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Dave Umahi and brinkmanship in Ebonyi

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Early this week, Ebonyi State governor David Umahi defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on which platform he twice contested and won elections as governor, to the All Progressives Congress (APC). Rumours of the defection had run rife weeks before he jauntily stepped across the chasm between the PDP and the national ruling party last Tuesday.  He governs one of the smallest states in the country, but regardless of the developmental strides he has flaunted, he sometimes courts controversy so effortlessly and indifferently that many Eboyians wonder whether he ever gets time to reflect on his ideas and policies before voicing and implementing them. This week’s defection is bound to reinforce public impression of him as a controversial politician and governor, and underscore his knack for spontaneity.

In September, the PDP controversially entrenched itself in the South-South by winning the last bastion of the APC in that boisterous region, Edo State. Now, thanks to the inscrutable Mr Umahi, it has lost Ebonyi, one of the three remaining PDP states in the Southeast. Like his person, the governor’s excuse for defection is indecipherable. Hear him: “I want to clear the air that I never sought (for) PDP presidential ticket, and I will not. So whoever said that I moved to APC because PDP refused to zone the ticket to me is being very mischievous. Even if PDP promises somebody presidential ticket, how does it work where over 8000 delegates will be voting. And such promise cannot happen with more than 10 or 20 people; so people are being very mischievous about that. There are a lot of qualified persons from Southeast. Some people say I was promised lots of things by the APC; there was no such discussion. APC never promised me any position; they never promised Southeast any position.”

Then, with a self-abnegation uncharacteristic of a governor who famously took on the media in his state in April (Vanguard and The Sun) and pilloried them, he adds, “However, I offered this movement as a protest to injustice being done to Southeast by the PDP. Since 1999, the Southeast has supported the PDP. At a time, the five states were all PDP. One of the founding members of the PDP was from Southeast, the late former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme. It is absurd that since 1999 going to 2023, the Southeast will never be considered to run for presidency under the PDP. And this is my position and will continue to be my position. It had nothing to do with me or my ambition.” Perhaps impatient with the wild and irritating conjectures of his critics, Mr Umahi waxed philosophical. Said he: “Every man runs his destiny. One thing I have promised is that I will never castigate PDP; just like in PDP, my only sin is that I refused to castigate Mr President, and till thy kingdom come, I will not do that because that is my family character. But those who don’t have character, they were very suspicious of me because I don’t castigate the President, suggesting that I could be leaking information of PDP. What nonsense is that? I come from a known family and a place where there is character. So, I have got character; nobody either in APC or PDP will say that whoever discusses anything, I have to go and leak it. To leak it for what? Is it for money, is it for fame?”

In addition to being philosophical, Mr Umahi also props himself up as a great judge of character. But did he show character in defecting to the national ruling party? He thinks so, especially considering how, in his view, he has offered himself as the propitiation for the Igbo on the subject of rotational presidency. He would take all the flak for turning his back on the PDP, he swore, just so that the world would appreciate the injustice meted out to the Igbo who had been denied the presidency for a very long time. To him it amounted to character to know that he would be assailed for his moves, and yet persist in his choices. Perhaps. But some of his former party members and leaders do not think he was demonstrating character.

The Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, argues that in fact Mr Umahi’s defection was propelled by reasons that had nothing to do with altruism. As he puts it poignantly, “My friend, Umahi, wants to be president. There is no problem about that. You have a right to be President. Nobody can stop you. You are educated. You have been a governor for two terms, so you are qualified to say I want to be president of Nigeria. But that does not mean that because you want to blackmail your party, you tell lies to the people saying that you are leaving the party because of the injustice meted out to the Southeast. That is not correct.” Weeks ago, when the rumours of Mr Umahi’s defection began to circulate, it was actually suggested that it had something to do with the presidency. The Igbo, it was suggested at the time, had been shortchanged on the presidency issue. It was further suggested that by being so scantily represented in the ruling party, the Igbo themselves were making it difficult for anyone to back them. It was also delicately whispered that in addition to being well represented in the APC, the Igbo also need a credible and notable politician, probably from the rank of governors, to anchor the Southeast drive for the presidency. It is not clear whether these suppositions had anything to do with Mr Umahi’s defection, but at least his defection and the rumours preceding it coincided with the raging arguments about Igbo presidency. The suspicion that a connection exists will not be easily erased.

