Before the split that now characterises the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, the ‘Billionaires Club’ as it has come to be known, was a rallying point for the 36 governors of the federation to pursue matters of national interest, write Nkiruka Okoh and Ojo Maduekwe
After weeks of intrigues and political horse-trading in the run-up to the chairmanship election of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), 35 governor-members of the forum- the totality of 33 governors and 2 deputies who stood in for their bosses- walked into the Rivers State Governor’s lodge to cast their ballots for the new NGF chairman.
However, for a position that used to be occupied by consensus, the consideration of an election meant that the forum was either divided or that the governors decided to test their long mouthed democratic credentials. Of course, if the latter was the rationale, the governors failed Nigerians in the final analysis.
From a previous arrangement that seemed perfected as the ‘Aso Rock’ where its Chief sponsor occupied as President of Nigeria, the election was deemed a win already for Plateau State governor, Jonah Jang. But a shocking piece of news came to the Jonathan camp when at the end of the ballot, Rivers State governor, and incumbent chairman of the forum, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, was re-elected.
What followed after was a bitter bickering that had never been witnessed before in the history of the NGF. The governors were sharply divided between their support for either the president or the Rivers State Governor. The struggle for the forum chairmanship extended from Abuja to the streets of Rivers State, with manifest effects on the state of Rivers for several weeks running, including violent attacks.
The NGF was never like this. A noble idea, the forum was founded as a platform that would bring the 36 governors under one roof, irrespective of the political leanings and chart a common cause. The NGF was supposed to be without pomp and noise, but the Nigerian politics and politicians have proved to be different.
Established in 1999 after a multi-party conference of all the 39 democratically elected governors of the new dispensation, the forum as a non-partisan association seeks to promote unity, good governance, better understanding and co-operation among the States and other tiers of government.
When examined critically, the objective of the NGF looks good on paper. But the current level of discord being witnessed in the forum is unique to the Amaechi-led NGF and points in the direction of 2015 general election. According to analysts, if Amaechi has remained the NGF chairman with the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as president, it would have been a different scenario as he would have led a hitch-free forum.
Starting with some kind of peer review that allows the governors exchange development score cards, the NGF has metamorphosed into a powerful decision-influencing body. It’s ascent to being an influence wielding body manifests whenever the PDP and other political parties attempt to restructure their parties and then, the support of the governors becomes inevitable.
With a structuring that makes the governor of a state the automatic leader of the party in his state and also empowers him to nominate delegates to the national conventions of the party, that the governors as a body decide what at such a forum is unavoidable. Normally this would not have meant anything but with Nigeria’s unique political features, the votes of the delegates mostly go in the direction the governor indicates.
In addition, the NGF influenced executive decisions. One of the issues that the Amaechi-led NGF had with the Presidency was the issue of the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). A Sovereign Wealth Fund is a pool of money derived from a country’s reserves which is set aside for investment purposes that will benefit the country’s economy and its citizenry.
The fund which was passed into law by the National Assembly and assented to by President Goodluck Jonathan has a seed capital of one billion dollars. Unfortunately, all the governors led by Amaechi were against it. They argued that if allowed to be implemented, states would be short-changed.
The governors, many of whom are finding it difficult to pay the minimum wage believed that the implementation of the SWF would further deplete their accessible resources. Cracks in the formidable body began to reveal itself with the rejection of the SWF and the forum’s stance against the president as the president moves in to break their ranks.
There are similar other issues like the Excess Crude Account which the governors would rather manage themselves and not someone doing it on their behalf. Amaechi’s NGF also ran into trouble with the president when it moved against the subsidy of fuel which ran into trillions and with perceived corruption shrouding the process of disbursement.
Also cogent is the speculations around Amaechi’s vice presidential ambition which has been doing the rounds for some time. Posters bearing his picture and that of Governor Sule Lamido of Jigawa State indicating their intention to challenge Jonathan in 2015 started surfacing. Although, Amaechi stridently denied that he had any such ambition, the president seemed to have already bought into it.
Unfortunately, as the speculations subsisted, the presidency decided to whittle down his influence. To achieve this, the PDP Governors Forum was created with Governor Godswill Akpabio as chairman. Added to the steaming heat was the spat between Amaechi and the First Lady, Patience, over the demolition of some slums in Okrika waterfront, Rivers State.
Though a rift between Amaechi and Patience has often been denied by the first lady’s camp, many political observers believe that the encounter marked the beginning of a frosty relationship between them, which compounded the woes of the chairman of the NGF as some of his colleagues in the forum decided to form allies with the presidency thus creating a chasm and distrust amongst the members.
On May 24th 2013, the NGF conducted its election and the aftermath were clear indications that the once united, strong and influential NGF had split into two factions. Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau State claimed to be the winner despite his defeat by Amaechi, who was re-elected chairman of the forum.
The Plateau State governor based his victory on a handwritten endorsement letter allegedly signed by 19 pro-presidency governors before the election, where his name was filled in after his selection as the party’s consensus candidate. But Amaechi defeated Jang by 19 to 16 votes at the election proper. With both governors laying claim to the chairmanship of the group, the NGF had clearly split and lost its allure.
