The defection of Cross River State governor, Senator Ben Ayade, from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC), on May 20, 2021, is no more news. However, this has dismantled and disorganised all political permutations for 2023.
There is total confusion in PDP and APC even though the stakeholders say all is well. In PDP, former governor Donald Duke will now see eye to eyeball with his successor, Senator Liyel Imoke, following the former’s recent statement affirming his membership of the PDP in spirit. The two have not been best of friends.
In the wake of Ayade’s defection, Duke, in his, “My Statement of Return” said that in his days, “through firm and adroit leadership and adherence to the democratic principles of inclusion, we soon brought largely all the political class in the state under the PDP.
“However, post 2007 (apparently referring to the Imoke era), the party’s fortune started ebbing. An autocratic leadership style emerged, communication with its followers declined and emergence in the party was determined largely not by the party constitution or structures but by the whims of the State’s Chief Executive.
“This is the structure Governor Ayade inherited and has largely led us to where we are today. The very top down political style we fought against prior 1999, instead of consultation, accommodation and inclusion reared its head to the extent that founding members of the party in the state including former state chairmen, senators, members of the National Assembly and I, over time opted out and this attrition has continued unabated to the extent that the governor himself has left to seek pasture elsewhere.
“I believe it is important that we provide the same opportunities that democratic inclusion afforded us in our youth to other young people as they prepare to take over the mantle of leadership. It is my hope that we all have learnt the lessons of the past couple of years. Our nation begs for sincere and committed leadership. We can and must do better. There is no room nor time for egoistic pandering but selfless service and this is what the times deserves.”
The PDP caretaker chairman, Mr. Efiok Cobham and Secretary, Mr. Eko Atu, however, congratulated Duke for finding courage to rejoin the party and hoping that his coming back “will help rebuild a strong and virile party.”
The statement cautioned, “all stakeholders that this is the time for rebuilding, restoration and reconciliation. It is not time for trading blames. The larger purpose of the development of Cross River state should remain our unwavering focus and should insulate party stakeholders from all other distraction.”
Another statement credited to the Deputy Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Mr. Joseph Bassey, which he vehemently dissociated himself from, had said, Duke’s return “latent with innuendos and polarising intentions cleverly couched to misinform, disunite and discredit, what is he up to? Whether Mr. Duke’s return is sincere or his intentions is to help reform or reposition the PDP or is driven by more sinister or egocentric persuasions, is yet to unravel. It will however be interesting to see how this sudden dash-back pans out with speculations over unending accusations that he might have a role in the obviously growing conspiracy to deny the South Senatorial District of what is generally considered its own turn to produce a governor come 2023.
“True to character, his first contribution has been to sow early seeds of discord through spurious and delusional assertions in a shadow fight against his subconscious… Sadly, the strange world of politics will likely echo this negativity, and he will be taken seriously by the few people, who only know Donald, the showman of no real substance.”
That not withstanding, last weekend, Duke, Imoke, Senator Gershom Bassey and the stakeholders met to resolve issues. The meetings held in two venues, one of which was hosted by Imoke in his private residence at State Housing while Duke hosted the reception in his own private residence at Diamond Hill.
In the closed-door meeting, the three musketeers (Imoke, Duke and Bassey) with other founding members and stakeholders met at Senator Imoke’s residence to put behind their differences and form a common front to recapture the state from the All Progressives Congress (APC) following the movement of Ayade to the party.
In a video of the closed-door meeting made available to select journalists, Duke said, “it’s not about winning elections, we’re trying to build the people and not just winning elections and I think that is what politics is all about. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of people are waiting to hear from us and waiting to see that our house is in order and I want to say something; this house is in order.”
Another fall out of the defection was the solidarity rally held for Ayade by some groups led by one of his aides, Mike Abuo, that eventually resulted in bitter protest at the second gate of the governor’s office.
Ayade and some other people, including a host of journalists and civil servants were locked inside for about two hours late into the evening over the largesse the governor was said to have given to some rowdy youths, who had barricade the governor’s office gate.
These angry youths had insisted that the organisers should give them their own share of the N5 million largesse of the governor. Chanting solidarity songs, they said, “God punish APC for this town and we go die here” but later the situation was brought under control even though the protesting youths insisted on their money.
