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Nigeria’s political elite fight it out for Edo State

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Wednesday, 5 August 2020 17:31, updated on Thursday, 6 August 2020 16:57

Supporters of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) attend a campaign rally on February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

At the national level, the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), is desperate for a victory as the country is blighted by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fall-out.

The election for the governorship of Edo State, due on 19 September, is a weathervane for Nigeria’s politics.

Keeping a grip on the levers of power is vital for the governing party as its opponents in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) draw attention to the failures of the federal government.

At the state and regional levels, the APC wants to hang onto Edo State, the only state in the south-south that it controls.

Regional politics

Regional politics is key in Nigeria’s federal system. Any serious contender in the 2023 national elections will have strongholds across the country.

On a personal level, the battle in Edo State is between Governor Godwin Obaseki and his erstwhile political godfather Adams Oshiomhole, the ousted national chairman of the APC.

READ MORE Nigeria’s ruling party: Looking into growing schisms inside the APC

Obaseki won the 2016 gubernatorial election in Edo on the APC ticket but then fell out badly with Oshiomhole.

Oshiomhole used his power within party structures to block Obaseki’s nomination for a second term as governor in this year’s election.

That triggered Obaseki’s defection to the opposition PDP, although he remains the incumbent governor, with all its powers of patronage, until the September election.

And Oshiomhole has shoe-horned in his protégé Osagie Ize-Iyamu as the APC’s candidate for the Edo governorship. This is much more than a battle between incumbent Obaseki and challenger Ize-Iyamu.

For Oshiomhole, and his ally Bola Tinubu, this is a dry run for their turbulent campaign for national leadership. Despite his recent and emphatic denials, Tinubu is still seen as a leading contender for the APC’s presidential ticket in 2023.

READ MORE Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu: the Kingmaker who would be King?

An Obaseki and PDP  victory in Edo would be a serious blow to the standing of the Oshiomhole-Tinubu faction in the party. When added to the suspension of Oshiomhole as national chairman last year, and the recent dissolution of the party’s National Working Committee  – where they had a powerful base – this would make it still harder for the pair to win back their standing.

The election

The primaries are over, and the final list of nominated candidates will be published on 13 August. Although 14 parties have submitted names, the September election is really a fight between Obaseki and Ize-Iyamu.

Obaseki Vs Ize-Iyamu

Obaseki thought it would be futile to fight back against Oshoimhole’s bid to bar his nomination for the APC ticket in the state. As his spokesman Crusoe Osagie said: “Comrade Oshiomhole has declared that he is the Supreme Court and ultimate determiner of the fate and future of our great party.”

Reasons given for the disqualification included inconsistencies in Obaseki’s academic certificates, as well as his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Certificate – which reads Obasek, instead of Obaseki.

However, as Obaseki ran without problems on the APC ticket in 2016, and these certifications have not changed since then, such enforcements looked rather desperate.

Although Obaseki insists that he did not pay to defect to the PDP, rumours are circulating that much money changed hands. So far, no evidence has emerged to support these claims.

For Oshiomhole, Ize-Iyamu is  an ally of convenience. In 2016, Oshiomhole spurned Ize-Iyamu’s campaign for the governorship in Edo in favour of Obaseki. Now it is the other way around. And in 2012, Ize-Iyamu led Oshiomhole’s campaign for a second term as governor of Edo.

Oshiomhole’s role

Shortly after his election as governor in 2016, Obaseki banned APC officials from the government house in Benin City, the state capital, saying that public funds were for development, not for sharing amongst the political elite.

Oshiomhole reportedly saw this refusal to entertain the party funders as a betrayal. These officials and financiers had been loyal to Oshiomhole, who had used them to help Obaseki get elected.

After that, the rivalries intensified, on everything from who would be the speaker of the House of Assembly, to the distribution of state resources.

Ize-Iyamu is a former secretary to the Edo State government and had been an Oshiomhole supporter. However, Ize-Iyamu defected to the PDP in 2016, when Oshiomhole broke with him and chose Obaseki as the APC governorship candidate.

In that 2016 election, Oshiomhole did what he could to destroy Ize-Iyamu’s career, calling him a “pathological liar”.  Why the two men fell out so badly in 2016 and are back as a team in 2020 is obscure.

It may just be that Oshiomhole thinks Ize-Iyamu is the strongest option available to run against Obaseki.

If the APC loses Edo State, it will further damage Oshiomhole’s reputation. In backing Ize-Iyamu for governor, he had wanted to prove to the party hierarchy that he is the undisputed king of the state and can push out people who defy him.

Pre-election violence

The Oba of Benin, traditional leader of the capital of Edo State, wields great cultural and discreet political influence.

In adherence with tradition, Obaseki and top PDP officials visited the monarch last month on a politically-charged mission. On leaving, they were met with thugs at the palace gate: the confrontation quickly descended into violence.

Several people were injured and cars parked outside the palace were badly damaged. Flags bearing the PDP insignia were torn to shreds. The combattants shot into the air until they were dispersed by the palace guards.

Although it’s difficult to tell who instigated the fighting, it gives an indication of the trouble that could come in the September election. It’s hard to see if either party will benefit.

Others are concerned  that the governor of Kano State, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, targeted in a widely circulated video receiving personal payments from a local contractor, is leading the APC campaign in cahoots with Oshiomhole.

What does this say about Nigerian politics?

It’s clear from the casual switching of partisan allegiances that neither of the country’s two main parties have firm ideologies or indeed any ideology at all.

If Obaseki wins, he is likely to run his governorship in the same way and with the same policies as he did his first term, regardless of the fact that he is now representing the opposition. Parties matter mostly as campaigning machines.

Both parties are in flux, deeply factionalised by groups of rival personal interests. Either or both of the parties may break up or restructure ahead of the 2023 election cycle.

Whatever happens to the parties, most of the current cast of characters will find their way back onto the campaign trail.

Bottom line

As the incumbent governor, Obaseki might have a better chance of victory, particularly as he has some notable achievements under his belt.

Examples include his EdoBest programme (and EdoBest at Home created during the coronavirus pandemic to help children to continue their education at home), which is developing a pool of highly skilled teachers for the state and helping children to compete in the world of work.

Edo State has also been praised for its handling of the pandemic. Although it has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in Nigeria, with 2,317 cases as of 5 August, it has invested more than most in healthcare. As the state is going through an election season, containment is harder there than in the other states.

What is the future for Oshiomhole in Edo? As a trade unionist who entered politics, he has kept support from workers, as well as picking up new and important political allies, such as Tinubu, along the way.

Oshiomhole convinced voters to go for little-known banker Obaseki in 2016, defeating a seasoned politician such as Ize-Iyamu. Can Oshiomhole repeat the trick in 2020, with the rival candidates in reverse roles? If he fails, it’s bad news for him and the APC.

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