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 Bayelsa guber: A harvest of aspirants

Bayelsa guber: A harvest of aspirants


Lindsay Barrett

The approach of the unseasonal gubernatorial contest in Bayelsa State that is scheduled to take place towards the end of this year has thrown the political arena in the state into turmoil. This is especially noticeable in the state chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as a plethora of aspirants have announced their intention to seek the party’s ticket. As a consequence, the party’s primary election due in September is shaping up to be a harvest festival of multiple aspirants of various hues and levels of eligibility. 

If there is one thing that the political arena in that state has been noted for so far it is the surprising variety and quality of aspirants that emerge from all parts of the state in spite of its diminutive size each time the contest for governorship comes around. Even though the issue of regional zoning is often raised as an important criteria of the selection process, it must be acknowledged that in every contest the universality of choice has been a factor as contestants from almost every one of the eight local governments in the state have thrown their hats into the ring. This element of political contestation has caused profound acrimony and hostility among contestants during campaigns for the leadership of this small but vitally important Nigerian state.

Of the four elected governors who have held office in Bayelsa since establishment of the democratic order in 1999, only the present incumbent Henry Seriake Dickson will have served a full constitutional eight-year term when he steps down next February.  In addition to this, Dickson’s tenure has been unique because for most of his term he led a party in opposition while both he and his predecessors all came to power when the PDP controlled federal authority at the centre. The governor has been very outspoken in interpreting the consequences of this circumstance, in the light of the need for stable succession of leadership in the state. He has decried the emergence of ambitious political aspirants whose qualifications are based on the expectation of support from the powerful centre and has sought to change the mind-set of the political class in the state. This process has led to a situation in which a large number of aspirants who consider themselves eligible for the office of governor has expressed the desire to contest for the ticket of the governor’s party. Governor Dickson’s refusal to endorse or even indicate a preferred candidate over a long period, prior to the party primary election, has encouraged several aspirants to make their own ambitions known.

When the governor opened up on the issue of gubernatorial succession in the month of May, he advised members of his government as well as the general public to fast and pray in order to seek divine intervention to reveal the most suitable candidate to replace him. This advice took on the guise of official policy when the administration sponsored a regular series of meetings that were touted as being sessions for the public recognition of the divine mandate of leadership in the state. Eventually, when the governor denied that he would support any particular candidate and announced that only God could appoint the next governor he seemed to be suggesting that all those who felt qualified to run were free to contest. This assumption flew in the face of conventions of regional zoning and established new parameters of choice for the electorate.

Dickson’s constant allusion to the change of circumstance accorded by the status of his government as being based on commitment to the people’s welfare rather than on political balancing suggested that the selection process would now be based on ability rather than on regional origin. As a consequence, the announcement that the cost of picking up the nomination form for the PDP would now be a prohibitive N21 million was considered to have been a means to limit the number of aspirants likely to enter the race.

However, if this was so the actual consequence seems to be the exact opposite. Within a period of one week at the beginning of July, 10 aspirants stormed the PDP headquarters in Abuja to collect the forms for Bayelsa primaries and there were rumours of even more considering doing so in the near future. This circumstance has raised the profile of Bayelsa State as a bellwether of the political climate of the nation as a whole at this point in time. The All Progressives Congress (APC) had not been able to make vital inroads into the support base of the electorate in that state during the earlier period when the PDP held power at the centre. However, it has begun to show its teeth, having won a seat in the House of Representatives from the important Southern Ijaw LGA as well as a hotly contested senatorial slot from the Eastern Senatorial District. In spite of this apparent upsurge in public viability of the APC, most of those who have expressed genuine interest in seeking the leadership of the state have emerged within the PDP. In fact, serious contenders for power in the APC have been heard to speculate that their chances of success will be enhanced only when the PDP implodes as a result of the competitive rivalry of multiple aspirants. Listening to some knowledgeable analysts of the politics of the state one gets the impression that this contest will be a watershed event in the electoral history of the entire South-South Zone.

