President Muhammadu Buhari’s working visit to Ebonyi State has reopened the debate over Governor Dave Umahi’s relationship with the president and how it may impact on his party, PDP and on APC’s fortunes in 2019 governorship election, reports Associate Editor, Sam Egburonu
THROUGHOUT the two days that President Muhammadu Buhari spent in Ebonyi State, during his official working visit in the South-East state this week, he was not only full of praises for Governor Dave Umahi but also openly exhibited the kind of camaraderie that exists only between old associates. This display of warmth between the two political leaders has revived the old debate and speculation in Ebonyi State that Umahi, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governor and All Progressives Congress (APC), the president’s political party, may be hatching some plans ahead 2019 governorship election in Ebonyi State.
While some observers, who had alleged earlier that Umahi may be an APC member at heart, said the display confirmed their suspicions, others, especially PDP members and supporters, said Umahi is one of the few governors that have been able to separate politics from governance, warning that his friendly relationship with Mr. President does not mean he is no longer a loyal PDP member.
Since his election in 2015, the Ebonyi State Governor has left no one in doubt over his admiration of Buhari and his willingness to cooperate with the APC-led Federal Government. Barely six weeks after his resumption of office as a governor, Umahi declared that his party, PDP in Ebonyi State, was in full support of Buhari-led Federal Government.
Speaking to some PDP members who paid him a condolence visit in his home in Ohaozara Local Government at that time, Umahi said Ebonyi State is undergoing many challenges and so “does not have the time to engage” in what he described as “senseless and needless opposition” against the federal government.
“A number of people who like to jump from one place to the other have been asking me and I said look, we are in PDP and we remain in PDP, but we are supporting the programmes of Mr. President.
“We like what he is doing in the fight against corruption. You can see honesty in his administration and his commitment to rebuilding Nigeria. I share certain virtues with him.
“We, as a state, will continue to support him. To oppose him is to oppose the truth. But as we support him, we have to support our party, the PDP, so that together we can stand,” the governor declared.
Since then, he has not looked back as he had continued to praise and support the president whenever the opportunity avails itself.
For example, when he paid a personal visit to former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2015, Umahi said he supports Buhari because “his uprightness stood him out.”
He said: “after the election, politics should be played down, the welfare of the people, rebuilding the nation should be in the front burner and that has been what you’ve been preaching sir. And we are very grateful.
“We see a great nation in Nigeria. And I use this opportunity to thank Mr. President Sir and to say one of the greatest things that will move this nation forward is forthrightness, which President Buhari has been displaying.
“In our meetings, every governor is pleased with him. It is not a question of being in this party or the other. He displays rare sense of humility, honesty and the willingness to carry this country forward.
“And that’s what we are looking for. We are not interested in this party or other party; we are interested in the man who has the welfare and the interest of the nation at heart,” Umahi explained.”
Following such declaration, not many observers were surprised that when seven governors visited the then ailing Buhari in London, Umahi was one of the two PDP governors in the seven-man team.
If some critics still doubted the depth of the relationship between the two leaders, this week’s visit of Mr. President to Ebonyi State may have further clarified the issue. It may not be coincidental that Buhari chose Ebonyi State, a PDP state, as the first point of his official visit in the South-East zone since his election in 2015. On the part of Umahi, he ensured that Buhari was honoured as the Enyioma 1 (Good friend) of Ebonyi.
Shortly before the visit, Umahi re-opened the debate, when he declared open support for Buhari’s re-election in the 2019 presidential race. His endorsement has understandably elicited varying reactions, though most respondents said it not only confirmed Umahi’s personal love for Buhari, but the likely complexities that may arise in Ebonyi State as PDP contend with strong opposition parties in the state like the APC.
Commenting on Umahi’s open admiration and support of Buhari, shortly before the arrival of the president to Ebonyi State capital, Abakaliki, M. Ajah, said “the news that the governor of Ebonyi State, Engr. Dave Umahi, has declared support for the reelection of President Muhammadu Buhari in the next presidential polls of Nigeria come 2019 came to me as grandeur per excellence. Worthy to note is the fact that the governor was elected into office under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which is currently the opposition party in the country. The President is a member of the All Progressives Party (APC) and as millions of voices of Nigerians continue to beseech him, may seek reelection under the party which I personally describe as the “demystified cosmopolitan apparatus” reinvented to change Nigeria.”
