Whether or not the Peoples Democratic Party is able to bounce back in 2019 will be determined by the outcome of its December 9 National Convention, writes Onyebuchi Ezigbo
Next Saturday, the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), will go into what is seen as a most strategic national convention to elect a new set of national officers for the party. It is seen as most strategic, because of the impact it would have on the stability and fortunes of the party ahead of the next general election in 2019. Many political pundits have predicted that the party can make a great leap forward if it is able to hold a successful convention and elect credible new leadership by next Saturday.
The stakes are indeed high for the former ruling party, which is eager to stage a comeback to power after losing the presidency to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015, in a most humiliating circumstance. Also, having gone through a very harrowing experience in a long-drawn leadership crisis that lasted close to two years and was only saved by the historic judicial intervention, the PDP is in a haste to make amends and recover lost grounds.
Although the political atmosphere in the country is still hazy, the PDP appears to be witnessing rebounds in its image and electoral prospects, especially with the not-too-remarkable showings of the APC in the last two and half years in office. For this, the opposition party believes it can take advantage of the situation to refocus and attract more members even from the APC.
The feeling of many members of the PDP is that the party could regain its preeminence in the political calculus of the country and possibly retake power at the centre in the next presidential election if the forthcoming national convention ends pretty well. The manner in which PDP emerged from the protracted legal tussle to swiftly organise and hold its non-elective convention last September gave every hope that the party was on its way back to reckoning.
However, achieving a rancour-free elective national convention is becoming a tall order or so it seems. As at the close of nominations, eight aspirants had indicated their interest in the post of national chairman of the PDP. They are Uche Secondus, Chief Raymond Dokpesi (South-South), and Chief Bode George, Jimi Agbaje, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, Alhaji Rashidi Ladoja, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, Prof. Taoheed Adedoja (all from South-west).
At least, the events of the last few weeks of politicking and campaigns by those aspiring to contest for various offices at the convention have given cause for worry on whether the contest will not result in another leadership crisis. In keeping with its tradition, the party in its wisdom unanimously decided to zone the two most important positions, the presidential ticket and national chairman to the North and South respectively. But the jostle for the national chairmanship seat has been generating a lot of heat.
Unlike the build-up to the botched 2016 Port Harcourt national convention, when the seat was ceded to one of the zones in the South, the South-west, through a micro zoning arrangement, the present situation is different. The various stakeholders in the southern part of the country could not at the moment agree on any micro zoning arrangement as far as the chairmanship seat is concerned. This has put the leadership of the National Caretaker Committee (NCC) of the party almost on the edge in trying to manage the resultant suspicion over its neutrality.
It has also led to allegations and counter-allegations on the part of aspirants, who are trying to outwit each other ahead of the convention. For instance, some of the chairmanship aspirants have raised concerns about attempts to drag the Board of Trustees (BoT) into taking bias positions. Some have also complained about the conduct of congresses in states meant to elect delegates for the elective conventions.
A former Deputy National Chairman of the PDP and one of the chairmanship aspirants, Bode George, had in the heat of the tussle demanded the resignation of the chairman of the partyâ€™s National Caretaker Committee, Senator Ahmed Makarfi.
George said the move had become necessary because of the increasing evidence of clash of interests over the choice of the next chairman of the PDP at the forthcoming national convention. In a statement signed by the Director General of Bode George Campaign Organisation, Alhaji Ibrahim K. Aliu, the PDP chieftain alleged that Makarfi was brazenly allying with a particular aspirant in the South-south.
â€œFor the sake of propriety, for the sake of all that is good and meaningful, for the sake of equitable balance and moral appropriateness, we strongly advise Senator Makarfi to resign his position forthwith, because he has been severely compromised. He can no longer play the role of a neutral arbiter, who stands far above the fray. He is already tarred and soiled in the muddy waters of partisan prejudice,â€ he said.
Another chairmanship aspirant and a former Minister of Education, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, had earlier petitioned the leadership of the party alleging bias in the manner in which the panel assigned to various states to conduct congresses were constituted. He mentioned some names to the panel, who he alleged were supporters of one of the chairmanship aspirants. There were also threats of a boycott and may be a possible convocation of parallel convention by those dissatisfied by the processes leading to the conduct of the convention.
One of the aspirants, George, who launched his campaign in Lagos, came with a challenge to other contestants to match his experience and competence on the job. Having been around for quite some time within the leadership circle of the PDP, George confidently believed that with his intimidating experience and candor, he stood a good chance of securing the position. He has boasted that he possessed what it would take to rebuild the PDP and to put it in a position to win the 2019 elections.
For him, there is no need to experiment with persons that have not tested leadership at that level. But George does not seem to be in the good books of the power brokers, the group of PDP governors, whose role in the emergence of national leadership of the party cannot be ignored. Apart from his not being able to resolve the crisis that engulfed the party in the South-west zone even as then Vice Chairman, those who are against his candidacy feel he would be arrogant and stiff in handling difficult issues in the party.
A former acting national chairman of the PDP, Uche Secondus, is hoping to leverage on his short but eventful reign in office during which he tried to revive the party by refocusing its agenda and setting the foundation for reforming its affairs. According to his campaign office, Secondusâ€™ experience and disarming human relations are the most potent ingredients for him now because of the urgent harmonious environment the party would immediately require after the convention to confront the challenges ahead.
