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The courage to challenge—Ohakim Book series

By Ikedi Ohakim
This is the first part of the book by the Imo State governor, Ikedi Ohakim. The book will be serialized later in Vanguard newspapers

IT was one of the toughest decisions of my life. But I managed to carry it through without batting an eyelid.
There was just no alternative, no going back. “I am dropping out of the race”, I announced to the bewildered
members of my campaign team, “I am leaving the PDP”.

It was two days to the governorship primaries of the Peoples Democratic Party in Imo State and we were assembled in Suite No.15 at the All Seasons Hotel in Owerri. All of us, men and women who had been on the campaign trail, were exhausted. For nearly seven days, we had slept in fits and starts.

Gov. Ohakim
Gov. Ohakim

We had been travelling the length and breadth of the state for last minute campaigns, meeting people we
had met before to get assurance they were still with us, seeking PDP members who were eligible to vote in the
primaries and presenting our manifesto over and over again, explaining to them why I was the best man for the job
and therefore the best candidate for the party. So there was a hush in the room as 1 spoke, it was not the kind
of news these people were waiting to hear.

Professor Obioma Iheduru, the director of my campaign organisation was the first to find his voice. But the voice
I heard was not his. It croaked and cracked, it betrayed his shock. “You cannot do this”, he started, “you cannot
leave the PDP, the primaries are only two days away, we have adequate funds, have built a lot of support, you
have worked so hard, we have worked so hard, our goal is within reach, you cannot quit now he went on as his
voice tried to gain strength and then fail again.

Always neat and impeccably dressed, he was a shadow of his usual self. He had pulled down his tie, leaving his
shirt open and rumpled; his hands usually steady and assured as tools of  gesticulation, now flayed uncertainly
without rhythm. There was confusion in his eyes. There was something else too-pain-as he sought for answers, all
the while muttering, “you just can quit”. He soon broke into a sweat. Yet the air-conditioner in the room had not
gone off. In fact, it was at full blast.

Professor Iheduru was not the only one in shock. He was not the only one who spoke. All others spoke in like
manner. And the questions were same: “Why”? The admonitions were same “You cannot quit.” And the emotions were
same. They were all in anguish.

Earlier that morning, at about 4 O’clock, I  had roused my wife from sleep as I have done in the last 25 years whenever I find myself extremely disturbed and have to unburden my mind. And as she has always done, she put away her comfort and directed her full attention to tend to my troubled spirit. She was as alert that time in the morning as I have seen her on several occasion: when tackling knotty issues in critical cases while representing her clients as she played my advocate, looking me in the eye and asking probing questions.

Probing  questions

I narrated how the previous day I arrived the bank in Enugu and received the shock of my life. One of my fellow contestant in the governorship primaries of Imo State, had arrived the bank earlier that day and virtually shut it down. The man made a mind boggling cash withdrawal and I did not need a seer to tell me what the money was for, or where it was going. It was four days to the PDP primaries.

My shock did not only come from the audacity and absurdity of carrying such a huge amount of cash all at once. It did not only come from once again seeing at close quarter the desperate tone the Imo PDP governorship primaries had carried out by one international media organisation ranked Imo among the states notorious for money politics in Nigeria. It estimated that no less than a whopping N16 billion was spent in the race for the PDP ticket for 2007 in the state.

Worried by the cash and carry dimension which the campaign primaries of the party was taking, I had written petitions to the national secretariat of the party. I tried to appeal to the conscience of the national leaders of the party.

How could we say we are the biggest party in Africa, the bastion of democracy on the continent, an assembly of men and women with the fear of God, and then stand by and condone a situation where Mr. or Mrs. B, a known errand boy or girl to candidate C, serves as an officer in the state executive? How could you stand by and watch democracy being so commercialised that it could have conveniently and correctly been tagged “a cash and carry” democracy.

I proposed that a caretaker committee be set up to midwife the primaries in Imo, believing that the state executives were incapable of conducting a credible election since they had been severely compromised. Yet this was not all. Like the rest of Nigeria, we have a zoning system in the politics and life of Imo State. The idea of zoning is to protect the interest of the minorities and ensure that the strong do not trample continuously upon the weak.

For post of governor, the zoning formula is to rotate the office along the three senatorial districts of Orlu, Okigwe and Owerri. The formula is not written down in any rule book, gazette or constitution. It is an unwritten law respected and implemented for decades, a gentleman’s agreement made and kept by true gentlemen, if you like.

Dating back to 1979 when Imo had its democratically elected civilian governor following the creation of the state, the people of Imo have adhered to this zoning formula even when the politicians tried to scuttle it.

Chief Sam Onunaka Mbakwe won the governorship elections in Imo State that year. A son of Avutu Obowo in the Okigwe Senatorial district, he was deemed to have taken the slot of that district for the first cycle of the zoning though this was in the old Imo State.Although that Republic was truncated by a military coup in  1983 when Chief Mbakwe was still in the early days of his second term in office, the sons and daughters of Owerri were quick to take in.

It came even more from the realisation that people had this kind of money to throw into an election that they were not even sure of winning. It came from the realisation that the man who was prepared to spend this much in a couple of days for the primaries would be prepared to spend tonnes more in the general elections if he got the party ticket. And even worse, such a man would be prepared to do anything to win the ticket and then the general elections; anything, including selling his soul.

There was something immoral about it all in a land where people are hungry and some cannot afford a square meal a day where graduates walked the streets in search of jobs to fend for ageing parents who had sacrificed their lifetime to give them an education: where countless other children and youths walk the streets without hope for any form of formal education for reason of lack of finance.

I thought of the over 200,000 full education scholarships that the huge amount of money he pulled from the bank for the final moments of the primaries would fetch and my stomach churned.

Earlier, I had sent members of my research team out to the field to do an assessment of the political situation in the state and an evaluation of our chances. Their report suggested that many of the candidates were ‘buying’ delegates for the primaries. Some were offering prospective voters N50,000 each and there were over 7,000 delegates from the 27 councils across the state. One aspirant hired all the rooms in one of the biggest hotels in this state where he planned to lodge delegates with all their expense paid. The picture was that frightening. Even more so.

On their campaign trail, the shenanigans continued. Some candidate; hired crowds to attend their rallies and paid cash for the service; 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 these cost huge sums of money. The political space in the state was literally awash with money spent; to induce and seduce the people for political support. A survey reminded all Imo people that Okigwe had taken its slot and it was the turn of Owerri, when nearly a decade later it was time again for civilian democracy. This was the argument that made many Okigwe aspirants to withdraw or put up a feeble appearance at the 1991 governorship elections in Imo State.

In the end, it was a straight fight between Evan Enwerem of Owerri Zone and Ezekiel Izuogu of Orlu Zone. Enwerem won. At the beginning of this present dispensation, indigenes of the Orlu zone made their case for the slot and this gentleman’s zoning formula was a major consideration for ceding the position to them. Achike Udenwa, an Orlu son was elected governor in 1999 and enjoyed a second term from 2003 to 2007.
By our zoning formula, it followed naturally that the Orlu Zone had taken its turn at the rotation, and taken it in full for that matter.

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