By Sylvester Alegu
On Saturday, the 11th day of March, 2023, Ebonyi State like the rest of the remaining 31 out of the 36 States where Governorship elections will be holding across the six geopolitical zones of the country will file out to perform the civic responsibility of electing those who would pilot its governance affairs at least in the next four years. As anticipated and usually common with politics in my dear State- regrettably the poorest in Southern Nigeria (no thanks to the deliberate promotion of hunger and starvation as key State policies by the current government of Engr. David Umahi), the stakes are high and so also is the anxiety of the electorates.
Even though politics is globally acknowledged to be swayed by lots of emotions and sentiments- interest, ethnicity, resources and religion among other key factors, the case of Ebonyi is quite peculiar due to the fact that not a single other industry thrives in the supposed ‘Salt of the nation’ except politics. Since the creation of the State in 1996 and the return to democratic governance in 1999, the intrigues and downright maneuvers have often left the fate of the State not in the decisive thumbprints of majority of the electorates but in the hands of some desperate political jobbers cum businessmen who are not indigenes and shouldn’t ordinarily have a hand, stake or any serious business on who governs the State.
For instance, the outgoing military administration of Navy Commander Walter Feghabor, (Rtd.) ostensibly played a role in the emergence of Senator Dr. Sam Egwu as the first civilian Governor of the State in 1999. From Ebonyi North Senatorial zone, Egwu, a varsity don, and later appointed a Commissioner for Education in the preceding administration was never really in the picture and neither was he eminently qualified and prepared before grace and fortune smiled at him and he won the election having picked the then ruling Party’s PDP ticket during the Party’s primaries.
The case of an elderstatesman, Chief Martin Elechi who took over from him in 2007 was not any different as it is widely believed that a lot of extraneous forces including a former President prevailed on Egwu to allow Elechi succeed him with a promise that he would occupy a national position having indicated interest in the Presidential ticket of the PDP. The promise was however kept only to the extent the Yar’Adua administration lasted as Jonathan later kicked Egwu out as Education Minister following the power tussle that ensued after Yar’Adua’s demise.
Whereas, many may quickly believe that Engr. Umahi towed a different route in 2015 having resisted and defiled Elechi’s threat to run against his choice candidate and a former Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, the fact also remains that the powerful cabal in the then President Goodluck Jonathan’s government led by his wife and through the efforts of the former SGF and a federal lawmaker decided Ebonyi’s fate against many protestations. This was in addition to the heavy financial supports he got from Anambra business moguls before whom he had deceptively appeared as ‘humble and loyal’. Amidst warnings from many quarters within the State that Umahi’s manifested antecedents is typically that of a slavemaster-servant, the former State PDP Chairman’s penchant for impoverishing and giving a shorter end of the stick to anyone he has dealings with remained legendary. Yet, the Anambra billionaires threw their weights behind him for obvious negotiated economic exploitation reasons.
Indigenes, residents or anyone for that matter who has had any business to do in the State in the last nearly eight years have seen it all and now waiting with baited breadth for the Umahi cup to pass them over. They have been harassed with all manners of undue taxations, capital flights, harebrained policies and economic sabotages that has left the average Ebonyian poorer than he met them in 2015 when the State’s poverty rate was still at 56% as against the nearly 80% the NBS has put it since last year. This largely explains why the issue of who succeeds Umahi- a man revered by some outsiders for building multiple flyovers but repudiated at home for the economic pains his dictatorial regime has foisted on the people is VERY IMPORTANT to any keen watcher of the State’s politics.
Recall that after many boastings that no ‘outsider’ will install his successor as had been the tradition in our poor State and not learning a lesson from what happened to his predecessor in his bid to install Chukwu in 2015, Umahi unilaterally proclaimed and presented to Ebonyians, the Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Francis Ogbonna Nw’ihuru (a name my Izzi people all know the meaning before he christened it ‘Nwifuru’) as ‘his successor’ at the burial of the father of one of his powerful kitchen cabinet members and Commissioner for Trade and Investments, Mrs. Chioma Nweze in Okposi, Ohaozara LGA where the Governor incidentally hails from.
