A writer’s ringside view of the six gubernatorial primaries held by the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in Akwa Ibom State from 1998 till date
BY INEMESIT INA
The adoption of Pastor Umo Eno by Governor Udom Emmanuel and stakeholders as the heir-apparent, penultimate Sunday, has generated widespread discourse across the state, sparked online controversy, engendered new permutations and changed cold calculations. In the days ahead, there is bound to be expedient and massive alignment and realignment of forces, more in favour of the heir-apparent. It has started already though in trickles.
As some point out, it is only an adoption and not a nomination. In other words, an adoption now is only a dress rehearsal of the gubernatorial primary of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) coming up probably in the middle or last quarter of the year. Put quite simply, it a dry run for the gubernatorial race.
Nonetheless, the stark reality is that the adoption has effectively signalled the beginning of the race and the adopted aspirant has been readied and released for the race or battle.
But the whole thing is nothing new. If anything, it was long expected. It has always been so with PDP’s gubernatorial contests in Akwa Ibom State right from the beginning.
Till date, the PDP in the state has nominated gubernatorial candidates six times. The coming one would be the seventh.
All six but one came with heart-rending intrigues, drama and suspense. Take a look:
The December 1998 Primary
The third week of December 1998 has probably gone down in history as the longest week in Akwa Ibom politics, what with things so fluid and changing almost daily.
Back then, the PDP, barely three months old in the state, had just emerged victorious in the local government election. The gubernatorial primary followed in quick succession. Eight aspirants bought nomination form, sold at N450,000, to contest. They were Obong Victor Attah, Chief (later Senator) Ittak Ekarika, Late Obong Etukudo Ekpro, Mr. Benjamin Okoko (Benjo), Obong Nsima Umoh, Late Obong Ebong Okon, Chief Richard Umoren (Tractormoren) and Dr. (later Prof.) Ekeng Anam-Ndu (late), from Ibesikpo Asutan, Oruk Anam, Etinan, Ikot Abasi, Ibiono Ibom, Itu, Mkpat Enin and Nsit Ubium local government areas, respectively.
There was only one kingmaker – Atuekong Donatus Etiebet, the State Leader of PDP and frontline presidential aspirant. He practically had the party’s governorship ticket in his pocket to give anyone, just anyone. That was a measure of his dominance of the PDP then. With a cult-like followership, thanks to his presidential ambition which Akwa Ibom people largely supported, Etiebet called the shots and his word was law in the PDP. It was obvious then that Etiebet’s ambition was the reason the people preferred the PDP to the All Peoples’ Party (APP) which the first civilian Governor of the state, Late Obong Akpan Isemin, was trying to use to stage a comeback to the top job he had held between January 1992 and November 1993.
All eyes were on Etiebet. From the beginning of the week, there were daily reports, if not conjectures, of his choice of candidate. It looked like a game of musical chairs as his choice seemed to be changing virtually daily.
On Monday, it was taken for granted that Etiebet would choose Ekpro, his staunch loyalist, who actually controlled PDP structures in the state at all levels, producing both the Protem State Chairman, Late Chief Joe Ating, and Protem State Secretary, Late Elder Ntieyong Inyangmme. Ekpro was so grounded and connected with the grassroots that it was difficult to believe that he had lived in the United States of America (USA) for several years, returning with a Master’s degree in Political Science from Boston University. He once described himself to this writer, in the midst of his fervent followers, as a “hardcore grassrooter.” One of Ekpro’s political sons, Senator John Udoedehe (then popularly called Etukudo Akamasio or John Akamasio interchangeably) , whose Senate nomination and election he facilitated twice in 1998 and 1999, apparently, has been trying to replay Ekpro’s style of politics.
By the following day, the story changed. It was rumoured that Etiebet had succumbed to pressure from the then powerful Chief of Air Staff, Late Air Marshal Nsikak Eduok, and switched support to Nsima Umoh, the walking stick-carrying _Abai Ibiono_. Eduok’s backing (after initially supporting Ebong Okon) for the young Lagos-based banker, endowed with an unusual command of Ibibio idioms, introduced the term, “anointed from above,” into Akwa Ibom’s political lexicon.