The PDP did its level best to dissuade Mr Umahi from defecting. They said they were unable to see the injustice to the Igbo the defecting government talked about. In any case, they added grimly, even if there was any injustice, plotting a defection was not the answer. Neither the PDP nor Mr Umahi has disclosed the details of the discussions held with the aggrieved governor, nor established whether he had genuine grievances or not. But they confessed to having made strenuous attempts to persuade the intransigent governor from going ahead with his plans. At a point they knew they were making heavy weather of the negotiations, and had all but resigned themselves to the inevitable. Once the defection took place, however, the PDP immediately became defiant, completely taking charge of the party machinery. It was clear they prepared for the worst.

Mr Umahi argues equivocally that his defection has nothing to do with the quest for Igbo presidency, in other words, more accurately, to deliver the Nigerian presidency to the Southeast. He had not asked for any concessions or guarantees from the APC, he said, and received none. But if he had asked for nothing, why was he defecting because of injustice to the Southeast on the presidency issue? The APC, too, has been tongue-tied. They refused to be drawn into disclosing any information about their discussions with Mr Umahi, only suggesting that the Southeast would eventually be painted in APC colours before the next polls on account of coming defections. More defections into the APC were expected, they deadpanned. Even though the PDP makes the same claims of anticipated defections, especially seeing that movements and loyalties of Nigerian politicians sometimes defy logic, no one really knows what to expect, or what is motivating the politicians, their loyalties or their movements. Nigeria, it has become painfully obvious, has transformed into a political and, in many ways, indefinable smorgasbord.

But whether Mr Umahi acknowledges it or not, and regardless of what the APC reveals about the discussions they have had with the defecting governor, the Igbo quest for Nigerian presidency is central to all the manoeuvres taking place between the governor and the two leading political parties. Mr Umahi may be the lightning rod for the much ballyhooed quest, but as 2023 draws near, the arguments about political justice for the Igbo will become more acerbic, more impatient, and louder. Ultimately, the question will revolve around where best the Igbo can fulfill their quest  in the APC or PDP, or somewhere else altogether. Even if the Ebonyi governor was truthful about the altruism of his defection, it will still not lessen the decibel of the Igbo quest. As the Umahi defection shows very clearly, both parties will snap at each other’s heels and stalk each other in the months ahead. Neither will want to take the first irreversible step of zoning the presidency to any region until it is clear how the other is thinking. But both will be eager to take advantage of each other’s error, if it came to that.

It would have been enormously helpful if Mr Umahi had revealed what he meant by the injustice the Igbo allegedly suffered in the PDP, or whether the suffering was a recent thing or a Fourth Republic matter. He has coded his language, and the PDP itself has feigned ignorance. It is, therefore, impossible to guess what concessions he might have negotiated in the APC, or whether at a point in the coming years, it would be obvious that the grievances the Igbo complained about in the PDP had finally been mollified by the APC. Both the PDP and Governor Wike are convinced Mr Umahi desired the presidency for himself, much more than for the Igbo. They are further convinced that the defecting governor would soon come to grief, because in their opinion, the APC itself is a sinking party. Overall, except both parties adopt an Igbo candidate for the 2023 presidency, and if there is no third force or a dark horse to discombobulate the political equation, the quest Mr Umahi so garishly postures as championing would peter out into a mirage. For a politician to look at the PDP and allege injustice, and imagine that of all parties the APC exemplified justice, is to put too fine a point on a matter that neither the PDP nor the APC had a moral right to postulate on or claim to exemplify.

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