Ambassador Soni Abang, a former Nigeria ambassador to Mali and a two-time Chairman of Cross River State Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) speaks on the lingering crisis in the state and canvasses a solution ahead of the 2015 general polls.
In this interview with SAMUEL OGIDAN, he warned that if the state PDP should go to the 2015 election with the way things are, it may not have a good outing in 2015 general elections.
Sir, what is your take on the allegation that there is a perceived tussle between Abuja-based politicians and those who are based in the state. Can you elucidate on this?
It is a new development. As a foundation member of the Peoples Democratic Party in Cross River State, I was here in Abuja at the formal inauguration of the party. I won an election on the platform of the PDP in 1999 as a local government chairman. I was one of those building blocks of the party then. Two years after my emergence as council chairman, I was persuaded in 2001 to resign my position in order to head the party in the state as chairman. When I took over the leadership of the party, PDP was not the dominant party then in the state. The opposition, All Progressives Party (APP) had the majority in the State House of Assembly with 13 members and it produced the Speaker then. Governor Donald Duke of the PDP, had just 10 members in the House. That was the situation when I became the state chairman of the party in 2001. By 2003, the arrangement changed. Majority of the opposition members of the House, defected to the PDP through my intervention and by the time we were getting Duke back for a second term, PDP had an absolute control of the House with 25 members. At the National Assembly, when we started in 1999, we had just three APP members in the House of Representatives with only Senator Ita Giwa in the Senate. But by 2004, everybody had become PDP. We were able to build a political family into a very cohesive unit. There were three guiding principles to all these.
What are these principles?
First, we believed that everybody is important as a politician and as a member of our party. Secondly, we also believed that electioneering is a process of human relations and we went all out to exhaust all levels of consultations and integration that we could achieve to put an ambition on the table. Thirdly, we also believed that politicians could deliver more dividends of democracy to the people if the cost of politicking could be reduced to the barest minimum. By 2008, those who came to the National Assembly and even those who ran for governorship, if I am to quote correctly, I don’t think there is anyone that spent over N2 million to go to House of Representatives or N5 million to go to Senate. I am not sure that anybody even spent up to N200 million to become governor of Cross River State as at 2008. That was exactly how it used to be. If the PDP family in Cross River State is willing to call some people Abuja-based politicians, and see others as Cross River-based politicians, then, there is a fundamental problem. I cannot pretend as if I don’t know what the problem is. All the three cardinal principles that I enumerated that led us to achieve cohesion had been grossly violated; if we have to be sincere with ourselves. The leadership of the party in the state today, is not the leadership that evolved with the creation of the party. It is even not the leadership that understands the PDP. It is a recruited leadership. That is the first mistake. So the loyalty of the leadership is tied directly to the leader of the party in the state at the moment. It is whatever he says, it is what they also say. It is whatever he wants that they also do. So, there is no more room for consultation, for dialogue. It is a situation of somebody giving out instructions and people following the order. If the leader of the party in the state hates you today, the whole party apparatus, declares you persona non grata. That is what is happening.
You said you know the problems and the dramatis personae involved. Can you be specific?
I don’t want to mention names because I still believe that we have a window to have an in-house dialogue where we can tell ourselves the truth. We all know what the problem is and we cannot pretend about it during an in-house discussion. We need to identify what went wrong, where and how to resolve it.
Can we still say that Cross River is still a core PDP state at the moment?
If we go to the 2015 election with the way things are, I am not too sure that the PDP will have a good outing in the state. The present leadership did not emerge through the same process that brought us in. As a serving local government chairman, it was a consensus among all the party leaders that I should come and head the party. It was not the decision of one individual but today, the choice of the state chairmanship, was the decision of one or two persons. They wanted somebody, who will just be there to do their bidding. The state chairman, everybody knows, is a civil servant who just retired. He was the Clerk to the state House of Assembly. He doesn’t know anything about party administration. He doesn’t even know the people he was supposed to administer.
As one of the chieftains of the party in the state who had seen the implication of such actions, what did you do to prevent it?
As I speak with you, I have not interacted with the leader of my party in the state for about two years now because we have issues; we have disagreements. That is the truth.
What exactly is the true position of things regarding the ward congress in the State? There are allegations and counter-allegations that the Abuja based politicians doctored the outcome of the poll?