On Wednesday, elders of Atai Uyo, the unofficial name for Uyo/Ibesikpo Asutan/Nsit Atai Federal Constituency, which is the old Uyo local government area, rose for Attah. An emergency meeting was held at the sprawling Aka Offot, Uyo, residence of the wealthy auto-mechanic, Late Obong Pius Ibanga (Ibaco). Different speakers analysed Attah’s chances. They were not sure of victory in the field given that Attah and Etiebet, the man who had the final say in the contest, were not the best of friends. In September, both men had tussled over the right to launch the PDP in the state. Etiebet, with ground support from the quartet of Ekpro, Benjo, Tractormoren and Ebong Okon, prevailed. Attah and Ekarika, who were in a working (if-not-me-you) alliance, together with their allies, boycotted the event held at Ibom Hall in Uyo, going on radio to denounce it. Both factions, however, reconciled the following month with Attah recognising Joe Ating as State Chairman and Ekarika, Etiebet’s staunch rival in Oruk Anam politics, paying for rent of the state secretariat of the party. But it was uncertain if the reconciliation was enough to attract Etiebet’s support for Attah. Presented with such a picture, the elders resolved to immediately despatch a high-powered delegation, led by Late Prince (later Obong) Peter Ekpe Atakpo, to Abak with a mandate to persuade Etiebet’s elder brother and second civilian Governor of the old Cross River State, Late Chief Donald Etiebet, who was known to wield considerable political influence over his brother, to intercede for Attah.
In Abak, the delegation reportedly employed every trick in the book to achieve its mission. For instance, the ex-Governor was reminded of the historical debt he owed Uyo people, who together with their Etinan counterparts, broke ranks with the rest of the Ibibio Nation to back hm against Ibibio sons, Late Chief Clement Isong and Late Chief Udoakaha Esuene, in the 1982 nomination and the 1983 election, respectively. In the past, the people of the old Uyo and Etinan local government areas, both constituting the Ibibio heartland, were known for playing “opposition politics”, a euphemism for taking contrary political positions from the rest. Isong, who this writer visited at his Federal Housing Estate, Uyo, residence regularly in the last two years of his life (1998-2000) to discuss contemporary and past issues for hours on end, once recalled how he won the 1979 governorship election in 15 of the 17 local government areas of the old Cross River State, losing only Etinan and Uyo.
Some members of the delegation even tied the continuing support of the majority Ibibio for the presidential bid of the younger Etiebet, a minority Annang, to his support for Attah. At that time, Attah, the highly-respected third son of one of the six Ibibio “Merchants of Light,” was widely perceived as the best Ibibio match to Isemin, the Eka Ekpo (Big Masquerade), as he styled himself, who enjoyed the support of Isong, then the Chairman of the highly-influential Ibibio Elders’ Forum. Isemin, an Ibibio nationalist with his larger-than-life image and comeback bid, was the issue in Akwa Ibom politics then.
Etiebet, the ex-Governor, was convinced. In turn, he promised to convince his brother who would return to the state the next day, ahead of Saturday’s primary, and would visit him in Abak as usual. The mission succeeded. The delegation returned to Uyo with the good news to the elders who were waiting patiently at Ibaco’s house.
The ex-Governor did as he promised. But beside him, his brother had, between Thursday and Friday, also come under tremendous pressure from a number of pro-Attah Ibibio leaders, from outside Atai Uyo, including Obong Otu Robert Akpan, the mastermind of the Attah-Ekarika alliance and Isemin’s erstwhile (1991) kingmaker. Attah was increasingly looking like the Ibibio choice for the PDP ticket. By Friday afternoon, Etiebet, the PDP leader, quietly endorsed Attah.
The challenge was how to work things out without rupturing the party’s cohesion. The leader had a brilliant idea – consensus. It was novel in Akwa Ibom politics. He called a meeting of all members of the PDP Leaders’ Council, the state party caucus, at his State Housing Estate, Ewet, Uyo, residence for Friday night, hours before the gubernatorial primary. To be a member of the council, one had to pay N100,000 which was a huge sum of money then.
Meanwhile, the Chairman of the election panel sent from the PDP’s national headquarters in Abuja, Late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, was already in town, set to conduct the primary the following day. There was tension in the air as aspirants prepared.
At the meeting which lasted till the early hours of the morning, Etiebet sold the idea of consensus, explaining that it would keep the party united instead of a rancorous primary. It was bought. Papers were passed round and the leaders were given a list of criteria, including popularity and capacity, to score the aspirants. Attah emerged tops in the scoring, becoming the consensus candidate, followed by Ekarika.
All hell was let loose. Benjo and Ekpro, who were in a working alliance, rejected the consensus and stormed out of the meeting. Tractormoren equally left in annoyance.
But that did not stop Inyangmme, the scribe, from later distributing copies of the consensus agreement signed by the leaders (Benjo’s supporters argued that the signatures were from the attendance sheet) to journalists, including this writer, who had kept vigil at Etiebet’s place.
