By SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN-CITY
Last Monday’s impeachment of the Speaker of Edo State House of Assembly, Mr Justin Esezobor Okonoboh, who assumed office in July, 2016, has created a fresh political tension in the state. And since he assumed office, it has been one bickering after another between him and his colleagues in the House. Mr Victor Edoror, an Esan man like Okonoboh and former Speaker, was impeached after members accused him of not carrying them along on the activities of the House. Edoror’s impeachment in 2015 brought in Elizabeth Ativie, from Edo South, as Speaker.
Like what is playing out now, Ativie’s assumption of office as Speaker, distorted power configuration in Edo but following the intervention of then Governor Adams Oshiomhole, who had doggedly worked for the victory of all the 20 All Progressives Congress, APC, members of the House, Ativie swapped her position with Okonoboh who was her deputy then. That was how Okonoboh emerged as Speaker and Ativie Deputy Speaker. This was done to give the Esan people a sense of belonging in the APC particularly as the 2016 governorship election was fast approaching then.
However, Okonoboh’s seat became shaky early this year when some members of the House became uncomfortable with his style of leadership. Apart from the issues of finance and award of contracts, some of his colleagues believed he had not been able to come up with an acceptable blueprint on how to relate with the current executive of the state led by Governor Godwin Obaseki. They lamented that they could not even see the governor to discuss the problems of their various constituencies due to the fact that, unlike during Oshiomhole’s days when lawmakers could easily walk in to have discussions with the governor, they now have to book appointment before they could see Obaseki.
They felt it was an embarrassment for them to compare with other states where lawmakers have undiluted access to the governor. To them, Okonoboh failed to deal with the situation. The House became divided with the pro-Okonoboh lawmakers being 11 while those against him were 11. In May 2017, the very day the House was to resume from recess, the lawmakers opposed to the Speaker prepared to strike. It was during the meeting of the Principal Officers Committee (POC) that the plot leaked. When Okonoboh and his loyalists got wind of the plot, they suspended sitting that day and ran to the Government House to see Obaseki and his deputy, Philip Shaibu. Obaseki and Shaibu quickly contacted other leaders of the APC who waded in to quell the attempt coup.
The governor directed his deputy to meet with the lawmakers and inform them he did not want any change of leadership as he intended to concentrate on the development of the state. Shaibu, who was Majority Leader of the House, used his experience to get most of the members to back off from the plot to impeach Okonoboh. That was how Obaseki saved Okonoboh. Unfortunately for the anti-Okonoboh lawmakers, led by a former Speaker of the House and Okonoboh’s Esan brother, Edoror, and the current Speaker, Kabiru Adjoto, they lacked the required 16 members to impeach the Speaker as at that time. The move was stepped down but was not forgotten.
Unfortunately for Okonoboh, his camp started depleting when some of the 11 lawmakers loyal to him soon became disenchanted with his style of leadership. Penultimate week, some of his loyalists met to review their relationship with him. The ex-Speaker got wind of it while on his way to America. He returned to Benin to plead with his colleagues to continue to support him and promised to take care of some of their grievances. Though Sunday Vanguard learnt that he would have since been removed but the problem with some of his loyalists was who to anoint. The earlier plot by the anti Okonoboh group was to return Edoror as Speaker but those loyal to Okonoboh that later joined forces with Adjoto/ Edoror group rejected Edoror. They even mooted the idea of the return of Ativie as Speaker, arguing that even though she is from Edo South, she has become an Esan by marriage and so there was nothing wrong in bringing her back as Speaker. The disagreement between the two forces led to the emergence of Adjoto a third term lawmaker from Akoko Edo Constituency 1.
Unlike Edoror, who was feting his colleagues with pounded yam and local black soup while he was being impeached at the Anthony Enahoro House of Assembly Complex, Okonoboh sat on his seat during proceedings when he was forced out by the Adjoto led forces.
