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Bayelsa: Party supremacy rules in PDP, APC guber primaries

Tony Olutomiwa, Yenagoa

 The outcome of the governorship primaries of both the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Bayelsa State was quite predictable. There were no surprises, as the leadership of the two parties played their game in a shrewd manner to the end.

The entire process was, however, characterised by intrigue, agitation, controversy and the critical element of interest, which usually define such political contest.

All these factors were to be decisive at the end, culminating in the respective choices made by the parties ahead of the November 16 governorship election in the state.

For instance, the emergence of David Lyon, as APC flagbearer was not an accident; it was a smart move by the leader of the party in the state, the Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Sylva, who weighed his option as a preference to that of either the former Minister of State for Agriculture, Heineken Lokpobiri, or Preye Aganaba, who were hitherto frontliners in the race. The other aspirants like the retired Police Commissioner, Deseye Poweigha, and C.K. Amgbare were obviously not in serious contention, being rookies.

Until a week to the initial date slated for the primaries, few would have reckoned with the choice of Lyon, an oil magnate and APC financier in Southern Ijaw. The pervading thinking within the party and in the public domain was that Sylva would contest and he was the man to beat, especially considering his affinity with the national leadership of the party. Major political activities were being carried out, showcasing his imminent declaration and through their assertive pronouncements, his key backers and associates were wont to state that his entry into the race was a matter of time but it never came to pass. Instead, Sylva drafted Lyon to pick the form barely a week to the primary election and he won.

Although a Sagbama High Court, sitting in Yenagoa had ordered the National Working Committee, NWC, of the APC against adopting the direct process for its primaries, a development, which temporarily halted the election, the order was subsequently vacated through a similar court process activated by the party.

The court order followed an initial faceoff between the camps of Lokpobiri and Sylva over what mode should be adopted by the party in the conduct of the primaries. While the Lokpobiri camp advocated for indirect primaries, the latter group preferred direct primaries and the war raged.

However, the national leadership of the party finally resolved the argument when it issued a statement, which pronounced direct primary, as the mode to be adopted in Bayelsa State and the consequent rush to court to challenge the move, which was perceived as supporting the Sylva group.

In arriving at its decision, the APC NWC, besides shifting the initial date, had stated through a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu, thus: “The NWC has shifted the date for the Bayelsa governorship primaries from Thursday, August 29 to Saturday, August 31, 2019.

“The party has also adopted the direct mode of primaries in line with the written request of the Bayelsa State chapter and majority of the stakeholders.

“This is in compliance with the decision of the APC National Executive Committee, NEC, which grants state chapters and majority of party leaders in a state the right to decide on the mode of primaries they wish to adopt.”

But the election did not hold until Wednesday last week after due process to vacate the earlier court order.

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Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise. That was what the state leadership of the party preferred and there is a background to it. It must be stated that Sylva was never comfortable with Lokpobiri, emerging as the candidate based on suspicion of what such possibility connotes in the long run as against his own leadership and other related political implications. 

There is an observable rivalry between the two personalities. The Lokpobiri camp believes that direct primaries was designed to ensure everybody fall in line and support Sylva’s choice and secure the ticket.

He had kicked against the recourse to this arrangement when he said at his declaration early July that: “The only way to avoid disagreement that will arise from the primaries is to conduct a credible and transparent primary election. That is why in the wisdom of majority of the party, we are saying that indirect primaries is the way to go.”

Indeed, that sharp disagreement between the camps of Sylva and Lokpobiri at the party secretariat mid July over modality for the primary election (direct or indirect process) was a pointer to what to expect and the consequent run of play underscored the reality of Sylva’s conviction on who to support for the ticket.

