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The Courage To Challenge

Courage2 ‘The Courage To Challenge, by Ikedi Ohakim, is an odyssey of the author through the murky waters of Nigeria’s political terrain and his eventual emergence as Governor of Imo State…

Day of the underdog
Events of the April 28, 2007 Governorship Elections in Imo State can be likened to the events of the night of February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida in many ways: High drama, suspense, surprise, shock and above all, the triumph of courage and careful planning.

February 25, 1964. Cassius Clay (who was later to be known as Muhammad Ali) entered the ring in Miami Beach, Florida, looking clean, handsome and confident as he jumped and pranced around the ring, jabbing at the air and making a show of his fancy foot walk.

But the bulk of the fans in the audience were not impressed. They did not cheer. They looked at the 22-year-old more with pity. He stood no chance. That is what all the bookmakers and pundits had said. The man he was up against was Sonny Liston, the heavy weight boxing champion of the world. As far as the pundits were concerned, the fight was over before it began. They had prejudged the match and given it right away to Liston. But they may not have had all the facts.

April 28, 2007, a similar situation was developing at the governorship election in Imo State, Nigeria. I was a candidate in that race and I was running on the platform of the Progressive People’s Alliance (PPA). Long before that day, long before voting commenced, bookmakers and pundits had made their picks of the winner, writing profusely their forecasts and predictions in newspapers and magazines, and airing them on radio and television.

Not many of them had me in their radar. Not many of them gave me a chance. They compiled their list of what they thought were important indicators to identify the strongest candidates and based on this, they made their analysis and arrived at their verdicts. But did they have all the facts?

Audacious Muhammed Ali was only 22years old when he defied bookmakers, experts and pundits to knock out the fearsome heavy weight champion of the world, Sonny Liston, in February 1964 and claim the title. Ali’s life is my life lesson.
Audacious Muhammed Ali was only 22years old when he defied bookmakers, experts and pundits to knock out the fearsome heavy weight champion of the world, Sonny Liston, in February 1964 and claim the title. Ali’s life is my life lesson.

In the Imo governorship election of April 28, 2007, many of the pundits also chose what they wanted to see and ignored many facts and possibilities that were out there in the public domain. I had been in politics and leadership for a long while and had garnered valuable experience and made friends and contacts that would come in handy in my governorship venture. I had been a commissioner in the state at a very young age, one and a half decades earlier. I had run the primaries for a senatorial seat in 1999 and won but was cheated out of my mandate.

I had run for deputy governor in 2003and made great impact even with a party that was nearly non-existent in Imo before my team adopted it. I had played at the top of business for decades and had the private sector organisational skills and painstaking commitment to details and success. I had been a pioneer member of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and still had a lot of friends, sympathisers and loyalists within the party. I was not the richest man on the campaign trail but I was not without financial means.

These were facts in the public domain which were conveniently ignored by the pundits in their analysis of  the strengths of the candidates that would come in handy in the contest. Instead, they concluded even before the elections that candidates A,B, C, D were the frontrunners in the election based on their selective criteria and limited information. They based their conclusions primarily on perceived financial war chests, the perceived strength of the candidates’ political parties in the state and nationally and mistook their ubiquity in the news media for power and influence. While money, influence and a strong party are important factors in an election, they are not all the factors.

In the contest of April 28, we had our plan. Politics in Nigeria is largely seen as a cash-and-carry venture. It may well be. It is also a venture where godfatherism thrives, where anointed candidates are expected to win without much ado. But this is not all that politics is. Yet the bulk of our journalists and pundits are locked in this philosophy, believing that the man who has the money to buy the votes and the godfathers to “fix” things would certainly win the election. That must be the mindset with which they selected their possible winners.

That, and perceived connection to the powers-that-be in the country. And perhaps other personal reasons too. But we came into the election with a new mindset, a new philosophy, a new ideology. We believed that the people count, that the voters were important, that they held the key to giving power. Yet we did not undermine the other factors peculiar to our environment. We understood the influence of cash in our politics and appreciated the importance of courting and cultivating political, business and community leaders in our quest for the governorship but we understood, that ultimately, the power was with the people.

We understood that critical thinking, planning, motivation and painstaking action leads to success. We ran our campaign project like a business venture making the right investments (critical thinking, proper research, careful planning and painstaking campaign) and waiting for the returns (victory).

We believed that by carefully communicating our well-articulated manifesto to the people we could get them to break from the mold of following those who give them hand-outs and later rob them blind and vote for us instead. We refused to be caught in that stereotype that suggests that the only way to win the votes of the people and by extension win the election is to buy the votes from the people or buy the support of INEC officials, the police or other stakeholders in the election process for the purpose of rigging the elections. We refused to be pessimistic and let our hope in hard work-leads-to-success philosophy drive us and inspire us.

