Urhobos’ Political Trump Card

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The outcome of the recent Delta Central Senatorial by-election shows the determination of Urhobo, a leading ethnic group in the state, to hold their own in the political arena

 

By ADEKUNBI ERO

 

Notwithstanding the complaints of the opposition in the recent by-elections in the Central Senatorial District in Delta State, the result, if upheld, signals a radical shift in the political calculation in the state.  For the Urhobo nation, it is one lesson that had to be learnt the hard way. After several years of being in opposition, people of the Urhobo nation in the state appear to have taken their destiny in their own hands by returning to the mainstream of Nigerian politics.

 

The candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Emmanuel Aguariavwodo, was declared winner of the polls held on Saturday, October 12, 2013. The election was held in the eight local government areas making up the zone, to fill the vacant seat in the upper chamber of the National Assembly, the Senate, following the death of the former Senator Pius Ewherido in June this year. Ewherido, a former member of the PDP, won the senatorial seat on the platform of the Democratic Peoples’ Party, DPP, in the April 2011 election. He dumped the PDP following his disagreement with the party over the conduct of its governorship primary election at Ogwashi-Uku, which he participated in. He was the only DPP member in the Senate and was believed to have started negotiations with the then emerging All Progressives Congress, APC, when he suffered stroke and died at the National Hospital, Abuja. Given his political clout, general acceptability and overwhelming goodwill especially among his Urhobo kinsmen, it was possible for the DPP to almost turn the table against the ruling PDP in the governorship re-run and the general elections in the state.

 

Contrary to the belief that it was the popularity of the DPP candidate, Great Ogboru, that almost caused a political upset in the state, it was learnt that Ewherido indeed made his solid political structure available to Ogboru and deployed his political clout and goodwill to rally the support of the Urhobo socio-cultural organisation, the Urhobo Progress Union, for him. This explained why the DPP got majority of its votes from the Urhobo-speaking Delta Central Senatorial zone in previous election.

 

But the belief of the Urhobo nation was that their foray into opposition politics resulted in marginalisation, in spite of being the largest ethnic group in the state and the fifth largest tribe in the country. They lost out in the power-sharing equation at the national level, such that they have no representation in the Federal Executive Council, FEC, just as they feel that they have an insignificant representation on federal boards and the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. It was not surprising therefore that the issues of marginalisation and politics of opposition dominated the campaigns as the three leading candidates – Aguariavwodo of PDP, O’tega Emerhor of the APC and Ede Dafinone of the DPP – tried to sway the people to their side during the just-concluded senatorial by-election in the state.

 

Aguariavwodo is one of the lucky Urhobo who have enjoyed high visibility in the polity since 1999 serving as a member of the House of Representatives in 1999 from where he was picked as the managing director of the NDDC in October 2003. He had been chairman of the Niger Delta Basin Development Authority and was recently appointed the chairman of the Board of Nigeria Council for Management Development. Though he admitted that the Urhobos were feeling the pinch of not having a minister of its ethnic nationality, he believed that “if an Urhobo man is a minister, it is for the whole state.” One of the aspirants on the platform of the PDP, Ovie Omo-Agege, former secretary to the state government who later withdrew from the race to support Aguariavwodo, the party’s candidate, had traced the alleged neglect and marginalisation of the Urhobo nation by the federal government to its being in opposition.

 

The APC which already sees itself as a government in waiting at the centre, tried albeit unsuccessfully, to convince the people of Delta Central to invest their hope in the party and endure the pains of being in opposition until 2015 when it expected to displace the PDP. Emerhor said, “I tell you; what is happening to Urhobos is very pathetic. As we speak right now, there is nobody that can stand and talk for the Urhobos. Only the late Senator Pius Ewherido was the person we had. Look at Abuja, Delta State; look at NDDC and look at everywhere. Forty boards were put together recently but how many Urhobos are in the boards? It is because there is nobody to fight for the Urhobos. They wanted an Urhobo man in the Police Commission but he was the only one that was not approved. So, let us send a credible person to Abuja”. While admitting that to be in opposition was a matter of sacrifice, the APC candidate noted, “a lot of people in Urhobo land complain in their rooms because to be in opposition is not easy. It is for the strong-hearted; for people who are ready to sacrifice themselves.” But he added, “If the Urhobo nation must move to its rightful position in the polity, it has to embrace a bigger party that has a national acceptance.” Emerhor posited that it was the APC that would liberate the Urhobo from political marginalisation that it is currently facing.