But more poignant was the electoral consequence of Lokpobiri’s candidature in the general election. As the argument went, fielding Lokpobiri would have been politically naive in view of the sensitive and provocative issue of zoning, which had been a major concern among the three senatorial zones over time but with the consensus that the next governor should come from the Central zone. This zone comprises three local governments: Southern Ijaw, Yenagoa and Kolokuma/Opokuma. Lokpobiri is from Ekeremor in the same West Senatorial zone, as the incumbent governor, Seriake Dickson, who has had the unique record of completing two terms of eight years, which all his predecessors never had. Thus it became strategic in electoral reckoning to look elsewhere and Lyon, a Sylva ally, found favour. 

Lyon is from Southern Ijaw in the Central zone also favoured by the zoning agitation and an area with the largest votes in the state.

However, whether Lyon is the best for the APC, a man accused of having no administrative experience in government and intellectual capacity compared with Lokpobiri, a former Speaker of the state House of Assembly, former senator and a minister or Preye Aganaba, a young educated and accomplished entrepreneur or the female aspirant, Deseye Poweigha, who was a former commissioner of police, is another matter altogether. Lyon is said to be a philanthropist and money bag whose resources will be key in prosecuting the election.

Lyon’s candidature remains an issue the party still has to contend as, as discontent continues to build among those who lost out. While somee, like the former speaker and acting governor in the state, Nestor Binabo, felt Sylva was in order by not contesting, as a father of all in the party, he, however, believed that Preye Aganaba was the perfect man to have been the candidate based on his qualifications and contributions to the party over time.

Yet there is the Lokpobiri tendency in the party, which felt shortchanged by Lyon’s candidature, predicating its declaration on the belief that the former minister was the best choice since Sylva exited the race.

A leader in the party, who did not want his name in print, said it was a wrong judgement to have chosen Lyon. He stated further that Lokpobiri would have been a better choice on account of his experience and political acumen to tackle the PDP at the general election.

He noted that the introduction of Lyon days to the primaries was causing disunity in the party and that this could affect the party’s chances at the election proper.

He said: “It is clearly a worrisome development because Lyon was not in the thinking of most members of the APC for governor all along but suddenly he was imposed on the party. But some other credible aspirants who are more experienced and ready to fight the PDP have gone far in their campaign. They have done so much work, building the party, their own organisations and followers but now suddenly stopped and rendered their aspirations useless. So, what I can see is that the leadership is creating confusion and so much disunity in the party. Many of us are disillusioned already but let’s wait and see.”

A more telling insinuation has also crept into the debate over Lyon’s candidature, which a member of the party said was an attempt by Sylva to continue to hold on to the leadership position of the party in the state.

According to Desmond Baratuipre, a vibrant young member of the party in Yenagoa, choosing Lyon was a calculated attempt to ensure APC does not win the governorship, which, in his thinking, would continue to make Sylva relevant, as the leader of the party in Bayelsa State.

He said: “That’s the game; otherwise it was unthinkable that a new aspirant would be drafted into the race at the last minute when major aspirants like Lokpobiri and Aganaba were getting set to clinch the ticket. So, by creating such confusion, which will affect the unity of the party, Sylva is making it clear that he wants to continue to be the leader as a consequence of our loss to the PDP at the election. So, it is left for him to find a way of bringing everybody together to support his choice but that may be difficult because of what they now felt is an act of betrayal.”

But another party member, who is sympathetic to Sylva, said all the aspirants had the opportunity to contest at the primaries and a winner emerged in a democratic process.

So also were those who rose in defence of Sylva’s action, which they believed aligned with APC electoral strategy to win, pointing out that Lyon’s choice was meant to attract the huge votes in Southern Ijaw and indeed tap from what they referred to as the candidate’s public goodwill.

“With due respect to Lokpobiri and his supporters, he was too disadvantaged to pick the APC ticket on the main issue of zoning and, in fact, given Lyon’s loyalty and contributions to the party, he deserved the support to be our candidate. Mind you, Southern Ijaw is where the votes are and that is important to us in this election. The same thing applies to the other who, cannot match the PDP in the general election,” a party stalwart told The Nigerian Xpress in Yenagoa.

