Ordinarily, the defection of a senator from Akwa Ibom State should not hug the news headlines. However, when the personality carries the commanding eminence of the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, it is registered as one of the biggest surprises on the political landscape. Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes

Given its modest electoral assets, Akwa Ibom State may not be considered as one of the key swing states with an impressive number of voters that can sway the result in a presidential election. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recorded 1,028,551 total votes cast in the 2015 presidential election in the state. This was less than five per cent of 28,587,564 total valid votes cast nationwide in that election.

A further scrutiny of the result reveals that Akwa Ibom only contributed a dismal 58,411 votes to the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate President Muhammadu Buhari’s (who was declared winner) imposing result of 15,424,921 votes. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) flag bearer, former President Goodluck Jonathan had 953,304 votes from Akwa Ibomites. This outlook is likely to change significantly in the 2019 election. With its population standing at 5.451 million, the INEC is targetting over two million new registered voters before the close of the continuing voters registration. There is a good chance that the figure may triple over the total number of votes cast in the 2015 election and prove to be a critical decider in the overall number of new voters registered across the country.

Ordinarily, the defection of a senator from Akwa Ibom State should not hug the news headlines. Thus, when Senator Nelson Asuquo Effiong representing Eket senatorial district defected from the PDP to the APC in January 2017, it was mulled over without much ado. However, it cannot be the same when a principal officer like the Senate Minority Leader and immediate past governor of the state, Senator Godswill Akpabio denounces the PDP.

Akpabio possesses a questionable charisma with which he has attracted, arguably in equal proportion as many admirers as detractors. As governor of Akwa Ibom State for two full tenures between 2007 and 2015, he is credited with giving a facelift to the city centre in the state capital, Uyo and improving road infrastructure in the urban area of Ikot Ekpene. Cynics, however, question the cost of these development projects in comparison to huge capital that accrued to the state during his tenure.

Akpabio who is said to be richer than the state carried his plundering style of politics to the senate where he allegedly and not surprisingly compromised the senators to emerge an officer in the Upper House-a feat previously unheard of from a first-time senator. The loathsome display of wealth was typical of Akpabio who has popularised the mantra that, “what money can not do, more money can do.” Suspicion that Akpabio could be a spy in the PDP began in the last quarter of 2015 when he started making overtures to the National Leader of the APC and former Governor of Lagos State, Senator Bola Tinubu ostensibly to keep away the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) operatives who were investigating him based on a series of petition written by Abuja-based lawyer, Mr. Leo Ekpenyong to the effect that Akpabio had defrauded the state to the tune of N108.8 billion. But Akpabio has continued to maintain his innocence, insisting that he should be applauded for his much hyped ‘uncommon transformation’ of the state; rather than being derided.

However, it is believed in some quarters that the questionable transactions for which he is being investigated constituted a huge hindrance that softened the usually ebullient Akpabio and turned him into a tiger without claws. His uncharacteristic and ‘uncommon silence’ in the senate led to a plot to remove him as the Minority Leader over allegations that he has not been properly steering the opposition to play its rightful role. Akpabio was accused of not being vocal enough in opposing unpopular policies of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.

THISDAY reported that Akpabio’s manner of heading the opposition, had turned the PDP caucus into a laughing stock among their APC colleagues. The report quoted sources that pleaded anonymity saying, “The APC senators do not even consider us to be an opposition party, its like we are weaklings who can barely voice our opposition to this government, but the opposition caucus in the National Assembly, is supposed to be vibrant. He handles that position as if it is a ceremonial one. It is not. It is supposed to be for a vibrant person, who is always ready to tackle issues.”

The plotters of the move to demote Akpabio were never able to carry out their plan until the recent gale of defection that hit the senate, with senators crossing, largely, from the PDP to the APC. There are unsubstantiated reports that the Senate Minority Leader attempted to switch party loyalty but was denied the privilege by Senate President Bukola Saraki.

Though, Akpabio has issued virulent assaults on the APC in public, he has never been known to enter an open confrontation with Buhari. There are stories that he made several attempts to meet with the President but was rebuffed. With his willingness to join the APC, which will be formalised at a rally in Akwa Ibom State this week, Akpabio will become the second PDP senator from the state to switch loyalty to the APC.

Many did not see Akpabio’s move coming. It is one of the biggest surprises on the political landscape. His membership of the APC is expected to provide the much-needed in-road into the South-south region for the APC in the 2019 elections, where the party previously posted woeful results. The move will prove once and for all if Akpabio is the acclaimed king of Akwa Ibom politics, as many credit him. He is expected to influence the defection of the only remaining PDP senator from Akwa Ibom State, Senator Bassey Albert Akpan who represents Uyo Senatorial District and was the Finance Commissioner under Akpabio. Like Akpabio, Akpan is being investigated by the EFCC, even worse, his office is the subject of an enduring litigation. The majority of the House of Representatives members from Akwa Ibom State and their colleagues in the state assembly, elected local government and party officials who were largely handpicked by Akpabio may move with him to the APC.

At the weekend, Akpabio who had earlier met with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the Aso Rock Villa in the company of Presidential Aide on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang, himself an Akwa Ibomite was said to have also met with Buhari who is on a 10-day vacation in London to extract certain commitments.

This irrefutable move by Akpabio was made known in a post on Facebook by the Chairman, Special Presidential Investigative Panel for the Recovery of Property, Okoi Obono-Obla.

The presidential aide revealed the impending welcome rally for Akpabio.

Obono-Obla said, There shall be an APC rally at Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Abasi Ibom State on Thursday, August 9, 2018 to receive the former indefatigable governor of the state, His Excellency, Senator Godswill Akpabio to the All Progressives Congress! Acting President Osinbajo accompanied by Senator Ita Enang and leaders of the APC in Akwa Ibom will formally receive Senator Godswill Akpabio into the APC at Ikot Ekpene Stadium on Thursday August 9, 2018.”

