The 2023 elections in Cross River State will be competitive.
Since the 1991 elections that ushered in the Third Republic, in which the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) fiercely contested for elective positions, inter-party elections in Cross River State have been anything but competitive.
In that election, the NRC won the governorship, with Mr. Clement Ebri as governor, while the SDP controlled the legislature.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has so dominated the politics of the state, since the return of democracy in 1999, that elections in Cross River have more or less become a family affair, until the recent defection of Governor Ben Ayade from the party to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in May.
The PDP, along with its ‘three wise men’ – Donald Duke, Liyel Imoke and Gershom Bassey – was so in control of affairs in the State that it reportedly hatched a 24-year plan, in which the said wisemen would govern the State in turns. While Duke and Imoke actually had their turns in 1999-2007 and 2007-2015 respectively, the third leg of the tripod, Gershom Bassey, could not actualise the trinity in 2015, as Imoke invoked the principle of zoning to install Ayade, from the northern senatorial district, as his successor.
To be fair, 2015 could have been different if Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, Senate Majority Leader at the time and his candidate, Prince Goddy Jeddy Agba, who was leaving the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to vie for the governorship, had decamped to run on the APC platform, after he (Ndoma-Egba) reportedly broke ranks with Imoke at the time.
With Imoke running the PDP ‘family’, it was obvious Agba stood no chance of winning the PDP ticket. That was the time many thought he would decamp to the APC and give the electorate a decision to make. As it turned out, he stayed back in the PDP, contested and lost the primary to Imoke’s preferred candidate, Ayade, who won in 2015 and 2019.
That was then. The current situation is that Ayade has left the PDP to join the APC, a party that had almost zero foothold in the State until Imoke’s former Chief of Staff, Dr. Alex Egbona, contested and won the House of Representatives seat for the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency in 2015 and 2019 on the APC platform.
It is ironical that those who thought they had escaped to a safe haven in the APC, from where they launched attacks against and threw vitriol at Ayade, now have to cohabit with and take orders from him as their leader. And, they have started quite well, going by the avalanche of congratulatory messages welcoming Ayade to the APC. They have also conceded the leadership of the party to the governor.
Those messages have come from Ndoma-Egba and John Owan Enoh, who are former PDP senators; Goddy Jeddy Agba, Minister of State for Power; Ofem Okoi Obono-Obla; and Pastor Usani Uguru Usani, a former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, among others.
On the other side of the divide, Ayade’s defection to APC has opened the floodgates for returnees to the PDP, led by former Governor Duke, who has now reunited with his old pal and successor, Imoke. They have supervised a stakeholders meeting and constituted a Caretaker Committee to lead the party in the State, with Imoke’s former deputy, Efiok Cobham, as acting chairman. They have declared Ayade’s defection as a good thing for the PDP, as they consider him a non-performer (though they never said so while he was with them in the PDP)!
As 2023 beckons, consultations are in top gear, especially in the PDP, which suddenly finds itself in opposition, following Ayade’s defection, to find a core around which things will revolve, especially relating to the choice of a flag-bearer for the governorship position. Senator Gershom Bassey has already taken initial steps that suggests he wants to be governor in 2023, to fulfill the original mission of the three wisemen. The buses he reportedly donated to the Obong of Calabar and the 18 chapter chairmen of his party, paint him as a man who is not only taking care of his southern senatorial district but also one who is already looking at the entire state as his constituency!
Meanwhile, feelers from the stable of Professor Sandy Onor, the senator representing the central district, indicate that their man is primed to contest and win the PDP primary and the governorship election. The belief in this camp seems to be that since all three senatorial districts have had their turns at the governorship, 2023 should be open for every willing party man, as opposed to those who believe the southern district, which produced Duke between 1999 and 2007, should begin the zoning circle all over!
On the part of the APC, it is not clear if the party will formulate a zoning formula or if it will throw its tickets open to all interested aspirants. Whatever happens, it will not be a surprise to see the likes of Owan Enoh, who was the candidate of the party in 2019, buying the nomination form to run again. The status of Usani Uguru Usani, regarding taking a second shot after he lost in 2019 to Enoh, is not clear but indications are that former Senator Bassey Otu, and Ayade’s Finance Commissioner, Asuquo Ekpenyong, both from the southern senatorial district, are interested in running. It is also uncertain if Minister of State for Power, Godwin Jeddy Agba, will be keen on trying again in 2023.
To boost his party’s chances, Ayade has already directed all his political appointees to register with the APC at their various wards. It is not exactly clear how many obeyed this directive, as some opted to remain in the PDP, as a consequence of which they have either been axed by the governor or voluntarily resigned their appointments.
It is also not clear how many elected officials, like local government chairmen, councillors and members of the Cross River State House of Assembly, obeyed Ayade’s directive to leave for the APC. However, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, recently announced in plenary that two members, Mike Etaba (Obubra/Etung) and Legor Idagbo (Bekwarra/Obudu/Obanliku), have formally decamped from the PDP to the APC. By that action, the Cross River State APC now has three members in the lower chamber of the National Assembly, as Etaba and Idagbo join Egbona in the ruling party.
That would suggest that the remaining five representatives are still in the PDP. In the Senate, Senators Gershom Bassey (South) and Sandy Onor (Central) are spearheading, along with Duke and Imoke, the reorganisation of the PDP in the State, while Senator Stephen Odey (Northern Senatorial District) has remained loyal to Ayade and defected to the APC, going by his NAY vote (which was the position of APC) on the amendment of Section 52(2), requiring the transmission of election results by electronic means.
On paper, the above scenario suggests that the 2023 elections in Cross River State will be competitive. The PDP and APC both have a reasonable number of elected officials in their ranks each, although the PDP has boasted that APC will lose most of its members when Ayade concludes his term and stops the stipends he pays to his aides. On the other hand, the APC says Ayade’s defection will lead to PDP’s demise in the State.
Without doubt, Ayade and APC will aim to deploy every machinery at their disposal, especially the power of incumbency and the funds that accrue from it, to retain the governorship in 2023, while the PDP, which believes it still controls majority of the State, will not consider it such a difficult task to reclaim the State, if comments from their stakeholders meeting is anything to go by.
There is also the important issue of funding for the PDP, as the party does not control the purse of the State anymore. Does the party have deep pockets within its ranks to bankroll its activities to sustain its membership, woo voters and remain competitive towards 2023? For the APC, will current political appointees, all of who were PDP members until a couple of months ago, remain loyal to Ayade and the APC when their appointments terminate ahead of a new regime in 2023, or will they return to their original party, the PDP, and give it the fillip to reclaim the state from APC?
And, what role, if any, will the recently amended Electoral Act, which refused the Independent National Electoral Commision (INEC) express permission to transmit election results electronically, play in deciding victory between PDP and APC in the State? The two PDP senators, Gershom Bassey and Sandy Onor, were part of the 28 who voted YES and lost, while Odey joined 51 other APC colleagues to vote NAY and win. What impact will this have on both parties in the State?
When a similar defection occurred in Rivers State ahead of the 2015 elections, a certain Barrister Nyesom Wike dissociated himself from his erstwhile friend and political associate, Rotimi Amaechi, to reorganise the PDP. He defied the incumbency factor and defeated Amaechi and the APC in that year’s governorship and national elections, and repeated the feat in 2019, in an election where results were not electronically transmitted!
Can a similar scenario play out in Cross River State in 2023 or has Ayade impacted the State enough with his mantra of digital economy and intellectual money to make him, rather than the political parties or mode of results transmission, a factor in who wins in 2023?
Surely, the answers will manifest sooner than later!