First, let us identify the remote causes of the current PDP crisis in Cross River State before looking at the immediate causes to be able to understand the whole scenario. The remote causes that brought us to where we are, is a situation where a lot of people had been excluded from the political process of a party which they jointly formed, which they are still members and which they belong to. Caucuses are being constituted and leading members of the party are not members of the caucuses either at their wards, local government areas or even at the state level. They are not part of the decision-taking arrangement. The heads of the caucuses are appointees of the government of the day. They are just there taking instructions. Members of the caucuses are people that, ordinarily, have no business deciding policies for PDP in Cross River State! That is how bad it is. So, you now have a choir of some sort, in all the caucuses. When the choirmaster says hey! everybody choruses hey ! The real leaders of this party have been watching this unfolding scenario with keen interest. If you raise any objection, they prop up one fellow from your local government and appoint him as the leader against you. From Bakassi to Boki, the situation is the same in Cross River State. It has been festering for over three years but as peace-loving people, everybody has kept quiet, hoping that there will be a time when we can all come back together to say enough is enough. But unfortunately, nobody thought that was important. They wanted to drive the transition process into gear. That is why you have this fallout today. Instead of calling some people Abuja politicians, they should rather say that the crisis is between former leaders of the party and current leaders of the party in Cross River State. That is how phenomenal this whole disagreement is. It is not about the Senate leader. I have not been in the picture all along. I am speaking for the first time.
There are also, allegations in the media that the Abuja-based politicians, led by the Senate leader were those who wanted to destroy the party in the state. What is your reaction to this?
That allegation is not true. First and foremost, the politics of Nigeria today requires that you rally round someone who has institutional relevance in order to be heard. The Senate Leader, today, is the only one in Cross River politics that has institutional relevance. Everybody and anybody who is aggrieved in the state today, rally round him. We are making him our new leader and our new champion. He fights for the liberation of the PDP in the state and fights for the rights of other politicians. It is not even about his ambition. There are people who are resident in Lagos and who are also part of the struggle. There are even more people in Cross River State who are part of this struggle. In fact, majority of Cross Riverians today, are behind this struggle. People have taken some actions in the past which were ignored but all of us are now saying that enough is enough, it is time to put our house in order. If you want to attach destruction to any group of people, it is those that have brought us to this state of affairs that are the destroyers. It is not those they call Abuja politicians who are saying ‘no,’ that are destroying the party. We want to right what is wrong. We have an election in 2015 and we know the implications. When I left as party chairman in 2008, the membership of the PDP in Cross River State was nearly one million because we had a policy that every eligible voter in the state must be induced to be a member of the PDP so that when an election comes, you are voting because you believe that you are doing your party a favor to win. That is why we were turning out large figures during elections then. In 2015, it will not be the case because two years ago, they did some registrations and deliberately, the leadership of the party reduced our membership to less than 200, 000 just to prevent some people to have access to membership cards. Before the build-up to this ward congress, we heard stories of how party registers were being hidden and cards were not issued out to people. What that portends is that there will be reduction in the numbers of people who can be members of the party. Senator Liyel Imoke ran election three years ago, he scored 400, 000 votes in a state that turned out over a million votes in previous elections. Recently, the state Resident Electoral Commissioner, Dr. Mike Igini said that Cross River has 275, 000 Permanent Voter Cards that were not collected. Graphically, if you look at the voting strength of Cross River State today, it is hovering between 700, 000 to 800, 000 votes. If we don’t put our house in order to maximize these votes, what are we going to deliver to the President in 2015? What are we going to deliver to our party in 2015? These are the questions we should be asking and be talking about.
So, what went wrong at the ward congresses of the party in Cross River?
What went wrong is the outcome of one singular intention, which is imposition! Somebody wants to impose candidates. How do they want to achieve this? I read an interview granted by my former deputy who said there were 588 delegates expected from Cross River State from the conduct of the ad-hoc election. Cross River State Party leadership bought 600 forms. That means that there would be no contest! Before then, we learnt that they had compiled the list of those who would be delegates about six months ago. Government appointees and the hand-picked caucus leaders who we don’t know, sat down to determine who will make the list. About buying 600 forms, and since they already had the list, they closed down the party secretariat to anybody who wanted to buy the form and contest as delegates but fortunately, Abuja opened up the floodgates and sold forms. People contested and those who bought forms in Abuja won on the field. Now the 261 figure which they are quoting are actually those who won on the field.
What would you say is the game plan here?
What they are trying to do is to get the national leadership of the party to expunge the 261 people that won on the field, from their own 600 orchestrated process so that they could have all the 588 delegates from the state intact. That is what caused the noise. I speak as a former chairman of the party who understands the arithmetic of this business. So if you minus 261 from 588, they feel what they have is not enough. Again, they still have other statutory delegates in the process. If anybody is open to having an essential democratic process, why can’t he harvest from the statutory delegate and add to 327 you already have in the kitty. You can win any election you want to win with that arrangement, why do you want to win absolutely? An absolute that you are pursuing with the exclusion of other party leaders, is it fair? Are you sure it will augur well for that party if that happens? The election was conducted transparently on the field, winners emerged and the results were brought to Abuja; you sat down and insisted that the 261 names which are not on your predetermined list should be removed otherwise something criminal had happened. This does not make sense to me. All what I think is that we should all sit down and discuss in order to tell ourselves the truth. If we have that forum, I am sure by the time we walk out from the talk, Cross River State PDP will be a stronger and a better political family because we are ready to tell ourselves the truth.
