Correspondent Nsa Gill examines the politics of Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade’s defection and its implications for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the Southsouth state.
Since 1999, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) has dominated Cross River State politics, winning governorship, House of Assembly, as well as local government elections. But, the party suffered a little setback recently, with the defection of Governor Ben Ayade to the All Progressives Congress (APC).
This development is not coming as a surprise to many watchers of Cross River State politics. Ayade has been hinting about this move for some time. Since the last general elections, the APC has started challenging the dominance of the PDP. For instance, during the election, the PDP lost one of the 11 National Assembly seats to the APC; a development that took members of the ruling party by surprise. But, the party managed to maintain its dominance during the governorship and the House of Assembly polls.
Ayade Vs Imoke:
Besides, ahead of 2019 polls, some PDP chieftains defected to the APC. Ayade had to work hard to secure his re-election mandate. He, however, faced some predictable hurdles. For instance, PDP founding fathers, led by his predecessor, Senator Liyel Imoke, deserted him before the contest due to some irreconcilable differences. Indeed, to get his second term ticket, he had to fight and lobby to overcome hurdles and barriers that were set against him by the Imoke-led group.
Imoke is backed by Senator Gershom Bassey, who represents Cross River South District in the upper legislative chamber. Both of them are united by their opposition against an external interest bloc allegedly funded by Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike.
They claim Ayade had tried to sideline and render politically redundant the major stakeholders who helped him to become what he is today. They also fault the governor’s style of politics and approach to governance because he does not listen or consult party stakeholders before taking critical decisions. Even when he is compelled by circumstances to listen, they added, efforts to advise him are usually a waste of time because of the influence of one of his brothers, Frank Ayade, who is fondly called the co-governor, because of his overwhelming influence on the governor. Thus, Ayade would end up upturning a group decision for selfish interest.
With the defection of Ayade to the APC, the PDP stakeholders in Cross River State appear to have taken back the control of their party, which had hitherto been usurped by Ayade. The two parties are currently engaged in a propaganda battle over who is in charge in the state. The PDP claims it has become stronger with the exit of Ayade. The APC, on the other hand, is insisting that it has taken over PDP structures in the state and that the main opposition party is dead in the state.
But, the question is, can Ayade deliver Cross River State for the APC come 2023? The picture will become clearer in the days ahead. It will not be an easy ride for the APC because the PDP remains solid in the Southstate, even though it is no longer at the helm of affairs at the centre.
The PDP only started having problems in the state before the last general elections. Even after Governor Ayade managed to secure his re-election, an internal crisis ensued after the election over the control of the party increased ahead of the next general elections in 2023. The crisis manifested in the contest for the party’s ward and local government executives’ structure.
Ayade practically lost out in the game of political wit within the PDP national hierarchy. The national hierarchy relied on the arguments canvassed by the likes of former Governor Imoke, his political ally, Senator Bassey and the new power bloc allegedly funded by Wike. The Rivers State governor’s interest is represented in Cross River by Senator Sandy Onor, who is bosom friend.
Why Ayade defected:
Observers believe that the PDP lost Ayade to a clash of political interests and the refusal of the governor to play inclusive politics and consult with stakeholders before arriving at cogent decisions.
Ayade said he left the PDP for the interest of the state. Before his defection, he had rejected overtures by the PDP hierarchy at the national level to prevent him from joining the APC. Though he has left the PDP, Ayade has refused to talk down or criticise the party, as many who dump the party usually do. He argues that the major reason he left the opposition party is to put the state closer to the government at the federal level.
After a two-hour meeting with seven APC governors led by the interim chairman, Mai Mala Buni, Ayade said: “having seen and known the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and his commitment to this country, his nationalistic disposition and all the efforts he has made to bring Nigeria to where we are today, it is obvious that at this point we needed to join hands with him to build a Nigeria that we can be proud of.
“We need all governors to recognise that it is not the party that matters. It is the character, it is the honour and it is the commitment of our leaders to the vision of this great nation. We all need to work as a team towards building a prosperous country that the succession worries of 2023 will come without the fears and the worries the international community has for us.”
Ayade added: “I believe that if every one of us as governors join hands with Mr President, I think we can sit on the same dining table and fashion out a way to govern this country.”
There are many in Cross River State who do not believe in the reasons advanced by Ayade. For them, the reason for his defection is to advance his personal and political interest.
They have cited the governor’s ambition to return to the Senate in 2023 and his wish to determine who succeeds him as the new helmsman in Cross River State in 2023. They also allege that Ayade is looking for federal protection beyond 2023 against possible prosecution for the crimes he may have committed as governor.
The APC family in the state is happy to have gained a governor and for the first time be the governing party in the state.
Ayade left the PDP for the APC with, at least 19 of the 25 members of the House of Assembly, two of the 11 National Assembly members, all the 18 local government chairmen with their deputies, over 90 per cent of the 196 councillors and over 90 per cent of his political appointees.
The PDP has taken the defection in good fate. It is now trying to organise itself as strong opposition to the ruling APC. Already, it has appointed a 10-man Caretaker Committee headed by former Deputy Governor Efiok Cobham (Chairman) and Eko Atu (Secretary).
The few members of the House of Assembly, who refused to join the APC with Ayade, are expected to form a minority bloc in the legislature to check-mate the executive arm, led by the governor.
Ayade has been declared the new leader of the APC in Cross River State and he has received a friendly welcome from the party bigwigs. Members of the APC in the state include former Governor Clement Ebri, former Senate Leader Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN), Senator Bassey Otu, Senator John Owan-Enoh, former minister Usani Uguru Usani, Prof. Eyo Etim Nyong, Chief Obono-Obla, current minister Goddy Jedy Agba and a member of the House of Representatives, Alex Egbonna.
But, the question is, how long will the honeymoon last? It depends on how Ayade chooses to perform his function as APC leader. The immediate challenge before him will rear its head during the forthcoming APC congresses at the ward, local governments and the state levels. At the congress, new party executives will be elected. Will Ayade consult and harmonise interests that are varied? That is the point the APC, led by the governor, will face its first critical test in the state. Members of the state chapter of the PDP will be watching with keen interest.
The APC before the entry of Ayade had been struggling to find its feet, mainly due to internal crisis. Unity had eluded the party; it had remained factionalised until last year when the two major groups agreed to collapse structures to prepare for the congresses that are expected to hold at a date yet to be announced by the national leadership.
The interesting thing is that until the entry of Ayade into the APC, Cross River State has remained a battleground between Wike and Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi. The rivalry between them was extended to Cross River State. Before Ayade’s entry, Amaechi has been influential over who gets what at the federal level for Cross River members.
In the new political set-up, Ayade’s interest and that of his followers has to be accommodated. The interests of other APC bigwigs in the state, particularly those that have been holding forth for the party before the coming of Ayade into the fold must also be considered.
In the words of Senator Ndoma-Egba, Alex Egbonna, Obono-Obla and a host of APC bigwigs, the expectations are that the coming of Ayade “will strengthen the party and improve its (APC’s) electoral fortunes in Cross River State”.
They also expect that internal democracy would be the watchword and that Ayade as the new party leader would consult before taking critical decisions, to carry everybody along. Can Ayade meet up such expectations? Or, at least, meet the expectations halfway? Only time will tell.