As with the APC, the agitation and struggle to become the standard bearer of the PDP was expectedly contentious. It couldn’t have been different when 21 aspirants jostled for a sole ticket. The situation got to a head, following the controversy surrounding the delegates’ election, a process which threw up a collection of party electors, who chose the candidate last week at the primaries.

From the outset, Governor Seriake Dickson had made it abundantly clear that he would prefer his successor coming from the Restoration Team, the caucus, which had been in charge of his previous elections and had formed the core of the government he headed in the two terms he has been at the saddle at the Creek Haven.

His convictions were based on the need for continuity, requiring a dedicated hand that could possibly maintain and build on his legacy and one, who understands the governing philosophy enshrined by the Restoration Government in the state. He also listed other qualifications to include capacity, focus, fear of God and compassion and ability to protect the collective interests of the Ijaw nation.

“The shoes I am leaving behind are very big. Posterity will judge. Only a few of the people who come to talk to me have the interest of the state at heart. There is no free money to give anybody in Bayelsa. Don’t kill for anybody, none has the power to make you a billionaire,” the governor said.

However, he later said he had no anointed aspirant but conceded that as a leader of the party, he was entitled to support any aspirant of his choice.

Ahead of the primaries, three names, Kemela Okara, Douye Diri and Dr. Nimbofa Ayawei were leading aspirants for contention, who are all members of the Restoration Team and favoured by the zoning formula. They are all from the Central Senatorial District where the APC had also picked its candidate. But in the end, Diri triumphed on account of some strategic reasons, mainly on suitability in the reckoning of the leadership to pace with the challenge of continuity and all appurtenances of its values. It was striking that in spite of their pre-election rating, Okara and Ayawei recorded poor results, garnering a pittance of 4 and 7 votes, respectively.

Outside the Restoration caucus, it was only the former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, Timi Alaibe, who was vocal and posturing to be reckoned with even as the calculation in the party did not favour his aspiration.

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Analysing Alaibe’s quest in retrospect is to reckon with Dickson’s repeated affirmation to have a successor from the Restoration camp, which effectively excluded Alaibe, as a democratic exercise. The foundation here is the factor of the delegates, who were mostly members of the governor’s camp and who had repeatedly trounced Alaibe and the other aspirants at the respective delegates elections held at different levels. They were the ones, who voted to elect the PDP flagbearer and it was a fait accompli.

Although Alaibe and some other aspirants had complained that the process of the delegates’ election was skewed in favour of the Restoration camp, alleging, for instance, that they were not involved in choosing the electoral officers and that the entire process should be cancelled, this position was, however, not taken by the Dave Umahi-led committee that supervised the election.

In response to the protest, Umahi, on behalf of his committee, stated as follows: “Thank you for coming to register your grievances. PDP is one family and what you have done is the right thing to do. Members of this committee are men and women of integrity and nothing will manipulate the process in favour of anybody.

“The process started on Thursday with the meeting of all the aspirants. And we asked the aspirants to tell us all their problems.

“They told us their problems, including this issue of electoral officers. We all agreed that the process should start on Thursday and conclude on Friday.

“So, anybody suggesting that the process be aborted is not suggesting the right pathway because we have already agreed with the aspirants that the process should be started and concluded on Friday.

“When we finished with the aspirants, we also addressed the party people and requested for complaints from the party people. But there were no complaints. So, it is not true that we didn’t meet with the party people.

“Without prejudice to our rights to appoint electoral officers, we asked the aspirants to tell us how the electoral officers in the last were appointed.

“All of them said it was the duty of the party leadership to give list of EOs. The process is very clear on how these things are being done.”

From Umahi’s responses above, the plausible inference is that the issue really was not with the process vis-à-vis the protest, as it were but the basic interest of the party as regards their choice of candidate. Like the case in the APC, it was clearly an internal affair, a legitimate party mechanism but which could not have favoured Alaibe or any other non-Restoration aspirant because they were “outsiders”. It was pure real politik.

