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Okowa’s struggles to rally South behind Atiku

The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had more votes from the 17 Southern states than the 19 Northern states…

The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had more votes from the 17 Southern states than the 19 Northern states and the Federal Capital Territory combined in 2019. 5,703,387 (50.6%) of the 11,262,978 votes recorded by Atiku was from the South, a base that is now threatened by the emergence of his former running mate, Peter Obi as Labour Party’s presidential candidate and the unending agitation by Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike and other Southern leaders in the party. Can Atiku’s running mate, Ifeanyi Okowa, turn the tide in favour of his principal in 2023? Will he make or mar the ticket?

The leading opposition Peoples Democratic Party has been in crisis since its presidential candidate for the 2023 general election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, announced Delta State governor Ifeanyi Okowa as his running mate.

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The former vice-president and serial presidential aspirant, had polled 317 votes to pick the party’s ticket ahead of Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, who had 237 votes, Bukola Saraki – 70; Udom Emmanuel – 38 votes; Bala Mohammed – 20; Anyim Pius Anyim – 14 and Sam Ohuabunwa – 1. Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal, withdrew and backed Atiku during the primaries.

All seems to be well as Atiku and other presidential aspirants held meetings and posed for paparazzi days after the primaries, until the choice of Okowa as running mate was made public.

Atiku had said that in arriving at the choice of Okowa, he held wide consultations with various stakeholders in the party including governors, National Working Committee, Board of Trustees, and other leaders to seek their inputs and their wisdom while making it clear that his running mate would have the potential to succeed him at a moment’s notice, that is, a President-in-waiting.

“I know that he will not only add excitement to our already energized ticket and campaign, but will also help to bring focus, discipline and stability to our government, come 2023. I am pleased, therefore, to announce here my choice of running mate who will help to lead us to victory next year not only in the presidential election but also in the governorship and legislative elections. And he will be by my side as I work hard every day to provide our people with security, revive our economy, improve education and unite our country. He has both legislative and executive experiences. Please join me in welcoming to the ticket the next Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, His Excellency Governor Dr. Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa,” Atiku had announced on June 16.

However, days to the official commencement of political campaign, that choice has divided the PDP as Gov. Wike and his allies, including serving and former governors, have become a major threat to the victory of the PDP in 2023.

Beyond the argument by critics that Wike is unpresidential in utterances and mannerisms because of his brashness, Atiku, Daily Trust learnt, chose Okowa, hoping to leverage on his political capital to counter the reach of the presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, in the Southern region, by securing massive votes in the South South and South East, which are traditionally PDP stronghold.

Atiku was hoping that Okowa’s Igbo origin would earn him the support of the South East. However, the emergence of Peter Obi as Labour Party Presidential candidate has watered down any edge the party was expecting in the South East; in fact, it is now feared that PDP might get fewer votes in the zone than it has had since 1999.

More disturbing is Wike’s growing influence in the Southern region. With serving and former governors, as well as some members of the National Working Committee, NWC, of the party from the region backing his agitation, Okowa has gone quiet.

A traitor, paperweight

The Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum (SMBLF) described Okowa as a traitor for accepting his nomination as running mate to Atiku.

The forum, which is made up of the four leading sociocultural groups in the region — Afenifere, Ohaneze Ndigbo, Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Middle Belt Forum, said it was unspeakable and quite disappointing that Okowa, who is the Chairman of the South-South Governors’ Forum, and a native of Owa-Alero in Ika North-East Local Government Area (one of the Igbo-speaking areas) of Delta State, would exhibit such barefaced unreliability.

The leaders said it was unfortunate that Okowa, who hosted the meeting of the 17 Southern governors in Asaba, where it was agreed that the region should produce the next president, accepted the VP nomination.

“Governor Okowa has, by his action, betrayed the trust reposed on him by his colleagues; the southern governors, the entire good people of southern Nigeria and all well-meaning Nigerians. He has made himself persona non grata, not only, with SMBLF but all citizens who treasure our oneness and yearn for a more united and peaceful Nigeria.

“And that this is not a matter of loyalty to one’s political party, but rather a greedy, parochial and unpatriotic action, committed against the general interest of his state, Delta State, the Niger Delta region, and Southern Nigeria. It is, certainly, also not in the interest of the nation at large,” the forum had noted in a statement signed by Chief Edwin Clark (PANDEF), Chief Ayo Adebanjo (Afenifere), Dr. Dru Bitrus (Middle Belt Forum) and Ambassador George Obiozor (Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide).