The APC having been firmly rebuffed in its attempt to seize power in the Rivers State at the last gubernatorial poll is regarding the Bayelsa contest as an opportunity to make waves in the heart of the oil-bearing Niger Delta. However, the PDP’s consistent stance as the protector of the best interests of minority aspirations nationally, as symbolised by the unprecedented ascendancy of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan to the Presidency continues to reverberate in the arena of political credibility in the ex-president’s home state. When Governor Dickson delayed the announcement of the PDP’s endorsement or support for popular contenders, as had usually been the practice in the past, many people in the state looked to the former President for guidance. When he too remained silent on the matter the proliferation of ambitious contenders became even more pronounced as time passed and the eventual rush to collect PDP forms appears to reflect nothing so much as a conviction on the part of major stakeholders in the state that the PDP will still sweep the polls in spite of the APC’s calculations and claim of federal supremacy.  The list of those who have invested in the hope of success through acquiring the PDP form is largely a catalogue of genuine talent and experience and speaks volumes about the availability of truly able political aspirants to guide the fortunes of Bayelsa State when the Dickson era ends.

Timi Alaibe

Perennial contestant, Chief Timi Alaibe, was one of the first to pick the form.  There is, however, a pervasive public perception that his relationship with the governor is deficient. This impression has gained ground since his celebrated public return to the party after he had flirted with membership of the APC and actually sought to challenge former Governor Timipre Sylva for the ticket of that party.

Alaibe is certainly a popular figure and a major part of his appeal is based on the assumption that his LGA, Kolokuma/Opokuma, is one of the four LGAs that has not produced a governor so far, The conventions of regional zoning also suggest that having circulated among the three Senatorial Districts, the post of governor should now be returned to the Central Senatorial district in which Kolokuma/Opokuma LGA is situated and which was the premier district from which the gubernatorial zoning was introduced. However, many observers allege that Governor Dickson’s strictures against allowing aspirants who have been dependent on patronage from the centre to control the fortunes of the state in the foreseeable future is aimed at undermining Chief Alaibe’s well-known antecedents and strategies and as a consequence they say his relevance in the new PDP structure in opposition has been damaged.

In spite of this, Chief Alaibe has put together a formidable team of supporters and strategic co-ordinators who are determined to restore his relevance and overcome any gubernatorial resistance to his ambitions. Unfortunately, this circumstance may provoke a lot of friction between the ascendant incumbent administration and the popular will in the party. This likelihood and the search for a compromise has led to some surprising strategic responses that has brought out aspirants of extraordinary eligibility.

Fredrick Yeitiemone Agbedi

Probably the most prominent among these is Hon. Fredrick Yeitiemone Agbedi, the three-time member of the House of Representatives from Ekeremor LGA. Agbedi was once the most notable politician supporting Chief Alaibe’s earlier efforts to contest for governorship and was actually punished for this support at a time when he was state PDP Chairman during the governorship of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. Although he was suspended as Chairman then, he was later reinstated in time to lead two successful campaigns for the party to install Timipre Sylva as governor and Goodluck Jonathan as Vice President. He is also regarded as the architect of both of Dickson’s landslide victories against brutal APC challenges and is widely known and respected as a true mobiliser of grassroots support throughout the state. Agbedi served as Dickson’s political adviser in his first term and having decided to return to the House of Representatives where he had served in the aborted Third Republic government, he has become a stalwart of the PDP’s rebuilding of itself as a viable opposition party.

Although he is from the same Senatorial District as the governor, he has championed the idea that a new formula of selection must take hold. This he says will take into consideration whether the LGA has produced a governor before as well as the role in the party’s affairs played by the individual who is seeking office in its transformation from a ruling party to an opposition party. By these criteria, Agbedi is not only eminently qualified but can also lay claim to a unique position as an unalloyed party loyalist and a strong advocate of the restoration agenda of the Dickson years, while maintaining strong links with the grassroots membership of the party both nationally and within the state. In fact, Agbedi is one aspirant who, under normal circumstances, might have been expected to be the party’s favourite son rather than an embattled contestant.

While Fred Agbedi’s aspiration sets a high standard of political affiliation and involvement as the measure of eligibility for contesting the governorship, there is widespread public sentiment in favour of the emergence of a candidate whose professional experience and administrative record is impeccable.

