Governor Adams Oshiomhole tests his political might against Chief Tony Anenih, the octogenarian widely regarded as the godfather of Edo State politics in the governorship election holding this weekend
In Edo State, the governorship election that has generated so much tension holds this weekend. Candidates of the seven political parties that initially set out to participate in the election are Adams Oshiomhole of the ACN, Solomon Edebiri of ANPP, Roland Izevbuwa of CPC, Andrew Iguemo of Labour Party, Paul Orumwense of NCP, Charles Airhiavbere of PDP and Frank Ukonga of SDMP.
The leading candidates are clearly ACN’s Oshiomhole and PDP’s Airhiavbere. Edebiri makes up the number. Saturday’s election is expected to go beyond the two candidates slugging it out, as the old, strongman of Edo politics, Tony Anenih puts his vaunted hold on affairs of the state on the line against Oshiomhole. Anenih and the PDP will be contesting the election with a house the PDP has been battling to rebuild after heated primaries for the governorship ticket. About seven aspirants jostled for the party’s flag at the primaries held on 25 February. The aspirants included Professor Julius Ihonvbere from Edo North, Oserhiemen Osunbor, Kenneth Imansuagbon, Matthew Iduoriyekemwen and Charles Airhiavbere, who eventually won.
The PDP flagbearer, a retired Major General and former instructor with the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, is from Edo South. He is widely acclaimed in the state as having the financial means to take on the incumbent governor.
Shortly after he visited the party secretariat to intimate the leadership about his ambition, Airhiavbere said: “My chances are very bright by the special grace of the almighty God. My heart is with the people and I hope to do that through the PDP ticket. I am one of the foremost candidates of the party and I have been with the party since 1999.”
The candidates’ campaign performances, especially at the last public debate organised by the Nigerian Elections Debate Group, NEDG, necessitated a pruning of the number of candidates from seven to three–ACN, ANPP and PDP–for the final round of the debate.
The debate handed the contestants an opportunity to sell themselves and their programmes to the Edo people. Against all expectations, the PDP’s deputy governorship candidate, Johnson Abolagba, who many considered a better public speaker than Airhiavbere, did not show up at the venue of the well-attended programme. No reason was advanced for his absence. It was, however, gathered from authoritative source that it was a decision of the leadership of the PDP to shun the debate. The negative publicity resulting from the decision made Airhiavbere to quickly present himself for the debate.
When he participated, said an observer, he more than made up for the previous absence. According to the observer, Airhiavbere punched holes in Oshiomhole’s claims of running the state well and accused the governor of acting like a sole administrator. “Airhiavbere said the governor budgeted N6 billion for health, N3 billion for education and N18 billion for beautification of the state before woundingly asking if he was beautifying his pocket,” said the observer, who said the governor was put on a back foot.
Electoral campaign is another issue. Adams Oshiomhole stormed every nook and cranny of the state in an aggressive campaign drive. The governor also deployed campaign strategies like audio/visual jingles consistently aired on the five electronic media organisations in Benin, large colourful posters placed at strategic locations across the state, electronic billboards and branded vehicles. Many ACN bigwigs, including serving and past governors, also graced his campaign rallies as an added boost.
Airhiavbere strove to match Oshiomhole’s strides. He traversed the length and breadth of the state in state-of-the-art vehicles in his impressive campaign train, seeking to get the people’s mandate to dislodge Oshiomhole. He devised several means to reach the people, including house-to-house campaign and documentary presentation on television stations to convince the electorate why they should make him their governor.
To Airhiavbere, the governorship is a ‘must win’ for the PDP; but the man to beat, of course, remains the incumbent governor, who against many internal challenges in the party and external pressures from the PDP, is widely perceived to have positioned the state better in terms of infrastructural development and institutional framework for good governance.
However, political pundits believe that the real battle is not between Oshiomhole and Airhiavbere, whom they believe is a greenhorn, but between Oshiomhole and one of Nigeria’s greatest political tacticians, Chief Tony Anenih, popularly referred to as “Mr. Fix It”. To many PDP faithful in Edo State, he is the only political godfather in the state.
Hostility between the two men dates back to the 2007 governorship election after Professor Oserhiemen Osunbor of the PDP was declared winner of the election by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. The ACN headed to the court and thereafter followed a legal battle that lasted for about two years. In 2009, the Court of Appeal sitting in Benin annulled Osunbor’s election as governor and declared Oshiomhole as winner.
