For three weeks consecutively, Ebonyi State played host to prominent Nigerians. From Vice-President Yemi Osibanjo to former President Olusegun Obasanjo and now President Muhammadu Buhari. With the change in the political atmosphere of the state following the presidentâ€™s visit, the journey to 2019 might have begun, writes Benjamin Nworie
On November 4, the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, came to Ebonyi State to attend the wedding ceremony of his Chief Security Detail, Mr. Nelson Ekene Nwokoro. As it was, Osinbajoâ€™s presence ignited political fireworks in the state chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC). As elated as they were, APC members turned the wedding ceremony to a mini solidarity rally with a rousing welcome.
The APC supporters displayed brooms and forcefully followed the Vice President to the church service and were ready to dominate the event. The idea was to inform the second citizen that APC actually existed in Ebonyi, contrary to claims by the PDP hierarchy in the state.
After the church service, the members dared all security surveillance to â€œforcefullyâ€ present the partyâ€™s logo, broom, to Osinbajo, which he firmly received and raised to the crowd, generating a thunderous response.
The Buhari visit was to take the same turn but the state government was fast to thwart the plot to infiltrate or hijack the rally. Buhariâ€™s visit was the first visit by the president to the South-east zone since assumption of office, which also signified his belief in Nigeriaâ€™s unity. Apart from project commissioning, the visit has many untold stories for the state and the governor.
Umahi, with other South-east governors, received Buhari at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu. He was conveyed by a Nigerian air force helicopter with registration number NAF-540 from Enugu airport to the Military cantonment in Nkwegu, the Ebonyi State capital at about 11.15a.m.
The president, who was received at the army barracks by dignitaries from the state, subsequently commissioned six projects and thereafter proceeded to the Government House, where he met notable leaders of the state and traditional rulers from both Ebonyi and the South-east, who conferred on him two traditional chieftaincy titles.
Among those who received the president were the deputy governor of Ebonyi State, Dr. Kelechi Igwe; Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu; former governors of the state, Senator Sam Egwu, and Chief Martin Elechi; former Senate President, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim; former Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ambassador Frank Ogbuewu; ex-Minister of Health (State), Mr. Fidelis Nwankwo; former deputy governor of the state, Prof. Chigozie Ogbu; the zonal Vice Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Austine Umahi; and Chief Executive Officer of Orient Global Ltd, Chief Chukwuma Odi.
Other dignitaries, who visited the state to welcome the president, were the Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu; Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema; and his Trade and Investment counterpart, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah.
The state was grounded to honour the President. Private and public schools were closed. Major markets were not opened either. It was a public holiday for civil servants. Movement was paralysed as all routes were barricaded by stern looking security operatives. Nobody waited to be reminded to be civil and orderly. There was absolute calm and peace as surveillance helicopter hover the capital city till the end of the rally.
The visit was the best day for Governor Dave Umahi and his admirers. The governor dictated the tone of direction at the rally and everybody abided by it. It was however not a good outing for APC members. Even in opposition, Umahi has proven his relevance in national politics. Though he has been accused of romancing the Presidency suspiciously, the governor had insisted he would not play opposition politics with the fortunes of his people.
Rather, he promised to always seek a way of advancing the wellbeing of Ebonyi people by keying into the policies and programmes of the Buhari administration. Umahi also proved that he was highly respected by the presidency to have made it possible for the president to come.
The governor described the presidentâ€™s visit as significant for the state, because both the president and his administration had provided incentives, which he claimed had boosted the stateâ€™s programmes and policies in agriculture and solid minerals.
He also said the president, who would later commission some projects, would use the opportunity of the visit to examine if the assistance has been well deployed and whether Ebonyi has justified its creation 31 years after.
â€œMr. President has helped us so much in the area of agriculture. At every opportunity, I have had to talk. I have always commended the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Solid Minerals.
â€œThey have tremendously helped us to revamp our agricultural programme and solid minerals in Ebonyi State. So, I believe Mr. President will be coming to see how far we have fared with the assistance he gave to us. Of course, he gave to other states but the Bible says that in the last day, men shall be unthankful.
â€œWe are not like those that are unthankful. We have to say, â€˜well, Mr. President has helped us and so he is coming to see how much we have been able to manage the state we yearn for,â€™ and he will be able to see the level of marginalisation we suffered before the creation of Ebonyi State.
He also requested the presidentâ€™s intervention in certain challenges confronting the state such as non-functioning dams in the state, totalling 30 in number, which he said would have boosted rice production. He also drew the attention of the president to some federal roads that his administration had constructed, lamenting that such projects were not captured for a refund in 2018 budget.
Also, at a reception for the president in the stateâ€™s stadium, the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, thanked Buhari for his visit to the region barely a few weeks after Igbo leaders had visited him in the State House to draw his attention to infrastructure deficit in the South-east.
