By Sunday Ani
After the emergence of the presidential candidates of the two major political parties, APC and PDP, the belief in many quarters was that the electoral contest was going to be a straight fight between the two parties represented by the former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and the former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. They did not believe that other political parties could pose any kind of threat, especially at the level of presidential election.
However, with the exponential rise in the popularity of the Labour Party (LP) candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, who most Nigerians have come to see as the torchbearer of the long awaited ‘Third Force,’ those who thought that the contest would be between the APC and PDP, began to think otherwise. Like many other Nigerians, they said it was only the choice of running mates by the APC and PDP that could determine whether they would keep to their earlier position or change to the new reality.
Today, both the APC and PDP have picked their presidential running mates in the persons of the Delta State Governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa for the PDP and Alhaji Kabiru Masari on a place holding role for the APC.
The question on the lips of many Nigerians is how the candidacy of Okowa and Masari or his replacement would boost the electoral fortunes of PDP and APC, so as to be able to outwit each other, crush the rising popularity of the Labour Party and go ahead to victoriously clinch the presidential seat.
For the PDP, many believe that Okowa, as a younger person and core professional, would bring his energy and professionalism to bear on Atiku’s presidency. Those on this divide also argue that Okowa’s performance as Delta Governor, where he is arguably believed to have performed very well, would be a big plus to Atiku’s electoral fortunes.
Okowa is also seen as a bridge between the South East and South-South geopolitical zones of Nigeria; an asset some people believe would attract massive votes to the PDP. Those pushing this narrative argue that since the South East has been angling to be given the opportunity to have a shot at the presidency by the two major political parties, which have clearly denied the zone of that singular request as can be seen from the candidates of the two major parties, they would be eager to grab the opportunity of having one of their own as the vice president and vote for the PDP. Okowa is a native of Owa-Alero in Ika North-East Local Government Area, one of the Igbo-speaking areas of Delta State, though in the South-South region. He is an Igbo man by ethnicity as evidenced by his name, Ifeanyichukwu, translated to mean nothing is impossible before God. Okowa himself has come out to say that he is an Igbo man, who happens to come from a state that is not in the South East. Okowa’s Igboness is not in doubt as his geopolitical location is the only thing that separates him from eastern brothers. Atiku and PDP are confident in their choice of Okowa that with the Igbo identity not in question, his brothers and sisters in the eastern flank would not abandon him at this critical period of his political life and with that, victory is sure. This is because the people of South-South, which is Okowa’s geopolitical zone, would equally queue behind one of their own naturally. So, with the calculation that geopolitically, Okowa is South-South, and ethno-culturally, he is South East, Atiku is very confident that he would harvest enough votes from the two regions to add to the votes from the North East and West, which is naturally, his political stronghold, to give him the desired victory in 2023 presidential election.
There are also those who believe that with the APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket, the Christian voters in the South West would also move their support to the PDP that has a Christian vice presidential candidate.
However, some others have argued that those were just mere wishful thinking of Atiku and his party, the PDP, especially as the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum has described Okowa as a traitor for betraying the zone’s quest for presidency in 2023.
The Forum comprises socio-cultural groupings such as the Ohanaeze Ndigbo for the South East, Pan-Niger Delta Forum for the South-South, Afenifere for the South West and Middle Belt Forum for the North Central.
A statement jointly signed by the leaders of these ethnic nationality groupings on Friday after Atiku announced Okowa as his running mate on Thursday, said it was unspeakable and disappointing that Okowa accepted the vice presidency nomination after it had been agreed by the Southern Governors that the position of the President should be zoned to the southern region.
Part of the statement read: “It bears recalling that the 17 Governors of the southern states of Nigeria, both of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC), under the Chairmanship of the Governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN), met in Asaba, the capital of Delta State on May 11, 2021, and took far-reaching decisions, including that, based on the principles of fairness, equity and justice, the presidency should rotate to the South, at the end of the statutory eight years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. And this very Governor Okowa was the host of that historic meeting. The Southern Governors later met again in Lagos, on July 5, where they reaffirmed their decision, and again in Enugu, on September 16, to restate the call that the presidency should rotate to the South in 2023.