Analysts are of the view that the repeated assertion by Governor Dickson that he had no preferred aspirant was a mere facade of political as, as no incumbent like him would not be conscious and decisive on the choice of his successor. Thus Alaibe or any of the other non-Restoration aspirants stood no chance since the governor had indicated his preference and it is a common action by such incumbents across party lines. No doubt, the state government is a product of the party and both will necessarily strike a common balance, as a tradition.

Pundits have nonetheless said Alaibe in particular must be commended for his courage and fighting spirit, as indicated in his performance at the poll. But they were quick to argue that his strategy was faulty, thinking he could muzzle his way into getting the party’s ticket. They felt that he should have realised that it would be difficult to become candidate without the blessing of the incumbent, whose support he never got in spite of the nod he got from former President Goodluck Jonathan whose including, including King A. J. Turner, who rallied behind Alaibe’s aspiration. 

A major criticism of Alaibe in relation to Dickson’s persuasion was the alleged inconsistency, having jumped from one party to another over time in a futile bid to become the governor of the state.

Basically, therefore, the protests by non-Restoration aspirants may not scale any serious democratic test, as alluded to by the Umahi committee because all the aspirants were allowed access to the delegates to persuade them to vote for their respective choices and also participated in the delegates’ election at different layers and have equally contested the main election. But as noted earlier, the supremacy of the party, which dictated where the pendulum should swing had its way.

As with Alaibe, so also was the situation with Lokpobiri in APC. The former minister’s bravado eventually melted in the face of party which, which aborted his governorship aspiration because he was not favoured to pick the ticket. His agitation for a particular process of conducting the primary election was mere wishful thinking because the APC has no uniform template (direct or indirect) in conducting party primaries. It all depends on what suits the party’s leadership in each state, as was the case in the last general election and now reinforced going by the APC NWC’s pronouncement.

Succinctly, David Lyon won because he was the choice of the party’s leadership and the outcome could not have been otherwise.

In the case of Douye Diri, the senator representing Bayelsa Central, there was also a convergence of interest in his candidature from both Governor Dickson and the party executives. Competent sources told The Nigerian Xpress that the factors in his favour were the conviction that he could ensure continuity and safeguard Dickson’s legacy. He is seen, as a trusted ally of the governor, who understands the internal workings of governor, having served as commissioner under Goodluck Jonathan when he was the governor of the state, Deputy Chief of Staff and later Principal Executive Secretary to Dickson in his first term, former member of the House of Representatives and lately a senator. He was also a stalwart of the Ijaw National Congress, INC, where he was the first National Organising Secretary.

Diri and Dickson are similar in personal attributes of being modest and frugal; a marked feature, which one of the sources said was of interest to the governor. It was gathered that Dickson would not want a situation where the state would be reverted to the past of what he regarded as the era of profligacy but building on his achievements via sound resource management and accountability.

From all indications, Diri was the point man and no wonder he clinched the ticket, even as his critics have pointed out that he’s from an area with the least electoral votes in the state.

But some observers believe the two situations are not the same. The governorship election is a state-wide affair where the influence of the incumbent will count. Dickson has repeatedly said he would lead the campaign and that could be consequential in electoral support and quest for victory.

Of interest in this calculation as some have also said is the fact that Diri won in Southern Ijaw in his last election to the senate.

For both APC and PDP, however, there are still hurdles to cross, as they must begin earnest reconciliation to assuage the feelings of their members, who lost out in the contest. This is basic to the essential unity for a serious contest at the general election in November.

The signal from the PDP has already underscored this as imperative. It was learnt that the party’s Caucus had set up a 13-member ad hoc committee to thrash out issues with defeated aspirants for possible reconciliation. Known as the Special Adhoc Committee and headed by Chief Francis Doukpola, the committee would manage the fallout of the primary election. 

“The committee will relate with these set of aspirants and talk with them to remain in the party even after the primaries so as to go into the election as a united front. You know only one person can possibly emerge as the party’s candidate,” a source said.