. It is the PDP who will come and join him in his party, the APC. Obaseki is very comfortable in the APC. He has justified the confidence that the electorate in Edo have reposed in him. It also shows that the APC made a good choice when we chose him to be the flag bearer of the party. What is happening now is good news to APC. If every party wants him, it means that his re-election will be a fait accompli,” he said.

But in spite of denials like that of Ojezua, feelers emanating from the opposition PDP continue to suggest that the Obaseki camp may have one of its leg outside the APC as the political battle for the 2020 governorship election continues. PDP leaders in Edo, determined to keep the governor in check should he decide to join the party, had not too long ago announced that the governor should perish the thought of getting an automatic ticket if he crosses over to the PDP. This was contained in an internal memo signed by its Publicity Secretary, Chris Nehikhare, after a stakeholder meeting chaired by Orbih.

“One issue that keeps coming up in the build up to next year governorship election is whether Obaseki is coming to join us? My answer is I don’t know. Will you receive him if he wants to join us? My answer is Yes; our party membership is open to all Nigerians who want to join. Are we going to give automatic ticket to him? There is no provision in our party constitution that guarantees automatic ticket for anyone contesting governorship ticket. Our governorship candidate will be chosen in compliance with the provisions of our party’s constitution,” he said. As it stands, whatever he decides to do towards attaining his ambition to continue in office beyond 2020, Obaseki sure has a lot of hurdles to cross.

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