“It is essential to underline that the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum (SMBLF), applauded the meeting of the governors, given its significant representation and the gravity of the outcome. We followed up and issued a similar statement after our meeting in Abuja on May 30, 2021, asking that the presidency should rotate to the south. The group went further, on several other occasions, to caution political stakeholders from the South, including serving and former governors, ministers, senators, etcetera, not to, on any account, allow themselves to be appointed or nominated as running mate to any presidential candidate, if the presidency is not zoned to the South and that we will work against such person or persons.
“It is, therefore, most unfortunate that the Governor of Delta State, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, who should know better, accepted his appointment as running mate to Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. We do not have anything personal against him but his action is treacherous and tantamount to a despicable pawning of the political future of the people of Southern Nigeria.
“Sadly, it is also now common knowledge that he spent resources belonging to the and people of Delta State, to extensively lobby for the position. And that explains why he never made any statement when his party, the PDP, thoughtlessly jettisoned the zoning principle, which has become established as a norm and an intrinsic part of the political trajectory. It is difficult to fathom how a political party can claim to be on a supposed “rescue mission” with such false footings of unfairness, injustice, duplicity and gross insensitivity to national outlook.
“It is regrettable that while most of Governor Okowa’s southern and northern counterparts have maintained gallant, patriotic deference to the unity and peace of the country, above blinkered political considerations, by their resolute stance on the rotation of the presidency to the south in 2023, Governor Okowa, who is the Chairman of the South-South Governors’ Forum, of all people, would gullibly and slavishly capitulate to the bonbon of absurdity. Thus, acceding to a situation whereby, one person rules for eight years and hands over to another of his stock, in a country of at least 360 ethnic groups. What a shame!”
With the position of the Southern and Middle Belt Leader’s Forum coupled with threat by the political office holders in Rivers State that Atiku’s choice of Okowa over Wike would have implications in the 2023 elections, analysts believe that Okowa, as a vice presidential candidate of the PDP, would only bring doom to the party. Those on this divide believe that with Okowa’s choice as VP, Atiku has just begun a difficult journey to realising his ambition of winning the 2023 election. Their thinking is that if the entire three zones in the South plus the North Central vote against the PDP, no amount of rigging can win the election for the PDP.
As for the APC’s running mate, Alhaji Kabiru Masari, who is a Muslim like the presidential candidate, Nigerians, particularly in the South and Middle Belt and some predominantly Christian parts of the North East and North West, have stressed that a Muslim-Muslim ticket would not be feasible. They are also threatening to vote massively against the APC if the party eventually insists on going to the poll with a Muslim-Muslim ticket.
Close watchers of political developments in Nigeria are of the view that even if the proponents of Muslim-Muslim ticket are quick to remind Nigerians of the MKO Abiola and Babagan Kingibe Social democratic Party (SDP) joint presidential ticket in 1993, they should also remember that Nigerians in the last seven years have been divided along religious and ethnic lines like never before in the history of this country. They argue that with the level of religious division and tension in Nigeria today, APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket is dead on arrival.
Those who hold this view have also argued that the arrowheads of the Muslim-Muslim ticket are not pushing the narrative in the interest of the country but for their own selfish agenda.
However, the APC has clearly said that Alhaji Masari’s name was submitted to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as a placeholder just to beat the INEC’s June 17 deadline for submission of presidential and vice presidential candidates by all the political parties that are contesting the 2023 presidential election. In other words, the party is still searching for a more acceptable running mate, who would also improve the party’s electoral value. But even at that, the party has been reminded that any attempt to field in a Muslim-Muslim ticket would be resisted by majority of Nigerian voting population at the polls, especially the Christendom.
Looking at the unfolding drama in both the APC and PDP, analysts are saying that the talk about the 2023 presidential contest being a straight fight between the two major parties might just be a ruse after all. The choice of their running mates has just corroborated such fear.
