By ETIM ETIM
In Akwa Ibom politics, Senator John James Akpanudoedehe is a household name, widely regarded as a courageous leader, a bold politician and grassroots mobilizer. He is the governorship candidate on the platform of New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). Senator Akpanudoedehe believes that he will cause an upset in the 2023 elections by beating the other two main candidates, Mr Umoh Enoh of PDP and Senator Bassey Albert of YPP. If that happens, it would be the first time the PDP would be dislodged from the Akwa Ibom Government House since 1999. Many people in the state, including Chief Don Etiebet, an APC chieftain and former Petroleum Minister, are eagerly expecting NNPP to win the election. But what are the basis for their optimism?
Until last March, Akpanudoedehe was the Secretary General of APC. He supported the party in the state generously and was on the way to becoming its governorship candidate until INEC said otherwise. Since 2020, APC has been riddled with leadership crisis and split into two factions, one led by Akpanudoedehe and the other by former Minister Godswill Akpabio. Due to this problem, the Party could not conduct its governorship primary. While Akpanudoedehe’s faction had the support of INEC, it did not have the backing of the National leadership. On the other hand, while Akpabio’s faction was supported by the National Chairman, it lacked the recognition of INEC. The imbroglio led to a stalemate within the party, and to pursue his ambition, Senator Akpanudoedehe decamped with his supporters and all the ward executives of APC to NNPP. He was immediately nominated a governorship candidate of NNPP in a primary conducted in June. APC was therefore left without a governorship candidate because INEC refused to authenticate the midnight primary conducted by the Akpabio faction.
While APC was still smarting from its internal crisis and the defection of Akpanudoedehe to NNPP, PDP suffered a mortal blow of its own with the defection of Senator (Obong) Bassey Albert Akpan (OBA) to Young Progressives Party (YPP) to pursue his own governorship ambition. OBA has been a close ally and supporter of Gov. Udom Emmanuel, and was warming up to clinch the PDP governorship ticket, until January 30 this year when Gov. Emmanuel publicly anointed Mr Umoh Enoh, his Commissioner for Lands and Water Resources as his successor. Although the governor had all along been giving hints that OBA would not get the ticket, the Senator was gearing up to challenge the anointed one at the primary. But as the primary election got close, OBA, apparently sensing a humiliating defeat, withdrew from the race.
OBA’s defection to YPP with his supporters has effectively broken the ruling party in the state into two parts and weakened it considerably. Never before has PDP in Akwa Ibom been this enfeebled. But that is not enough. Another aspirant that ran against Enoh in the PDP primary, Mr. Akan Okon, has sued Enoh in a federal high court in Uyo, alleging that he had forged his secondary school certificate, and so Enoh was not eligible to stand for the election. Okon was also a Commissioner in the Udom Emmanuel’s cabinet, just like Enoh. In a way, his legal challenge appears like a thunder strike from within, and both Enoh and the governor have been particularly devastated. Okon has presented damaging evidence to prove his case, and so far, the Umoh Enoh team has been rather clumsy in their response. In the last Court sitting, Enoh’s lawyers hurriedly applied to the Court to withdraw the school cert result he filed in the court as evidence of his qualification, and replace it with school testimonial. The general question in the state is: If he did not forge the certificate, why replace it with a testimonial? Everybody in the state is discussing the Enoh case and there’s overwhelming consensus that he is not truthful with his submissions. Last month, there were rumours that Gov. Emmanuel was fed up and too embarrassed by the Umoh forgery scandal, and was therefore contemplating replacing him with another person. That may not happen, but the scandal has paralyzed the PDP and sucked it of oxygen.
Another drama is also developing around OBA, the YPP candidate that defected from PDP. Since 2020, he’s been facing EFCC prosecution in the federal high court in Uyo for allegedly receiving bribe from a Lagos businessman when he (OBA) was a Commissioner of Finance under Gov. Godswill Akpabio. Just like Enoh’s certificate forgery case, OBA’s bribery trial is capturing the attention of the state. The bribery case has also benumbed the OBA political machinery and slowed his momentum considerably.
How then do these play out in the politics of 2023? So, of the three main candidates – Akpanudoedehe (NNPP); OBA (YPP) and Enoh (PDP), it is only the NNPP candidate that is free of all encumbrances, scandals and baggage, and that explains why he is the only one actively engaging the people now. While Akpanudoedehe has toured the state twice so far, delivering his ‘’Rescue Mission’’ message to the people, the other two have gone underground and remained silent and inactive since they won their nominations. Akpanudoedehe is the only one that has published a well-articulated campaign Agenda which essentially is a welfarist programme of action. He gives radio and press interviews every week to reach out to the people. His ongoing tour of the 329 wards in the state is generating excitements from the rural folks who are pleased to see a formidable governorship candidate (they call him ‘’incoming governor’’) in their midst. His track record speaks for him. In 2011, he contested the governorship under the defunct ACN against Akpabio and put up an impressive performance.
But the biggest fortune coming his way is the plan by some APC chieftains in the state to adopt him as their candidate since INEC has blocked the APC from fielding a candidate in the governorship election. Chief Don Etiebet, an APC chieftain and major backer of Akpanudoedehe, had a few weeks ago announced in the Party’s online forum that ‘’immediately INEC closes the nomination processes and the campaigns begin (12th October for governorship), APC will hold a rally in Uyo to formally adopt Senator Akpanudoedehe as our candidate’’. I have heard similar sentiments from many other APC leaders in the state. So, for Akwa Ibom, the dynamics for next year’s elections are quite unpredictable. Some pundits believe that an outright win is unlikely and the race may go into a runoff. Others, however, think that with the decline in PDP’s strength, the legal troubles of the other two candidates and their loss of reputation in the face of blistering scandals, NNPP’s rising momentum and the expected endorsement of Senator Akpanudoedehe by APC big wigs, an upset is in the offing.
Etim is a veteran journalist and political strategist