Emmanuel Ugwu writes that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State may have achieved a careful balancing of opposing blocs in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party
Like party primary elections, party congresses also pose a huge challenge to political party leaders due to the many contending interests usually at play. Balancing the competing interests requires astute maneuvering by party leaders as any tipping of the scale could easily lead to disaffection among party members whose interests were not accommodated. Thus the supposed cohesive wall begins to crack when grumblings and disaffection ensue in party affairs. And if not papered well enough the cracks could widen and lead to indifference, antiparty activities and even defection.
This was the looming tempest staring the Abia state chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the face when the national leadership of the party announced the time table for the 2020 party congresses. There was palpable convulsion in the ruling party as contending political interests positioned to grab elective offices in the congresses that would take place from ward to state level. The scramble for positions at the state level was more intense due to the impact it would have in 2023 when tickets for elective offices are due.
Some sections of the state that felt they’ve not received a fair share in the distribution of party offices were seething with anger, ready to use the opportunity offered by the 2020 state congress to even scores. More over a big question mark is still hanging on the Abia Charter of Equity on which the ruling party has based its power rotation arrangement. Hence the shape of the incoming state executive is a sure pointer to the direction of power rotation compass come 2023.
Faced with the simmering discontent, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu needed to act fast to stop it from boiling over. The Abia Chief Executive had swept to power in 2015 on the platform of the PDP and got a renewed mandate in 2019. So he needed no soothsayer to know that things could go wrong and the ruling party adversely affected if the 2020 state congress was not handled well. He just needed to be wary of any thing that could threaten the party’s grip on Abia state. Therefore setting up a State Congress Committee to prepare the ground for a smooth running of the party was a deft move by the governor, who is the leader of the ruling party in Abia. The terms of reference of the committee included “to make recommendations that will guarantee equity and ensure free congress” and “to supervise the congress.”
The choice of Rev. Benson Ezem, a former state chairman of Abia PDP, to head the 2020 Congress Committee was seen by observers as a master stroke. Ezem, an architect by profession has proved to be a stabilizing elememt for the party hence he is always invited to calm the party any time the tempest develops. No doubt the party has found in him a man of honour and integrity, who always showed courage in taking a stand without pandering to sentiments. Ezem was known to have displayed such character traits in 2016 when he was appointed by the party to head the peace and reconciliation committee in the aftermath of the 2015 general election. That had become necessary due to the discontent and animosity that the party carried into the election after its governorship primary. Ezem was able to calm frayed nerves and even assuaged party members with bloated egos. In the end , he rebuilt confidence in the ruling party.
Like in the previous assignment, Ezem did not disappoint this time around. Working with a five-member State Congress Committee which included Chief Ndidi Okereke (former state party chairman), Sir Esiaba Iwezor, Chief Allen Nwachukwu, and Mrs. Love Ezema, who served as secretary of the committee, he sought to set the party on the way to a peaceful and productive congress. On Sunday February 1, 2020 the Committee submitted an interim report to the state Caucus of the party at its meeting in Umuahia. It was gathered that the immediate past governor of the state, Senator Theodore Orji moved the motion for the adoption of the report as a working document.
According to an insider, Governor Ikpeazu opted to have an open discussion of the report and for members of the caucus to make their inputs instead of taking a unilateral decision and imposing his wish on the party. “It is the first time in Abia PDP that this type of thing is being done in a very open manner,” said the source, adding that the report enjoyed overwhelming support and everybody was happy with Governor Ikpeazu for his move to achieve cohesion in the party and for his respect for the collective input of party members.
No doubt the outgoing state executives of the party would have loved to be returned intact after the congress. In fact some groups were already campaigning that the party chairman, Chief Johnson Onuigbo should continue in office. But the Congress committee had other ideas. It stated in its report that since 1998 till date the post of state chairman of the ruling PDP has always rotated between Abia North and Abia Central. In all, eight chairmen have piloted the affairs of the party in the 22 years of the present democratic dispensation; five of them, including the outgoing chairman are from Abia Central, while three hail from Abia North. No party member from Abia South has held the position. The Committee in its wisdom therefore zoned the post of party chairman to Abia South, saying that the decision enjoyed acceptance from party stakeholders across the three senatorial zones. The implication is that only party members from Abia South would vie for the post of party chairman at the 2020 state congress. It didn’t stop at that. The Committee was specific that the Ukwa bloc of Abia South zone should produce the chairman to assuage their feeling of marginalization by the Ngwa bloc which got the governorship slot when it was zoned to Abia South in 2015 and has held on to the Abia South senatorial seat since 2007 when the incumbent, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe took his maiden flight into the National Assembly.