Senator Effiong appears to be the man who saw tomorrow by crossing to the APC since last year. He hails from the same senatorial district with Governor Udom Emmanuel who is of the PDP. With the benefit of hindsight, it can now be understood why Akpabio representing Ikot Ekpene senatorial district did not raise much alarm at Effiong’s defection. Rather, it was the Deputy Minority leader, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha, PDP, Taraba South who warned Effiong to be mindful of his comments and consequences of his action. Akpabio merely noted that the Senator was free to decamp to APC as an individual, but he should know that he got elected on the platform of a party and that there was no crisis in Akwa Ibom PDP.

The PDP in Akwa Ibom State may have managed to keep its disagreements from becoming a full-blown crisis. But this change of party loyalty has exposed Akpabio’s fickle disposition; showing that he is not one who can be trusted. Only a few weeks ago he was everywhere endorsing a return ticket for second tenure for Governor Udom Emmanuel. He made it look like he and Emmanuel had settled their rumoured differences. The tiff between the two leading politicians was a subject of speculation for a long time, until Akpabio brought it to the public space.He accused the governor of neglecting his District, the Akwa Ibom North-West Senatorial District.

Akpabio told the governor in very strong terms that if he did not play ball, he could mobilise against his re-election. He said: “It is less than one year to the election, all is not well, don’t allow anybody to deceive you that all is well.’’ It was an unambiguous reference to what he considered a negation of an understanding between the two, particularly on the issue of completing projects started by Akpabio in his senatorial district.

It is well-known that Akpabio is still firmly in control of the political machinery of the ruling PDP in the state. Many of the state officers, local government chairmen, heads of ministries, departments and agencies, including traditional rulers, professional and trade unions owe (to) their loyalty to Akpabio.

Though a few members in the governor’s cabinet like the state Commissioner for Works, Mr. Ephraim Inyang-Eyen who were spoiling for a show down urged him to call Akpabio’s bluff, Emmanuel ate the humble pie and went to beg his former boss, in whose administration he served as Secretary to the State Government. The message in the warning was not lost on Emmanuel. He quickly sought to placate his political godfather, by making overtures and rushing to complete the projects that Akpabio complained about. What is being said in the closet is that Emmanuel was scared stiff of the potency of a secret oath he allegedly entered into at a shrine with Akpabio. The repercussions of going against this agreement could be deadly, it is believed.

Having failed, so far, to seize the moment and build a political structure of his own, Emmanuel weighed the options available to him, facing the reality that he was the weaker opponent, if he attempted to enter a duel against the obviously more politically savvy Akpabio, who has a lot of fire power in his potent arsenal to throw at the governor. With Akpabio moving over to the APC, Emmanuel would be made to pay for his folly of remaining a stooge to Akpabio and not making a political hay, while the sun was shinning brilliantly in his favour. Many times, Emmanuel refused to cooperate with agencies of the federal government who were investigating allegations of corruption against Akpabio and the state’s erstwhile Finance Commissioner, Senator Akpan. Though he was pressurised, the Akwa Ibom Governor has refused to reveal how much debt he inherited from Akpabio. But it does not appear like Akpabio counted Emmanuel’s protection for much. Neither was he grateful for Emmanuel’s refusal to rock the boat of the PDP in the state by disrupting the status quo that Akpabio instituted. When it mattered most, Akpabio has chosen to preserve himself by turning his back against his political godson.

Analysts have said that the best option open to Emmanuel now is to go to town with damaging evidence of Akpabio’s alleged financial crimes against the state. The snag, however, is that critics are likely to question why he left it so late in the day.

A study of Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) allocations in 2017 showed that Akwa Ibom State received the highest share of N143.6 billion, as the highest oil and gas producing state in the country. If he chooses to deploy the state’s resources to fight Akpabio and the APC, like he allegedly did in the days before his victory as governor was upheld, there is a sizeable war chest at his disposal. The problem is that Akpabio has Emmanuel’s back against the wall. The State House of Assembly is made up of ‘Akpabio boys’ who can easily garner the needed majority to impeach the governor.

One thing is sure, Akpabio’s crossing over to the APC will flip Akwa Ibom to APC in the 2019 elections and at least assure President Buhari of capturing 25 per cent of the votes in the state.
It must be emphasised here that like in every state where a political heavyweight has changed party loyalty, it presents a fresh problem. The issue is always with how to accommodate the interest(s) of the defectors against those were already in the party. In this case, stakeholders like former Governor Victor Attah, Chief Donald Etiebet, Chief Akpan Udoedehe, former Deputy Governor and Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Chief Nsima Ekere and Chief Umana Okon Umana, Managing Director of Nigeria Export Free Zones (NEPZA) are not privy to the deal being entered into with Akpabio by the leadership of the APC, especially given the leading role these men and others too numerous to mention played when Akpabio viciously crushed the opposition and ran many of them out of town.

There are still unsavoury memories and many unhealed scars from the 2011 governorship election, which was, arguably, the toughest governorship battle ever in the state, which pitched Akpabio of the PDP against Action Congress of Nigeria’s (ACN) Udoedehe. Many lives were lost and property worth billions of Naira destroyed.

Akpabio’s membership of the APC should be instructive to youths in Akwa Ibom State in particular and Nigeria in general who are quick to take up arms and destroy themselves to further the ambition of politicians. Akpabio has unashamedly come to dance on the graves of many who died in politically motivated violence during his stewardship in the state. Time will tell if the Akwa Ibom political elite who were thoroughly rubbished by Akpabio can co-exist with him in the same political group or they will come together to forge ahead with a potent Third Force.

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