Guest Columnist: Silva Opusunju
“I suppose, indeed, that in public life, a man whose political principles have any decided character and who has energy enough to give them effect must always expect to encounter political hostility from those of adverse principles” – Letter by former USA President Thomas Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson.
There is no doubt that the largest political party in Africa, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is passing through very trying moments. Its internal crisis has now scornfully deteriorated to the grassroots level and there appears to be no end in sight. Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, the court certified National Chairman of the party has shown resilience and a spirit of accommodation as seen in his numerous reconciliatory moves. But each times he appears to succeed, he is countered by the “adverse principles’’ of a diminishing cabal within the party.
Recall that after losing the 2015 general elections to the All Progressives Party (APC), Ali Modu Sheriff was drafted largely with the assistance of the governors of PDP to head the party as its National Chairman. In their unwritten memorandum of understanding, Sheriff was to do the biddings of their excellencies: (a) He will maintain the matrix of a secret 2019 presidential ticket. (b) Assist in the suppression of opposition members within the organs of the party and potential aspirants in the various states of the governors. (c) Ensure the tickets of the governors or their anointed successors where tenures were expiring. (d) Allow the governors determine who should seek electoral offices within their states without regard to the issue of zoning/ rotation of political offices and qualifications of such aspirants whether into state or national legislative houses.
The principle of non intervention in the memorandum was absolute. It was simply the governors saying: “Give us impunity and we will guarantee your chairmanship of the PDP.’’ But Sheriff had other plans: at the core of his agenda was the rebuilding and “…returning the party to its real owners at the grassroots level- the Wards and Units.’’ Sheriff was and still is convinced that the party had lost touch with its members; and must be reconnected.
Problem started with the planning of the second convention. Sheriff as constitutionally the Chairman of the Convention observed to his bafflement that the delegates list which his office collated and which he approved had been significantly altered by his appointed Chairman of the Convention Planning Committee- Governor Wike. On further investigation, it dawned on the Chairman that the governors had covertly concluded plans for his removal as National Chairman because he was too independent and wanted an inclusive party decision-making process. If the convention had held, he would have been voted out by the new unknown delegates of the governors. Amidst disgruntlement across the rank and file of the party, the Borno chieftain expressly nipped the governor’s plans to inflict indignity on him. Sheriff cancelled the convention and instituted legal proceeding which favoured his stay as National Chairman. This successful counter coup hurt the combined egos of Fayose, Wike and their co-sponsors. The move was widely acknowledged by members because of the high handedness and failure of the governors to engage stakeholders in thorough consultations before attempting to initiate the removal of Sheriff ostensibly on behalf of the party.
Ali Modu Sheriff has always reiterated his commitment to the reconciliation process. Recall that while inaugurating the leadership of the party in Delta state, Sheriff observed that the problems in the party can only be resolved through the dialogue that has been initiated between him and Senator Ahmed Makarfi. Thus Senators Sheriff and Makarfi that period, resolved to work together to end the leadership crisis that had engulfed the party since May this year. Sadly, while the move was hailed by many, the governor of Ekiti State, Mr. Ayo Fayose condemned the initiative, saying “it will not work unless the matter is decided by the Appeal Court.’’ The appellate court has now ruled in favour of Sheriff as the authentic National Chairman of the party. But the Markafi group which Fayose and Wike support, have since approached the Supreme Court seeking to outs the victory of Sheriff. .
While party members await the verdict, former president Jonathan took the initiative of convening a stakeholders meeting to settle the fictionalization in the party. Conspicuously missing at the meeting was the leader of the reconciliation team, the governor of Bayelsa State, Mr. Seriake Dickson. The result was that the peace meeting intended to end the crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party, itself ended in disarray.
As Dr. Jonathan mounted the podium and was completing his speech, Sheriff arrived. His late entrance caused a little stir as the sitting arrangement had to be hurriedly adjusted in order to find him a place close to the former President. Meaning that no seat was reserved for Chairman Sheriff. This was interpreted as a wrong signal of not according due recognition to the legitimate Chairman of the party by the convener. In the program of events, those listed to speak after Jonathan were the National Chairman, Ali Modu Sheriff (who was never addressed as National Chairman in the programme of even/ agenda of the meeting), followed by Senator Makarfi and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees- Senator Walid Jibrin. However, instead of following the speaking arrangement (Sheriff before Markafi), the BoT Chairman Walid was ushered unto the podium to speak. This breakdown in order of protocol was noticeable and the plenary was abruptly ended to address these issue.
At the closed-door session, Ali Modu Sheriff insisted that as the National Chairman of the party, it was his rifhtful place to address the audience. He also insisted that Makarfi should not speak since his Interim Committee had been sacked by the Court of Appeal. Sheriff proposal was rejected by the Governor of Rivers State, Chief Nyesom Wike, who insisted that Makarfi should also be allowed to speak if Sheriff would speak. The argument became so ferocious and in bewilderment, the former President tried to pacify Sheriff and Wike. Other party leaders: Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu; a former President of the Senate, Senator David Mark, and a host of others tried in vain to calm the situation.