With the testing of the waters, the die appeared cast between him and his estranged ‘old’ APC members who he had met upon defecting to the ruling Party on the 19th of November 2020. The internal Party wrangling had persisted with some of us who are his ‘landlords’ in APC preferring to support a former RMAFC boss, Engr. Elias Mbam. The rest of the actions and processes that threw up Nwifuru (as he now prefers to be named and called) are already matters of litigations across various Courts of law and I may not pre-empt the outcomes. What is rather very instructive is the fact that there are also litigations challenging the defection of the Speaker and 16 other lawmakers from the PDP to the APC.
The question on the lips of many which is why this opinion piece is timely in the first instance is: Can Rt. Hon. Francis Nwifuru, lapped by Umahi amidst equity chants triumph in the March 11th poll?
A native of Oferekpe village in Agbaja, Izzi, Izzi Local Government Area in the Northern part of the State, Hon. Francis Ogbonna Nwifuru is the Speaker of the Sixth House of Assembly who is serving out his third term in the Legislative arm of government. He was earlier elected Speaker in June 2015 at the inauguration of the 5th House of Assembly all under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP where he had always been elected since 2011. He was however one of the 16 lawmakers sacked alongside Governor Umahi in March 2022 for defecting to the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC- a matter that is still a subject of Appeal at the Appellate Court, Abuja.
His background shows what some could have considered a grass-to-grace story being that he had no political history or background till the 2011 election where he defeated an incumbent Speaker of the State’s House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Augustine Nwankwegu at the Abakaliki Township stadium in a primary election that was desperately coloured in the divisive kindred agenda that has remained characteristic of Izzi politics since the return of democracy in 1999. Being of the Igbojima kindred, Nwifuru was prodded to power in 2011 against an Unwueru kindred candidate, Nwankwegu, who, based on his performance and the love of his people was seeking a return to the House and was by the wife of the then first lady of the State, Mrs. Josephine Elechi and her brother, Chief Chris Nwankwo who was then vying for the Ebonyi North Senatorial ticket of the then ruling Party.
The first manifestation of violence tendencies by Nwifuru was during the said primary election where his predecessor disclosed to newsmen that “the violent disturbances started with supporters of the opposing candidate and led to the smashing of cars, beating of supporters loyal to the Hon. Speaker and general disruption of the conduct of the primary election and the election did not proceed further than that. Equally, no re-run or run-off primary at Abakaliki township stadium, as reported by some media, held in respect of Izzi West Constituency”, Nwankegwu lamented. Suffice it to say that this marked the beginning of the violent entry of Nwifuru- a known mason dealer into Ebonyi politics.
Nwifuru however later shifted loyalty mid-way to Elechi’s then Deputy, Umahi who, unknown to his principal was already plotting how to succeed him. Nwifuru did not only later abandoned his elder sister, Elechi and the entire first family, it is on record he was the only lawmaker who was used to move a motion for the impeachment of Chief Elechi after Umahi had survived a similar impeachment plot wherein he was targeted after the first removal of Hon. Chukwuma Nwazunku as Speaker by his colleagues- a move Elechi had declared as having not been legally executed.
Insider sources in the then Elechi’s government had always hinted that there was more to the relationship and obsequious ‘loyalty’ between Umahi and Nwifuru until he was elected the Speaker of the State’s House of Assembly. About eight years after, he proved the fears of naysayers right by leaving a legacy of recklessly approving every request emanating from Governor Umahi- a man he publicly refers to as his ‘father’.
Therefore, when the serving Information and State Orientation Commissioner, Hon. Uchenna Orji who is ordinarily a Lawyer in his right insists on a national Television like he did while fielding a question on a clandestine law made on the Local Government elections during a recent Television interview that the State’s House of Assembly (under Speaker Nwifuru) has the powers to turn a man into a woman, he is actually making a veiled reference to the conspicuous but worrisome loyalty between the Governor and his ‘son’, the Speaker as the former also fondly calls him even in public.
The academic qualifications of Hon. Nwifuru had remained shrouded in secrecy as little or nothing was known about his credentials until he was unilaterally pronounced by Governor Umahi as his preferred successor at a funeral ceremony in Okposi, Ohaozara Local Government Area sometime in April this year even though the action of the Governor did not and has not gone down well with many stakeholders of the Party and the generality of Ebonyians. Those who knew Speaker Nwifuru before he surfaced on the political space in 2011 claim that he was a ‘mason’ man that worked in building construction sites particularly for some early politicians in the State. Some claim the fortune of his being preferred for the 2011 House of Assembly even smiled on him while doing his routine ‘mason’ job.
