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By Emma Maduabuchi
Asst. Politics Editor, Sunday
Each year, since 1999 when it was first formed, electing the chairman of Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) has always been a quiet event, done with the public showing little interest. But in the current dispensation, that situation has changed greatly. Election of the NGF chairman now attracts a lot of attention from the public, as well as serious politicking from powerful forces and individuals in the country, to the point of overheating the system.
Interestingly, the next election billed for this week, and which many observers contended was already and unnecessary overheating the polity, has already been postponed. Sunday Independent investigation revealed that the current chairman of the body, Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, appears to be the target of the postponement. In fact, this is the second time the election has been deferred. He has been faced with challenges and knocks, as a result of the election, that even his position as governor was reportedly seriously threatened. His travails have become so much that many believed it must have become disconcerting for him in governing his state, and therefore expected him step down.
In fact, many times he was actually rumoured to have actually stepped down, but contrarily he has always found a way to show that he had done no such thing but was still interested in the race.
Twice, the election has been postponed. Though no official reasons have so far been given for the last rescheduling, Sunday Independent checks showed that one of the reasons was the strong interest of the Presidency in the outcome of the election.
The Presidency, our source revealed, has been a clog in the wheel of progress for the NGF election, because it seems not to be comfortable with Amaechi becoming a second term chairman of the body. President Goodluck Jonathan is said to be very jittery of the implications of Amaechi emerging as the chairman because of his (Amaechi’s) ambition which was contrary to his (Jonathan’s) for 2015.
This was why pundits alleged that each time the election date was set, and the Presidency discovered that Amaechi was the hot favourite, that it has always moved against it by compelling loyal Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governors to give notice of their inability to attend, thereby making it impossible to form a quorum.
The latest was last Thursday, May 9, when the election must have been held, but it was postponed once again when interests pushing for Amaechi to step down from contesting in the election realised that he was not prepared to do so.
Chijioke Odom, activist lawyer, is among those with this belief. He said this has been so because President Jonathan’s plan to prepare a formidable candidate to take over from Amaechi has not been realised. He explained that each time the President and his henchmen discovered that their camp may not triumph in the election, “he pulls his strings with PDP governors to have the election stalled”.
On the contrary, another source attributed the postponements to the problem of insecurity ravaging many parts of the North, which have made it difficult for many Northern governors to show commitment to the election. Many of them were said to have described the issue of NGF election as secondary.
Some others, however, argued that the reason it had been easy to compromise the election, leading to postponements, was because the NGF was just an association, a pressure group of governors, which is not a constitutional body with strictly stated rules on when and how elections must be held. In that case, they argued that the group would only succeed in fixing and holding their elections only when it would be most convenient for majority of its membership.
On their part however, some political pundits, who spoke their minds reasoned that the election must have been compromised because many of the governors were interested in having the Supreme Court decide on its litigation on the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) between the Federal Government and 36 state governors.
Interestingly, the issue of Amaechi and his stint as chairman of NGF, as well as the possibility of his returning for a second tenure, have been the central issue. Everything revolves around him.
His troubles actually started, analysts posited, with an encounter he once had with the First Lady, Patience Jonathan, in August 2010. Then the First Lady had spoken to him harshly on the issue of demolishing waterfront communities. It was from then on that some people believed the Presidency started harbouring animosity against him.
But there was another serious issue before them. It was the issue of his leadership of NGF, especially with his stance on the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF).
SWF is described as an investment fund owned by a sovereign state/nation with the mandate to invest in financial assets such as stocks, bonds, precious metals, property and other financial instruments. However, the objectives might include providing liquidity stabilisation funds as well as the funding of vital economic infrastructure projects within the sovereign state. The structure and scope of investments in SWF generally depend on the circumstances of each nation as well as the enabling law. However, SWFs usually have long-term investment focus.
The need for SWF is said to be motivated by countries aiming at diversifying their revenue streams by devoting a portion of their reserves to an SWF that invests in the types of assets which act as shields against systemic risk, and in the case of Nigeria, against oil-related risk.
In the case of Nigeria, SWF is derived from Excess Crude Account (ECA) of the country that is owned by the Federal Government, the states and local governments. It was established by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy.
Nigerian governors under the leadership of Amaechi were believed to have incurred the wrath of the Presidency by the manner of their opposition to SWF. They resisted it claiming, among other things, that that states should be allowed access to the funds as well, rather than having the Federal Government alone to have access to it. According to the governors, it was illegal and contrary to the country’s Appropriation Act of 2011 and the 1999 Constitution of the country.
Under the leadership of Amaechi, the 36 state governors approached the Supreme Court on Monday, October 24, 2011, for interpretation of the case. At a time, during the legal contestations, the suit was adjourned indefinitely, as the court told the Federal Government to settle it out of court. The court held that the case was more of a political issue than a legal one.
On May 9, 2013, the Supreme Court gave the last order to the Federal Government to settle the matter with the state governors, or it would be forced to judge the case. Solomon Awomolo (SAN) had accused the Federal Government of foot-dragging and reneging in the implementation of the out-of-court settlement.
The issue of the SWF and NGF under Amaechi’s leadership taking the Federal Government to court is said to have been counted by the Presidency to be one of Amaechi’s sins. It was, therefore, considered as another reason the governor was going through ‘persecution’, which started in earnest with the formation of Peoples Democratic Party Governors’ Forum (PDPGF), meant to be used to break the ranks of NGF.
He was also taken through the trial of having NGF split by the creation of Peoples Democratic Party Governors’ Forum (PDPGF), on Monday, January 25, the first night NGF elections were to be held. After that, the party executive in his state was sacked by a court of law, followed by the grounding of his plane.