As a way out of the intricacies of sharing the party state executive positions the committee came up with a swapping formula whereby all positions held by Abia central was zoned to Abia South while Abia North takes up positions hitherto occupied by Abia South and Abia Central moving over to the positions held by Abia North. The Congress Committee did well to insist on internal democracy and transparency at all levels of the forthcoming congresses. It refused to yield to the wishes of some powerful party members to return the present members of the PDP executives at all levels.
While conceding to the rights of such party executives to seek reelection for second tenure, the Committee in its report “considered that there might be need to elect new and vibrant members into PDP executives at all levels, especially as the party executives who (will) take office in the 2020 congresses will be the ones to (lead the party) in the 2023 general election”. Based on this, the Committee insisted that “a blanket return of all party officials at all levels will not enjoy the support of majority of the party stakeholders in Abia state”. It recommended that “those to be elected to pilot the affairs of the party for the next 4 years should be such persons that can bring back the confidence, commitment and loyalty of the entire party membership and leaders in readiness for the next general election”.
Perhaps the most outstanding recommendations of the Committee is the decision to sustain the principle of the Abia charter of equity as adopted by the ruling party. Not a few stakeholders have questioned the reasonability of clinging to power rotation in its strict application since all the three zones have now taken their turns thereby completing the circle. The argument in some quarters is that any zone could get the PDP governorship ticket in 2023 so long as the right person to give Abia a fast paced development stride is sought out and elected to pilot the affairs of the state. But the Ezem-led Congress committee said that having carried out wide consultations with PDP senior stake holders from Abia it has come to the conclusion that God’s own state could not do without the natural principle of fairness and impartiality in sharing of political offices.
It further backed its position with the provisions of Chapter 1 Paragraph 7(3)(c) of the PDP Constitution (as amended in 2017), which was an adaptation of Section 14 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) which recognizes inclusiveness as a directive principle of state policy. According to the relevant section of the PDP constitution, the party in pursuing its aims and objectives shall adhere to “the policy of the rotation and zoning of party and public elective offices in pursuance of the principles of equity, justice and fairness.”
Even though the recommendations were far reaching and enjoyed wide acceptability the committee did not wish away the possibility that there could be some party members that would prefer the old ways of doing things. Nonetheless the Committee emphasized the need for participatory democracy during the congress hence “strong attention must be paid by the Committee in the areas of transparency and equitable all inclusive congresses in order to ensure that power returns to the people.” All leaders were urged to be effective in their wards, local governments.
The outgoing state executive members were not left to dry in the haystack. The Committee recommended what appeared to be soft landing for them by stating that the state executives deserved some form of compensation after four years of serving the party. It was gathered that Governor Ikpeazu was favourably disposed to the idea and has promised to reward the outgoing state executives, especially those yet to get appointments. Already the state publicity secretary, Chief Don Ubani has been appointed deputy chief of staff in the office of the Deputy Governor and others could end up picking one appointment or the other in government.
Should everything work out according to the plan of the Congress Committee, the ruling party in Abia would emerge from the 2020 congress without bleeding as happened in the past. This would place it in good stead to withstand the opposition onslaught which is expected to be desperate and fierce in 2023. The quality of the party leaders that would emerge from the ward, local government and state congresses would go a long way to determine how the ruling PDP would weather the storm in Abia in the next season of general election.
The Committee insisted that a blanket return of all party officials at all levels will not enjoy the support of majority of the party stakeholders in Abia state. It recommended that those to be elected to pilot the affairs of the party for the next four years should be such persons that can bring back the confidence, commitment and loyalty of the entire party membership and leaders in readiness for the next general election