What had been in the public domain was that the Speaker had only a West African School Certificate, WASCE as his highest qualification before he enrolled for a Law Degree at the Ebonyi State Univeristy, Abakaliki. Weeks after many questioned his academic profile after Umahi’s unceremonious public endorsement; a Degree Certificate in Law from EBSU with a First Class Grade littered the internet, raising many dusts and questions among unsuspecting public.
Many had argued that apart from the discrepancies in terms of year and grades in key Arts subjects in the O’ Level result with which he was offered admission in the EBSU Law Faculty, it was questionable if the various extant laws by the Universities’ regulatory bodies permits a serving Speaker of a State’s House of Assembly to be admitted and to graduate from a Regular programme at the same time his tenure is concurrently as the number three citizen of the State?
To this end, many have insisted that like the Master’s Degree he parades from a certain foreign University, Speaker Nwifuru’s academic records surely have a lot of gaping holes especially for one vying for the exalted office of a Governor in Ebonyi that has been occupied by a Doctorate Degree Holder and Lecturer, Sam Egwu (now a serving Senator) who was the first civilian Governor of the State, Chief Martin Elechi- a known Economist who taught and served in previous governments before the State’s creation and now, Engr. David Umahi- a civil Engineer by training.
As a near Robotic loyalist of serving Governor, Umahi, Speaker Nwifuru’s allies and supporters who are predominantly those serving in Umahi’s government boast and count on his robust relationship with his benefactor and the State’s Chief Security Officer, Umahi and the fact that he has been ‘chosen and anointed’ by the Governor (even though unilaterally) to fly the ruling Party’s flag in the State for the 2023 Governorship election.
To this category of electorates, they believe Nwifuru can easily ride on Umahi’s back to succeed him in 2023. Some of them even exhume old pictures of the Speaker and the Governor in a te-te-te or in extreme cases, images where the Speaker is seen helping Governor Umahi roll-up his styled Agbada regalia once described by a former Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim as Umahi’s customary outfit for the new enterprise (referring to his defection to the APC).
Aside this, they add to their arguments that Nwifuru being an Izzi man from Ebonyi North where power took off from in 1999, it was only natural that it returned to the north and this time, the Izzians comprising of three local governments; Izzi with 14 federal wards, Abakaliki (where Urban residents share six of the twelve wards) and Ebonyi Local Government (where Urban and semi urban residents also share 5 of the eleven wards). Perhaps to strengthen the validity of the arguments for power rotation, traditional rulers from the Izzi clan had been literally ‘induced’ into making an open endorsement of Nwifuru in a meeting some them claim they were unaware of the agenda.
The Umahi government had also relentlessly attempted but failed in its desperate bid to also coerce the Ebonyi Founding Fathers- a forum of elderstatesmen and women who played some critical roles in the State’s creation struggle to endorse and support Nwifuru for the Ebonyi 2023 Governorship race. But that was botched and the schemers were terribly disappointed that the founding fathers insisted on being neutral and not changing the goal post, noting spectacularly that the three Senatorial zones in the State have always contested the Governorship against the zone that eventually produced Governor in the past four elections in the State. Some had opined that as elders, their role is rather to counsel anyone who comes to them for such and remain neutral in the process. Even civil servants in the State have reportedly been coerced into joining the Nwifuru campaign but many yet resist that.
Apart from such racketeering of endorsements across the State, the Umahi government is also banking on its huge financial war-chests added with that of the Speaker who has always been favoured with contracts to mop up financial resources for the race to deliver him even if that be against the wishes of many Ebonyians. Already, the Umahi government had conducted a controversial Local Government election wherein it installed people it consider ‘strong and mighty’ in terms of capacity to dispense violence and resist anyone in their locality they feel may oppose their plans to return their ticket-wielding stooges in the 2023 general elections.
One of the greatest weaknesses analysts point out in Nwifuru is the fact that he literally has no ambition of his own but being openly prodded to power by Umahi. Many therefore vow they are under obligation to resist him as supporting or allowing him automatically means a third term and power perpetuation agenda for the Uburu-born Governor of Ebonyi South extraction, Umahi. In other words, he has no clarity of any vision of his but ostensibly that which his installers may bid him do if he is eventually elected (God forbid) as governor of Ebonyi State.
