On September 19, Edo State in Nigeria’s “South South” geopolitical zone will hold gubernatorial elections. The default political calendar in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic is that national and state elections take place every four years starting from the Fourth Republic’s establishment in 1999, meaning that the next national and state elections are scheduled for 2023 – but a number of states’ gubernatorial cycles have moved to different calendars over the years due to court cases, re-run elections, impeachments, and other circumstances. Edo State is one of those; a 2008 court decision moved the calendar to its present cycle. This year’s gubernatorial contest in Edo has widened into and/or crystallized a fight over who will control Nigeria’s national ruling party, the All Progressives Congress or APC.
A key figure in this fight is Adams Oshiomhole. After a career in the labor movement, Oshiomhole entered politics, ran for governor in Edo in 2007, and won a 2008 court case contesting and overturning the results of the election. He served two four-year terms from 2008 to 2016. In June 2018, Oshiomhole became national chairman of the APC; he was suspended from that role in March 2020 for reasons stemming both from hyper-local politics in Edo and from the overall battle to control the party.
Two pieces of context are crucial before we go further:
- Term limits (two four-year terms for both presidents and governors) help to incentivize what is often called “godfatherism” in Nigeria, meaning a kind of clientalist politics where the “godfather” seeks to control key offices and decisions in one or more states. Term limits are not the only ingredient in godfatherism, but many ex-governors attempt to position themselves as godfathers after their terms end. Short of the presidency itself, there are few or perhaps no positions as important in Nigeria as being a governor – senators don’t typically have power equivalent to the power of governors, for example. So when governors leave office, they often hand pick a successor and attempt to dominate the office through a proxy. This almost never works for long, because inevitably the successor will butt heads with the predecessor. The falling outs can then have major political repercussions.
- The APC is a political coalition of several pre-existing parties; it coalesced in 2013, in the lead-up to the 2015 elections, when its candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, scored the first successful presidential election upset in Nigeria’s history. The APC is ostensibly a center-left party but a lot of what has held it together so far is its success, rather than ideology, demography, or some other factor. In crude terms, the APC is an alliance between powerful northern politicians, especially in the north west and north east geopolitical zones, and powerful southwestern politicians; the east and “south south” have become mostly strongholds of the former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party or PDP, which is now Nigeria’s main opposition party. The picture in the sixth and final geopolitical zone, the North Central, is a bit more mixed.
Turning back to Edo, when Oshiomhole left office in 2016, he appears to have put himself strongly into the godfather role, at least according to his opponents. Oshiomhole was succeeded as governor by Godwin Obaseki, who came out of the financial sector and served in several key economic posts in Oshiomhole’s two administrations. Most accounts (example) suggest that Oshiomhole hand-picked Obaseki to succeed him – Obaseki’s team recently stated that in 2016, Oshiomhole not only picked Obaseki, he “compiled the list of those to be appointed commissioners in Edo in his sitting room in 2016. Asides [sic] from picking the governor, he also picked his deputy and the [Secretary to the State Government].”
Then came the inevitable falling out. Tension, according to this report, surfaced quickly, having to do with control of personnel appointments and with the power and access given – or denied – to Oshiomhole’s people in Obaseki’s administration. Throughout the 2016-2020 period, Oshiomhole had a powerful weapon, and he eventually wielded it: blocking Obaseki’s re-election, at least on the APC ticket. On June 12, an APC screening committee in Edo disqualified Obaseki from participating in the gubernatorial primary; the official reason was alleged questions about Obaseki’s academic credentials, but most observers view Oshiomhole’s influence as the real deciding factor. Events then moved rapidly: the APC selected Osagie Ize-Iyamu as its candidate, and Obaseki defected to the PDP and became the PDP candidate. Here is a fun fact that will help you understand something about Nigerian politics if you are not familiar with it: in 2016, Obaseki and Ize-Iyamu also competed for the Edo governorship, but at that time Obaseki was the APC candidate and Ize-Iyamu was the PDP candidate.
Meanwhile, Obaseki had political weapons to use against Oshiomhole. In November 2019, Oshiomhole’s home ward in Etsako West Local Government Area of Edo passed a vote of no confidence in him. The state party then suspended him. Those moves provided the legal underpinning for eventually suspending Oshiomhole as National Chairman of the APC on the grounds that he is no longer a member in good standing of the party itself.