On assumption of office on 12 November 2009, Oshiomhole had the PDP-controlled House of Assembly (whose absolute loyalty was to Anenih) to contend with. That was the beginning of a cold war between Oshiomhole and the House in which the PDP had about 90 per cent control.
Before his sack as governor, Osunbor allegedly became high-handed and disloyal to the godfather. To punish Osunbor, Anenih allegedly vowed to ensure his ouster from office. He held a secret meeting with his former adversary, Oshiomhole, at which he was said to have vowed to instal him as governor after obtaining his pledge of loyalty.
The relationship, however, turned sour a few months into his administration when the House of Assembly refused to sign his budget as presented. According to Oshiomhole, the 2010 budget was approved at the Abuja residence of Chief Anenih after he was alleged to have doctored it to his satisfaction. Oshiomhole alleged that former speaker of the Edo House of Assembly, Zakawanu Garuba, his deputy, Levis Aigbogun; and Majority Leader, Phillip Shuaibu and Mr. Chris Umogbai were part of the meeting at which Anenih approved the state’s budget.
According to the governor: “There were controversies because the budget the House of Assembly approved was mutilated. A number of projects that I thought were crucial to the development of Edo State were removed. I raised an alarm. I protested that the budget was not implementable. Even when the Oba of Benin intervened, the problem persisted. I can confirm to you that the 2009 budget of Edo State was settled in the quiet living room of Chief Tony Anenih in his residence in Abuja.” To forestall a recurrence of such a coup, Oshiomhole plotted his own coup in the House and in February 2010, Garuba, the House Speaker and his kitchen cabinet were unseated. To Anenih, that was an intolerable backstab. Since then, the two men have continued to swap verbal darts.
Edo State has also, in a manner of speaking, not known peace since then, with a string of murders believed to have been politically motivated. On 4 May this year, when Oshiomhole’s Principal Private Secretary, Olaitan Oyerinde, was murdered, the governor alleged that Anenih masterminded the murder. Obviously referring to Anenih, he said a certain old man in his 80s and a godfather in Edo State, who had a nest of killers at his disposal, was behind the killing.
In a move to slight Anenih, Oshiomhole renamed the street in the Government Reserved Area, Benin, where the former resides. Public debates and campaigns have always been attended by violence as leaders of the two parties resort to incendiary language and utterances. Oshiomhole has firmly stood his ground against Anenih’s might. Speaking at one of the campaign rallies, the governor declared: “This land belongs to all of us and nobody can be intimidated. In accepting to be the Governor of this state, I decided to put every thing into it. We will not be allowing political miscreants in their 80s to continue to manipulate the system. If they like, let them bring police from South Africa; let them bring police from anywhere, including from Anenih’s farm. Edo State will not be captured again. We are ready. Even death cannot be avoided. The only way to avoid death is to avoid birth. Once you are born, you must die. We have the capacity to march on them. I defeated them before when I was not in government. Whether they like it or not, I am bigger than them now. The God, my creator, who brought me here in spite of their machine guns, in spite of their control of the armed forces, that same God that gave me victory and gave them defeat, is not on holiday. He will not abandon us. If they want a revolution, we are ready to give it to them. If they make peaceful election impossible, they will be swept away by the impending revolution. I am still working and I will continue to work to persuade Abuja not to allow the political interest of Chief Anenih undermine national security. I will continue to persuade the Vice-President and Godwin Abbe.”
Observers of politics in Edo State have related those words to a confrontation that happened on 3 October 2009 between the two parties, both personalities and their supporters. The setting was Ewohimi, the heart of Esan South-East Local Government Area in Edo Central District. The event was a political rally held to flag off PDP’s activities towards the 2011 general elections. Notably, Ewohimi is also the birthplace of Clara Aiyebho, Oshiomhole’s late wife. That was where Anenih drew the battle line between Oshiomhole and himself.
Tagged “Reunification Rally” because it was planned to receive a defecting former governorship aspirant of the ACN, Mr. Kenneth Imansuagbon, and his supporters, the PDP rally also re-united the two estranged godfathers, Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia and Tony Anenih.
Addressing the mammoth crowd that was mobilised to the rally, Anenih recalled the reconciliatory effort that re-unified the two leaders about 24 hours before the rally, paving the way for their presence at the rally ground.