Political commentators and watchers of events in the state believe that political parties in the state have no ideology and it is the same with the key players. They said the ‘PDP is APC and APC is PDP’ depending on where personal interests are protected.
In fact, many see this latest arrangement as another opportunity for the politicians to deceive the electorate come 2023 with empty promises. One of the social critics, Mr. Charles Ekot, said, “take for instance, between 2015 and 2019 general elections, not less than 15 people died across the state because of supporting one candidate or the other but today the candidates they fought and died for have reconciled across parties and moved on.
“APC was defeated in the 2019 elections through state machinery that took advantage of their endless and worthless fight but today they are together singing another tune. No wonder they say in politics, no permanent friend, no permanent enemy but permanent interest. But where is the interest of the electorates? Who takes care of it? The focus this time around is that, the electorates should be wise and smart with God’s guidance to choose leaders that will take their interest first before personal and parochial interest of the leaders. Take for instance, the Donald Duke regime introduced the cable car with deliberate policies on developing the Obudu Cattle Ranch and took development to the natives and they were meaningfully engaged with a sense of belonging. Imoke consolidated with the introduction of the yearly International Mountain race and the Ranch people benefited but all that died with the end of that government.”
He said, “in PDP, some people criticised Imoke for bringing in his close ally and former Deputy Governor, Cobham and his kin’s man, Atu, as caretaker chairman and secretary of PDP following the sacking of the Edim Inok-led caretaker committee that has joined Ayade in the defection saga. They queried why the former governor did not shop elsewhere or will that happen in the substantive executive?”
Again, the defection has thrown up casualties. First was the PDP Secretariat, later the Canaan Table Tennis Club Hall, where the athletes and members of the public were locked out suggesting that the state government and the owners of the club may be playing politics with the children.
The clamp down process had started on May 22, as the Ayade led APC forcefully took over the secretariat of the PDP on 42a Murtala Mohammed Highway just two days after his dumping of the party despite an existing tenancy agreement PDP has with the Landlord.
Similarly, the state government had on May 25, without any prior notice, sealed up indefinitely the tennis club hall that the state’s table tennis team and some members of the public used to train following directives to the Director of Sports to shut down the facility, which many people said, may not be unconnected with the refusal of the former Chairman of the State’s Sports Commission, Chief Orok Otu Duke, to move to APC with Governor Ben Ayade.
The shut down notice signed by the Director of Sports, Mr. Etim Coco-Bassey Omara, for the Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Emmanuel Elom, read: “I have the directive to inform the public and athletes that the table tennis hall has been closed till further notice.”
The state government, however, denied any clampdown on his aides or forcing anybody to join Ayade, as the Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Emmanuel Elom, in a reaction, said, “the Commission had, shortly before the last National Sports Festival, which was held in April in Benin reviewed the leadership membership of governing boards of the various sports associations in the state. To this end, Ntufam Edim Inok was appointed as the chairman of the Cross River State Table Tennis Association. One of the first tasks before the new board is the refurbishment of the table tennis hall and the gymnasium, both of which are due. The work is planned to commence this week and that necessitated the temporary closure of the two facilities to players for the period of renovation.”
Elom said the allusion that the refusal of Chief Orok Duke, the immediate past chairman of the commission, to defect with the governor from the PDP to the APC as the reason for the temporary closure of the hall was wrong, saying, “nothing can be far from the truth. It clearly shows that the mentality of the writer, and possibly, his sponsor, is to reduce everything, including serious government business, to politics. To the best of our knowledge, Governor Ayade has not compelled any appointee of his to follow him to the APC, let alone, Chief Orok Duke, who, currently, is not an appointee of government. This is a clear case of playing to the gallery.”
However, in a surprise move, after the governor had met with all his aides and stakeholder to extract commitment of loyalty in a special stakeholders meeting held between May 25 and 28, his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Christian Ita, in a statement dated May 31, 2021, said, “the state governor, His Excellency Prof Ben Ayade has approved the relieve of the following persons of their appointments as commissioners — Mr. Mike Usibe, Rita Ayim, Mr. Asu Okang and Ntufam Donatus Etim.
“Similarly, the under-listed persons have also been relieved of their appointments: Mr. Leo Inyambe, Rt Hon. Orok Otu Duke, Mr. Victor Okon (Alausa), Mr. John Etim Bassey and Hon. Agbiji Mbeh Agbiji. Consequently, they are hereby directed to return government properties and vehicles in their care with immediate effect to the Chief of Staff to the governor.”
