Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade is at crossroads over his political future, due to the crisis in the state chapter of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). He has been considering defecting to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) to remain relevant. Correspondent NSA GILL examines the intrigues, the overtures and the options open to him.
It has been a subject of speculations for over a year. In the last three months, Governor Ben Ayade has given indications that he will no longer tolerate the undermining of his authority as the governor and by extension, leader of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in the state.
He has been having clandestine meetings with leaders of the All Progressives Congress (APC) at the national and state levels. The potency and the reality of his threat to dump the PDP had sent disturbing signals to some leaders of the party. As a result, many delegations have been sent to placate Ayade and convince him not to leave the PDP. Indications are that he is still undecided about his political future.
Why Ayade is angry
Ayade is angry because his party has not allowed him the leverage in party matters as the governor; a privilege his predecessors and counterparts in other states are enjoying. The governors are handed the control of the party structure and allowed to determine who gets one position or another in the party structure from the grassroots level to the state level.
But, in Ayade’s case, he has been at loggerheads with other stakeholders who are founding members of the party and were instrumental to his emergence as governor in 2015. Ayade was elected governor without a single campaign poster or any form of elaborate campaign, as was mounted by other aspirants.
Founding members of Cross River PDP, including former Governor Liyel Imoke, are at loggerheads with the governor. Their interests are well protected by members of the National Assembly from the state, including Senator Gershom Bassey, Senator Sandy Onor, Apostle Essien Ayi and Jerigbe Agom Jerigbe.
They are geting back at Ayade because of the perception that he has sidelined them in the politics of the state.
Ayade recently conducted primaries to pick the party’s flag bearers for the 18 chairmanships and 196 councillorship positions for the recent local government elections. Most of these founding members and stakeholders were made irrelevant in determining who becomes the councillor in their ward s and the chairmanship flag bearer in their local governments. They made no input.
Eventually, Ayade succeeded in making his choice candidates chairmen and councillors in the 18 councils. These stakeholders who felt slighted have accepted their fate, but as proverbial old warhorses, they restrategised and were able to outsmart the governor in the subsequent battle for the list of those who are recognised as the authentic ward and local government party executives. They convinced the national leadership of the party to endorse and inaugurate the ward and local government party executives submitted by them.
In the subsequent legal battles that followed, their list was approved and authenticated against that of the governor. The stakeholders opposing Ayade’s interest have remained victorious up to the Supreme Court level.
Even with their recent victory, they have refused to concede an inch. They further dared Ayade and fielded their candidate to contest for the party chairman; knowing that the grassroots structure in their favour will form the bulk of the delegates to the state congress.
This state of affairs resulted in stalemate during the state party congress. Jerigbe of the House of Representatives recently took a full-page advertisement in a national daily to assert and warn that “the list of the ward and local government PDP structure in Cross River State remains sacrosanct”. Many party members have continued to chorus the wish that the ward and local government party executives list is a no go area.
Battle in governor’s territory
The battle against Ayade was taken to his senatorial zone, following the by-election that took place to replace Senator Rose Oko, who died last year. They had got wind of the fact that Ayade was scheming to put one of his appointees, Dr. Stephen Odey, forward, so that by 2023, he can easily give way for him (Ayade) to return to the Senate.
The opposing faction fielded Jerigbe, who is serving his second term in the House of Representatives. The party ended up having parallel congresses and recording many pre-election cases in court.
Eventually, Odey was announced as the winner of the December 5, last year’s by-election and he was subsequently sworn in.
But, that was not the end of the battle. Few days after Odey was sworn in, an Appeal Court judgment, concerning a pre-election matter was delivered, which ordered that Jerigbe is the rightful flag bearer. The judgment was not in the governor’s favour. Consequently, Odey had to seek the permission of the court to be joined in the suit as a party in the matter.
The litigants had kept him out, but the judgment affected his mandate in the Senate. He was eventually joined as a party to the matter before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately the Supreme Court struck out his appeal on technical grounds and, he did not have enough time to file another case. So, legal experts say the Appeal Court judgment in Jerigbe’s favour subsists and Odey has since remained embattled because Jerigbe is demanding to be sworn in as a senator at the National Assembly.
Pundits say the fact that Jerigbe has not been sworn in, following the judgment, is in the governor’s favour, because that would give and his protégé the advantage of waiting for the outcome of the election petition tribunal where the APC is challenging the declaration of the PDP on the basis that “they had no candidate that can be said to have participated in all levels of the election as expected by the electoral laws of the country”.
One of such pundits said: “If he is sworn in today and the next day the tribunal delivers a judgment that favours the APC’s argument, Jerigbe will be the biggest loser because he would have lost the seat he vacated in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate seat.”
PDP governors’ plea
Governors elected on the platform of the PDP have waded into the crisis, by making overtures to Governor Ayade to jettison his plans to defect to the APC.
Bauchi State Governor Bala Mohammad came on the mission to appeal to Ayade. Bala gave Ayade some hope that something different will be done in his favour. He declared: “An injustice to Ayade is an injustice to Bala.”
Ayade warned the party by telling Mohammed that he was happy for the opportunity his visit had created.
“So, today I am seated and dancing on the fence. Indeed, that is true. I speak with righteous anger for the continuous annoyance and nuisance orchestrated on our innocent state by external factors, but I just hope that this ends today. I cannot turn a blind eye to the challenges of the PDP and decide not to do the right thing at the right time. I have always played politics with ethics, but in the course of time, I have realised that ethical politics is mistaken for weakness.”
After the Bauchi governor’s visit, nothing seems to have changed. Ayade is demanding a fresh congress at the ward and local government to produce a new grassroots’ structure for the party.
One of the two members supporting Ayade among the 11 members of the National Assembly from the state, Mike Etaba (who represents Obubra/Etung Constituency), said: “Governor Ben Ayade must be allowed to take charge in all levels as the leader of the party; anything less than that will not be accepted.”
The newly-elected chairmen and councillors have also drummed support for Ayade.
At a meeting organised by the PDP Governors’ Forum, which former Senate President Bukula Saraki and members of the National Assembly attended, attempts were made to settle the differences between the two warring factions. The Governors’ Forum also sent a delegation of three governors, led by its chairman, Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal, to discuss with Ayade. Tambuwal was accompanied by Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa and his Enugu State counterpart, Governor Ifeanyi Uguwanyi.
Many issues, supporters of Ayade insist, are making the reconciliation difficult. Etaba alleged that the National Working Committee (NWC), which is supposed to be an unbiased umpire, have not fulfilled its obligation as expected and its inability to handover the party structures to the governor as specified by the PDP constitution is questionable.
Ayade’s supporters also believe that in terms of the external influences, which the governor mentioned as one of the factors strengthening the opposition against him, is the fact that Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike is backing them.
Alphonsus Eba, one of Ayade’s supporters, said Governor Nyesom Wike should governance in his state and leave Cross River State alone. Wike is seen as the financial war chest for the PDP heading into 2023 and his influence in the decision taken at the national level of the PDP cannot be underestimated. There is no love lost relationship between Wike and Ayade. The Rivers governor has openly rebuked the governor for warning the PDP.