Kassim Afegbua, a political analyst and former campaign spokesman for Atiku, said Okowa is being haunted by his action as he is seen as a betrayer who stabbed the South in exchange for the VP slot.

“Okowa is a paperweight. He is at the risk of losing Delta State to the APC both at the presidential and governorship elections. People who are perceived as betrayers cannot pull the right weight.

“He was the one who hosted the 17 governors of the South to demand that the presidency should come to the South in 2023 in what was called the Asaba declaration. After Asaba declaration, they went to Enugu, Abia and Lagos. We didn’t know he was working for Atiku through the backdoor. He betrayed the trust, the project and the entire Southern region. In compensation for the role of a spy that he played; he ended up being handpicked by Atiku to be his running mate. For that reason, we cannot trust him. To a large extent, he has stabbed the South. Those who betray the cause would be haunted by their action,” he said.

Afegbua, who said justice and fairness demand that the South should produce the next president after the eight-year reign of President Muhammadu Buhari, commended the APC Northern governors for insisting that the ruling party should cede its presidential ticket to a Southern candidate. While lauding Wike, whom he noted is fighting for justice in the PDP, the former Edo Information commissioner said Atiku can’t unite the PDP because of his ambition.

“A man who called himself a unifier cannot unify his party because of his selfish ambition and greed. When you plant injustice, you cannot reap justice. I commend Gov. Wike. He has courage, he has grit, he has stamina. He is not persuaded by the selfish ambition of certain persons. His head is clear on what the South wants. He has stood firm to make a case for Southern presidency,” he said while noting that the PDP will struggle for votes in the South.

Daily Trust on Sunday also gathered that Gov. Wike and his camp are reluctant to work with Okowa, who is dubbed a quiet operator because of the roles he played in the emergence of Ndudi Elumelu as the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives against the party’s choice Kingsley Chinda in 2019 as well as his alleged covert support for Atiku while governors from the region were clamouring for Southern presidency. His political dexterity in manoeuvring his political godfather and former Governor James Ibori in the affairs of Delta PDP has also been highlighted by critics.

Okowa will mobilise votes for Atiku

Okowa’s Chief Press Secretary, Mr Olisa Ifeajika, maintained that the Delta State governor has what it takes to mobilise support and votes for the PDP.

While noting that mobilisation of votes in the South was not one of the criteria mentioned by Atiku when he announced Okowa as his running mate, Ifeajika said there are many political leaders in the South, including National Assembly members, party’s state chairmen, among others, who are behind Okowa. He added that Wike and other governors in his camp have never said they are not supporting Okowa.

Ifeajika had also rubbished reports that Okowa betrayed the southern governors and the region by accepting to be Atiku’s running mate, noting that the region never agreed on a consensus candidate during the presidential primaries.

A chieftain of the PDP in Delta who does not want his name in print, also added that the zoning Committee which proposed that the PDP should throw open the presidential ticket was chaired by Wike’s friend, Gov Samuel Ortom of Benue State.

“Wike, Makinde, Ikpeazu, Ugwuanyi and others who are now criticising the party were part of the NEC meeting that ratified the recommendation of the Ortom’s zoning committee. Why didn’t they reject it then,” he queried.

Atiku’s media adviser, Paul Ibe, who said there is a misunderstanding and not a crisis in the party, noted that leaders of the party, either from the North or South, are not satisfied with the current situation in the country.

“Atiku is not a candidate for the South or for the North. He is a candidate for Nigeria; he has a pan-Nigerian vision. He speaks to the unity of Nigeria; he is not a bigot. Nigerians are looking for an alternative from the misery of the last seven years of broken socio-economic and political fabric in the society. In Atiku Abubakar, they see hope and someone who will turn things around. Votes are cast by individuals not by groups,” he said.

However, a top PDP chieftain said the party and its presidential ticket are disturbed that Okowa as a former local government chairman, a former state commissioner, a former secretary to state government, a senator, and now, a two-term governor, who have chaired multiple national convention committees, has not build sufficient network to counter the growing influence of Wike.

“Not a single governor from the region is on his side. The three other governors that we have from the South are not with us because of Okowa. Gov. Obaseki, Udom Emmanuel and Duoye Diri have their reasons for supporting us. Okowa has not been strategic in the region. I don’t know how many former governors, serving governors or even candidates of the party have visited him since he was announced. Atiku would have called Wike’s bluff if Okowa had been influential or been able to break his rank,” he said on condition of anonymity.

He said the campaign organisation is mapping out strategies on how to improve Atiku’s vote base in the North in order to counter the loss in the South while stressing that securing the required 25 percent in the states are topmost priorities for the PDP.