Ambassador Igali

Ambassador Godknows Boladei Igali and retired Vice Admiral Gboribiogha John Jonah, present Deputy Governor, two of the most prominent of those who have picked the PDP form, are certainly qualified to meet these expectations.  Ambassador Igali is particularly well remembered for his short but effective service as Secretary to the State Government under Goodluck Jonathan. Apart from that, his global reach is unmatched among most of those seeking office because of his long service as a professional diplomat, He has also kept close ties with community leaders throughout the Niger Delta and has been a strong supporter and advocate of regional autonomy within the Federal system for decades, As a result, his ability to provide strategic leadership for a transformative government is undoubted but his regional origins being based in Southern Ijaw LGA, which was the home of Alamieyeseigha, might arguably be used to question his eligibility. However, the fact that Alamieyeseigha was hounded out of office before serving out his full tenure is sufficient reason to consider any qualified aspirant from that LGA to be eligible to contest and Igali’s high profile record of performance makes him a very desirable champion of the PDP’s effort to remain relevant in the state.

Gboribiogha John Jonah

The Deputy Governor’s emergence is more surprising than most because while he has been a major asset in maintaining stability in Dickson’s administration the governor gave no indication that he would support his deputy’s aspiration at any time. He had a sterling professional record as a member of the Nigerian Navy and while he was not associated with politics prior to his surprise emergence as Dickson’s running mate, his performance as a loyal deputy has earned him effective popularity from the general public. He hails from Nembe, one of the LGAs that has not produced a governor and the major argument being offered in favour of his selection is the need for continuity and consolidation of the projects and policies of the restoration agenda of the Dickson Administration.

In spite of this, the Deputy Governor’s entry into the race has been presented as an independent decision taken by him. However, when he appeared at the PDP headquarters to pick the form, he was accompanied by an interesting crowd of supporters that included some of the most prominent stakeholders of the state’s political elite. The Senior Political Adviser to the Governor, Hon. Fineman Wilson, was there, as was Chairman of the Bayelsa Elders Forum, Chief Francis Doukpolagha. Chief T.K.O Okorotie a long-time political activist and highly respected party elder was present as was Chief Martin Agbede, a prominent community leader and former adviser to the cabinet in previous administrations, and Hon. Mrs. Marie Ebikake, an important woman leader from the Brass LGA.

The presence of this array of political heavyweights seemed to indicate that the Deputy Governor’s entry into the race was based on very deep and profound political calculations supported by some key stakeholders in the state who have probably decided that in the end continuity will be the engine of victory for the party.

While the aforementioned aspirants might be regarded as the “A team” of the contest so far based on their stature and antecedents, they are, by no means, assured of an easy race as the additional contestants who have emerged have proven to be determined and accomplished individuals in their own right. One of the most exciting outings of the aspirants was provided by the display put on by supporters that accompanied Keniebi Okoko, the son of Prof.  Kimse Okoko, the former President of the Ijaw National Congress.

Keniebi Okoko

Okoko is a businessman whose appeal is to the younger generation of ambitious entrepreneurs in the state and after his display at the party headquarters the rumours started flying that he was spending substantial sums of foreign exchange for his campaign. In the same vein, a young one-time militant activist, Joshua McIver, also announced his intention to seek the office of governor and showed up with several young and highly vocal supporters to stake his claim.

However, the more substantive and credible appearances that have followed came from three officials who have been defined on social media as being the chosen standard-bearers of the Dickson administration. These are Senator Douye Diri, Secretary to the State Government, Kemela Okara, and the Chief of Staff at Government House Hon. Talford Ongolo. Of these three freshman, Senator Douye Diri is the most definitively experienced local politician at least as far as the current politics of the state is concerned.  Although he had risen to the top of the pile as leader of PDP affairs in Kolokuma/Opokuma LGA, many observers query why he would give up his only recently won Senate seat to contest a primary that is sure to be acrimonious given the fact that he, like Agbedi, was also one of Timi Alaibe’s most visible allies in earlier contests.

Diri has become one of the most vocal advocates and promoters of the achievements of Governor Dickson and his emergence as a gubernatorial candidate is widely attributed to his determination to ensure that the legacy of the Restoration Agenda is reflected in the succeeding regime.

Kemela Okara

Kemela Okara, the Secretary to the State Government might also attribute his objectives to the same desire. However, he has run before on the ticket of another party and even ran against Dickson in the past. It is more than likely that his real objective is attributable to a deep desire to hold office and serve the people of his state rather than any wish to preserve the legacy of the current administration. His service during this administration has shown him to be an extremely competent administrator and a prudent and experienced manager of resources.