With the meeting over, this writer stopped at Benjo’s place located a stone throw from Etiebet’s house. He was still livid. “Inemesit, I don’t know what they are talking about,” he thundered. “What I know is that I am contesting the primary.”
Next, this writer called at Isemin’s house, which was not too far from Etiebet’s place, to break the news and sound him out on the emergence of his PDP challenger. But the ex-Governor had heard the news already. Descending the stairs, he uttered: “I hear PDP has picked Victor Attah.” This writer confirmed. It was obvious that the Captain of Ubom Noah (Noah’s Ark), as he called his political structure, had monitored the meeting at Etiebet’s place and that the outcome was not what he expected. It was clear that he knew he had a battle in his hands with Attah, who at 60, was a year older than him. But ever courageous, charismatic and witty, Isemin sat down and spent time talking about how he would floor Attah, the architect, having floored another architect, Ekong Etuk, in the December 1991 governorship election.
In the PDP, the nomination battle was not over. There was a snag. In Nigerian politics, victory protection, sometimes, is more difficult to achieve than victory itself. That was Attah’s predicament. It was difficult to sustain the nomination. Within a couple of days, five of the aspirants acquiesced. But Benjo and Tractormoren seemed implacable. Tractormoren wasted no time in defecting to the APP to support his old friend, Isemin, under who he had served as Chairman of Mkpat Enin Local Government. Benjo insisted on contesting the primary. With his deep pocket (the only other aspirant with such a pocket was Ekarika, then the Chairman of the Cooperative Development Bank and a former oil company chief executive) and the support of the youths, Benjo, then in his late 30s and usually wearing dark goggles, was confident of victory.
Okadigbo, carrying his trademark flywhisk, that Saturday, made it clear to journalists that he was still going to conduct the primary but shifted it by two days. It was rumoured then that he was sent by the Second Republic Vice President and Etiebet’s rival in the presidential race, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who controlled the PDP’s national leadership, to deliver Benjo. Tale bearers even went further to claim, without proof, that Benjo, a quantity surveyor who had just left government as Commissioner for Works, once worked in Ekwueme’s firm in Enugu.
Monday came and there was a stalemate. Okadigbo was virtually held hostage in his Metro Hotel room by his three Senate colleagues from Akwa Ibom in the aborted Third Republic, Senator Anietie Okon, Late Senator Akaninyene Ukpanah and Late Senator Etang Umoyo. They argued fervidly back and forth. While Ukpanah, Benjo’s campaign manager (the nomenclature of campaign director general was not in vogue then), argued that the primary should go on, Umoyo and Okon, then the Protem National Publicity Secretary of the PDP (a position he reportedly got through Etiebet’s influence), who lodged in the same hotel, argued against. Later, Etiebet, Attah and Ating joined in dissuading Okadigbo against the primary. The trio also met and appealed to an adamant Benjo at the restaurant of the hotel.
Meanwhile, “boys”, supporting both sides, arrived in buses to keep vigil at the hotel’s grounds. The whole place was swarmed with politicians and “boys”. It was as if Uyo had relocated to the now defunct Metro Hotel located then within the precincts of Government House. The government-owned hotel was then the most prestigious and safest in Uyo.
There was tension in the air. For two days, the tension raged. And the nomination process froze.
Finally, on Wednesday evening, there was a thaw. All was now well. Journalists, including this writer who was on ground all along, were summoned to an emergency press conference in the hotel’s hall. Etiebet, Attah, Benjo, Ating and Okadigbo spoke. Benjo, now looking sober, conceded. Attah’s nomination was confirmed.
With this, the PDP went into the January 9, 1999 election as a united front unlike the APP where Isemin was only able to subdue his lone opponent, Late Dr. Mfon Amana, in the post-primary battle in Abuja three days to the election. Isemin had won the primary held at Ibom Hall in Uyo but Amana, who also contested nomination against Isemin in November 1991, challenged his victory at the party’s national headquarters in Abuja. In one of the most bizarre episodes of Nigerian politics, the APP’s national leadership kept substituting the two names as candidate almost daily for two weeks. Upon finally losing the ticket, Amana defected to the PDP, the following day, at a crowded press conference in the NUJ Press Centre then located at Nwaniba Road in Uyo, effectively sealing Isemin’s fate in the election. He was received by Etiebet, Attah and other PDP leaders.