 

But having tasted what it is to be in the opposition by voting against the PDP in preference for the DPP in previous elections, it evidently dawned on the Urhobo that their liberation from marginalisation does not lie in remaining in opposition but indeed by pitching their tent with the party in power. It was therefore not surprising that the PDP beat eight other parties, coasting home to victory by a wide margin by recording 263,024 votes as against Emerhor’s 29,075 and Dafinone’s 29,055 votes. However, opposition parties, particularly the APC and the DPP are crying blue murder over the outcome of the polls, alleging that it was massively rigged by the PDP with the connivance of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and the security agencies.

 

APC said the election was fraught with electoral malpractices and widespread violence perpetrated by security agents and thugs. In a statement by Lai Mohammed, interim national publicity secretary of the party, alleged that there was no voting at all in most of the eight local governments and the 85 wards in the senatorial zone, adding that the PDP used armed security agents to intimidate voters in opposition’s strongholds while thugs seized voting materials. According to Mohammed, “from what transpired in Delta State on Saturday, it is clear that the PDP has resolved that there will be no free and fair election any where across the country henceforth. The party’s new strategy is to use security agents as agents of destabilisation and suppression of voters.”

 

Also rejecting the outcome of the election, Dafinone alleged that the exercise was “a clear case of naked criminality, not an election.” But in a swift response, Olisah Metuh, national publicity secretary of the PDP, lambasted opposition parties for “not being bold and sportsmanlike enough to accept defeat.” 

 

In spite of the opposition, the PDP believes it was a victory well earned. The state governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, said the PDP had worked hard to recapture the senatorial district, which was under the control of late Ewherido of the DPP. Talking of the opposition, he said, “Where is their strength? All those who won in those other parties were PDP members who left. The so-called opposition has collapsed.” The governor also credited the victory to the reconciliation within the PDP in the state.  Signs that the ruling party was set to turn the table against its opponents emerged few days to the by-election when notable members of the opposition parties started to defect to the ruling party, prominent among them was some members of the Ogboru family of Abraka. Great Ogboru had in the last 14 years attempted to govern the state but failed. Led by the former governorship candidate’s elder brother, Julius Ogboru, a traditional chief and the Ekugbere of Abraka kingdom, the PDP made a significant in-road into the “enemy territory” in Abraka, and by extension, Ethiope-East Local Government area, when no fewer than 1000 members of the DPP in the state defected to the party. Popularly referred to as the “Field Marshal” of the Ogboru Campaign Organisation during the younger Ogboru’s failed attempts to become governor, Julius said he was declaring for the PDP after consultation with his supporters in all the wards in the state. He was said to have dumped the DPP following an “irreconcilable difference” with his brother.  He said his cross carpeting would not amount to betrayal of his younger brother “because I gave my brother all the support he needed in his political aspiration for 14 years,” stressing that “I think it is time to move on.” Another member of the family and a traditional chief, Skin Ogboru of the PDP said he was happy his uncle had come to join him in the party. The state commissioner for finance, Kenneth Okpara facilitated Julius’ defection to PDP.

 

Similarly, 48 hours to the crucial political contest, a chieftain of the DPP representing Udu/Ughelli Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Austin Ogbaburon led hundreds of his supporters to defect to the PDP. Ogbaburon had been the strongman of the politics of the area making it impossible for the PDP to record victory in the area in previous elections. He told Uduaghan at his Orhuworun country home, “We who were in the DPP and all other small parties have today crossed over to the PDP. We are tired of being in opposition; we see that the President Goodluck Jonathan is listening to us, the Urhobo people and we have better chances with a PDP senator in Abuja.”  That may lend credence to the belief of observers that the reconciliation is done to enhance the chances of Jonathan in the state by 2015. As a matter of fact, the President was instrumental to the emergence of Aguariavwodo as the candidate of the PDP prompting other aspirants to withdraw from the race. One of the aspirants who stepped down for the now senator-elect, Friday Idonor, explained that the decision by politicians and leaders of Urhobo nation in the state to return their people to the ruling party was deliberate.

 

He said, “We the Urhobo ethnic group, the fifth largest in Nigeria were part of the PDP from the formation stage but when one of our own was denied a ticket in 2007, he left the party and our people also followed him (Ewherido) in protest. But after a painstaking discussion and consultations which culminated in a closed door meeting between President Goodluck Jonathan and Urhobo leaders which I was also in attendance, I am happy to inform you that today, the Urhobo nation has fully returned home to the PDP because we were part of the building process.” 

 

Another leader in the area, Solomon Udele, a knight of St. Christopher, also an aspirant, noted that “for once, the Urhobo nation has spoken with one voice,” adding that “the result of the poll is a clear indication to all and sundry that Urhobo has no place for opposition. We are firmly back in the mainstream.” And to its opponents crying foul over the outcome of the election, the PDP has a word of advice – go to court. Whether it would heed that advice or not, time will tell.

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