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How PDP survived the Atiku/Wike factors at last NEC meeting?

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Atiku’s leadership in PDP’s season of anomie

By Tunde Olusunle

Sceptical reporters had indeed cast the headlines of the stories they were going to file, ahead of the 98th National Executive Committee, (NEC) meeting of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, (PDP), Thursday April 18, 2023. They were awaiting the news of the implosion of the party after what was going to be a testy, nervy convergence  of the party leadership at that level. The NEC ranks next to its National Convention. The recent PDP, NEC engagement was the first since the rancorous 2023 general elections. Very bitter acrimony hallmarked the elections with partial breakaways by stakeholders at various levels. Most notable of these was the rebellion of the G-5, an amalgam of Nyesom Wike, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, Okezie Ikpeazu, Samuel Ortom, former governors of Rivers, Enugu, Abia and Benue. Seyi Makinde who is serving his second term as governor of Oyo State who was the last of the quintet. The last four stood in solidarity with Wike who lost out in his bid to pair with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar on the PDP presidential ticket.

The former Rivers governor came second at the presidential primary of the party held in May 2022, and automatically fancied himself as running mate for all his troubles. Wike has serially confirmed that he worked for the presidential flagbearer of the All Progressives Congress, (APC), Bola Tinubu and has been rewarded with a ministerial appointment to a plum ministry. Ortom admitted he worked for the emergence of Peter Obi who flew the flag of the Labour Party, (LP), for the nation’s number one job. Like Ugwuanyi and Ikpeazu, Ortom sadly lost his bid for the senate. By some uncanny coincidence, all three were trounced by candidates from other political parties. This has generated discussions about their political rootedness in their various political spaces against the rather-too-early conversations about 2027.

Conjectures and permutations preceding the meeting of the leading oppositional NEC, envisaged a collision between pro-Atiku and pro-Wike tendencies at the event. It was presumed that the core of discourse at the programme would be the question of the replacement of the chairman of the party, Umar Iliya Damagum. Following the suspension of Iyorchia Ayu a former university teacher and Emeritus minister from the position early last year, Damagum, the senior deputy national chairman took over in an acting capacity. Owing to the poor funding of the party which has always derived its oxygen courtesy of the benevolence of its governors, parliamentarians and stakeholders, it has been advanced that Wike has been supportive of Damagum. Despite being minister in an opposition government, Wike has not relinquished his membership of the PDP and has not been disciplined. He has said on several occasions that he hoped to remain in the party, but compromise its unity and stability.

The agenda for the meeting, however, precluded this particular issue. The sitting discussed the: Timetable for party congresses and reconstitution of the disciplinary and reconciliation committees. It also situated a committee to amend the constitution of the PDP; sustainable funding of the party and the need to rebrand the 25 year-old logo of the party, the very famous “umbrella.” Attendance at the meeting was large and broad-based. No fewer than 350 leaders of the PDP from the 36 states and the federal capital turned up. The crammed up conference hall of the party rekindled the question about why the PDP is yet to complete its purpose-built multistorey
national headquarters at the very heart of Abuja which has been abandoned for about a decade.

Atiku led the way with former Vice President Namadi Sambo in tow. There were also the former President of the Senate who is also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, (BOT), Adolphus Wabara and some of his successors, notably David Mark and Bukola Saraki. Former Deputy Speakers of the House of Representatives Austin Opara, Chibudom Nwuche and Emeka Ihedioha were on the front row. The PDP has never been in short supply of formidable and reputable Nigerians with former party chairmen;  former governors and serving governors; federal parliamentarians; members of the National Working Committee, (NWC) and elder statesmen in the BOT among those in attendance. You could feel the “long-time-no-see” bonhomie, even as you could almost slice the foreboding in the air of the constrained conference hall of the party in its secretariat.