So we spent time researching, planning and campaigning. We were not in the radar of the pundits and this turned out to be to our advantage as it worked well with our underdog strategy. No one was looking in our direction as we focused on our campaign and solidified our links with the voters at the grassroots who we met several times, carefully and painstakingly explaining our manifesto.

Stepping out in 1973 a young Secondary School student, full of optimism
Stepping out in 1973 a young Secondary School student, full of optimism

No one was looking in our direction as we built bridges of co-operation across party lines and wooed disenchanted voters and party members from rival parties to support us en masse in our bid for the Imo Government House. No one was looking in our direction even as victory came so close to our doors. No one was looking in our direction on April 28 when it all came together and we won a resounding victory that shocked our opponents and awed the pundits. April 28, 2007, the day of the “underdog”! Alas, the story must be told from the beginning.

Testing the Murky Waters
Shortly after the 2003 general elections, many prominent members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Imo State began to cross over to rival political parties. Soon, men and women were decamping the ruling party for other parties in droves. Those who did not outrightly declare for other parties formed bands of aggrieved opposition camps within the PDP.

The exodus from the party and the discontent that prevailed in what was left of it left the ruling party in the state in tatters and its leaders in disarray. In spite of winning, the party emerged from the elections badly fractured and heavily divided. Factions and camps, according to one estimate, numbered as much as 83. Like in 1999, the popular thinking in 2003 among gubernatorial contenders in Imo State, for example, was that a level playing field had not been provided in the process leading to the re-election of Chief Achike Udenwa as flag bearer for the party for a second term. And this was the crux of the matter.

I was one of those who left the PDP in protest in 2003and went ahead that year to contest the Imo governorship as running mate to Chief Hope Uzodinma on the platform of Alliance for Democracy, AD. The party aligned with the zoning arrangement in the state so Orlu Senatorial Zone produced the governorship candidate while Okigwe Senatorial Zone produced the running-mate.

Chief Uzodinma hails from the former, I the latter. Although we were latecomers to the general campaigns, having joined the AD quite close to the general elections, we still made such an impressive showing that within a short period, we had made the relatively unknown party a force to contend with in the state.

To soothe frayed nerves and quell rising tempers, the national secretariat of the PDP set up a reconciliation committee after the general elections. Its mandate was to woo back to its fold, members who had become estranged on account of the many disagreements that attended the elections. The panel had respectable personalities like Chief Solomon Lar, Professor Jerry Gana, General David Jemibewon and others of like stature.

Expectedly, candidates like me who had left the PDP in protest to actualise their aspirations elsewhere were targeted and implored to return to the “fold”.

Many of us went back to the party, and were enjoined to work towards rebuilding and repackaging it. Determined to help salvage the party, I wrote more than twenty position papers on how to make things work, not just at party, but also at governmental level. I thought we were on the path of genuine renewal of the party.

But time would soon prove that we were, again, mistaken! And our new moment of reckoning came when we set out to select party officials for what we thought was the reconciled, new and improved PDP. Alas, out of the murk came crawling the old demons of godfatherism, cronyism, favouritism, factionalism, and several other forebears and products of injustice and inequality, especially those spewing forth from our number one national enemy: money politics!

Ironically, the stage for our fresh disappointment with the party was set by a proposition from one of the party’s peace-makers, Alhaji Kassim Imam. The party chieftain and member of the reconciliation committee set up after the 2003elections, had, in a proposal similar to that reached at the Berlin Conference of 1885, where Africa was partitioned among European nations for “effective occupation”, muted the idea of partitioning Imo State to some men and women in the state.

The scheme proposed ceding total control of local government areas (LGAs) in the state to particular people in the state. It suggested that once a council, for instance, had been ceded to a person, he then decided who got what, from ward chairmen down to secretaries and clerks.

Local Government Areas were carved out in Imo State to party leaders such as elder statesman Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, Senator Arthur Nzeribe, Dr. (Mrs.) Kema Chikwe, Chief Hope Uzodinma, and even to a serving bank executive, Austine Obigwe who incidentally is a good friend of mine. My own LGAwas ceded to Ifeanyi Araraume. Astonishingly, Araraume was a joiner to the party. He had crossed to the PDP from the then All Peoples Party, APP, where he was Imo State Chairman.

And suddenly, he was a prince of the PDP!

Many of us were at a loss over the criteria for this undemocratic contraption but the beneficiaries assumed the new powers and privileges the scheme afforded them enthusiastically. Perhaps, being beneficiaries, they did not consider the repercussions of that scheme, even for themselves. They did not wait to think that the scheme, while giving them absolute control over designated LGAs, also denied them any say in LGAs ceded to other beneficiaries.

They did not consider how curtailed their sphere of influence would be by the adoption of this arrangement; that if they had absolute control of one LGA, for instance, and had no say in the remaining 26, they were ultimately the losers. Indeed, the scheme gave them a naira in one hand, and took hundreds more from the other. Although they may have appeared like the inheritors of the state at that time, they were in fact, like many of us, losers in the arrangement.

And there was an even bigger problem from this arrangement: the social problem emanating from the balkanisation of the state. By giving absolute control of different local governments of the state to different individuals, the party unwittingly destroyed the harmony and the cohesion needed to successfully run any state. Astate is like a joint venture project with various stakeholders with good and bad ideas.

Before any decisions are taken, these stakeholders must come together, discuss and debate and then adopt what is best for a greater number of the people in the state.

But with the new arrangement, one man held sway in each local government and could not be challenged even if his ideas were the wrong ones. And as different men and women lorded it over the party in different LGAs, the texture, the tempo, the style of leadership in each LGAwas different. The result was a cacophony of leadership styles, a collage of temperaments in the state PDP. There was no common way of doing things in the party across the LGAs in the state. The party no longer had a recognisable identity. And this became the foundation for the confusion in the party.

So the leadership of the party from the ward to local government and through to the state levels emerged from such monstrous and patently anti-democratic contraption. Of course, this flawed system was a perfect recipe for the corruption and destruction of the democratic process.

Nominations and appointments to political positions became available only to the highest bidder, as the party-appointed godfathers exploited these warped privileges. Expectedly, a lot of us protested this undemocratic arrangement not just because we were disenfranchised, but because we knew the party would be the worse for it. Not surprisingly, all our cries fell on deaf ears. But we were soon proved right. Confusion soon set in. The state executives of the party were being changed at every bat of an eyelid. Today, the body was proclaimed state executive, the next day, it was called “caretaker” committee.

The artificial “godfathers” created by the party against all tenets of democracy, craved utter loyalty to themselves from party men and women rather than to the party. They spurned any opinion contrary to theirs and inimical to their self interests even if they were in the interest of the party; they removed and replaced party and state officials at their whims and caprices; they wielded power and wielded it selfishly and corruptly.

The visionary Lord Acton may have seen a picture of the Imo State of this period in his mind’s eye as he wrote to Bishop Mandel Creighton over a century earlier, his now famous phrase, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Imo became a living testimony to this maxim.

The Rat Race
With all of this confusion, the scramble for 2007 had commenced in earnest. In fact, it was this scramble for the next elections that escalated the confusion as politicians who struggled to entrench themselves strove to install their own people in strategic positions at all cost.

When the race for the party primaries officially opened in 2006, I was number five among those who formally declared interest to run for governor of Imo State on the PDP platform. The number of contenders on that platform was soon to grow to a whopping 55, and I was the 10th to pick the nomination form. In spite of the distortions in the system, I hit the road quickly to get a head start, hoping that somehow my visionary organisation and popularity on the campaign trail would force a true and transparent contest.

I put together a formidable resource and campaign team. I opened my campaign secretariat at Orji Road in Owerri, the state capital, and also opened offices in the three Senatorial Zones of the state. But I would soon discover, to my chagrin, that party state executives that were supposed to conduct the primaries were already bought over by certain aspirants with all kinds of inducements.

They were just not interested in proper primaries. One aspirant, for instance, provided all the cars the state party executives were driving and placed them on regular salaries. But we should have known that this would happen. And we did know and warn the party. After all, the so-called executives were invariably a product of the “Berlin Conference”. We were just shocked at the enormity of the distortion in the system and the sheer effrontery of the operators in brandishing their political immorality before us all. Individually, party executives owed their loyalties to their godfathers and not the party as a corporate entity.

Yet the distortion did not end there. There was more. I sent my campaigners out to the field to do a survey. We discovered that most of the aspirants were buying delegates for the primaries. Some were offering prospective voters N50,000 each and there were over 7,000 delegates from the 304 electoral wards in the state. One aspirant hired one of the biggest hotels in the state where he planned to lodge delegates with all their expenses paid.

The picture was that frightening. Even more so. On the campaign trail, the shenanigans continued. Some candidates hired crowds to attend their rallies and paid cash for the services of their mercenaries. When they moved to a different location the next day, the rented crowd was also ferried in hired buses to fill up the venue, to give a false impression of huge support. So, you discovered that it was the same crowd they addressed in all the “mother-of-all-rallies” they claimed to have addressed across the state. And of course, all this cost them huge sums of money. The political space in the state was literally awash with money spent to induce and to seduce the voters for political support.

Continues tomorrow


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