Politicians are not leaving anything to chance. Even before the posters for the 2019 elections have been removed, the race for 2023 has started and it’s just as charged at the national level as it is in the states.
One state that is offering a spectacularly different approach to the business of the next general election is Ebonyi. Governor David Umahi has told politicians – at least those in his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state – that they should not worry about who will take over, or even how it will happen.
The governor has it all worked out in a special pact with the hosts of heaven and Ebonyi is invited to the party.
The governor said at a thanksgiving service in Abakaliki on Sunday, that he had started a special programme across the 13 local government areas in the state, a special episode of prayers, to select, not just the next governor, but the next crop of political leaders in the state.
It may sound like foolishness, but it’s foolishness with a history that is difficult to ignore. The worst nightmare of many past office-holders, whether in a hostile or friendly takeover, has been their successors.
Twice, it almost cost the All Progressives Congress (APC) national leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, his hold over Lagos. Even now the scars have not fully healed. In the last general election, succession squabbles cost the APC Zamfara, Oyo, Bauchi and Adamawa states. The main opposition party, the PDP, learnt its own lesson the hard way, when Governor Seriake Dickson’s hubris paved the way for his party’s defeat in the governorship election in Bayelsa.
The current situation in Edo State where former governor, Adams Oshiomhole, has recruited his former rival who he once publicly called a thief, to fight against his own anointed successor, Governor Godwin Obaseki, is yet another in a chain of ludicrous succession cases with a fairly long history.
As he thought about this matter of succession close to three decades ago, former military president, Ibrahim Babangida was so troubled that he finally declared that even though he did not know those who would succeed his government, he knew those who would not. He then proceeded on an extraordinary experiment of banning and unbanning, breeding and re-breeding of politicians until, in the end, his laboratory exploded in his face.
It must be a familiar story for Umahi, too. So, when he decides to make the matter of his succession spiritual warfare, the governor knows what he is talking about.
In 2015, he was deputy to Governor Martin Elechi and thought he was secure and next in line of succession. He was in charge of all big projects in the state and, in addition, had strong connections in the military, where his brother was a top brass.
But Elechi didn’t trust Umahi, his own deputy. Instead of Umahi, who Elechi was told was cutting deals behind his back, the outgoing governor endorsed Onyebuchi Chukwu and hell came down.
Umahi ran, not to prayer warriors, but outside Abakaliki for help. It’s surprising that the governor now thinks that calling on outside help, the euphemism for Abuja-based politicians, is a crime. If indeed it is, then he’s just as guilty as the politicians he was condemning on Sunday.
When Elechi boxed him into a corner in 2015, Umahi did not organise prayer sessions for his deliverance. Instead, it was to former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Anyim Pius Anyim – the same Abuja principalities he now condemns – that he ran for help. It was the combined forces of Anyim, former Governor Sam Egwu and other Abuja politicians in Wadata House, that saved Umahi.
Yet, anyone listening to him pontificating on how the state has come of age and how nobody outside the state can influence elective positions there, would think he cannot find his way outside Abakaliki. Listening to his sermon about how it is now God alone that would choose his successor, one would think he has been in the Salvation Army all his life.
Power breeds hubris. But that is not its worst vice. Amnesia is just as dangerous, more dangerous, in fact, than power wielders are ready to admit. That’s Umahi’s problem.
People in power don’t will themselves to forget: once in power, they just forget naturally – until they fall. Rather than wasting his time ticking off the boxes on how to produce his successor or embarking on a state-wide prayer vigil for a new breed of politicians, Umahi will do well to focus on his job.
In spite of his best efforts in the last four years, Ebonyi is still ranked as the seventh poorest state in Nigeria, with 70 per cent incidence of poverty, slightly down from 73 per cent when Umahi took over four years ago, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Ebonyi is not just poor, it’s the poorest of the five South Eastern states and the only Southern state among the country’s poorest top 10.
In a sense, that is, in the sense of both geography and predatory poverty, Ebonyi is what Ekiti is to the Southwest; Bayelsa to the South; and Zamfara to the North. It will take more than prayers and gubernatorial bluff to save Ebonyi. Its trademark Abakaliki rice is a good place to build on, but not enough to lift rampant poverty.
The governor is working but there’s still work to be done before the prayer rallies in the 13 local governments begin. When he described himself recently as a very, very rich man, a billionaire by other accounts, one is left to wonder if his wealth came by prayers alone, since he did not say how or what brought him good fortune, other than saying that he has worked hard. Residents of the 7th poorest state are entitled to know just what kind of hard work made their governor a billionaire.
He was right about something, though – that “politicians are an ungrateful lot.” Once they get one position, they begin, almost immediately, to scheme for the next. Some get away with it, like one of his godfathers, former Governor Sam Egwu, now a senator; and others don’t, like Umahi’s political cousin, Dickson, whose inordinate ambition cost his party Bayelsa State.
All told, Umahi’s overriding concern appears to have been how to deal with the question of succession. It’s a legitimate concern of many leaders, yet even those who think they have it all figured out – that they have all their ducks in a row – find out, almost inevitably – and often too late – that they’ve left out the X-factor.
2023 is a long, long way; longer in politics than the 1108 days on the Gregorian calendar. While we look to the skies for the heavens to reveal the name of Umahi’s successor in a celestial fly past, the governor will do well to double his efforts to lift the state out of poverty.
Since Ebonyi people are looking up to him to lead by example, he will also do well to render a full account of how he acquired a five-star hotel and a raft of petrol stations, among other choice assets, which have been subject of investigations by the EFCC since 2015.
His legacy will not be judged by the intensity of the prayers that he organises for his successor, but by the qualitative difference he brings to the lives of the millions of the desperately poor in the state. Now, let us pray.
–Ishiekwene, MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview