A SECOND TERM FOR PAUL EKPO ?
With his endorsement last week by other members of the PDP State Executive Committee, Paul Ekpo looks set to re-contest as the party boss in May’s state congress but it is uncertain yet if he would succeed where all his four predecessors failed
By Inemesit Ina
What started as a rumour is now confirmed. Paul Ekpo, the Akwa Ibom State Chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), is running for a second term in office. The State Executive Committee (SEC) of the party gave flesh to the rumour on Wednesday when it threw its weight behind the chairman after a meeting at the state party secretariat in Uyo.
According to the timetable for congresses and national convention released by the PDP national leadership on Monday, the state congress for the election of members of the SEC is two months away. If Paul Ekpo succeeds in returning as State Chairman, he would make history as the first person to serve twice as the state PDP boss since the party berthed in the state in September 1998. If he fails, he would only go the way of all his four predecessors who tried and failed.
The SEC’s Ringing Endorsement
Members of the SEC did not mince words on where they stood on the fate of their leader. At a meeting presided over by the Deputy State Chairman, Sir Michael Essang, the party officials made it clear that they were backing Paul Ekpo for a second term.
One SEC member, under anonymity, explained to this writer that what they did was normal politicking. He was emphatic that they stated their preference as SEC members and not as the party as a whole. He added that though they were fully behind Paul Ekpo, a decision on his fate did not lie with them.
So Who Decides?
If the truth must be told, the PDP state chairmanship in Akwa Ibom has never been decided by the generality of the party faithful. The decision has always been beyond them.
This time, it is unlikely to be different. The decision clearly lies in the hands of the Governor and his predecessor. It is a fact of life which virtually every party member knows. There are all sorts of conjectures on who the two men want but nothing is certain yet.
In time past, especially in the Second Republic, the party was truly supreme with the National or State Chairman of the ruling party exercising more powers than the President or Governor on party affairs. But former President Olusegun Obasanjo, soon after taking office in 1999, began a tradition of vesting the ruling PDP’s ultimate powers in the President and Governors who he branded Leaders of the party. That tradition has come to stay, rightly or wrongly.
The Would-be Challengers
So far, no one has come out to challenge Paul Ekpo for the PDP top job.
But two names are being touted: Obong Godwin Ekpo, a two-time elected Chairman (under Governor Godswill Akpabio) and one-time Transition Chairman (under Governor Victor Attah) of Ibiono Ibom Local Government and Chief Israel Utit, a security consultant to the Attah Administration, who was one of the most powerful men in the state during Attah’s first term.
Interestingly, both men are maternal cousins and from Ibiono Ibom, the home Local Government Area of Engr. Ignatius Edet, a former Speaker of the State House of Assembly, and Barr. Dominic Okon, the present PDP State Vice Chairman for Akwa Ibom North-East Senatorial District and former State Legal Adviser of the party, who were similarly touted as Paul Ekpo’s would-be challengers four years ago.
Past Attempts at Second Term
The Joe Ating Story
The PDP in Akwa Ibom was born in crisis. It began as two factions – Uyo Akwa Ibom and Ibom Solidarity Movement.
Leading Uyo Akwa Ibom were four governorship aspirants – Late Obong Etukudo Ekpro, Benjamin Okoko (Benjo), Late Obong Ebong Okon and Chief Richard Umoren (Tractormoren) as well as Senator Anietie Okon, who soon became the PDP Protem National Publicity Secretary, and Obong (later Senator) John Udoedehe, Ekpro’s protégé. That faction succeeded in launching PDP in the state in September 1998 with Atuekong Don Etiebet, then a presidential aspirant, as the State Leader and Late Chief Joe Ating (reportedly chosen by Ekpro and Udoedehe) as the Protem State Chairman.
Ibom Solidarity Movement was built around the governorship ambitions of Attah and Chief (later Senator) Ittak Ekarika who were in a working alliance. Attah was the only person from Akwa Ibom in G34, the Dr. Alex Ekwueme-led group that midwifed PDP’s formation after the death of General Sani Abacha whose bid to transmute to a civilian President they opposed fearlessly. Other prominent members of the second faction were Chief Etim Okpoyo, Major General Edet Akpan (rtd.), Late Chief Fidelis Etim, Obong Otu Robert Akpan, Otuekong Idongesit Udokpo, Obong Ukpong Dan Umoh, Late Colonel Gabriel Udoro (retd.), Chief Okon Osung and Dr. Effiong Edunam. Late Dr. Ime Umanah originally belonged to Ibom Solidarity Movement but he later left to join the All Peoples’ Party (APP). That faction vehemently opposed Uyo Akwa Ibom’s “hijacking” of the PDP in the state and called for a boycott of the launching on radio.