“When you divide leaders and the leaders come together, those who tried to divide them are the ones that suffer,” Anenih fired the first of his missiles in a slow, soft and piercing tone.
Turning a caustic tongue towards the ruling party and government, he likened the ACN administration in Edo State to a “vibrating airconditioner without a compressor, which can never cool the house”.
The ACN lined up counter-rallies in response to welcome defecting PDP members. One of such rallies took place at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium on 31 October 2009. At the rally labelled “Political Earthquake”, Oshiomhole replied his adversaries: “In a democracy, there is no godfather. We only have good people. Watching the television the other day, I saw a dying godfather desperately running his mouth. Who was speaking? The man that once had the opportunity of being a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with a mandate to fix our roads! They call him Mr. Fix It, but he could not fix the Lagos-Benin Expressway. They call him Mr. Fix It, he could not fix Uromi roads where he comes from. Abuja-Lokoja Expressway ends at Okene. He could not extend it to Edo State that is located just after Kogi State.”
Admonishing the defectors from the PDP, he said: “I assure you that together, we will preside over the political funeral of the godfather. His time is up. A father who refuses to accept that the children have grown up is not a good father. Any leader who does not know when to retire, he should be told his time is up. We have this collective responsibility if he can’t see the political exit gate. We will take him to the exit gate.” Oshiomhole didn’t also have kind words for Anenih when the ACN trumped the PDP in the National Assembly elections, where it won two of the three senatorial seats. Speaking at the palace of the Oba of Benin, Omo ‘N Oba Edo Erediuwa, Oshiomhole said his party’s victory signalled the end of Anenih in the politics of the state. He simply advised him to retire from partisan politics.
Whether he remains a force to reckon with in Edo politics or whether he still has the political magic to fix elections, Anenih, the political juggernaut, has a chance to prove it on 14 July.
The ACN has also described the PDP as a party hiding under a leaking umbrella. But on a few occasions, Oshiomhole has appeared to be more vociferous than Anenih. At an ACN rally at Afuze, Owan East Local Government Area two years ago, Oshiomhole said the election was crucial to the sustenance of the present development of infrastructure in the state. He noted that the people of the state needed to vote for the ACN to sustain the development programmes in the state. “Nigerians have the opportunity to punish those who have not done well for the country. It is also an opportunity to use the ballot box to reward those who have done well. For 12 years, the Peoples Democratic Party could not do anything, but the Action Congress of Nigeria has been in power for two years and has recorded a lot of achievements,” the governor said.
Apparently referring to Airhiavbere who allegedly told a gathering in the state that Edo needs a general to take over affairs at the Denis Osadebe Government House as governor, Oshiomhole said he was already established in the state and the people are feeling his presence. “Edo needs a general. Yes, but not a retired one that is already tired. What do you want to do with a cashier who retired from the army? I am the People’s Army. Whoever they select on July 14, everybody will answer his father’s name,” the governor thundered.
Oshiomhole has been relentlessly accusing the PDP of planning to rig the election. At a recent event in the state, he alleged that the PDP was planning to orchestrate a grand conspiracy to manipulate votes by using federal employees to conduct the election.
He further claimed that a pronouncement by the Director-General of the NYSC to stop the use of serving corps members for the election would cause confusion in the state, adding that the Edo PDP had at a meeting with INEC in Abuja protested that they do not want corps members to conduct the election because they saw some of them at the venue of ACN’s campaigns, “even when it was obvious that the rallies were held in schools and students were in session”. He said: “They can bring the corps members from anywhere–from Sokoto or Maiduguri–but we do not want federal employees. This election must be worn or lost at the polling booths.”
On the other hand, Chief Dan Orbih, the Edo PDP Chairman, who described Oshiomhole as a “drowning man who keeps accusing people”, said the PDP was also opposed to the use of corps members serving in the state for conducting the election, alleging that they were on the payroll of Oshiomhole. He said there is a video evidence showing the corps members attending ACN rallies. “We don’t trust these Corps members serving in Edo. If this election must be free and fair, we are insisting that Jega must not use corps members who are currently serving in the state. We have written three letters to Jega stating that we are opposed to the use of Corps members serving in Edo. They are free to go to Kano or any other place to bring corps members to conduct the election in Edo,” Orbih stated.