It is said that as a committed loyal party man, who has held virtually all critical positions in the party at various levels of the party structure, Secondus stands out well equipped more than anybody in the race at this time to take the party back to power.
â€œSecondusâ€™ clear understanding of political party administration, his firm grip of the partyâ€™s workings, are clearly his biggest strength as the party is poised to take its rightful place in the polity and to quickly save Nigerians from the obvious lack of direction the APC government has subjected the country to in the last two yearsâ€.
Another aspirant, Gbenga Daniel, has paid his dues in the party and wields considerable influence having been part of the many efforts to rebuild the party and to reconcile disputes amongst its ranks. Daniel spoke of his aspiration recently.
â€œIt is not a do-or-die affair. It is an in-house contest and Iâ€™m running to win so as to bring my experiences to bear on the party and work on re-positioning the partyâ€.
But the crisis in his South-west zone has not abated despite the series of peace efforts. Presently, the dispute between him and another party stalwart, the Senator representing Ogun East senatorial district, Buruji Kashamu, has persisted with no signs of abating. His declaration for the chairmanship contest has sparked off further tussle between him and Senator Kashamu.
Former education minister, Adeniran, is an Ekiti State-born political tactician, who is going on with his well-laid out campaign for the plump job at the PDP. A visit to his campaign office located in Wuse area of Abuja will convince anyone of his seriousness and cool-headed approach to the contest. Adeniran is well-connected to all the power blocks in the party and boasts a good knowledge of the workings of the party and its core vision, having been one of the founding fathers. He served as the chairman of the sub-committee of the party on strategy during the effort to resolve the leadership crisis in the party.
The other aspirant, Agbaje came into limelight in the PDP, when he flew the partyâ€™s Lagos flag in the 2015 governorship contest. Agbaje also almost emerged as the PDP joker, whom some of the governors wanted to succeed the ousted former National Chairman, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, at the botched May 21, 2015 national convention in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. He is expected to assert his personality again this time around, perhaps, not as anyoneâ€™s stooge.
From the South-south, Chief Dokpesi, is also in the race and has been touring the country campaigning for support from PDP stakeholders. Dokpesi, who is the founding chairman of DAAR Communications Plc, brings to the contest the promise of a vibrant leadership. To his credit, he has contributed a lot to the increase in the fortunes of the PDP especially the current rebounds being witnessed in the party today, using his wide media reach. But the list is not yet complete as a former Minister of Sports, Prof. Taoheed Adedoja, is also said to be interested in the job. Although he has not come out strongly as others have done, there are indications that he has a keen interest in the job and has begun to consult to that effect.
Other key positions that are keenly being contested include the office of the National Secretary, the National Publicity Secretary, the Deputy National Chairman and National Organising Secretary. But somehow the contests for these positions have not been as stiff as that of the national chairman, because the stakeholders have reached an agreement on a zoning arrangement.
Based on the large number of the chairmanship aspirants, and the anticipated stiff competition it would generate, the party decided to draw up an undertaking on peaceful conduct before, during and after the convention, which they all signed. Part of the terms of agreement signed by the aspirants is that â€œwhoever that is crowned by God and elected by the delegates will be accepted to all of them and that they would join hands to rebuild the party afterwards.
However, the mounting criticism and suspicion by some of these aspirants have forced Makarfi to come out to openly clarify issues and reassure them of the determination of his leadership to organise a transparent, free and fair election at the convention. Makarfi, while dismissing the allegations of bias, reminded the chairmanship aspirants of the need to abide by the agreement and undertaking they voluntarily entered into.
He said: â€œIn the peace accord, which we have signed, you categorically stated that by the South, you meant all the states in the South and by the North all the states in the North. If aspirants themselves come to a conclusion, develop a document and sign, it is very unfair to hear accusations that the caretaker committee has refused to do some things that we have no powers to do.
â€œWe also did say that wherever there is a political arrangement whether in the North or South to push for consensus, we will acknowledge it. But we also said we have no power to force delegates but it can form a basis for campaignâ€, Makarfi said, noting that the NCC could not endorse micro zoning as it has no power to warrant its interference in the choice of chairman of the party.
â€œI want to make one thing categorically clear that it is very unfair insinuation. Some people think that I, as chairman of the caretaker committee, should assume the power that we donâ€™t. We have no power beyond the convention and I want to remind all of us, the only thing convention did was to zone two positions and as chairman or caretaker committee, we cannot go beyond thatâ€. In the same vein, the former president and national leader of the PDP, Goodluck Jonathan, has also weighed in to drum support for a transparent and credible convention. Jonathan, while receiving one of the aspirants, who paid him courtesy visit, specifically emphasised the need to choose capable hands to man the positions of the national chairman and that of the National Publicity Secretary. He said the party must put square pegs in square holes if it hopes to realise the dream of returning to power in 2019.
All preparations for the convention are now in the final stages, with the formation of the convention planning committee being expected at the National Executive committee meeting of the party held last Thursday. Barring any unforeseen occurrence, the more than 4,000 delegates of the party will troop out on Saturday to elect new national officers.