But two months later, both factions reconciled under the leadership of Etiebet and Ating. The following month, Attah was nominated the PDP consensus gubernatorial candidate with the tacit support of Etiebet and Ating to the consternation of Ekpro and Benjo. He went on to win the general election on January 9, 1999, beating former Governor Akpan Isemin of the APP.
Attah was inaugurated Governor on May 29, 1999. Four months later, the party exploded ahead of ward, chapter and state congresses to choose substantive party officials. The original two factions re-emerged, with almost the same members, though with different names. Etiebet led the Abuja Front while Attah led the Home Front. But in a supreme irony, Joe Ating switched sides and was put up by Attah as his candidate for the state chairmanship of the party. Etiebet preferred Barr. Ekpenyong Ntekim. Both factions held parallel PDP state congresses and physically fought at the party’s National Convention in Abuja over accreditation of delegates which prevented any delegate from Akwa Ibom from being accredited to vote at the convention.
In 2000, Obasanjo and the PDP national leadership finally worked out a peace agreement. Etiebet was asked to choose the Chairman while Attah was asked to choose the Secretary. Attah asked Etiebet to choose anybody else but Ntekim. Etiebet insisted on Ntekim. The agreement broke down. Both factions were back to the trenches for one year with Ntekim as the Chairman of Abuja Front faction and Engr. Essien Ibok, the Deputy State Chairman, acting as the Chairman of the Home Front faction.
Joe Ating was no longer in contention. His ambition to continue in office had simply evaporated. Two years later, he left the PDP for the opposition National Democratic Party (NDP) on whose ticket he contested and lost the 2003 House of Assembly election in Mbo. He died a year later, four years after suffering and recovering from a stroke.
The Tony Emenyi Story
It was in January 2001 that Etiebet finally decided to replace Ntekim with Prince Emmanuel Inwang (Shagasha). But it proved too late. By this time, Attah had succeeded in winning over most members of Etiebet’s faction including Ekpro, Udoedehe and the PDP State Treasurer, Barr. Emmanuel Enoidem. Late Chief Tony Emenyi, then the Urue Offong/Oruko Deputy Chapter Chairman, was installed as State Chairman at a state congress after being ratified at a state caucus meeting attended by most party leaders including Ekpro and Udoedehe. Etiebet and Ntekim left PDP soon afterwards for the opposition All Nigeria Peoples’ Party (ANPP) where Ntekim became State Chairman.
But that was not the end of factions in the PDP. That same year, Emenyi’s leadership was challenged by a revived Abuja Front led by Obong Ufot Ekaette, then the Secretary to the Government of the Federation with Ekpro, Udoedehe and Benjo as the arrowheads. That faction put up Chief Edet Isong (Windy) as State Chairman. A bitter struggle ensued. In the end, Attah and Emenyi prevailed. Emenyi went on to lead the campaign for Attah’s re-election in which Ekaette featured prominently in 2003.
In May 2006, trouble came for Emenyi. He was re-elected State Chairman at a state congress. Ekaette’s resurrected Abuja Front faction held a parallel state congress presided over by Senator Anietie Okon and chose Arc. Otu Ita-Toyo, a member of the Emenyi-led SEC. Again, there was a titanic struggle for weeks. In the end, Emenyi lost out. It was Toyo that was recognized by Obasanjo and the national leadership of the party. Attah acquiesced. Emenyi died four years later.
The Otu Ita-Toyo Story
Toyo, a former student of Attah, presided over the PDP gubernatorial primary held in December 2006 in which Chief Godswill Akpabio beat Attah’s candidate, Dr. Udoma Ekarika.
