Cross River’s Political Bigwigs on Warpath over Zoning of Governorship
As the controversy over the zoning of governorship ticket among the three senatorial zones in Cross River State in 2023 rages on, Chuks Okocha writes that political tension has gripped the state
As the 2023 governorship election approaches, tension and apprehension appear to have engulfed Cross River State, as contestants slug it out.
The battle is not just about running for governorship race, but also which senatorial district takes the shot.
The governorship position having gone round the three senatorial districts, controversy is over which senatorial district will produce the governor in the fresh rotation. Another troubling issue is the denial of the existence of zoning in the state since 1999 by some political gladiators in the state.
This seems to be the most daunting puzzle in the governorship race as 2023 beckons. In view of the impending crisis, the Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state, and a former National Publicity Secretary (NPS) of the party, Mr. Venatius Ikem said the party was not in a hurry to take a definite stand on zoning.
Ikem in a message to party supporters argued that it would be a self-inflicted damage on the PDP if the party act on zoning based on what he described as the political antics of Governor Ben Ayade.
Ikem hinted that “whenever I decide to do what Ayade is doing, accept that the party under me has failed.”
He urged PDP supporters to be “sceptical of whatever Ayade does because he doesn’t do anything for goodwill, but a self-serving motivation.”
With the governorship slot starting with Mr. Donald Duke from the southern senatorial district in 1999 – 2007; Senator Liyel Imoke from the Central in 2007-2015; and Ayade emerging in 2015-2023, many had argued that the governorship should return to the South smoothly. But the senator representing Cross River Central Senatorial District, Prof. Sandy Onor had debunked any knowledge of zoning in the state. According to him, the governorship of the state has been hotly contested without any preferential treatment for any contestants from any senatorial district at any political dispensation.
Among the visible and likely governorship aspirants are Senator Gershom Bassey, Hon. Daniel Asuquo, Arthur Jarvis Archibong, and Ben Akak, Bassey Ndem, all of the PDP from the southern senatorial district.
Onor is likely the only PDP candidate outside the southern senatorial district.
He is from Etung Local Government Area in the central senatorial district. In the All Progressives Congress (APC), Ayade appeared to have drawn the battle line with other APC chieftains who have gubernatorial ambition.
At the moment, speculations are rife that Ayade may choose any of his commissioners as successor, particularly the Commissioner of Finance, Asuquo Ekpenyong; Commissioner for Rural Transformation, Okonkon Effiom, or former Senator Bassey Otu, and all from the southern senatorial district.
Also, only Senator John Owan Enoh, who like Onor is also from Etung is believed to be running from outside the southern senatorial zone, even as the next step of a former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Usani Usani remains uncertain.
Strategically, Ayade had made it clear that he would support a candidate from the South. At a recent briefing, the governor explained that “in 2015, I went round to campaign and in the process, I told the people to vote for me that in 2023 power will return to the south. The governorship slot started in the south; it moved to the central and then moved to the north; it’s fair that power returns to south again for equity and fairness,” Ayade had reportedly said.
But former governor Donald Duke was said to have debunked any existence of zoning in Cross River State during a New Year visit by Onor to him. He had narrated how he fought with giants like former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN) to realise his governorship ambition. “There was never zoning in this state; there was never zoning; I fought a titanic battle with Kanu Agabi – it was David and Goliath; I make no pretensions,” Duke had declared to a cheering gathering.
But many had countered Duke’s position, insisting that Duke’s emergence was due to a protest vote against the decision by powerful forces in the then All Peoples Party (APP) to annul the Ogoja-Calabar accord, and also deny Dr. Eyo Etim Eyong the governorship ticket. Some also argued that with the just return of democracy in 1999, it was obvious that the clamour for zoning was not going to be strong given that no one was sure of what the military would do. Others also maintained that, when Duke left office in 2007, no candidate from the South ran for the office, paving the way for the central to produce the governor. Also, with the emergence of Imoke, the zoning principle enshrined in PDP’s Constitution was further strengthened, such that in 2015, no candidate from the southern or central senatorial district ran for the office, as it was clearly the turn of the north. Those with this view stressed that Duke was no longer in PDP and was even non-partisan, and only returned to politics later to run for president under the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 2019.
Despite the opposition from the proponents of zoning, Onor had declared his ambition to run for the governorship of the state at St. Charles Catholic Church in Calabar. His declaration came after strategic consultations in the 18 local government areas of the state. Onor’s move was not well received by some critical stakeholders within the PDP and APC in the state. At a parley with journalists in Calabar, Onor faulted supporters of zoning. He stated that “that those who are promoting and spreading the message of zoning are either cowards who do not have what it takes to contest the party’s ticket under a free and fair process, or are ethnic jingoists who are only interested in misleading our people in pursuit of their very personal and selfish interests.”
The senator also stressed that “nobody or group of persons should divide our state and its people in the name of zoning. We are a people who share commonalities with deep historical roots and it would be thoroughly unfair for anybody to fan the embers of geo-ethnicity, just to satisfy their selfish ambition. In the course of the consultative visits, leaders of our party were united in their resolution that the contest is open for anybody who thinks he has what it takes to contest, no matter what part of the state the person comes from. The leaders were firm on this, as reflected in the communiqué they issued,” Onor explained.
But Bassey, had in a statement, laid down the conditions and circumstances upon which zoning was embedded in Cross River politics. According to him, many of the opponents of zoning were not privy to all the agreement reached by the PDP on zoning, specifically in 2015. He stressed that, it was based on zoning that “the South did not present a candidate in 2015. They supported the North. There were potential candidates from the South who could have created a contest in the field in 2015, but the people of the South decided to go with the zoning principle and supported the North on grounds of equity and fairness. In 2023, we believe that now is the turn of the South, under the same rotation principle,” Bassey said.
He argued that “as the incumbent Senator representing the Southern Senatorial District, I currently hold the mandate to speak for the people of the South. My constituents in the Southern Senatorial District categorically and without equivocation, expect that power will come to the south in 2023, based on the rotation principle. In my party specifically, the PDP, we expect that the governorship will be zoned to the South in 2023”.
“The reason for this is very clear. In 2015, when my brother, Donald Duke, was not in the party, there was a caucus meeting which zoned this governorship to the Northern Senatorial District, with the understanding that after the North, rotation would continue with the South,” he added.
While Duke, Ayade, Bassey and other political heavyweights have gone into the trenches, firing political missiles against perceived political opponents, Imoke has remained silent, working and strategising behind the scene. With Ayade’s defection to APC, Imoke was fast to reorganise the party, bringing together the three senators, Bassey, Onor and Sen. Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, representing Cross River Northern Senatorial District to the PDP fold.
At his annual political gathering on January 1, 2022, in Itigidi, his home town, Imoke was believed to have reset the 2023 governorship race, to pave the way for a more equitable politics. Many see Imoke’s silence on the issue as more strategic than weakness. With one of his close ally, former House of Representatives member, Hon. Bassey Eko Ewa warning politicians from the central senatorial district to stay away from the 2023 governorship race, it is reasoned, Imoke is pushing for a southern candidate in the PDP, to ensure political stability in the state.
Also, a coalition of civil society and indigenous groups led by Cross River State People’s Forum and the New Democrat Initiatives met in Abuja to reprimand politicians who wanted to derail the smooth transition and equitable distribution of power in the state. The two groups both led by Stafford Bisong and Paul Obi, had cautioned to the APC and the PDP against going against the zoning formula well established in the state.