Nwodo highlighted the infrastructure decay in the region and appealed to the president to address it. He also said livelihoods in the region were threatened by the infrastructure decay, including the dilapidated state of the Onitsha-Enugu expressway, Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway, stoppage of work on the Second Niger Bridge, unemployment, hunger and starvation, among others.
Responding, the president recalled how some Igbo leaders had visited him at the State House, Abuja, last month to express concern over the poor state of infrastructure in the region, assuring them that resources meant to address their concerns had been captured in the 2018 budget currently before the National Assembly.
He promised to concentrate on power and agriculture projects as well as other social services in the region, when the budget is operational and praised the governor for the projects being executed by his administration in the state, describing them as laudable.
â€œI am delighted to be here in Abakaliki to interact with the good people of Ebonyi State and indeed the South-east region as a whole.
I want to express my gratitude to the people of Ebonyi State for their hospitality and warm reception since I arrived the state. My presence here today is a demonstration of my strong belief in the unity of Nigeria. As the most populous country in Africa with over 300 ethnic groups, our diversity is almost unique. When I met with the leaders of the South-east in Abuja last month, they raised several issues of concern including the state of the roads and infrastructure in the region.
â€œAfter independence, the same founding fathers worked together to maintain this one Nigeria. Yes, they had differences and varied opinions at times. After all, they were only human. And yes, they had moments of weaknesses and doubt. But again, no one is perfect. However, one thing they all protected until the end of their lives was having one Nigeria for all Nigerians,â€ he said.
Among the initial projects Buhari commissioned were a 700-metre twin Trans-Sahara bridge linking Enugu and Ebonyi States with Cameroon; the Senator Offia Nwali flyover; the 14.5km Abakaliki-Afikpo road; foundation laying of the Ebonyi city mall; foundation laying of the Muhammadu Buhari bridge; and unveiling of the Akanu Ibiam statue.
Politics of the Visit
With the political drama that typified Osibanjoâ€™s visit, observers had noted that the 2019 elections in the state might be tougher than the previous elections. The resilience of the APC to unseat Umahi, on the strength of â€œfederal mightâ€ is palpable. The opposition party in the state is already banking on federal support to occupy the seat of power in the state, but they are being confronted by two hydra-headed factors.
The factors are the leadership crisis in Ebonyi APC, which has led to the factionalisation of the party. Another factor is the performance record of the governor. Umahi is believed to have performed admirably, especially in infrastructure development, human empowerment and capital city renewal among others. Thus, on account of his stewardship, Umahi might be difficult to unseat if not impossible.
And to ensure the success of the Buhari visit, he banned the use and display of any party logos and symbols, including Umahiâ€™s PDP. It was envisaged that if the APC members were allowed to repeat the incidence of November 4, it could lead to chaos, and embarrassment of the President. The rally was packaged in a way that was devoid of party coloration, though the state government still had the upper hand and managed it to its advantage.
Umahiâ€™s ban on partiesâ€™ involvement in the visit was in reaction to the agitation by the state chapter of the APC to storm the stadium, where the president was received, in order to welcome him with their logo, brooms and placards. Umahi said displaying any party logos and symbols during the visit would amount to embarrassing the president.
â€œNobody should come to the stadium with any party logos. We donâ€™t want to embarrass the president. If we invite the president for a state visit and PDP rolls out their logo, it will be an embarrassment to the president. So, it is a presidential visit. No party is coming to the stadium with logos or party slogans or anything. It is just a simple presidential visit. If they donâ€™t understand, they should go and find out what a presidential visit is and what it entails.â€
A source noted that over 10,000 brooms had been procured by the APC members but they hid it somewhere waiting for an opportunity to flout the directive, first by the PDP members, for them to invade the Pa Ngele Oruta township stadium with their brooms. The visit has many intrigues. It was expected that in some quarters that the president would have intervened in the leadership crisis in the state chapter of the APC and reconcile the two camps, claiming the authentic chairmanship of the party.
The two factions of the Ebonyi APC eventually met with President Buhari before his departure in a closed-door meeting as the embattled chairman, Ben Nwobasi insisted against the claims of the factional chairman, Eze Nwachukwu that the crisis had not been resolved. The meeting, which was held at the Presidential lodge, Government House was attended by the two factional chairmen and the other leaders of both camps.
THISDAY learnt that since the party concluded its state congresses in 2014, Nwobasi and Nwachukwu had been locked in a running leadership battle in the state. Nwachukwu had claimed that the crisis had been resolved but Nwobasi disputed it, claiming that there was still a subsisting court injunction restraining the party from tampering with his election as the state chairman.
Though Nwachukwu noted that the factional crisis had not been resolved, the embattled chairman said he was still the authentic and elected state chairman of the party.
Meanwhile, a chieftain of the party and National Coordinator of Initiatives for Demonstrating, Chinedu Ogah, has urged the state governor to defect to the APC so as to expand his frontiers of development in the state, instead of being in an opposition party.