The drama started at about 11:30am on Monday when the House resumed sitting and the Clerk commenced the job of the day by taking the roll call. Shortly after, the member representing Akoko Edo 2, Emmanuel Agbaje informed the Speaker that he had an impeachment notice signed by 19 members of the house. But the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lawmaker representing Esan North East, Desmond Igbass, a staunch supporter of Okonoboh, countered Agbaje. Another PDP lawmaker from Etsako West 11, Sylvanus Eruaga, engaged Igbass in a war of words and insisted they had impeachment proceedings. Both of them engaged in physical fight while Adjoto forces secured the mace. The pro Adjoto lawmakers immediately elected Eruaga as Protem Speaker while Okonoboh was forced out of his seat. Eruaga took over proceedings while lawmakers loyal to Okonoboh walked out of the chamber. Adjoto was sworn-in by the Clerk of the House thereafter and charged his colleagues to be united. After the proceedings, the new Speaker stormed the office of his predecessor and took over.
Meanwhile, Okonoboh and his group regrouped somewhere else and announced the suspension of Adjoto and his supporters. “What they did was illegal. Those who purportedly impeached me have been suspended. This morning, we started plenary when the member representing Akoko Edo 2, Hon.Emmanuel Agbaje, stood up. I asked him to sit down; he refused. That was when confusion started, and they started fighting. This cannot happen at this time that we need peace in Edo for development. All they said about me was rubbish; these people have been ambitious just because of their selfish interest. They don’t want peace in our state, they don’t want the governor to work and that is the issue. Because of this, the following members have been suspended: Hon. Adjoto, Hon. Victor Edoror, Monday Ehalua, Hon.Asoro, Hon. Peter Erhuaha, Hon. Sunday Aghede, Emmanuel Agbaje, Osaigbovo Iyoha. I remain Speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly”.
But Adjoto, who was sitting comfortably at the Speaker’s office, fired back. “We did not know initially that we voted in an incompetent Speaker”, he said. He continued: “He (Okonoboh) has continued to adjourn proceedings in the Assembly without due regard to our sitting calendar. In June and July 2017, we went on holidays for six weeks without any reason. And between July ending and mid-August, we went on another holiday. Now we went for holidays for three weeks just because his son graduated from Covenant University and he wanted to go there and celebrate with the son.
History of impeachment in Edo and the Esan problem
But what is worrisome in this matter is that the people of Edo Central, the Esan, where the APC zoned the speakership seat to, are acting the same script the South East acted when the PDP zoned the Senate President to the zone. Most Esan Speakers end being impeached. And each time they are impeached, they end up wanting to return and that is why Edoror is still hopeful of becoming Speaker. In 1991, when Chief John Odigie Oyegun was governor, Mathew Egbadon was Speaker, but he was impeached after about eight months in office. In 1999, Thomas Okosun became Speaker but was impeached after six months in office and Egbadon returned to office. Though Okosun enjoyed the support of House members, the PDP hierarchy then in Edo ousted him and brought Egbadon.
In 2003, Friday Itulah emerged as Speaker, but he was impeached after one year in office and another Esan man David Iyoha became Speaker. Iyoha was impeached after a year and Itulah came back to office. In 2007, Zakawanu Garuba, from Edo North, spent three years and he would have completed his four years if not for the coup the then ACN lawmakers executed which ended the PDP dominance in the House. The ACN now anointed another Esan man, Bright Omokhodion, as Speaker following his defection to ACN. After Omokhodion, Uyi Igbe, the first Benin man to be Speaker, came in, in 2010 and was Speaker until he completed his tenure in 2015. After Igbe, Edoror mounted the saddle but was impeached barely one year into his tenure and the only woman in the House, Ativie, from Edo South (Benin area), was elected Speaker. She did very well but because the change distorted the power configuration in the state, the leadership of the party, led then by Oshiomhole, pleaded with House leadership to pick somebody from Esan land and that was how the lot fell on Okonoboh.
Now that Okonoboh has been impeached, the next move the leadership of the APC will make is to appeal to the lawmakers to return Okonoboh who is now the Deputy Speaker so as to give the Esan a sense of belonging. But whether the Adjoto-led forces will agree is another issue. This is because, apart from the fact that Adjoto is one of the most experienced lawmakers in the House, he is a rugged and dogged APC member, in fact, one of those, in collaboration with Shaibu, who was then Majority Leader, to dethrone the PDP in then House of Assembly. He is fearless and a no-nonsense lawmaker. But how he will relate with the Obaseki administration is yet to be seen.