Nigeria 2023: Can Okowa neutralise Peter Obi’s influence in the Christian south?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Saturday, 18 June 2022 15:20

Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa (rights reserved)
Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa (rights reserved)

With the emergence of Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, an ethnic Igbo, as the vice-presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the party now believes it is in pole position to win the 2023 presidential election. However, the Peter-Obi-phenomenon remains a threat to the PDP in most parts of the Christian South, analysts say

After two weeks of horse trading, the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, picked Governor Okowa as his running mate. With Atiku (an ethnic Fulani northern Muslim) as the presidential candidate and Okowa (a southern Christian as the running mate), the party now feels it has a ‘balanced ticket’ in a country heavily divided across religious and ethnic lines.

Atiku will be expected to bring in most of the votes from the Muslim parts of the north while Okowa will help mobilise the needed votes from the southeast and south-south states, which are majority Christian areas. Based on this calculation, the PDP now believes it can defeat the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in next February’s poll.

Okowa, who has been governor of the oil-rich Delta State for the last seven years, is no political neophyte. A medical doctor by training, he served in the cabinet of Delta State godfather and ex-governor James Ibori, who was later convicted by a London court for diverting millions of dollars from the state’s treasury.

While in prison, Ibori continued to run the politics of the state by proxy and ensured that Okowa was elected governor of the oil-rich state. However, Okowa soon stepped out of Ibori’s shadow and became his own man. Not only did he fall out with Ibori, he also took effective control of the leadership of the PDP in the state and successfully imposed his acolyte as his preferred successor, effectively ending Ibori’s 22-year indirect rule in Delta State.

The Obi challenge

Under normal circumstances, the PDP should have no problem winning the 11 Christian majority states in the southeast and the south-south regions as it has done in all presidential elections since 1999. These states are: Delta, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Edo, Cross River, Ebonyi, Enugu, Anambra, Imo and Abia.

Okowa, who is from this region should ordinarily be able to attract the needed votes from the region for the PDP. However, the candidacy and rising popularity of Obi of the Labour Party may throw a spanner in the works. Obi, a former governor of Anambra State in the southeast, was Atiku’s running mate in the 2019 presidential election.

Since leaving the PDP last month, the illustrious businessman has seen his popularity swell, especially among the youths in southern Nigeria. These Obi supporters, who call themselves ‘Obidients’, are keen on ensuring that the 22-year rule of the APC and the PDP is brought to an end.

Analysts argue that Obi’s popularity in this region may just neutralise Okowa’s influence and the PDP’s advantage. This could in turn work in favour of the APC, which had always been weak in the Christian parts of the south and is relying on the southwest and the north for a majority of its votes.

Wike’s grouse

Atiku’s decision to pick Okowa over Nyesom Wike, the governor of the oil-rich Rivers State, could also be a big problem for the PDP. Wike, who is the most influential PDP governor, came second in the presidential primary behind Atiku and had been poised to be picked as the VP candidate of the party.

He had even been recommended by the leadership of the party as a way of appeasing him, but Atiku is believed to have rejected this suggestion because of Wike’s domineering attitude and short temper, which was inappropriate for a running mate. Before the presidential primary, Wike had criticised Atiku on several occasions and also had a bad relationship with the northern establishment.

Wike will be given an appointment in our campaign

Atiku said he wanted someone who would be ready to support him at all times, be willing to unite the country and capable of succeeding him at short notice, in case of any eventuality.

Already, Wike’s political foes have begun mocking him for losing the VP ticket. The immediate past chairman of the PDP, Uche Secondus, whose ouster was orchestrated by Wike, was one of the first to hail Atiku’s decision to make Okowa his running mate.

However, Wike is the leader of the PDP in Rivers State, which boasts of nearly four million registered voters. He also controls huge financial resources. Thus, ignoring him could prove costly to Atiku’s presidential campaign, except if he is appointed as the campaign director or something along that line, and is allowed to play a very visible or pivotal role in the campaign.

“Wike will be given an appointment in our campaign. That will be announced very soon. We will not leave him hanging because he is very important, but it all depends on Wike. Will he accept it?” an aide to Atiku tells The Africa Report.

Deji Adeyanju, an analyst who is a former communications officer with the PDP, says Okowa is a good pick, but the success of the campaign will be determined by how Wike is treated.

“I think Okowa was picked because he is Igbo and from south-south. […], he doesn’t have political baggage and enemies like most politicians. He also supported Atiku during the primary which could have earned him the VP ticket.

“However, the success or failure of the campaign will be determined by how they manage Wike. They will need a reconciliation committee on how to manage him. He should be made director of the campaign because he brings a lot to the table. He also has his own supporters. […], I don’t see Peter Obi as a major threat in the south-south because he lacks a proper structure,” he tells The Africa Report.

Similarly, Ariyo Atoye-Dare, who is a political commentator, says Okowa is a much better pick than Wike who is too controversial.

Atoye-Dare adds that the success or otherwise of the PDP may depend more on who the APC picks as the VP candidate rather than Obi.

“Okowa is from the south-south while Peter Obi is from the southeast.  I think Obi is popular, but the bigger threat should be who the APC picks as a VP candidate,” he says.

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