Exactly one week ago, they came in droves, men and women, the young and the elderly, and the physically challenged, many of whom toiled to walk or were aided into the hall to cast their votes in the July 22, 2020, Ondo State governorship primary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
But the standout element that has continued to attract commendations even from the aspirants was the credibility of the exercise and the transparency and legitimacy, which Enugu State governor, Rt. Hon. IfeanyiUgwuanyi, brought to bear on the final outcome that produced EyitayoJegede, SAN, as the standard-bearer.
The efficient manner in which the governor conducted the primary election was a triumph for internal party democracy in the PDP, and one which beckons on the opposition party to leverage the momentum and replicate such acceptable results in its future internal contests.
The proof of its sweeping impact can be gleaned from the wholesome acceptance of the result from the seven other aspirants and their commendations of the hitch-free and hugely successful exercise carried out by Gov. Ugwuanyi and his other committee members.
“I took part in the entire processes and this outcome is acceptable to us. I commend the Enugu State governor for the transparency that he displayed,” said Boluwaji Kunlere, who represented Ondo South District in the Senate and was a former special adviser to ex-governor Olusegun Mimiko. “I’ve congratulated the winner and I wish him the best of luck in the forthcoming governorship election. I also appeal to supporters to ensure that this is not the moment for arrogance or violence. The committee that conducted the primary election avoided those areas that could cause trouble and this gave the exercise the credibility that we all asked for. We shall work with our brother (Jegede) to take Ondo State back to PDP.”
Dr. Bode Ayorinde, a former House of Representatives member and author of “Banking Reforms in Nigeria: The law, the prospects, the challenges,” was the first to concede victory when he walked over at midnight to congratulate the winner even while the collation was still ongoing. According to him, “what’s more important is that I put in my best with my team. I’m proud of the work we did and grateful to all my supporters. I’ve always had lofty dreams for Ondo State and I’ll continue to sustain those ideals. I congratulate Eyi (Jegede) on his victory. I admit that the exercise was free, fair and credible and it’s credit to the governor (Ugwuanyi) and his team.”
Whereas the winner, Jegede, lauded the Enugu helmsman and others “for a very transparent, fair and diligent work” that they did, Hon. Adebanji Okunomo, a vivacious young man who garnered 90 votes, was frank and honest. As he put it, “the process was very transparent, the officiating was excellent; that’s my rating and I believe that all other contestants share the same view because they are experienced people and political heavyweights in our state. I believe that the right candidate has been chosen by the delegates and the rest of us (aspirants) will do well to support him and finally usher him in as the next governor of Ondo State.”
On the day of the primary, things were somewhat not as smooth-sailing at the outset. It was extremely challenging for both the aspirants and their teeming supporters to navigate their way to the International Culture and Event Centre, the Dome, in Akure. The crowd was intimidating and the roads leading to the expansive venue were filled with chaotic scenes of touts and fanatical supporters freely quaffing alcoholic drinks and sniffing more intoxicating herbs.
In this trying period of COVID-19, not many of them who were scantily-dressed and with bulging red eyes, bothered to keep to the safety protocols of wearing face masks or maintaining any physical distancing.
And inside the hall, the tension was palpable. Rumours of an imminent manipulation were rife, with people making unsubstantiated claims that a particular aspirant was favoured by the party’s National Secretariat. Naturally, supporters became apprehensive, in the same way that the agents of the contestants maintained unblinking vigilance. The aspirants too were alert as they watched the proceedings keenly from one corner of the Dome where they sat in a single line.
Politicians, especially those seeking elective offices, are men and women of high drama, always adept at this game of intrigues and cunning. As Tacitus put it, “lust for power is the most fragrant of all passions.” There was no short dose of such inklings on this day.
But the music changed as soon as Governor Ugwuanyi, the returning officer and chairman of the party’s Governorship Primary Election Committee arrived the venue, himself looking battle-ready and unprepared for any distraction that would impede him from accomplishing his mission. His war-like approach sent the right signals that he and his committee members were in no mood to entertain any untoward behaviour.
Other committee members, including the Adamawa State governor, Rt. Hon. Adamu Umaru Fintiri, Chief Emeka Etiaba, SAN, and Lady Chidi Ekwueme-Onyemelukwe, were equally willing to immediately get the ball rolling without any hindrance.