Apart from his questionable academic records and credentials, many alleged that the gross incompetence he has undoubtedly manifested in piloting the affairs of the fifth and Sixth Ebonyi State House of Assembly makes him perfectly unfit for the exalted office of a Governor of an infant State with multi-faceted socio-economic and educational challenges like Ebonyi. It is not news that the Ebonyi State House of Assembly under Nwifuru has passed several strange bills into laws some of which are not even made known to colleagues they feel are not in the good books of the Executive arm of government.
A case in point is the controversial Cybercrime Prohibition Law and the Ebubeagu creation law both surreptitiously passed in 2021 and assented to by the Governor. Some of his colleagues who remained in the PDP after the November 2020 defection of Governor Umahi have maintained publicly that they do not even have copies of the said laws as lawmakers. Even though the former has been quashed by an Abakaliki Federal High Court, many Ebonyians feel terribly disgruntled about how the Speaker and his inner caucus caused the stifling of free speech and despotic attacks on critics and opposition voices in the State hiding under the said Cyber crime prohibition law that was never made public till date!
The summary of the views of many of the enlightened electorates particularly in places where people are vastly educated like Afikpo and Ohanivo axis is that Nwifuru’s gross incompetence is powered by his lack of or limited academic and social exposure which rather makes him appear timid both in looks, speech, actions and associations. For these category of elites, formal education aides exposure and boosts self confidence and these key qualities they look out for in a candidate they should support are all lacking in Nwifuru.
Besides, there is also a preponderance of opinions and evidences by the masses and elites even from his Izzi clan that he is easily disposed to causing or inciting violence particularly during elections. Some allege that he is as intolerant to criticisms and opposing views as his mentor, Umahi or that the later may even be learning the duties of tyranny and dictatorship and that all which Ebonyi people have seen in terms of stifling the democratic space by Umahi could become a child’s play if Nwifuru emerges as his successor.
Another cause for worry for the Speaker is the suit filed by one of the APC Governorship aspirants, Sen. Julius Ucha who was the pioneer Speaker of the State’s House of Assembly. In the said suit, Sen. Ucha who is a perennial contestant for the APC Governorship ticket right from the era of the defunct ANPP is challenging Nwifuru’s membership of the Party. He alleged that Nwifuru, alongside 15 others had deposed to an affidavit that they were still members of the opposition PDP at the peak of their defense in the suit filed against them by the PDP.
For some of those who were initially sympathetic to him on equity grounds, the fact that the Court may eventually have the final say on whether or not he will serve his tenure (if elected, again, God forbid!) or even remain a valid candidate of the APC hence his membership of the Party is also being challenged in Court is already a put-off for their sympathetic support for him. Many have also expressed concern about the fact that the Speaker is yet to make public his policy programmes and plans for the State. In fact, he has paid little or no attention to truly engaging the electorates on issues- a development that has been attributed to his speaking and communication deficiency even as a Speaker of the State’s House of Assembly.
Added to this is the fact that there are not less than five other candidates on the ballot from his Izzi clan including a former Commissioner for Works, Engr. Chukwuma Nwandugo who is the flagbearer of the AA among others who would certainly divide his anticipated bloc votes from the area. His running mate, one Mrs. Patricia Obila- an Afikpo born former Local Government Vice Chairman who’s highest qualification is a Diploma Certificate may not pull support and votes for him too in Afikpo where they are many well educated citizens and independent elites.
My final submission: As an educated Izzi elite who will not be deceived by the chorusing of equity as I already know the tendencies for violence and other negative antecedents of Nwifuru, I choose to stay with any candidate who’s academic and peace records are known to be positive no matter where such a candidate may hail from. Had men like Nwandugo or even any other candidates secured the tickets of any of the dominant political Parties, I should have been upbeat with my support as a true son of Izzi.
But at the moment, even Umahi knows the Nwifuru product is largely unmarketable in Izzi land, needless to talk about other parts of the State and he also neglected the need for consensus in arriving at the decision to gift Nwifuru the ticket of his Party that has equally brought so much sorrow to the people of the South East, Ebonyi and the rest of Nigeria inclusive. Unlike previous elections, I believe the 2023 electoral battle is between the ordinary Ebonyi electorates and the Umahi’s imposed stooges beginning from Speaker Nwifuru to the least!
. Alegu, a passionate political pundit wrote from Amagu village, in Abakaliki Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.