Since Ayu is from the north central, a section of the party is inclined towards what has been described as a “like for like” replacement. This will see a PDP stalwart from the same zone replace him, which is the perspective of the Atiku school of thought. Gabriel Torwua Suswam, former governor of Benue State and three-time federal parliamentarian fits the bill. He has seen it all in the past 25 years of fourth republic democracy and cannot be bullied by anyone. On the flip side, pro-Wike elements reportedly prefer that Damagum should indeed be formally consecrated at the NEC meeting as substantive chairman of the PDP. Strategists in the party, however, reckoned that perpetuating Damagum who received a vote of confidence from the National Working Committee, (NWC) and the  National Caucus of the party just days before, could be politically suicidal. His current relationship with Wike could be counterproductive to the global interest of party.

Atiku’s reputation as an authentic nationalist with friendships and relationships built and nurtured over aeons, remain very formidable. He is a foundation member of the PDP who led the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua’s “Peoples’ Front,” (PF), as a core component of the PDP when the party was in gestation in 1998. His national recognition and experience are critical to the party’s consolidation and preparations for future electoral involvements. He is therefore the proverbial elder who, from his local couch, can see that which a young tree climber cannot see. He gave his famous “don’t worry” smile when I engaged him a few days before about his expectations at the meeting. That ability to make light of challenges must be one of the reasons for his bouncy health even at his age.

Those who anticipated an inevitably loud combustion from the meeting were disappointed. Atiku and his loyalists drawn primarily from the ranks of longstanding members of the party have always desired strategic changes within the ranks of the PDP’s leadership structures, as a way of strengthening the party in the run-up towards 2027. He was, however, tactically amenable to the deferment of the potentially explosive subject of leadership change which was pushed to the back-burner. The need for sustained reconciliation and the enthronement of party discipline was therefore foregrounded. Two committees were activated namely the reconciliation committee to be led by Saraki, and that of discipline which would be chaired by Udom Emmanuel, the suave immediate past governor of Akwa Ibom State.

Atiku thus supported the continuation of the Damagum-led NWC for the following few months during which the north central zone will build consensus around a specific candidate from the zone for the position of national chairman. This followed the proposition that a follow-up NEC meeting be called in August 2024. Overtime, Wike is said to have foisted leaders on the PDP and fallen out with them as soon as he considered them not in alignment with his designs. In the recent history of the party, Wike it was who proposed Ali Modu Sheriff, Ahmed Makarfi and Uche Secondus who, instructively is his kinsman from Rivers State, as chairmen of the PDP. He reportedly also supported the ascension of Iyorchia Ayu on the recommendation of Samuel Ortom, preparatory to launching his presidential bid in 2022. The Atiku camp came prepared to take Wike on if the issue of the replacement of the national chairman came up for discussion. Atiku diplomatically talked them out of the issue.

Atiku differed pointedly from those who reacted in the aftermath of the meeting that the party had lost its gravitas. His words: “PDP is not finished. The party has demonstrated maturity and leadership. The acting National Chairman has been holding forth for almost one year. It was the consensus that he would be replaced by a nominee from the north central. That zone has been put on notice and given three months to put their house in order and bring a candidate.” Foreign affairs minister in the Obasanjo/Atiku administration, Dubem Onyia in alliance with Atiku, also admonished dissenters to listen to the former Vice President, a father figure in the party. He seemed to rehash the popular African parable which educates that when a tree is being hewn from its bottom, the old man is concerned about how and where it will land, not the rhythm of the axe or the sound of its fall.

Segun Sowunmi a former Atiku spokesman warned members of the party against de-marketing the party. He enjoined party stalwarts to push out the narrative that the PDP being a much more democratic and organised party than is imagined. This he says is important so the party does not, inadvertently play into the hands of haters and traducers. Quoting a biblical verse from Ecclesiastes Chapter 9, Verse 11 to buttress his point, Sowunmi reminded PDP supporters thus: “The race is not for the swift nor victory for the strong. But it is the Lord that shows mercy.” Dagogo Farah a former parliamentarian from Rivers State saluted Atiku’s “maturity and sagacity” in preventing the PDP ship from losing course at the NEC meeting. Without a doubt, the PDP is capable of a rebound so long it avoids the pitfalls of the past.

Olusunle, PhD, is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (FANA)

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