“We’ve come here to conduct this exercise in accordance with the guidelines of our party, and, in doing so, we are committed to giving you a free, fair and transparent process,” Ugwuanyi said in his address to the aspirants, the delegates and the media.
At exactly 2:20pm, the governor met with the aspirants, asking them, “is it okay for us to start now?” to which they answered in the affirmative. He was to address the agents and the observers from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Voting commenced at 2:25pm with noticeable anxiety from different camps of the aspirants. It was decision time for the over 2,000 delegates to make their choice of who would fly the PDP flag against the incumbent Governor Rotimi Akeredolu in the October 10 governorship election.
Gov. Ugwuanyi was fully aware that transparent polling was the vaccine for the virus of electoral malfeasance that would derail the process. To forestall this, delegates from each local government were screened outside the hall. Inside the venue, they would also queue in front of the aspirants and their agents for on-the-spot final checks before their names would be called. At other times, a head count was taken and cross-checked to tally with the number in the register.
By the time the delegates from Idonri Local Government Council had finished casting their votes at 7:33pm, everyone heaved a sigh of relief that it had been a credible exercise.
However, a list of 17 names sent in from the national secretariat threatened to throw spanners into the works. Virtually all the aspirants vehemently opposed that these persons would not vote because “they are strange to us and were not part of the harmonized list we agreed with them (PDP) at Abuja.”
“Your Excellency (Ugwuanyi), you’ve conducted a credible primary election,” one of the aspirants cried out. “Why do they want to spoil the good job that you and your committee members have done with these strange names?”
Without doubt, it was one tricky and tempting situation that required careful and convincing handling to reach an acceptable consensus. Reputed for his adeptness at such problem-solving, Gov. Ugwuanyi embraced the cautionary guide and went into a closed-door meeting with the committee members. As they emerged 30 minutes later, the Enugu governor engaged each aspirant one after the other.
The soothing words, the reassurances, the convincing engagement did the magic and resolved the seeming logjam.
From 9:29pm to 11:17pm, Governors Ugwuanyi and Fintiri, assisted by others, took charge of the sorting of votes with select agents receiving the votes cast in favour of their distinct principals.
As the names of the contestants were being called during the collation, there was great trepidation and suspense everywhere. Non-delegates who were barred from any sort of access into the hall, kept vigil outside. Even those who had begun to doze off both inside and outside the Akure Dome were roused to their feet once the baritone voice of Gov. Ugwuanyi started to call out the names on the ballots, followed afterwards by Fintiri.
Among the aspirants, one thing that was visible was that each time they huddled to discuss or take a common position, the current deputy governor of the State, Hon. AgboolaAjayi, did not take part. Was he not invited or did he decide to shun the invitation?
However, when the chips finally settled, he proved that he was no pushover. He garnered an impressive 657 vote tally, which was, with the exception of the eventual winner, more than what six other aspirants cumulatively polled.
As for Eyitayo Jegede, the winner of the primary election, he was a study in comportment. With his face mask on throughout the night (maybe the only one of the aspirants to so religiously observe this protocol), he betrayed no noticeable emotions even if the face mask concealed his facial expressions.
The crowd erupted once his tally crossed Agboola’s 657 mark that was the leading score but Jegede, the former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ondo, refused to join the party that began to sing and dance. With his legs crossed and one hand to his chin, he listened attentively until the final score pegged his total haul at 888 votes.
It was very refreshing when Dr. Bode Ayorinde, Senator Boluwaji Kunlere and Chief Adebanji Okunomo took turns to congratulate Jegede before the formal announcement of the results by the Enugu governor.
The Akure contest offers the PDP a glimpse into the unity and solidarity that a credible intra-party election can create between contenders and their followers. Gov. Ugwuanyi has, thus, laid a workable template for the opposition party to adopt in its future primaries.
Now, the stage is set for Akeredolu and Jegede to go at it again on October 10, 2020. Both Senior Advocates of Nigeria slugged it out in 2016. Four years after, here comes another opportunity for the people of Ondo State to decide, and it remains to be seen who will blink first.
- Chuks Ugwoke, a former newspaper editor, covered the Ondo State PDP governorship primary