Even the small third party, the Alliance for Democracy (AD), was not spared of turmoil. It was racked by an internecine tussle over its governorship ticket till close to the election. A former Commissioner for Health, Dr. (later Prof.) Asuquo Ekanem, battled against a former Managing Director of the defunct Century Merchant Bank and erstwhile presidential aspirant, Dr. Ime Ebong, who was widely seen as Isemin’s main financier in the 1991 election. Ekanem, a veteran politician and physician, triumphed. But it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory.
Election day came and Attah easily defeated Isemin and Ekanem. Engr. (later Dr.) Chris Ekpenyong was his running mate.
The December 2002 Primary
Attah, as an incumbent Governor, faced more opponents in the December 2002 PDP primary than the one held four years earlier. They were 10. Again, Benjo was his main contender. The others included Ekanem, Udoedehe, Ambassador Etim Okpoyo, Chief Inibehe Okori, Engr. Etim Bassey and Mr. Moses Eskor, the popular film director.
The primary, which held at Ibom Hall, looked set to be a journalist’s delight. It, however, turned out to be an anti-climax. All Attah’s opponents boycotted it in protest, citing irregularities. Consequently, the Governor walked over the primary.
In fairness to him, Attah was able to reconcile with all his opponents before the general election so much so that one of them, Udoedehe, deputised Ukpanah, the Chairman of his campaign organization. He even attracted the return of Tractormoren who was upset after losing the governorship ticket of the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party (ANPP), the APP’s successor party, to Late Dr. Ime Umana.
Attah won re-election in April 2003, defeating Umana and Late Otuekong Idongesit Nkanga of the National Democratic Party (NDP).
The December 2006 Primary
The December 2006 primary has been the most intriguing in the Akwa Ibom PDP till date.
It was a crowded race at the start but it later thinned to a manageable star-studded size before the primary. About 55 aspirants initially signified interest to contest. About 25 were eventually cleared. Only 17 contested in the end. They included Etiebet, Umana, Ekarika, Benjo, Okori, Ekpenyong, Barr. (later Chief) Godswill Akpabio, Dr. Udoma Ekarika, Mr. (later Obong) Nsima Ekere, Engr. Larry Esin, Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien (Ritman), Chief Bassey Inuaeyen, Group Captain Ewang Sam Ewang (retd.), Late Arc. Okon Inwang and Arc. Ezekiel Nya-Etok.
For unclear reason, the primary, fixed for the House of Assembly grounds, could not hold for three days unlike in most other states where primary was held and concluded within a day. From Friday to Monday, drained aspirants and exasperated delegates waited in vain. On Monday evening, things came to a head and boiled over. This writer witnessed as delegates practically rioted at the Assembly grounds and left angrily in droves while, rightly or wrongly, blaming the powers-that-be for the impasse. It was as if the primary would no longer hold. A couple of exhausted aspirants actually pulled out of the race while one left for Abuja to get the PDP’s national leadership to intervene.
But in yet another intrigue, that same evening, the primary was suddenly shifted to Ibom Hall. Voting began that night and lasted till the next night.
Vote counting, which followed immediately, was done till the wee hours of Wednesday. This writer, who was present in the hall throughout the counting, vividly recalls the tense moments especially when Akpabio and the two Ekarikas came down from their seats, at different times, to complain to electoral panel officials about perceived irregularities in the sorting and counting of votes.
Eventually, the result was announced. Akpabio finished first, closely followed by Udoma Ekarika. Esin and Ekere took third and fourth positions, respectively.
But Akpabio did not meet the 50 per cent threshold, as stipulated in the PDP nomination guidelines, to be declared a candidate. A run-off with Ekarika was inevitable. That “killjoy” question was put to a joyous Akpabio by a journalist as he exited the hall swarmed by his fanatical supporters, mostly youths. “Which run-off after I have won my nomination?” he fired back. The then PDP State Chairman, Arc. Otu Ita-Toyo, who was also cornered by journalists, affirmed that a winner had emerged.
Ever a charismatic figure, Akpabio marched the long distance from Ibom Hall to Aqua Resort Hotel in Ewet Housing Estate on foot with his supporters in a victory celebration complete with a live band.
Attah, who supported Udoma Ekarika, his son-in-law and erstwhile Commissioner for Health and later Works, would have none of that. He insisted on a run-off. The battle shifted to Abuja where Akpabio struggled to protect his victory against Attah’s onslaught. Ironically, Akpabio, Attah’s popular former Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, had functioned as the heir-apparent for over three years till barely four months to the primary when he inexplicably lost favour with his boss who moved him to the less-fancied Lands and Housing ministry where he served for less than a month before resigning to contest in September 2006.
