Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State, in January, declared interest to run for the presidency come 2023 elections, against his earlier pledge of not contesting when he joined the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in November 2020.
Umahi, who was elected governor twice after also serving as deputy governor under the PDP, had said his decision to dump the opposition party was not about leadership but based on perceived injustice done to the South East PDP.
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But in January 2022, after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Umahi told reporters that he would throw his hat in the ring “if the party throws the ticket open or zoned to the Southern part of Nigeria.”
Notwithstanding Umahi’s U-turn, several stumbling blocks are up against his presidential ambition.
Race to keep gov’ship seat
Umahi, for over a month, has been battling to traverse through stormy waters following a court order that sacked him from office along with his deputy.
While other presidential hopefuls had hit the ground running with nationwide consultations, Umahi had spent considerable time trying to save his governorship seat, which pundits said served as a distraction from his presidential bid.
Justice Inyang Ekwo of a Federal High Court in Abuja had ordered the sack of Umahi, his deputy, Eric Igwe, and Hon Francis Nwifuru, Speaker of the state assembly, and other state lawmakers over their defection from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the APC.
In his judgment, Ekwo held that their defection was unconstitutional and they not only jettisoned the PDP, but also the votes that guaranteed their re-election.
Since the court’s order, Umahi had been running from pillar to post to retain his seat. First, he hit back at Justice Ekwo for doing a “hatchet” job.
His unwelcoming tirade against the judge drew strong condemnation from the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which demanded an apology. The embattled governor promptly complied, and then applied for a stay of execution from a State High Court in Ebonyi, which issued an interim order that allows him to remain in office for seven days.
Not done, the governor announced that he had mobilised over 17 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) to appeal the judgement of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja while the seven days lasted.
However, the Court of Appeal Enugu Division, a week ago, quashed a suit challenging the defection of Umahi and his deputy to APC.
The court, in a unanimous judgement delivered by Justice Joseph O. K. Oyewole, held that there was no constitutional provision that barred a sitting governor from defecting to any political party.
Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal in Abuja is yet to hear Umahi’s appeal seeking to void the judgment of an Abuja Federal High Court which sacked him and his deputy from office on account of his defection.
Since his declaration of a presidential bid, the Ebonyi governor had retreated to his southeastern state. He has neither embarked on a consultation visit to the country’s ‘kingmakers’ to solicit their blessing as being done by other presidential aspirants nor assembled ‘foot soldiers’ to mobilise support for his aspiration.
Governor Umahi announced his bid for the 2023 presidential race barely 24 hours after the national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu, declared the same intention. However, Umahi’s declaration could not becloud Tinubu’s, who, after declaration at the same Presidential Villa, has continued to enjoy media publicity.
Despite the media attention, Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, has been junketing around the country, visiting political, religious and traditional leaders to seek their support, in addition to giving humanitarian support to victims of attacks and disasters in different parts of the country.
The Ebonyi governor however said he was not fazed by Tinubu’s entrance into the race for Aso Rock but nothing is heard of Umahi’s interest to occupy the country’s most-coveted seat after his declaration except occasional press briefing and speeches at religious gatherings in his tiny state of Ebonyi.
There has been increasing clamour for the South East to produce President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor, with many politicians from the zone claiming that the Igbos have been politically marginalised in the scheme of things.
Umahi alluded to the much-sought Igbo presidency at a news conference in Abakaliki when he gave reasons for dumping the PDP.
APC had zoned its presidential ticket to the South but the party was silent about which of the southern zones it seeks to choose its candidate from.
This, pundits said, presents a tough battle for Umahi who will have to slug it out with Tinubu, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Senator Rochas Okorocha, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, Senate Chief Whip and others nursing presidential ambition.
Though Umahi chairs the South East Governors’ Forum, but his political weight barely transcends beyond the zone. The fact that his move to the APC did not cause media buzz or the kind of political earthquake expected of a serving governor is a testimony of his political value in the region.
The trouble for Umahi is whether he has the political weight to gather forces around him and convince stakeholders in the South East – including Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the leading Igbo socio-cultural group – that he embodies the hopes and aspirations for Igbo presidency.
Some pundits believe that the popular claim in some quarters that APC is an inconsequential force in the politics of the South East makes his task even arduous.
Others said Umahi has a very slim chance of emerging as a consensus candidate of the South East if stakeholders in the zone decide to pool resources together in realisation of their clamour to produce the country’s number one citizen.
The Ebonyi governor, they argued, cannot match the political power of the likes of Anyim Pius Anyim, Orji Uzor Kalu and other southeasterners who are nursing presidential ambition.
‘Newcomer’ in APC
Umahi is not a greenhorn in politics, having served in different political positions. In 2007, he was the acting chairman of the Ebonyi State chapter of the PDP. From 2009 to 2011, he served as state chairman of the party.
In 2011, Umahi became deputy governor of Ebonyi State on a ticket with then governor Martin Elechi. He was elected as governor in 2015 and re-elected in 2019.
However, Umahi is seen as an immigrant in the ruling APC. He joined the party in November 2020. So, questions would be asked about the fortune he has brought to APC since his defection.
APC’s months-long internal wrangling before its March 26 national convention, was not unconnected to sharing some significant positions in the party.
Analysts said APC’s choice of a presidential candidate would determine whether or not it will run into another phase of the crisis.
It definitely will be a tough task for Umahi to convince the APC bigwigs that his candidacy will not only calm frayed nerves but also ensure the party’s victory at the poll in 2023.
One APC chieftain, while writing off the chance of Umahi clinching the party’s presidential ticket, said, “He wants to reap where he didn’t sow; wanting to claim the biggest prize in Nigerian politics while bringing nothing to the party. The party, I believe, won’t be so foolish to throw up someone with light political weight for such powerful office.”
‘Court case a blessing in disguise’
Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information, Barrister Uchenna Orji, said the governor’s recent travail had put him in a pole position to clinch the presidential ticket of the APC ahead of 2023.
Orji said the legal issue was more political, stressing that the opposition wanted to use it to ambush the governor and distract him from pursuing his presidential ambition.