Talford Ongolo

Talford Ongolo the Chief of Staff has faced some of the most vehement and uncharitable commentaries on social media ever since his own name was mooted, but in spite of this he has paid for the form indicating that he probably believes that he has a substantial measure of support from some elements within the state. His challenges include the fact that in the past when he was speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly, before the founding of Bayelsa State in 1996, he faced impeachment proceedings. With this and other issues being raised in the polity to question the emergence of the three so-called chosen representatives of the Restoration Caucus, the governor’s subsequent announcement that their emergence should not preclude the efforts of independent candidates who wish to pick his party’s ticket has thrown the field open to as many independent aspirants as may wish to contest. The response has been to say the least, dynamic.

George Ikoli

Among the more independent, and some would describe them as adventurous aspirants, there is a sense of sacrifice and commitment that is accurately captured in a statement made to me by George Ikoli, SAN, the grandson of Ernest Ikoli, the nationalist hero from Brass. The Lagos-based lawyer served in Timipre Sylva’s government as Attorney General of the state and is regarded as an outsider by many of the power brokers on the local scene. However, his service was one of the more positive aspects of the Sylva administration’s record, He upgraded the Ministry of Justice by providing it with improved office accommodation and a standard legal library and worked hard and successfully to establish a law school in Yenagoa. Since then he has continued to strive to be politically relevant in his ancestral state and his expression of interest in the governorship while surprising to many is typical of his continued show of concern for the affairs of the state, When asked why he was seeking to participate in what could be an exercise in futility, he said: “Only the dead stop trying.”

Reuben Okoya and Franklyn Erepamo Osaisai

The appearance in the race of two of the state’s most accomplished technocrats, Architect Reuben Okoya from Yenagoa LGA and Dr. Franklyn Erepamo Osaisai, from the Southern Ijaw LGA, is among the most unlikely but also, under the circumstances welcome developments.  Both are highly accomplished professionals who have served in sensitive roles at both the state and federal levels.

While their political attachment to the state apparatus might be questioned, their competence and qualification for managing development is not in doubt and their willingness to offer themselves for service speaks volumes about their commitment to serving the people. However, knowledgeable observers give both of them no more than an outside chance of victory and that only if their cause is supported openly by some influential backers, such as President Goodluck Jonathan.

From our reading of the real situation on the ground, this seems to be an unlikely prospect. Instead, these fine gentlemen candidates appear to be knocking their heads against a tough wall of local political intrigue that the governor has virtually unleashed by his silence at first and now by his utterances on the process.

Friday Benson and Benson Agadaga

Some fringe contestants such as former state assembly Speaker, Friday Konbowei Benson, and a one tine Information Commissioner, Hon. Benson Agadaga have also thrown their hats into the ring. The intent of Konbowei Benson who lost his effort to move to the National Assembly to a freshman APC candidate in Southern Ijaw is difficult to fathom, while some observers say aspirants like himself and Agadaga may be jostling for recognition or even for the number two slot on the eventual ticket.

Other aspirants

In the later stages of the process, aspirants continued to appear, and the form was collected by some interesting contestants at the last possible moment. These include the technocrat and public relations expert David Alagoa and the three-term Senator from Yenagoa Hon. Emmanuel Paulker.

The contestation in the Bayelsa PDP has enriched the party’s coffers exponentially and as a consequence the importance of its victory in the general election is of paramount interest to the national leadership. The APC hierarchy in the state is fully aware of this and the calculations of aspirants from that side include the eventual implosion of the PDP’s stability as a consequence of the proliferation of aspirants as being imperative to give them an advantage.

The APC factor

A major battle has been provoked between junior Minister Heineken Lokpobiri who hails from Ekeremor LGA and former Governor Chief Timipre Sylva who hails from Brass LGA for the ticket of the APC and both sides are hopeful that the PDP will self-destruct after the September primary election. Even now when Chief Sylva has been proposed as a Minister, knowledgeable observers say he will not support Senator Lokpobiri’s ambition to be governor.

It is instructive to note that the APC plan for contesting the governorship of the state is almost entirely dependent on the collapse of the internal structure of the PDP. This is what drives the APC”s major strategy even though the harvest of qualified aspirants generated by the process in the PDP has shown that Bayelsa has a plethora of citizens who are eminently qualified to be governor and almost all of those are allied to the PDP.  This circumstance has exposed the APC structure in the state as being deficient in organisational credibility and adherent to personal privilege rather than collective viability.

The contest for the next governor of Bayelsa State is, therefore, shaping up to be one that the PDP has all the opportunity to win and only itself to blame if it loses.

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