Ahead of the 2019 general elections, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State may have commenced massive fence mending mission with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), stakeholders within and outside the state in an attempt to salvage his sagging political career. Our Assistant Editor, UBON EKANEM says the heat in this South-south State is threatening with some battle-tested gladiators determined to unseat the smooth-talking ‘signature projects’ Chief Executive.
Forces are undoubtedly massing to challenge Governor Benjamin Ayade’s continuous occupation of the Government House, Calabar. But with eyes on the coveted prize, the Obudu-born politician is focused on reinventing himself for the daunting task of re-election come 2019.
Looking all green and set to retrace its faltering political steps, Ayade’s ardent supporters are all about turning a new leaf as they woo friends and foes alike for their embattled principal.
Insiders told Forefront that kick-starting what some consider tardy fence-mending moves is already putting the second term ambition on a reverse gear with the PDP National leadership and stakeholders in the State unconvinced that he is a marketable candidate for 2019.
Close aides of the governor said “our Oga is still not sure of flying the PDP flag in the election because all entreaties have so far been rebuffed on the grounds that ‘can he really be trusted?’ According to the source, the present situation arose from the governor’s nonchalance in the events leading to the emergence of Prince Uche Secondus as the PDP National Chairman at the December 2017 National convention.
But the Ayade’s camp is deploying the self-assuring slogan: ‘As it was in 2015, so shall it be in 2019’ for its salesmanship to secure the Government House for their man’s second term outing. The source said to corner the PDP ticket again, a fairly contrite Ayade is resolute on assuaging the frayed nerves of agitated stakeholders, including aggrieved National Assembly caucus members, Party elders and stalwarts, who feel disparaged and short-changed by the governor.
Our source alleged that the governor’s recent more than one month sojourn abroad was to seek spiritual help in India with likely proofs that his second term venture will not eventually be a colossal failure. And there are claims of his suffering nervous breakdown in India and was immediately rushed to Germany for urgent medical attention.
Also, insinuation are that the gale of endorsements shortly before his sudden departure to India for the so-called spiritual cleansing did little to convince the PDP leadership in Abuja of his popularity back home. On his return, the governor has outwardly become more circumspect in speech and actions. But in close quarters, this conciliatory posture is seen as a mere political gimmick to safely navigate and harvest the PDP ticket for another go at the Government House.
However, insiders hinted that to realize his ambition, ‘Team Ayade’ may have Governor Nyesom Wike-backed PDP National leadership to contend. Pointedly, one insider said featuring prominently in the Governor Wike’s political train is Joe Agi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who is considered Ayade’s nemesis. The senior lawyer battled to unseat Ayade over alleged age falsification, until the Supreme Court put paid to that dream in its judgment of December 9, 2016.
Competent sources said Agi is back at the starting block, seeking to snatch the gubernatorial ticket from Ayade. With some stakeholders and elders placing Senator Ayade on their ‘watch list’, Agi is seen as a workable ‘Plan B’ at the gubernatorial primaries holding later this year.
Also, signals are that with some leaving for the All Progressives Congress (APC), and others still weighing available options, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s ‘Third Force’ and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), embittered PDP stalwarts may be looking at Hon Emmanuel Ibechi, an aspirant in the 2015 race, as another viable substitute for Ayade.
Unlike Agi, who remained distant from Ayade’s governance structure in the state, Ibechi, erstwhile National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, was all glee when the Governor appointed him as the so-called Cross River State Envoy to the African Development Bank (AfDB) on December 18, 2015. All that may have turned sour with his renewed interest in the governorship ticket.
Both Agi and Ibechi come from the same Cross River North Senatorial district as Ayade, but feelings against their candidature come mainly from the Southern part for political expediency. Flaunting the existing PDP rotation understanding, the Cross River Southern Senatorial District Elders Forum (CROSSDEF) is neck-deep in the ‘Ayade must return’ campaign. The Forum maintains the status-quo will guarantee the governorship slot returns to the south come 2023.