But Toyo (Total Chair), though very powerful, did not survive for long as PDP boss after Akpabio became Governor on May 29, 2007. He turned down an offer of appointment as Secretary to State Government from Akpabio and sought re-election. At first, everything appeared to be going well for him as he received the endorsement of major groups in the party including the Akwa Ibom National Assembly Caucus. Even the Governor seemed to be supporting him. But then came an inexplicable and heart-rending political maneuvering. Curiously, Toyo was asked to drop his second term bid and go for the higher office of National Vice Chairman (South-South Zone). He agreed. Again, all seemed well. Toyo was reportedly even presented to other South-South Governors. What followed was a tale of the unexpected. Two days before the zonal congress, Toyo was surprisingly edged out of the race. He lost all. Till date, no one has come out to explain exactly what went wrong.
Toyo was, however, compensated as Board Chairman of Akwa Ibom Property Investment Company (APICO) in Akpabio’s first term and Chairman of Local Government Service Commission during the second term. He was Deputy Director-General of Akpabio’s Re-election Campaign Organization in 2011.
The Udung Uko-born veteran politician disagreed with Akpabio over the 2015 election. In January 2016, he defected to the All Progressives’ Congress (APC).
The Uwem Ita Etuk Story
In Toyo’s place, emerged Prince Uwem Ita Etuk, a former Chairman of Ibesikpo Asutan Local Government under Attah and later Akpabio’s Special Assistant, who previously served in the Emenyi-led SEC. But for two years, Uwem, supported by Akpabio, struggled against an onslaught from Attah’s faction who questioned the legitimacy of the process that produced him. Several peace moves by the PDP national leadership on sharing of party offices between the two factions came to grief. Uwem managed to survive and led Akpabio’s campaign for re-election in 2011.
The following year, Uwem also sought a second term. But eventually, he, too, could not recontest. Paul Ekpo was unanimously chosen as his replacement at a state congress. Shortly after that, Uwem was appointed into the state cabinet where he has remained ever since.
In seeking a second term, Paul Ekpo is following in the footsteps of his predecessors.
Paul Ekpo’s Political Trajectory
Paul Ekpo first featured in Akwa Ibom politics in December 1998 when he was touted as one of the aspirants for the APP House of Assembly ticket in Etinan State Constituency. Then the APP in Etinan was sharply divided between Isemin’s faction and that of Paul’s uncle, Otuekong Sunny Jackson Udoh (Jackson Devos). Ironically, Jackson Devos was one of Isemin’s kingmakers as Governor on the ticket of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC) in December 1991 but they fell out soon after Isemin was removed by Abacha’s coup in November 1993. Isemin wanted to return as Governor through APP while Jackson Devos, then the APP National Treasurer, backed Dr. Mfon Amana, Isemin’s old opponent in NRC. In the end, Isemin not only won the APP governorship ticket with Ime Umanah’s support but also secured the House of Assembly ticket for his Mbioto II kinsman and former local government Chairman, Barr. Umoh Etukudo, who went on to serve as Minority Leader of the House from 1999 to 2002. Paul Ekpo became a victim of a test of strength between two big men.
Thereafter, Paul Ekpo, a banker-turned-politician, beat a retreat from Akwa Ibom politics till 2006 when he returned as Abuja Coordinator of the Akwa Ibom Peoples’ Forum (AKPF), Akpabio’s political structure then. He was appointed Commissioner of Commerce and Industry when Akpabio became Governor in 2007. A year later, he was reassigned to the more prominent Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs and he became one of the most powerful commissioners in Akpabio’s government for the next four years. He retained that portfolio even after Akpabio’s inauguration for a second term in 2011.
The following year, he resigned to contest the PDP state chairmanship seat. But soon after clinching the seat, he became seriously ill and was hospitalized outside the country for nearly a year. He, however, made a dramatic come-back at a time most people had given up on him.
It remains to be seen if he can make it back as PDP boss. For now, what is certain is that Paul Ekpo is fighting the biggest political battle of his life. In fairness to him, he is a dogged fighter who sticks to what he believes in even at the cost of filial relationship. This became manifest during the 2015 elections when he openly opposed his uncle, Jackson Devos, and cousin, Obong Iniobong Jackson, both belonging to the APC, in their village, Nkana. A few weeks before the elections, another of his uncle’s sons had accused Paul Ekpo of assaulting him in Uyo over political differences, an allegation the PDP boss strongly denied.
In the run-up to the December 2014 PDP gubernatorial primary, Paul Ekpo managed to survive a move for his removal by prominent party stakeholders led by Attah and Etiebet who questioned his neutrality.
But after all said and done, a second term for him does not depend much on his strength. The decision on it clearly lies elsewhere.
A SECOND TERM FOR PAUL EKPO ?