Now we need to bring another character into the story: Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos State (1999-2007) and arguably the most successful “godfather” of the Fourth Republic – someone who has not only picked several successors in his home state and kept a remarkable influence over politics there, but whose influence extends throughout the southwest and to a real extent nationwide. Tinubu was perhaps the key architect of the APC, more influential in its coalescing even than Buhari himself. Tinubu also selected Buhari’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, and Tinubu is likely a 2023 presidential aspirant (Buhari will be term limited).
The Edo fight has implicated Tinubu in numerous ways. The Nigerian press and the Obaseki camp have depicted Tinubu as a strong backer of Oshiomhole both within the national party and within the Oshiomhole-Obaseki power struggle. Tinubu and Oshiomhole have come in for strong criticism. Here is Vanguard:
Obaseki’s defection to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP followed earlier defections by Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue, (July 2018); Abdulfatah Ahmed, of Kwara July 2018; and Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, Sokoto, August 2018.
The defections coming on the heel of the loss of Zamfara, Bauchi and Adamawa States in the 2019 General Election have inevitably brought to fore the prospects of the party in the immediate future.
The situation in Edo is now becoming a test of Tinubu’s influence as well, and a loss for the APC in September would be seen by many as damaging Tinubu personally.
A struggle has also occurred to determine who would become Acting National Chairman amid Oshiomhole’s suspension. Here, many observers feel that Tinubu and Buhari landed on opposite sides of the question, with Tinubu, via the National Working Committee (NWC) of the party, seeming to support first Abiola Ajimobi (who died suddenly in late June) and then Prince Hilliard Etta for the position, while Buhari ultimately backed Victor Giadom – and dissolved the NWC. Tinubu and Oshiomhole have both publicly accepted (Pidgin) that decision, with Oshiomhole saying he is not going to pursue reinstatement as National Chairman. Buhari and Tinubu have worked to present a united front, but the president’s backing of Giadom has been widely seen as a rebuke of Tinubu. Meanwhile, as one article put it, “The forces working against Mr Oshiomhole are also majorly the same group of people committed to blocking Mr Tinubu’s presidential ambition.”
What next? An in-depth analysis of the Edo race contains this very blunt passage:
Obaseki certainly has the power of incumbency to his advantage. But in Nigeria, this is greatly limited when your party is not in control of the police, military and all other security services that are usually deployed to monitor elections and provide security. The governor’s incumbency advantage may be effectively neutralised by the federal might. As a matter of fact, Ize-Iyamu may even be the ultimate beneficiary of federal might if the lessons of history are factored in.
Off-season elections, like the ones about to hold in Edo and Ondo states, are usually an easier turf to deploy the full powers of the federal government in trying to sway outcomes.
Win or lose in Edo, Tinubu isn’t going anywhere, but obviously a win there would allow him to avoid the accusation that his ally (Oshiomhole) bungled everything.
At the level of the party as a whole, though, can the APC hold together? Political scientists like Carl LeVan, and Olly Owen and Zainab Usman, have written about the political settlements that held the PDP together for 16 years as Nigeria’s ruling party, settlements that then fell apart in the lead-up to 2015. If the APC is seen as representing an agglomeration of interests rather than a cohesive party, the question is whether the party will find a candidate for 2023 who preserves enough of the political settlement to allow the party to remain majoritarian. I’ll leave you with the aptly titled analysis “Pandemonium at the Alter” by Chidi Amuta, writing in This Day. An excerpt:
Now that the Buhari transition has been fast forwarded by three years, the internal contradictions of the party in power have surfaced to haunt the party as a party. Forget that governance and the common good at the national and most state levels will begin to take a back seat. The present skirmishes are merely rehearsals of the bloody wars that will be fought in the party to succeed Mr. Buhari. The factors and factions in contention counterbalance themselves and may cancel each other out at the expense of the party itself. The single most important feature of the party that will hasten its unraveling is perhaps the fact that its leading elite are persons of near equal age, resources and political gravity. The possibility that they will cancel each other out while entertaining the nation in the law courts remains the most interesting prospect in the political drama of the future of the APC.
The expectation that the rival Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) would fare better is unfounded. Sixteen years of institutional existence and power incumbency has not translated into either a superiority of organization or perspective. Even now as an opposition, the PDP has remained frozen at the level of abuse and personal insult. It has hardly risen to the occasion of positing a logical ideological or policy alternative to the ruling party. Its leadership has not grown neither has its internal democracy or party technocracy. It has remains at the same level of pedestrian and mundane opportunism and indiscriminate brandishing of titles and changing postures.