He added, “Since 2015 after settling down in office, Gov. Umahi has never hidden his political susceptibility for President Buhari. He once declared that if only one vote will be cast in favour of the President in Ebonyi State in 2019, the one vote will be from him. However, the governor could not have forgotten that people like my humble self, voted in the 2015 presidential polls. Verily, my vote was one of the thousands of votes from Ebonyians for the President. Furthermore, notwithstanding the true understanding of events, the Igbo people largely could not have resisted to accept the leadership of Buhari except for the opposition to remain alive and firm in a democracy. But on a more serious note, this declaration of solidarity shows the level of ‘the goodwill Umahi has for Buhari.’ And if not for the power-play within and outside the state, maybe the governor would have been proudly carrying the broom around. Time will tell, though.”
Even Buhari in his speech in Ebonyi did not mince words when he commended Umahi’s ability to put party politics aside and work with the APC-led Federal Government. As he puts it: “In the agricultural sector, the states in this region have participated in all Federal Government agricultural initiatives. For instance, Ebonyi was among the first few state governments to sign up to the Presidential Fertilizer Initiative. The programme has already created thousands of direct and indirect jobs in this fertile part of our country.
“I would like to congratulate Governor Umahi who put aside his political differences to participate in this federally led project that has improved the lives of not only the farmers of Ebonyi State, but the entire South-East states.”
It would be recalled that before the presidential visit, Umahi gave a directive which he said was aimed at ensuring that the visit was not politicised either by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or the President’s All Progressives Congress (APC), which is one of the leading opposition parties in the state. He did this by barring display of party logos, symbols and such activities during the visit. Speaking to journalists on the eve of the presidential state visit, Umahi also said the decision was to give respect to the president.
“Nobody should come to the stadium with any party logo. We don’t want to embarrass the president. If we invite the president for a state visit and PDP rolls out their logo, it is an embarrassment to Mr. President.
“It is a presidential visit; no party is coming to the stadium with a logo or party slogan of anything. It is just a simple Presidential visit. If they don’t understand, they should go and find out what a Presidential visit is and what it entails.”
APC in the state however criticised the directive as it alleged that it was an attempt by the governor to muzzle opposition in the state. Pastor Eze Nwachukwu Eze, the Acting Chairman of APC in the state, in a welcome advertorial, wrote: “There is directive that we should not carry our brooms or display our party symbol anywhere near you throughout the visit.” As would be expected, the directive was a source of verbal altercation between the members of the two parties all through the visit of the visit, though, according to insiders, leaders and other stakeholders tried hard to ensure the disagreement did not get out of hand.
Impact on the state
Some respondents across party lines in Ebonyi State have linked what they described as ‘Umahi’s success story’ to his brand of politics, especially his warm relationship with Mr. President. “Considering the meagre allocations we get here in Ebonyi State, some of us are surprised at some of the ambitious projects the governor has embarked upon and the ones he is still promising. Following his comments, however, we believe he may have gained enormous support from the federal government. So, to me, that is how it is supposed to be. The mere fact that our state voted for a man in PDP, does not mean that the APC-led federal government should neglect to assist us here. I think the warm relationship between the governor and the president has been of great benefit to our people,” said Madam Esther Ude, from Amasiri.
Umahi has officially acknowledged what he described as the benefits for Ebonyi, when he said, “Mr. President has helped us so much in the area of agriculture and at every given opportunity; I have always commended the CBN Governor, the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Solid Minerals.
“The Buhari-led administration has tremendously helped us to revamp the agriculture and solid minerals programmes in Ebonyi State.”
The developmental benefits aside, The Nation investigation shows that some of Umahi’s associates in PDP are no longer feeling comfortable with the deepening relationship between the governor and the president. One top PDP member in the state said in a brief chat that “the governor is over dramatizing what he called the benefits we have received from Buhari-led federal government. Tell me what they have done for Ebonyi State that is not part of their legitimate responsibility. He spoke of help in the agricultural sector; is it a help or what the government should do? I think we should be able to distinguish the two because if we continue this way, the 2019 electoral campaign will be very complex indeed. I must tell you on condition of anonymity that some of our people are already worried over the political romance as it may threaten PDP fortunes in 2019.”
Even Umahi has restrained from commenting clearly on the issue. It would be recalled that when he was asked recently whether he had faced any backlash from his party after he openly “endorsed” Buhari for a second term in an interview with journalists in Abuja, Umahi said pointedly, “no comments.”
Such measured responses notwithstanding, it is obvious that both PDP and APC members in the state believe the relationship between the two leaders will in a way play a major role in the texture of Ebonyi State politics ahead 2019 elections. However, no one seems to know for sure how it will finally play out even as some plead for maturity in handling the development. But for now the questions on the lips of the people are numerous: Is Umahi planning to join APC? Is it possible that APC and PDP will cooperate in Ebonyi in the 2019 elections or will Umahi merely take advantage of his relationship with Buhari and remain a staunch PDP leader and candidate in 2019? These and other similar questions have, in a way, helped to heighten the tempo of the polity in the state in the past few days.