But some hours later the state government released another statement withdrawing the inclusion of Agbiji among those relieved of their appointment saying it was ‘in error’.
However, the sacked commissioners like the Commissioner for Climate Change and Mitigation, Mr. Donatus Etim, had since May 21, 2021 tendered his letter of resignation from the Ayade government and the same was acknowledged. The resignation letter reads: “It is with utmost fulfillment and high sense of responsibility that I write to humbly notify you of my decision to resign my appointment as Commissioner and member of the Cross River State Executive Council.”
Similarly, Orok Duke had in 2019 rejected his appointment as the Special Adviser to the Governor on Callwood and the government even admitted in a statement from the Chairman of the State’s Sports Commission dated May 28 that he (Orok Duke) was not an appointee or in the employ of government.
Not less than nine persons, Senator representing Cross River South Senatorial in the Senate, Gershom Bassey, former Commissioner for Lands in Duke’s government, Etubom Bassey Ndem; former House of Representatives member for Calabar/Odukpani, Mrs. Nkoyo Toyo; a business mogul and philanthropist, Mr. Ben Akak; the current Commissioner for Finance, Mr. Asuquo Ekpeyong jnr; the former Director of Department of State Security Service, Mr. Ekpeyong Ita; the Commissioner for Rural Transformation, Mr. Okonkon Effiom, who are all from the Cross River South Senatorial, which the PDP had zoned the 2023 governorship ticket have been fingered to be interested in the race.
Another business magnet and an ally of Ayade, Mr. Chris Agara and the Senator representing Cross River Central, Senator Sandy Onor from Central Senatorial district have also been mentioned as likely aspirants for the race.
Both are also in the PDP. But with the Ayade’s defection, most of the aspirants are sitting on the fence undecided on whether to move to APC or not. The APC has not made a statement yet on zoning in the state and for now Asuquo, Effiom have joined Ayade in his new found love while on the other hand, it is certain that Senator Bassey who is also the Chairman of the Cross River National Assembly Caucus and Senator Onor will stay put in PDP.
Justifying Ayade’s decamping, former Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, at APC stakeholders meeting with Ayade and others, said, “as a state we are too weak and vulnerable to be in opposition. Even when we aligned with the centre once upon a time, we suffered our most monumental losses. We lost Bakassi, 76 oil wells and the most painful for me, was that we lost the opportunity to appeal against the judgment that we lost Bakassi. We were looking everything yet they said we belong to a house were traffic is always out of the house and not into the house. If they don’t force you out like me they evict you. Your Excellency you have taken a very bold and courageous step and you see how the APC warmly welcomes you. We even gave you the leadership while you were still declaring for the party. When you have this level of support, you have a higher level of responsibility. Make this house not to look like the house you left.”
Ebri, on his part, said as a member of APC, the cross carpeting “was a master stroke by the governor and it represents a major paradigm shift in the politics of this state. Beginning from 1999, politics of the state was essentially in the hands of a particular group of politicians in PDP who intended to appropriate the party to themselves. It became more like a hegemony but today I think that hegemony has been broken and the other forces can now come together to produce a different kind of politics that I believe will be more inclusive, more enduring and most importantly, more acceptable to our people. This is not a den of dynasty. The people of Cross River state have been yearning to have a sense of ownership around governance and even the political parties too and its members have also been yearning for that sense of ownership which was denied them for a long time.
“I hope that governor Ayade will understand that by his actions, he has widened the scope of political participation in the state and diluted the influence of individuals in the political dynamics of the state. I believe that decision making will be more embracing and that the mixture of politicians from both sides will produce a mixture that would be more acceptable to our people. Those are the things I believe will be distilled out of the event that just took place; I think it was just divine intervention. Our people have suffered for quite a long time and to summarise I’ll say it’s like deliverance.”
On fears that the movement will or has created confusion in both APC and PDP, the former governor said, “the thing is that we have learnt our lessons. PDP members have learnt their lessons and I am sure that if they take a deep breath just like we in APC, we’ll be able to know that a lot of lessons have been learnt from what has happened. I still remember Senator Ndoma-Egba in a stakeholders meeting the other day saying “don’t let this house be like the one you left” and that was insightful.”