No doubt the seed of discord had been sown in the NGF and thus, spiralled down to the various sub-sections of the forum that had been created.
With the PDP taking the lead, albeit coming long after the regional arms of the forum, the PDP Governors Forum (PDPGF) was created with Apkabio as chairman. The PDPGF was formed not long ago to undermine the influence of Amaechi’s NGF which was believed to be pandering to the whims of the opposition. The forum was a child of necessity and its formation was described by sources as a ploy to weaken Amaechi’s candidacy in the NGF since there would be obvious reservations about two persons from the same geo-political zone heading the two fora
But Akpabio stated their objective. “What the PDP is trying to do now is to cleanse its house; to try to identify the ones they call Judases and say to them ‘go out, the train is moving’. We will ask them not to remain standing otherwise we will crush them.”
Of course, the issue of ‘Crushing’ them brings to mind, the Rivers State/Amaechi crisis.
The PDPGF came into being in February 2013 at a meeting presided over by Jonathan. Analysts believed that the forum and the emergence of Akpabio as its chairman was the Presidency’s solution to the growing influence of the NGF under Amaechi, owing to Akpabio’s choice to lead the PDPGF, barely 24 hours before the NGF botched initial poll.
Recently, the forum has revealed that it wants an out-of-court settlement to squash the suspension slammed on Amaechi by the national leadership of the ruling party. The forum would only do so if Amaechi, whose re-election as the chairman of the NGF still being contested by some of his colleagues, withdraws the suit he instigated against the party challenging his suspension.
Away from this are the existing regional governors’ fora which included the Northern State Governors Forum (NSGF). The NSGF is one of the oldest sub-sections of the NGF as it pre-dates the forum itself. The NSGF has a much solid reason for existence than the NGF. While NGF was created upon Nigeria's latest return to civil rule some 14 years ago, NSGF can be said to have come into existence in 1968 as the Interim Common Services Agency [ICSA], made up of governors of the six states that succeeded the Northern Region upon its dissolution in 1967. Its only regional counterpart in those days was the Eastern States Interim Assets and Liabilities Agency [ESIALA], the successor to the old Eastern Region.
Despite General Murtala Mohammed’s dissolution of the ICSA and ESIALA in 1976, it is believed in some quarters that the group was renamed as the Northern Governors Forum. This arrangement continued after the Northern states increased in number from 6 to 19, and as some of the agencies were taken over by the federal government.
Sadly, the split in the NGF has translated into distrust amongst members of the NSGF, leading to the Governors of Benue and Bauchi States, Isa Yuguda and Gabriel Suswam, opting out of the NSGF. Their reason was the alleged betrayal that characterised the NGF election and polarized the unity of the 19 Northern Governors. But the two governors were said to have since reviewed their position.
However, it came with no surprise that at the NSGF meeting in Kaduna on June 6, only five of the 19 Northern governors were present. They were the governors of Niger and chairman of forum, Babangida Aliyu; Kaduna State governor and the host, Yero; Jigawa State governor, Sule Lamido; Gombe State governor, Alhaji Ibrahim Dankwambo and the Nasarawa State governor, Tank Al-Makura.
But in expressing their disgust and disappointment, the governors of Sokoto, Kebbi, Kwara, Kano, Kogi, Borno and Zamfara states were represented by their deputies, while the Plateau and Benue governors were represented by the Secretary to their State Governments [SSG]. Five states were not represented at all, even though the chairman said Adamawa and Taraba sent their apologies. That still left Bauchi, Katsina and Yobe with undetermined status.
Moving forward, there is a new addition, the Progressives Governors Forum (PGF). It is made up of governors of Bornu, Edo, Ekiti, Imo, Lagos, Nassarawa, Ogun, Osun and Yobe States, essentially parties that are going into a merger on the platform of All Progressives Congress (APC). In order words, the PGF can be described as a platform for APC governors ahead of the 2015 general election. And like the others, PGF has its own sectional interest.
There is the South-south Governors’ Forum (SSGF) as well as the South-east Governors’ Forum (SEGF). By their names, the governors from the South-south states and their counterparts in the South-east states are members of the SSGF and SEGF respectively.
The disunity within the Nigeria’s Governors Forum (NGF) and the eroding of its founding objectives can be more evidently seen in the existence of the South-south Governors Forum, PDP Governors Forum and the NGF all at the same time, to which Rivers State governor Amaechi is a member of the three.
In the heat of the NGF chairmanship crisis, governors of the SSGF and SEGF met in the first weekend in July and reiterated their support for President Jonathan’s transformational agenda and endorsed him for a second term. Amaechi, although a member, was absent from the meeting and didn’t bother sending his deputy or representative, an indication that he did not share the stand of the rest of the SSGF members.
The aim of creating the NGF as a non-partisan association to promote unity, good governance, better understanding amongst the states and ensure a healthy and beneficial relationship between the states and other tiers of government, has proven to be too good to be true.
The governors, having realised the potency of their power as well as the redundant cash at their disposal, have decided to make their overriding interest count to the detriment of the people. The implication of the disunity in the NGF has revealed that the power play in the months leading to the 2015 general election will be sleazy. It has also revealed that the tenets of democracy might be trampled on if it stands in the way of their personal or sectional interests.