Chuks Okocha writes that the defection of Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State from the Peoples Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress, was a declaration of political war on former governors Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke ahead of the 2023 general election
Since the return of democracy in 1999, clinching political power in all elections in Cross River State has always been an easy ride for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which almost turned the state to a sort of one-party state.
Led by what was then known as the three wise men- former governors Donald Duke, Liyel Imoke and Senator Gershom Bassey, who were believed to have developed a roadmap that would shape the politics and development agenda of the state for at least three decades.
Indeed, the emergence of Duke and Imoke helped tremendously to reposition Cross River as a frontline state. The agenda was to enthrone Gershom as governor in 2015 to complete the 24 years the trio set to achieve in the political dominance of the state.
But the clamour for zoning of the governorship to Cross River North Senatorial District truncated that plan.
That was how Governor Ben Ayade was installed at Pellegrino House – the state seat of power, to ensure equity and fairness in the distribution of political power among the three senatorial districts of the state.
With Duke’s success on tourism, which projected Cross River to the world, and Imoke’s rural transformation which brought development to rural populace of the state, it was also hoped that Ayade would pursue industrialisation of the state.
However, many are alarmed at what they described as Ayade’s conspicuous betrayal of the Cross River mandate and its developmental drive, with his defection to the APC.
They argued that in taking that political risk, Ayade failed woefully to take into cognisance of the long history of Imoke’s political grip on the state.
Also, Ayade’s inability to build his own political structure after he took over power in 2015 was also seen as a grave mistake for his political future.
Again, Ayade’s style of governance where he was said to have christened his younger brother as a co-governor did not go down well with most politicians and key stakeholders in Cross River.
It was not surprising that when the governor set in motion his defection train to APC, only his political appointees and two House of Representatives members, Hon. Legor Idagbo representing Obudu/Obanliku/Bekwara Federal Constituency and Hon. Mike Etaba representing Obubra/Etung Federal Constituency, shipped with him to the APC.
With the two members, APC now has three, including Hon. Alex Egbona. The expectations, according to those privy to Ayade’s negotiations with the APC national officials at the Abuja headquarters was that all the political class would decamp with him. But instead of fueling massive defections to the APC, Ayade’s defection has strengthened the PDP to the extent that even many of his appointees has called his bluff and remained with the PDP.
This scenario has played out in Boki, where Ayade is believed to have garnered some support due to his food-on-the-table appointments.
While the Secretary to the State Government, Tina Agbor; the Commissioners for Aviation and Works, Hon. Dr Jake Enyia and Hon. Dan Osim Asu defected to the APC, most of their followers and supporters have remained in the PDP going by the massive support seen in the recent rallies in both Boki Constituency I and II.
The two rallies were said to have shaken the Ayade and APC camps, such that a similar rally is being planned by the APC. Etung is already divided with Sentor John Owan Enoh holding forth for APC, while the current Senator for Cross River Central, Prof. Sandy Onor leads the PDP. In Yakurr, there is a split between former Commissioner of Education, Obol Godwin Etta versus current Commissioner for Land and Urban Development, Prof. John Inyang.
In the northern senatorial district, specifically, Obudu, where Ayade comes from, opposition from former PDP National Publicity Secretary and candidate for the State Chairman, Hon. Venatius Ikem; and the House of Representatives aspirant and younger brother to the current Minister of State for Power, KJ Jedy-Agba will be a threat for Ayade’s political future in 2023.
The rising profile of a House of Representatives aspirant, Peter Akpanke in Obanliku has also brightened PDP chances there. In Yala, the Appeal Court’s truncation of Dr. Stephen Odey’s short-lived tenure at the senate has dealt a big blow both to Ayade and APC in Cross River Northern senatorial district. In Bekwara and Ogoja local governments, APC has been completely kept at bay following the growing influence of Hon. Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, who was recently declared by the Appeal Court as the Senator-elect for the zone.
In the southern senatorial district, the coast is still uncertain. But some gladiators like Senator Gershom Bassey, Hon. Dan Asuquo – two prospective governorship candidates, and the current Chairman of the PDP Caretaker Committee and former Deputy Governor, Efiok Cobham have remained firm with the PDP. On the APC flank, the presence of Ekpo Okon, Senator Bassey Otu, and Deputy Governor, Prof. Ivara Esu would attempt to show power ahead of 2023.
Beyond these political configurations, the power bloc within the APC even before Ayade’s defection, boast of prominent political heavyweights who should ordinarily be able to turn the tables against PDP. The likes of former Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba; Minister of State for Power, Prince Godwin Jedy-Agba; Senator Enoh, former Minister of Niger-Delta Affairs, Usani Usani; Chief Okoi Obono-Obla; Margaret Ekpere-Era; John Upan Odey among others, all have the political reach to assist Ayade to permanently turn Cross River to an APC state. But the political infighting and bickering among these arrowheads could deplete the fortunes of the APC in the state and mar the party’s chances in 2023.
However, Senator Owan Enoh thinks APC is capable of resetting the politics of the state. In a statement to welcome Ayade to the APC, Enoh explained that Ayade’s entrance to the APC is a “lit to the light of unbridled optimism in the minds of party members and teeming supporters in the state,” who are yearning for a formidable APC.
However, speaking on Ayade’s movement to APC, PDP Caretaker Committee Chairman, Efiok Cobham explained that “APC is a strange party in Cross River State and so they are trying to introduce themselves to the people. “What we will do is meet the people, talk and not mega rallies, they are strange to the people, that is why they are trying to introduce themselves and their rallies are for the optics.”
Cobham went on to state that, “their bid to socket to the centre has opened up a lot of opportunities and has brought fresh air. We thank APC for inheriting a bad omen, they went to transfer window and bought a wrong player in Ayade,” the former deputy governor added.
Beyond the political ding-dong, the return of former Governor, Duke to the PDP seems to have added colour to the chances of PDP in the state. Duke had in 2023 ran for the presidential election under the Social Democratic Party (SDP). His comeback to the PDP will likely improve the chances of PDP at the detriment of APC in the southern senatorial district. Although, there are speculations that Duke may run for the Senate, his popularity with the youths will shape the outcome of 2023 elections in the southern senatorial district.
It was speculated that Ayade would persuade Duke to join APC.
Duke’s return to PDP has now scuttled that plan, leaving the governor in the cold. For now, Ayade faces many daunting challenges and nothing is certain, even as many questions stare at him over his political future.
Has Ayade mispriced his political future with the cascades of events prior to and after his defection to the APC? Some would conclude that the incumbent governor, with his defection to the APC has plunged himself into a battlefield and political uncertainty he will not be able to predict and control.
With three PDP senators ready and willing to crush Ayade’s political ambition, the end is not yet in sight for the battle that lies ahead.
With the PDP led by Imoke and Duke renewing their bond to battle Ayade, will the governor survive the gathering storms?
Will APC garner victory in 2023 that may nail the political future of the three wise men? The coming months promise to be explosive as political gladiators in Cross River slug it out in a fierce political warfare that only the strongest survives.