Another insider volunteered that Ayade threw caution to the winds by ignoring Senator Imoke, the Cross River National Assembly Caucus and major stakeholders in the scheme of things. Pundits said this suave move by the Governor at upturning Imoke’s established political structure and the remnants of Donald Duke’s legacy Team that backed his candidature in 2015 further divided the PDP family.
Giving further insights, a PDP stalwart in Ikom, who preferred anonymity told Forefront that though talks are ongoing, parties involved are still very wary of each other’s next move given the deep rooted mistrust. “We are not too sure of his intention. Nobody wants to be taken unawareness by the antics of a man, who reportedly boasted during the Modu-Sheriff’s hey days that of all contestants to Government House, Calabar in 2015, he was the only one that could pay the asking price for the keys.”
According to him, every group approached by Team Ayade has torrent of questions on the prized signature projects of 260km Super Highway; Garment Factory and Bakassi Deep Sea Port, almost three years into his four year tenure, adding that; “In one of such outings, the situation almost degenerated when some people taunted Team Ayade with the closure of Management Development Institute (MDI); impassable roads dotting the state; and the Governor’s incurable knack for overseas travels as the campaign messages for Cross Riverians.”
The insider said, “except for the deluge of MoUs’ signings, the story painfully remains unchanged with the people worst off. Our governor has a lot of explaining to convince Cross Riverians about his second term ambition”.
The governor is however not leaving anything to chance. Parading prompt and regular salary payment to civil servants, Ayade is courting the support of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Cross River chapter, currently led by his kinsman, John Ushie, seeking their understanding over outstanding pension issues and payments to retirees.
Despite reaching out to various stakeholders, allegations abound that the Governor is manipulating the PDP’s machinery at both wards and local government levels from the Government House. It is alleged that he only doles out funds to Party executives with unquestionable loyalty while the legion of aides he brags about appointing are products of his thoughtful plan to control the Party. “These appointees are the governor’s eyes and ears across the state, dutifully spying and reporting on those seen as deviants”, a source said.
Again, some PDP stakeholders are angry at Ayade’s disinterest in organizing local government elections, a development the APC and some civil society organizations described as ‘perpetuating impunity and promoting undemocratic governance structure’ in the State.
Amidst these maneuverings, political watchers argue that the road Ayade is travelling for his Government House return trip is full of thorns and self-erected obstacles. According to them, aside issues of non-performance and the knack for foreign travels in almost three years of his administration, what may also put a serious wedge on his ambition is calls to jettison the current Deputy Governor, Professor Ivara Esu for being ‘politically boring and timorous’.
Forefront gathered that pressure is mounting on Ayade to dump Esu for his Finance Commissioner, Asuquo Ekpenyong Jnr. But the snack is that aside Prof Esu being a close ally and the only surviving political face of the erstwhile Imoke’s administration, the South Senatorial district’s ethnic configuration presently tilts the balance away from the core Efik-speaking areas to the Akamkpa and Biase axis to serve out their eight years term as Deputy Governor. Reason being that having enjoyed an uninterrupted eight-year governorship term with Donald Duke and another eight years as Deputy Governor through Barrister Effiok Cobham during Imoke’s era, the five local government areas in the Senatorial district; Calabar Municipality, Calabar South, Akpabuyo, Odukpani and Bakassi have more than a fair share of the political booty and therefore should not dislocate the existing structure.
For now, the battle line is being drawn daily with groups like Cross River Transparency Network International (CRTNI), Cross River Consensus (CRC) and opposition APC accusing the governor of running a ‘fraudulent government’ and wasting the state’s resources on ‘illegal foreign trips’.
As 2019 draws near for the electorate to make their choices, pundits insist that sentiments will continue running wild across the state that besides traveling overseas more than any governor in Nigerian history under the pretext of wooing investors, Ayade’s poster showing of smooth renditions on various television programmes remain tainted memories in the minds of many in the state.