Accusations and counter-accusations have also trailed destruction of campaign posters. Airhiavbere accused Oshiomhole’s men of destroying his campaign billboards. “I am worried about the disposition of the ACN candidate. His billboards are in the schools that may be used for voting on the election day. Even his supporters have been pulling down our posters. We will erect billboards and they will pull them down overnight. I think this is a prelude to what will happen on the day of election,” the PDP candidate said.
Oshiomhole, on the other hand, described the alleged destruction of his posters as cowardly. He, however, admonished his supporters not to pay them back in their coin, “as it would amount to joining those who ruled and bastardised the state in their unprogressive disposition”.
The political parties are not the only ones expressing concern over the security situation during the election. Attahiru Jega, the INEC Chairman, at a recent workshop in Abakaliki accused Edo politicians of seeing politics as a do-or-die venture. Also, Professor Lai Olurode was quoted as saying: “Edo is frightening and INEC is worried. We are worried because the uncertainty of those that are going to administer the election and deliver on our promise to give Edo people credible, free and fair election. What is happening there doesn’t augur well. There is a spectrum of violence and it may affect the lives of the people, especially the youth corps members to administer the election. We are really bothered about the security of the entire electoral process in Edo and protection of lives and properties in the state.”
President Goodluck Jonathan, at Airhiavbere’s campaign rally in Benin has, however, assured on a free and fair election on 14 July. “I have heard so much stories on Edo. I called the Inspector-General of Police, and I asked if he was ready for Edo. He said yes. I asked the Chief of Defence Staff and he said yes. I guarantee 100 per cent for your election and there will be no manipulation. Election results will be entered at the various polling units and nobody will change figures. This time around, no stuffing of ballot paper, no thuggery. It must be one-man-one-vote. I came here to promise the people of Edo that they should keep faith with that promise. Edo is going to be one state that will show that example.”
The Edo Resident Electoral Commissioner, Kassim Gaidam, is also confident of conducting a credible election, devoid of apathy. “This election will have the highest number of local and foreign observers. It will also have the highest number of commissioners to monitor the exercise as no less than 20 commissioners are coming,” he said.
To many observers, the outcome of this year’s election will be similar to the one held in 1983, when the incumbent, the late Professor Ambrose Alli of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, faced the challenge of Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia of the defunct National Party of Nigeria, NPN. Ogbemudia, a Bini like Airhiavbere, was declared winner. Alli was an Esan. The Binis are in Edo South, which has 54 per cent of the population of the state. The area has seven local councils: Oredo, Ikpoba-Okha, Egor, Uhunnwonde; Orhionmwon, Ovia North East and Ovia South-West.
Some other observers reckon that while ethnicity is a factor, it is unlikely to be sufficient in giving victory to the Anenih/Airhiavbere combo. A stronger determinant, they suggest, is performance. “Sincerely speaking, if there is one man one vote, Oshiomhole will win–with a slim margin. What will help him is the visibility of some of his projects. The past governors did little. So, no matter what little work he has done, it is appreciated by the Edo people who saw nothing done in the past,” said an analyst.
But the frontlines of the battle are believed to be Oredo, Egor and Ikpoba which constitute the Benin metropolis. In the previous elections, votes from Oredo have proved extremely crucial. It was votes from there that delivered victory to Chief John Odigie Oyegun in 1991. And of the 196,000 votes INEC deemed as valid for Oshiomhole, over 80,000 came from those three councils. “If Oshiomhole gets 25 per cent in the other councils and he gets 70 per cent in those three, he will win,” explained an analyst.
The PDP is doing its own maths and perfecting its strategies. Anenih, to a great extent, has succeeded in resolving differences between his own faction of the PDP and those with whom he had feuded for long. He has also achieved success in attracting disaffected ACN members, including those who were close to Oshiomhole. Notable among these are Captain Hosa Okunbor (retd.) and Senator Roland Owie, two major contributors to Oshiomhole’s victory in 2007.
Another credit Anenih has in the bank is the warmer relationship that he is believed to now have with Ogbemudia.
On Sunday 27 May 2012, Anenih vowed to teach Oshiomhole a lesson and asked him to prepare his handover note and be ready to leave Edo Government House by 14 July. Anenih said this when he hosted the national leadership of the PDP, including the Deputy National Chairman, Dr. Sam Jaja; National Women Leader, Ambassador Kema Chikwe; National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh in Benin.