They noted that apart from the PDP that seamlessly selected its running mate, the APC has not been able to pick its running mate. It is generally believed that the ease with which the PDP conducted its presidential primaries and the eventual selection of its running mate within the INEC’s time frame shows that the party is way ahead of the ruling party in terms of organisation.
The ruling party, they argued, has been embroiled in lots of controversies and unnecessary politicking as evidenced in the level of tension that characterized its presidential primary. “And now, the party could not pick an ordinary running mate before the INEC’s deadline elapsed. That was why they picked a placeholder. The idea is to continue searching for a running mate whose influence and clout could win an election for the party and replace the placeholder with such a candidate eventually,” they said.
However, the argument that the presidential contest would no longer be a straight fight between the two major parties as was originally believed in some quarters, is accentuated by the fact that the ‘Third Force’ as symbolized by Obi is already galvanizing other political parties to form a very strong, solid and formidable force that will be able to upstage the ruling party and wrest power from it in 2023.
On whether the choice of a running mate will have any impact on the two major political parties, the President of Arewa Youths Consultative Forum (AYCF), Alhaji Yerima Shettima said he would say anything about the ruling APC because it has not really picked one, stressing that the person picked was just to beat the INEC’s deadline of June 17. “They will change the running mate, so let us wait and look forward to seeing who they will bring eventually,” he said.
As for the PDP, he said the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike would have been better than Okowa, and said that what Okowa would bring to the PDP was dependent on who the APC throws up eventually as its running mate. “You know, sometimes when somebody becomes a Casanova, there are possibilities that the person may not bring home a beautiful wife at last. It is very rare for a Casanova to bring a beautiful wife to the house; he will end up bringing home an ugly thing and he thinks that is the best for him. So, it is as good as that but let us wait to see who the APC will bring.
“One would have expected the PDP to bring somebody better than Okowa but probably, Okowa must have made certain commitments for the victory of Atiku as the PDP candidate; Okowa must have played a major role financially and otherwise,” he said.
On what he thinks about the APC’s inclination towards a Muslim-Muslim candidate, he said: “I don’t think APC picking a Muslim running mate is the right thing to do but under certain circumstances, when a situation becomes abnormal, you also expect to see abnormal attitude. So, when there are abnormal situations on ground, certainly you would expect that there is going to be an abnormal solution to it. So, there are possibilities that APC is left with no option than to consider a Muslim-Muslim ticket, but personally I don’t think it is good for the country the way it is today,” he stated.
He also noted that at this point, the APC is not looking at the normal tradition but how they can win the election. “Certainly at the moment, they have no choice and considering the fact that the APC presidential candidate is as good as a minority when it comes to the issue of Muslim. As far as a northern man is concerned, he does not see a southerner as normal Muslim as they are. So, that problem is there. So, there is that possibility that they need to also put somebody to give them confidence and win an election. Don’t forget that elections are about numbers and the numerical voting strength in the northern part of the country is something that you cannot wish away; it is still there at the moment,” he said.
Rights activist and former second Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani said by picking Okowa from the South, Atiku and his party, the PDP, has at least, satisfied a requirement of some level of balancing even though it is not in the constitution. “Atiku is a Muslim from the North and he chose a Christian from the South. But, he chose from the South-South, not from the South East, maybe because the party narrowed the search down to three candidates from the South-South. As to whether his choice will improve the fortunes of the PDP or not, I will not be in a position to answer that question,” he said.
Ubani also maintained similar position on what the APC running mate could do for the party, but equally expressed fear about the APC inclination to field a Muslim-Muslim candidate. He said: “APC has said it doesn’t mind a Muslim-Muslim ticket and that it does not matter since what they are looking for is competence and not religion. I don’t know how that will work for them but I am sure they have the idea. There was a time when a Muslim-Muslim ticket never mattered; that was when Abiola contested alongside Kingibe but the recent happenings in the country has actually raised the consciousness of Nigeria to begin to talk about things like religion and ethnicity. So, if APC says it doesn’t matter, we will watch them because after all, the end will justify the means.”