At this point, the former President asked that some selected attendees should meet inside one of the rooms within the Yar’Adua Centre where the reconciliation meeting held. Those at the `secret’ meeting were Jonathan, Sheriff, Ekweremadu, Jibrin, Mark and the Governors Ayodele Fayose and Nyesom Wike. Noticeably, Fayose was the first to leave the meeting; minutes later, Sheriff emerged from the room and walked out of the larger meeting to speak with journalists. In his engagement of the media, Sheriff maintained that he was committed to the report of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee of the party which is headed by the Governor of Bayelsa State, Mr. Seriake Dickson. The Dickson-led committee had, in its report, outlined ways to end the crisis and recommended that a national convention should hold by the end of June 2017 in Abuja.
It is important to note that in negotiating the settlement of disputes, the proper approach is to first identify and recognize the parties and their legitimacy. This process is very crucial in all mediatory endeavours. By the pronouncement of a Court of competent jurisdiction, Ali Modu Sheriff is today PDP’s National Chairman. There is no provision in the Constitution of the Party for a co-Chairman. No national meetings of the Party (except that of the BoT) can be validly held without the blessing of the National Chairman. This is a legal right provided by both the Constitution of Nigeria and that of the Party, and affirmed by the Court of Appeal. Indeed this approach or principle is even a universal one. For example, in the Israel-Palestine crisis, Israel insisted that its right to exist must first be acknowledged by Palestine before it will be a party to any negotiations. This was done and the peace talks were started with the US as the major mediator. The reasoning is that you cannot negotiate with one who says you don’t exist. In further consideration of the PDP peace meeting, the implication is such that, if Sheriff had voluntarily and knowingly allowed Markafi to precede him in the order of protocol (by first addressing the audience), it would have amounted to a constructive abdication of his (Sheriff’s) position as National Chairman of the party.
It is also a norm that once a decision has been rendered by a competent court, the decision must be respected, save where there is a stay of execution. In this case, the orders of the Court were declaratory and cannot admit of a motion for stay. PDP must therefore respect the law as decreed by the Court. PDP must rebrand by showing that it has shredded its notoriety for impunity, disregard for the rule of law and lack of internal democracy and governance.
Again, it is inherent in the office of the Chairman of the party to promote all activities of the party including reconciliation. The National Chairman is held accountable and responsible for discharging the objectives of the party as enshrined in the party’s constitution. The meaning of this is that, it is Sheriff who should in the first place, lead the planning and execution of the reconciliation as an activity of the party. This is an activity of the party which cannot be carried out successfully behind his (Sheriff’s) back. It is his call and he need not be a mere invitee to a process which he should own.
We should remember that attempts to unite the party had been on since 2015. It was this failure and recourse to litigation, that gave the court the opportunity to act as an impartial arbiter, to resolve the impasse by pronouncing one of the contenders as legitimate authority- as Chairman of the party. Consequently what former president Jonathan sought to do, had already been accomplished by the court. This lead to the question as to what exactly we are expecting Sheriff who has been crowned and has no constraint with discharging his duties, to do in the reconciliation process. Can Sheriff reconcile with himself?
In view of the existing situation in which the leadership of the party had been affirmed, perhaps our challenge lies in the misapplication of terms. This misapplication arise from the misconception that there is still two factions within the party. This is far from the truth as the court has extinguished the Markafi faction. Thus PDP is one with one National Chairman and National Working Committee. It is therefore suggested that the appropriate nomenclature for current state of affairs within the party is to be found in the word “embrace;’’ and not the word “reconcile.’’ Reconciliation as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism usually results in some trade offs. Is Sheriff expected to surrender some of his powers and responsibilities or that of his NWC for the purpose of fostering reconciliation? That in itself will be unconstitutional and tantamount to Sheriff amending the PDP constitution which can only be done at a convention. The powers and functions of the National Chairman and organs of the party are fixed by the party constitution. What is termed reconciliation should rather be a call to all members to now embrace, accept and re-integrate with the formal structure and leadership of the PDP under the Sheriff administration.
As we look on, the cards are crashing fast for the PDP and followers are losing faith and hope of any revival of the party because of these distractions. The Edo and Ondo elections have already been lost by the PDP. Another hope for the members would be to see a viable candidate as the party’s flag bearer during the coming Anambra governorship election scheduled for November, 2017. But, self interest and personal ambitions seeking to undermine the party by unconstitutional means must be squashed. Modu Sheriff cannot be rigged out through the back door of reconciliation. Perhaps, there is now an urgent need to embrace the Chairman and his NWC in order to create an atmosphere of peace and stability so that the party hierarchy can focus on its core responsibilities.
• Dr. Opusunju is a PDP leader in Rivers State