Why didn’t you complain at the time when party registers were being hijacked and the list of delegates being compiled which led to the exclusion of some stakeholders?
We have always been complaining that the process had been hijacked; in fact, the national headquarters of the party had been inundated with series of complaints. It festered up till this time because nobody was reacting to our complaints. However, if the national leadership of the party didn’t open sale of forms and if people were not allowed to contest and win elections and the state chapter had succeeded with their 588 list, nothing would have been heard of this matter. Everything anybody would say would be history. I am totally excluded as a leader.
What do you think that the Mu’azu-led National Working Committee of the Party should do at this juncture?
What I think the NWC should do is to first, I know that whatever has come from that electoral panel is actually the results from the field. So, they must uphold the result from the field. Luckily, those who are complaining are doing so because they did not score 588 over 588. They are complaining that they lost 261 out of 588. So, automatically, that has created accommodation of balance of interest. Secondly, the party should call all of us to a dialogue; let us talk to ourselves. The party needs to hear more about what is happening in its Cross River state chapter so that we can find a solution to it. I am an interested party and a stakeholder. I won’t be happy seeing my house destroyed. Before this time, whenever election approaches, we spent sleepless nights to put our house in order. There was never a time that we will ask somebody to run an election and we will get someone else to run the same election against you. We never did that. What we used to do is to assess all the aspirants, pick the most suitably qualified one and call others to a round table where we will carry everyone along in the subsequent process. However, it is different today. Now, they are using their tactics to fight the Senate leader’s ambition. If I am the party’s chairman and we decide that the Senate Leader should not go back, we will call him and tell him the reasons why he is not going back. In this case, nobody has told him, they are instead, using the party’s structures and institutions to build opposition against the gentleman. Trying to destroy and pull him down. This is not fair. We have exposed him to the Nigerian public and the nation appreciates him now. Why is it that it is his own people that should pull him down? I don’t think it is right. I never played that kind of politics. We always protected our own. We always solve our problems in-house. There was never a time that we took our problem to the front-burner of the media and the public because I think the approach is totally wrong.
What is the role of the state governor in all these being the leader of the party in the state?
Well, the governor is the leader of the party, he will get the glory if Cross River state is managed properly. He will also take the blame if anything happens negatively in the state. Talking about the Senate Leader returning alongside the Senate President and others, by assessment, the Senate Leader has done very well. Common sense and equity demand that the man should be given another opportunity to continue his good works. Again, his candidature is being reinforced by what we hear that his party thinks he should go back. He has done well and the Presidency feels that he should also return. Why should we ignore all of these and insisted that the man should not go back?
There are insinuations that the state government is supporting a serving member of the House of Representatives to take over from the Senate leader?
It is not possible, the state will lose out if that happens because it doesn’t add up. The governor has not been able to convince some of us, the reason why he is doing what is doing. We don’t understand it. Even if it comes to call the mathematics of political games, it still doesn’t add up. For instance, Hon. Ewan Enoh, is from Etung local government area with about 20, 000 votes while Senator Ndoma – Egba is from Ikom local government area with about 67, 000 votes. Even if you weigh the two figures, it doesn’t add up. I also heard that the governor was advocating the rotation of the senatorial seat among the federal constituencies. I find it hard to swallow. Where a senatorial district would be reduced to a federal constituency for the purpose of zoning. Nobody can change the composition of a senatorial district except if the person would change the Constitution. That one does not make sense to me at all. Now, in the interest of Cross River state, its better we put our house together and forget about all these things.
Why is it that it was the same party that is in opposition to itself in the state?
It happens. That is politics. Let me give you another bombshell. If you look at the PDP leadership in Cross River State today, those who are PDP original who are all outside. Those who constitute the leadership today are people who had been in the opposition up till one year ago. Those are the people recruited to take the place of founding members and leaders of the party in the state. They are the one taking decisions and hence subjected the former leaders to become opposition.
Are you aware of any issue involving the Senate leader and Governor Imoke in the past which could be the cause this current crisis in the state?
To the best of my knowledge, the Senate Leader is one man, who has been wonderfully supporting the governor. I am talking about support that goes beyond reason. I have made many attempts to see the governor. I had sent text messages to him when he wouldn’t pick my calls. As at last week, I sent him a text that he was opening up battles on too many fronts and that enough is enough. I told him I want to talk to him, up till now, he has not called me. The Senate Leader is the first politician that I know who had held offices without building structures. He had never taken his ambition personal either. Any time he has to come back to the Senate, it is because some of us feel that he deserved it. He is an establishment person to the core.
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