Prince Otu’s Long, Thorny Path To Peregrino House

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By Inyali Peter 

At about 3:PM on Monday March 20, 2023, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), declared the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Sen. Prince Bassey Otu as winner of the 2023 governorship election in Cross River State.

The highly anticipated announcement was greeted with wild celebration across the state. The development did not only mark the conclusion of one of the most competitive governorship elections in the state, but the pinnacle of one man’s long and thorny road to Peregrino House, the state’s seat of power.

Prince Otu and a date with history

Sen. Otu, in the past twenty years has been a household name in Cross River politics. He was first elected in 2003 to represent the Odukpani/Calabar Municipal federal constituency in the national assembly. His performances as a first time lawmaker in terms of his contributions in lawmaking, national discourse in the floor of the house as well as impact back home immediately endeared him to many who started seeing him as someone who will one day rule Cross River.

Otu was re-elected in 2007 but this wasn’t without a fight. His popularity and elegance was not much appreciated by the outgoing Governor, Mr. Donald Duke who didn’t want another man from the Southern Senatorial District to share the stage with him. He tried to stop him but could not because of the overwhelming support he enjoyed.

After eight years in the reps, Otu felt he needed a bigger platform to touch more lives. This time, he gunned for the Senate. But as in 2007, Otu faced a turbulent battle from the then Governor, Sen. Liyel Imoke who felt threatened by his growing popularity and rising political profile. He tried to stop him but as Duke, failed.

Four years later, Imoke re-strategised. He declared war against Otu. To him, Otu’s sterling records as one of the best lawmakers from the state as well as one of the most influential Senators in the country was not enough to earn him a second term in the senate. He had to change the Southern Senatorial district PDP primary date and location several times just to shutout the “Sweet Prince”. Even when he finally settled for the U.J Esuene stadium as location, he used fiercely-armed security men to deny delegates who were identified with Prince Otu access. He imported strange people to impersonate the elected delegates just to do his bidding and he won the war but never the battle.

Otu’s only offence against Imoke was that people had started seeing him as the only one with the wherewithal to stop Sen. Gershom Bassey, a member of the triumvirate of himself and Duke from their plan to rule Cross River for twenty four years. For Imoke, if Otu was allowed to return to the Senate, the ambition of his friend to be Governor was as good as dead.

Imoke assumed the position of a god. He thought he could decide the future eight years ahead. He pushed Otu out of PDP to first, Labour Party where he contested against Gershom but was “rigged out” through state powers. Soon, after the 2015 general elections, Otu quickly left the LP and joined the APC that became the first opposition to sack an incumbent government in Africa. In 2019, he won APC’s senatorial ticket but lost the main election to Sen. Gershom again.

At this point, a lot of people gave up, and justifiably so. Nigeria is one of the most expensive places to contest election. How would a man who by 2023 would have been out of government for eight years still have the resources to contest Governorship?

Many had thought that the APC will give him reasonable national appointment to prepare him for elections. But the President Muhammadu Buhari administration does not care that much about the party to the extent of planning ahead for elections. This was why when he was finally appointed, he was given the most blizzare appointment for a man of his status; member, governing board of National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS).

At this point, there were talks of him returning to PDP. Many saw this as the only path for him to regain political relevance. In PDP, even if he won’t be in government, his goodwill was still enough to earn him the party’s ticket ahead of Gershom who has never been a popular choice, many has assumed. But Otu insisted that it was either APC or nothing.

In a classical demonstration of the cliche that when Mountain refuses to go to Mohamed, Mohamed will go to the Mountain, Gov. Ayade ran into trouble with the leadership of the PDP who started treating him with great disdain. For over a year, the Governor was in a running battle with some National Assembly members who had the backing of the national leadership of their party. In May, 2021, Ayade decided that he’s had enough and cut ties with the PDP by embracing the broom revolution.

The bold decision of the Governor to dump the PDP that held sway in the state for more than 20 years was the first sign to show that whatever Imoke did, the patience of Otu to remain in APC with nothing to show were all defining moments that God wanted him to go through in other to appreciate what was to come later.

APC Governorship Primary

Immediately the Governor defected to the APC, in line with the constitution of the party, he assumed the leadership of the party. He took all the structures from ward to state by installing loyalists that moved with him to the APC in critical positions. Again, this was seen as a plot to relegate legacy members and those who joined in 2016 to the background. Many had concluded that the Governor’s intention was to install one of those who came with him as governorship candidate hence, his brutal usurping of the entire party structures.

To many, this was a final burial for the long standing unannounced governorship ambition of Sweet Prince. But as a destiny child, Otu defiled human imagination as the situation turned into a ladder for him to eventually get the ticket. As old members started fighting, threatening brim and storm that they can’t build a house and then become strangers in their own house, the search for an old member to fly the party’s flag from South started. So many didn’t give Otu a chance because according to them, he was the best option but had no money to procure such elections.

The dilly-dalling continued until the Governor in another bold step, persuaded fourteen of the seventeen governorship aspirants who were even maybe, more prepared financially to adopt Otu as their consensus candidate. But this was not the end as two of the aspirants rejected the arrangement. At this point, the party started preparing for primaries. But then, Otu’s participation in the primaries was thrown into serious doubt when the screening panel declared his screening inclusive for failing to provide some certificates that his years in public service according to relevant laws should cover for.

However, on the day of the primaries, his name appeared on the lists of aspirants cleared to stand the election. The primary held and Otu defiled all known logic in Nigeria’s politics to become one of the few aspirants to emerge candidate without paying any delegate a dime. His extraordinary moneyless win margin was a pointer to one thing; what money can’t do, goodwill can.

He went ahead to win all the battles that came afterwards within the party but still, wasn’t too sure of victory despite the main opposition PDP jettisoning zoning by giving its ticket to Sen. Sandy Onor from central.

The outcome of the national assembly election, especially from the Northern Senatorial district where PDP swept all the three seats was a serious dent on his ambition. The North was the battleground and the senatorial district that was projected to determine the election. Otu was sure of victory in the South but his performances in the central where the PDP candidate hails from was uncertain. So, loosing the Governor’s senatorial district that should ordinarily be APC strongholds to PDP meant that, PDP was going into the election stronger than him and his party.

But everything was for a purpose. God probably allowed that happen to give PDP false impression of its strength as well as to spur Otu and APC to work harder for the election. While the PDP went to sleep after the National Assembly and Presidential elections on the assumption that they had the North in its kitty, APC despatched its lieutenants to the field to double their efforts. Maybe, if the NASS election didn’t come first with PDP dominating in the North, APC would have gone into the election thinking that with the presence of the Governor, they had absolute control of the senatorial district.

As it’s said, the thought of man is not the thought of God, everything that seem negative and detrimental to Sen. Otu’s ambition became the thorny ladder that prepared him for the ultimate crown. From Imoke’s inglorious fight to the claim that he had no money, to PDP winning the North, etc, all were the handiwork of the master architect (God), who had designed things to show people that he’s still in charge of the affairs of men.