In the words of Anenih: “We will reply them through the ballot box. We are ready democratically [and] legally to take over Edo State from Adams Oshiomhole. We shall work from house to house to ensure that by 14 July, Adams will be out. We are ready to get him out through the ballot box. We will not hire anybody to kill him; we will not kill him through accident because politically he has no electoral value.” He said his party had never lost any election in the state since the old Bendel State “and this will not be an exception”.
On why he had not been reacting to to what he called Oshiomhole’s insults, Anenih said: “A sane man does not pursue a mad man. But I will reply him through the ballot box in the July governorship election.”
As for the maths, the PDP believes it will win 25 per cent of votes from Edo North, where Oshiomhole comes from; 70 per cent from the Edo Central, where Anenih hails from; and 60 per cent from Edo South. Edo North Senatorial District is thought to harbour about 25 per cent of the voting population of that state.
In this light, the PDP’s choice of Airhiavbere is seen as strategic. The party has also been unrelenting in advertising the candidate as the “new Ogbemudia”.
The PDP is hoping to make up for whatever slip it suffers in Edo North in overwhelming victory in Edo Central, Anenih’s home base. The voting population of Edo North is a little more than that of Edo Central. But apart from former governor Oserhiemen Osunbor, who appears sympathetic to Oshiomhole, no other notable politician in the area is on the governor’s train.
If there is one person who is confident that Airhiavbere will topple Oshiomhole in the governorship battle, it is a former Minister of Transport and member of the PDP Board of Trustees, Chief Ebenezer Babatope. Describing the principle that guided the party’s choice of Airhiavbere as its governorship candidate in the July election as credible, Babatope noted: “Four weeks ago, if you open the media it was a one-sided affair and I told myself that the people we are contending with don’t know the forces that the PDP and the new governorship candidate of the party represent. I can assure you that we have already won the election. In the PDP, we preserve our leadership; we do not humiliate our leadership because we believe in the African custom that the elders must be protected.
“In my part of the country, we feel it is only a bastard who, with a left hand, would point at his father’s house. I can see that there is no respect at the ACN. We cherish our elders. By the grace of God, we are going to win,” he remarked.
But Airhiavbere’s candidature, in some circles, is viewed as a symptom of desperate and enthicity-oriented politics. Emmanuel Osaigbovo Arigbe-Osula, a former member of the House of Representatives, said: “A look at the position of the said leaders who are today drumming the need for Edo to elect a Bini person from Edo South in the past 4 years on matters critical to the growth and unity of the Binis will expose their current position as self-serving, deceitful and very suspicious.”
The presumption that Airhiavbere is well placed to do an Ogbemudia is also sneered at. Unlike Ogbemudia, who had a record of good performance as a military governor before contesting, Airhiavbere’s record of service is virtually unknown. So is the assumption that he enjoys wholesale Bini support. Prominent Bini chiefs and politicians have been campaigning for Oshiomhole.
Though the Oba of Bini, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, has not made any public pronouncement on his preference, palace chiefs have continued to speak glowingly of Oshiomhole. This is construed as the sentiments of the monarch. Chief Nosa Isekhure, the Chief Priest of Bini Kingdom, argued that the governor’s performance in office is deserving of another term.
Chief Sam Igbe, the Iyase (traditional Prime Minister) of Benin, also expressed a similar view. “You had a good first term and a good term deserves another. Whatever you want, you will get because the Bini people are not ungrateful people. They will return you to complete all the development projects you are doing. You have made Benin beautiful, and the Bini people will show their gratitude,” Igbe told Oshiomhole while speaking on behalf of the Oba of Benin.
Chief David Edebiri, the Esogban of Benin, also said: “We don’t show ingratitude to people who have done us well; someone who has come to bail us from Egypt and taken us to the land of Canaan. That is Oshiomhole. So, how do you think we will pay him with ingratitude? For nine years, we were in political doldrums, but this young man came and through him, we started to see that there is something like civilisation.”
Edo South has a direct stake in the ACN ticket. Oshiomhole’s running mate, Dr. Pius Odubu is from the zone. This is not expected to count for nothing. Even the advantage the PDP candidate is presumed to have, said an analyst, is not unassailable, given the venality of politicians. “Some of the so-called godfathers in Benin can be easily bought, so anything can happen,” he said.
Whatever happens, the public attention will be firmly locked on Oshiomhole and Anenih as they go head to head.
– By Jethro Ibileke/Benin, Additional report Desmond Utomwen and Yomi Obaditan