As if that was not enough, since the grounding of the plane, Rivers State House of Assembly members led by the Speaker, who defied pressure to work for Amaechi’s impeachment, claimed they were being threatened with expulsion from the party.
Right now, the development is loud and reverberating within Rivers, rocking the state politics and, perhaps by implication, Nigeria’s democracy, as many public affairs commentators have been insisting.
The leadership of the PDP was still not comfortable with the election coming up in which there was likelihood that Amaechi would appear victorious. They, therefore, impressed it upon PDP governors under their influence to go slowly on the election. The major reason for their fears was explained to be as a result of feelers they were getting that, rather than diminish his stature and popularity, Amaechi’s trials have been increasing them.
While these were going on, some governors, mostly those from the North, tried to impress it upon him the reasons he must step down. One of the reasons was for there to be a dousing of the controversy that was heating up the system.
Some others, governors from the North also, were discovered to be mounting opposition against him solely to make sure that a Northerner emerges. They went with the argument that many strategic offices in the PDP were being occupied by people from the South South geo-political zone. They want Amaechi to step aside for a Northerner to emerge the next NGF chairman.
As a matter of fact, it was learnt from an aide of a North Central governor that some of the governors considered not pulling their weight behind Amaechi for this reason, claiming that positions in the party were lopsided in favour of his (Amaechi’s) zone. The source noted that apart from Amaechi as chairman of NGF, Tony Anenih from his zone currently occupies the Board of Trustees (BoT) chairmanship position, while Godswill Akpabio, Governor of Akwa Ibom State, and Chairman of the newlyformed Peoples Democratic Party Governors’ Forum (PDPGF), also hails from the South South zone. They did not fail to mention the President, who is national leader of the party.
“This people must think we are fools,” the North Central governor was quoted as telling one of his aides.
Eventually, about Monday, May 6, speculations were on that the Rivers governor was finally ready to step down, to have peace reign, both in his state and in other parts of the country. That turned out to be a fluke, as a reliable source said the Rivers governor vowed he was not prepared to step down for any candidate, and that he was prepared to stand for the election even if he was going to lose. He added that it was well within his rights to go for another term.
The source insisted that Amaechi was not going to lose because he has got the support of many Northern governors. “They’ve been holding series of meetings and he has gotten the backing of many Northern governors. Almost all of them are behind him,” our source claimed.
But Tam David-West, virologist and former Minister of Petroleum, also insisted that the governor would not and should not step down for any candidate, despite fact that he has been persecuted greatly in attempts to force him to step down.
If Amaechi exits…
In the event of Amaechi finally stepping down, no governor is known to have openly shown serious interest in taking over from him. However, Governor Ibrahim Shema of Katsina State was touted as having some Presidency support, though President’s Special Adviser on Political Matters, Ahmed Gulak, said the President’s interest was just to uphold the rule of law and not to foist any candidate on the governors’ body.
Odom said of Shema: “The Presidency is scheming to put Katsina governor to run against Amaechi. But because its machinery is not perfect yet, it resorts to underground undermining of NGF meeting by inducing postponements, using its loyal governors to make quorums unattainable. PDP high command fears Amaechi’s independence of thought, effect of his ambition and his popularity among his colleagues.”
But Gulak insisted that his principal, as a loyal member of the PDP, would only be delighted to have another member of his party take over from Amaechi, and that he was ready to work with any of the governors that emerges.
Voicing government’s thinking on the issue, Gulak said: “The President is interested in any PDP governor, not necessarily Shema, taking over from Amaechi at the expiration of his tenure. There is no re-election for Amaechi. His tenure has expired, except if he wants to extend his tenure and there is no tenure elongation in the NGF.”
What is seen today as politics of NGF started as far back 1999 and has gone through tough times to get to what it is today.
It was mainly a peer group formed with the intention of helping members perform as best as they could. But it was forced to change slightly with becoming a pressure group also, after its members with through a lot of persecution during the time of Olusegun Obasanjo as President (1999 to 2007). Then many governors were impeached under many bizarre circumstances and in mostly illegal manners.
By the time they started on this part, they were said to have suddenly realised the possibilities of their powers. As a result of that, they exerted pressure on the President and saw to it that two of their members (Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan) became President and Vice President.
Same was also the case after the death of Yar’Adua in making Nemadi Sambo the Vice President.
Incidentally, in this dispensation, the interest of many of them is clashing with that of the President, and while they are seeking total freedom to operate, the President is seeking to finally break their hold on the polity.
Theophilus Danjuma, former Minister of Defence, had this to say of NGF: “There is nobody who can emerge as the President of Nigeria in PDP, unless the governors want it; you cannot do it. The governors today are the most powerful group of people in the political system. Until we face up to that fact and find solutions to it, we are all in trouble.”
He then said if the President decided to have a grip on the workings of the NGF, that it would be a smart move, especially if his intention was to run for the 2015 elections.
A lot of Nigerians believe the Presidential is doing exactly that at the moment.
What of NGF
Fredrick Fasehun, founder of O’odua Peoples Congress (OPC), held the strong opinion that government should scrap the NGF and make sure it no longer exists.
When reminded that it was not government that established it and therefore had no right to scrap it, he wanted to know whether it was government that established armed robbery and yet outlawed it.
Part of his words read: “My thinking is that government should scrap it. It the body is going to be an impediment to governance, the best thing should be for government to scrap it.”
•Additional reports by Ishaya Ibrahim