Protests broke out in what was once the commercial nerve centre of Abia State, Aba, last week. The demonstrators, according to reports, were aggrieved over the Appeal Court’s judgment on new year’s eve, which declared Mr. Alex Otti of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and THISDAY Editorial Board member, the duly elected governor of the state in the April, 2015 governorship election.
In arriving at the judgment, the panel of judges of the appellate court agreed with the position of the party and its candidate that there were widespread irregularities and over-voting during the poll in three local government areas – Obingwa, Osisioma Ngwa and Isiala Ngwa North – all in Abia South Senatorial District. This densely populated senatorial zone is home to the Ukwa/Ngwa ethnic grouping, which since the creation of the state has decried its marginalisation and agitated for one of its indigenous sons or daughters to govern the state. It is also the home base of the incumbent governor of Abia and candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, whose election was previously upheld by the lower Governorship Elections Petitions Tribunal.
The protesters were said to be aggrieved that by nullifying the contentious results in the three local government areas, the Appeal Court had disenfranchised some 230,000 registered voters who they claimed voted overwhelmingly for Ikpeazu, an indigene of Obingwa. In effect, they argued that the appellate court had invalidated the votes cast by the governor, that of his wife, his relatives and the electorate in his village, whom they believe must have sided with their son at the poll, forgetting that the definitive word in the judgment was “widespread”. Expectedly, the governor has headed to the Supreme Court to upturn the decision of the lower court by validating the votes of the three local government areas. Under the worst-case scenario, he is now pushing for a rerun election in the three councils where results were invalidated.
Otti and his supporters, on the other hand, have claimed that the governor and the ruling PDP procured the protests in Aba. They are contending that the protests were engineered to create the impression that Otti who hails from Arochukwu in Abia North but is described as a “customary tenant” of Isiala Ngwa South in Abia South, where he was born and raised, does not have the support of the people. Yet, the APGA candidate and his lawyers remain cautiously optimistic that the higher court will uphold the judgment of the Appeal Court. Their position is premised on the contentious results from the three local governments, which the state returning officer of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had second thoughts about releasing when the results from 14 of the 17 local governments in the state were announced after the poll due to reports of electoral irregularities, but was prevailed upon by the governor at the time, Theodore Orji and the PDP to release the next day.
Otti and his supporters also believe that by asking the Supreme Court to order a rerun, it would amount to an admission that Ikpeazu and the PDP erred and the poll in Obingwa, Isiala Ngwa North and Osisioma Ngwa should not have been added to the results of the candidates in the first instance. Moreover, there are doubts that a court could grant a relief that was not sought after by a respondent at the outset of the election petition. They are hopeful that the Supreme Court will take into consideration judicial precedents when courts upturned the elections in the cases of Aregbesola V Oyinlola, where over-voting occurred leading to the cancellation of results of multiple local government areas in Osun State including that of the incumbent governor, Chief Olagunsoye Oyinlola. Similar rulings were given in the cases of Fayemi V Oni and INEC V Oshiomhole.
But as the lawyers charge their exorbitant fees and prepare to represent the two leading candidates in the Abia governorship election at the Supreme Court, what should be of paramount interest to anyone with the best interest of the state at heart should be the emergence of a leader who can harness the potentials in Abia.
It might be noteworthy to draw readers’ attention to the fact that this article started out by describing Aba as “once the commercial nerve centre” of the state. Today, it is decrepit, an eyesore and insecure. Its once thriving businesses and industries which gave it the edge over Onitsha, another commercial city in east, have all closed shop, leaving behind rotting factories and warehouses that have been taken over by insidious Pentecostal churches. The informal trade that has supplanted industries such as Nigerian Breweries, John Holt, UACN and others, now compete with mountain ranges of rubbish heaps and some of the worst roads this country has ever had the misfortune to behold. Was it a surprise that rising unemployment and poverty turned the Ukwa/Ngwa area a few years ago into the kidnapping capital of the southeast?
If we must be honest, the problem of the state from inception has been that of bad governance. If its indigenes can get over superficial issues such as zoning and keep their eyes on true competence and able leadership, the area from where a governor emerges should not be of paramount consideration. Placed side-by-side, Otti, despite his physiological height disadvantage, stands head and shoulders above Ikpeazu. He can read a balance sheet, has lofty private sector management experience, and has the right exposure to turn around the Aba economy, harness the oil economy in Ukwa West by attracting gas, fertilizer and petrochemicals producers, and boosting internal revenue through manufacturing, commerce and agriculture in the state rather than going cap in hand to Abuja to beg for handouts.
The only thing Ikpeazu has going for him is his association with Theodore Orji who was a dreadful governor, very limited private sector experience spanning two years, and the cosmetic advantage of hailing from Abia South. Even as the head of the state’s environmental agency, Ikpeazu could not rid his own Aba of filth! Besides, the resort to organising demonstrations against the Appeal Court ruling was fraught with danger, as it had the potential of making traders and businessmen who were behind Otti feel threatened. Should they continue to feel insecure and unwanted, they could fight back and cause the kind of conflagration that Abia State could do without. It is a crying shame that politicians have not learnt from the vicarious crimes of others of their ilk that have led poverty-stricken citizens to the slaughter for self-serving reasons.
Abia is a paradox that is impossible to explain. This is a state that is contiguous to Rivers State and whose largest city is a stone throw from the seaports in Port Harcourt, yet its economy is comatose. This is a state that has two large power plants – Geometric and Alaoji (the second largest in the country after Egbin) – and natural gas resources, yet both plants cannot wheel out electricity to residential and commercial consumers in Abia, not to mention neighbouring states in the east. This is state that has some of the best-educated Nigerians, but has fallen short of producing governors with the vision to elevate the state. This is state whose citizens reside in much of Abia South, but work in Port Harcourt, yet its leaders have not taken a cue from Ogun State which has ensured that their personal income taxes are paid to the state of residency.
It is apparent that the problem with Abia is not that of zoning, but one of leadership. Zoning is a one-dimensional requirement that has not done any state of the federation and the country in general any good. It has led to suspicion and ethnic rifts that we have simply papered over. What the good people of Abia should be agitating for is for the Supreme Court to arrive at a decision that throws up a leader with the capacity to advance and work in the best interest of the state. Right now those attributes are sorely missing in the incumbent, Okezie Ikpeazu.
Nwogwugwu is the editor of Thisday