In the struggle to upturn Akpabio’s nomination and go for a run-off, the Governor enjoyed the support of the entire PDP’s state leadership, except Toyo, most of the aspirants and elders. On the other hand, Akpabio was backed by the highly-influential Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Obong Ufot Ekaette, Isemin and another ex-Governor, Late Navy Captain Edet Akpan Archibong (retd.), Toyo, Ekere, Udoedehe and four of Attah’s Commissioners, Mr. Umana Umana, Dr. (now Prof.) Chris Ekong, Dr. Ebebe Ukpong and Engr. Iroigak Ikann, among others.
At the height of the struggle in January 2007, Attah changed strategy. He opted for a consensus candidate in place of Akpabio or Ekarika. A meeting of party leaders, House of Assembly Members, Local Government Chairmen and elders was held in Government House, Uyo, where Ukpanah (who did not contest the primary after initially showing interest) and Ritman were picked as consensus candidates. A team was raised to present them to the PDP’s national leadership to choose one. Among the elders at the meeting were ex-Governors Etiebet and Nkanga.
It was while the team was struggling at the PDP’s national headquarters in Abuja on a Friday afternoon that President Olusegun Obasanjo stepped into the Akwa Ibom matter decisively. He and Attah had no love lost for most of their tenure. So, it was predictable where Obasanjo would stand. He upheld Akpabio’s nomination. The next day, Akpabio was presented with the PDP flag at the South-South zonal rally of the party in Port Harcourt, signifying him as the party’s standard bearer.
Two days later, a high-powered PDP delegation, led by the Chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees, Late Chief Tony Anenih, and the Presidential Candidate, Late Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua, was in Government House, Uyo, to reconcile Attah and Akpabio. It was a successful mission. Attah accepted Akpabio’s candidacy and, in turn, Akpabio dropped Ekere as his running mate and accepted Attah’s nominee, Engr. Patrick Ekpotu. Elated, the delegation, accompanied by Attah and Akpabio, moved to address the waiting PDP faithful at Ibom Hall. Anenih, Yar’Adua, Toyo, Attah and Akpabio all spoke, emphasising that there was total unity in the party in the state. Akpabio, in an electrifying moment, turned to Attah and promised a “seamless continuation.”
Akpabio went on to win the general election held three months later.
The December 2010 Primary
With his total dominance of the PDP in the state, Akpabio was not expected to face much opposition in his bid for the party’s ticket again. His challengers, Mr. Frank Okon and Mr. Imo Udo, were not given much of a chance in the primary. And they did not disappoint. The Governor secured nearly all the votes in the two primaries (the first one was cancelled by the PDP’s national leadership following petitions from the duo) held at Uyo Township Stadium in December 2010.
But both former appointees and loyalists of Attah proved their mettle in the post-nomination battle which unusually lasted beyond the 2011 election won by Akpabio (one of the cases was decided even after Akpabio had left office in 2015). They went to court, making the Governor struggle for victory protection. They set the state on edge, causing apprehension and unnerving many in government circles, each time the cases, particularly Okon’s, came up. The state was literally thrown into panic on judgment day at each of the three levels of court which handled the two cases.
The December 2014 Primary
There were 23 aspirants, the highest number ever, in the December 2014 primary held at the new international stadium. The aspirant backed by Akpabio, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, easily won.
But the other aspirants (named G22 by this writer) protested, citing irregularities. They relocated to Abuja, battling in court, the PDP’s national headquarters and The Presidency for over a month to upturn Udom’s nomination. The outgoing Governor and his erstwhile Secretary to the State Government had to struggle for victory protection. They won in the end.
Udom was subsequently elected Governor in 2015.
The December 2018 Primary
The December 2018 primary made history. For the first time in the history of the PDP in Akwa Ibom, there was only one governorship aspirant – the Governor. He won the primary unopposed.
Three months later, Udom was re-elected Governor.
The Coming 2022 Primary
The date of the forthcoming PDP governorship primary is not certain for now. But the race has effectively begun.
Though Eno has been endorsed by the Governor, he is likely to face opponents. Already, three aspirants, Barr. Onofiok Luke, Dr. Michael Enyong and Senator Bassey Albert Akpan, have indicated that they would contest to the very end. Only one aspirant, Senator Effiong Bob, has publicly withdrawn, so far, while at least five others, who were probably hoping on the Governor’s endorsement, might have quietly withdrawn. It is possible that more aspirants would join the race as the days go by.
In the end, the contest is likely to be a straight fight between Eno and the strongest of his opponents. Given the nature of Akwa Ibom politics, the outcome is predictable, barring a miracle.