After a year on the defensive, the governing PDP has launched a determined fightback against opposition strongholds in the south-west
The victory of Ayo Fayose, candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), in the governorship elections in Ekiti State on 21 June held some harsh lessons for modernising politicians in the lead up to the elections due next February. The most obvious conclusion is that a well-financed and highly aggressive campaign with a bad policy record backed by state security will trump a decent policy record presented by less ruthless campaigners. It is also the first major reverse for the opposition alliance this year in its battle against President Goodluck Jonathan's government, which has been in retreat as criticism mounted of its handling of the security crisis in the north.
Ekiti Governor Kayode Fayemi, representing the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), had campaigned on a platform of three and half years of social reform and trying to cut corruption in the civil service. On most counts, he had achieved some success: although Ekiti had been one of the most volatile states, political violence declined sharply. State revenue was up, state debts were down and local farmers were getting credits to supply the multi-million dollar food market in Lagos.
Yet hours after voting ended, Fayemi conceded defeat when the Independent National Electoral Commission announced that Fayose had netted 203,090 votes to his 120,433. We hear the peaceable tone of his concession speech was influenced by the show of force that Jonathan's PDP had organised in Ekiti. There had been street clashes ahead of the campaign and several of Fayose's supporters had made it clear they would not accept defeat. Both the Junior Defence Minister, Musiliu Obanikoro, and the Police Affairs Minister, Abdul Jelili Adesiyan, had travelled to Ekiti 'to supervise security' and help Fayose, their party's candidate. Inspector General of Police Mohammed Abubakar would not give the numbers but said it was one of the biggest election deployments ever. But the new National APC Chairman, John Odigie Oyegun, condemned the 'militarisation of Ekiti State' and 'creeping fascism'.
State security also intervened to stop Fayemi's fellow governors – Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers), Adams Oshiomhole (Edo) and Rabiu Kwankwaso (Kano) – from going to Ekiti on the eve of the poll. Under such security conditions, Lagos State Governor and opposition kingpin Babatunde Fashola questioned whether the vote was really free and fair as did northern activist Shehu Sani. Fayemi had conceded, they said, to avoid a bloody confrontation.
Breaking the opposition's grip
Both political parties are studying the outcome intently, not least because the next gubernatorial election is due in August in Oshun, another south-west state held by the APC. From the effort and finance that the PDP put into the Ekiti vote, it's clear that its leaders are determined to break the opposition's grip on the south-west. Both parties sent their top leaders to Ekiti to boost their candidates and largesse was duly dispensed but there is no question that Jonathan would outbid APC leader Muhammadu Buhari on that score.
Brandishing a generous financial war chest from PDP headquarters, Fayose relentlessly targeted Fayemi and his wife Bisi: both had gained doctorates overseas and were veterans of the struggle against General Sani Abacha's junta in the 1990s. They were, Fayose insisted, 'elitists'. Fayemi had recruited impressive technocrats to boost Ekiti's social services and introduced a pension scheme for private and state sector workers. Yet for Fayose, Fayemi's policies such as distributing laptop computers to schoolchildren, a ban on 'gifts' (or bribes) to civil servants and plans to build a civic centre proved he was out of touch.
Fayose told voters that Fayemi's reform plans would mean massive job cuts in the civil service and claimed he was using state funds to build a university in Ghana. By the time Fayemi's team issued rebuttals, much of the damage had been done. Fayose's team ran a textbook negative campaign – well funded and personally targeted. Above all, said his aides, the people of Ekiti wanted 'resources' and his campaign distributed bags of food and fresh naira notes. Fayose toured the state in a convoy of shiny new four-wheel-drives, all supplied by PDP central, stopping frequently to prove the veracity of his campaign slogan, 'Friend of the masses', in an unconscious parody of Chinua Achebe's Man of the People.
Shooting the breeze with street vendors and chopping pounded yam in local bukaterias (cafés) is Fayose's strong suit but he is less voluble about his political history. Such was the level of political violence in Ekiti on his previous watch that President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed a panel in 2005 to probe allegations of his direct involvement. It concluded that Fayose had instigated political thuggery and had tried to distance himself from it. His first term ended abruptly when he and his deputy were impeached by the State Assembly in October 2006 for grand corruption, charges based on a probe by Nuhu Ribadu, then Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. After reports of guns being drawn in State House, Fayose disappeared from the political scene for a year.
Fayose has gradually rebuilt his career as a loyal PDP activist working to re-establish the party's influence in the south-west, which has been an opposition stronghold. He and the PDP hierarchy are holding up the Ekiti election as an omen for 2015. If they're right and the PDP wins Oshun with the same blend of tactics and security power, they could start unpicking the APC strongholds in the south.
Until now, with its support in the south-west, the north-west and the north-east among both Christians and Muslims, the APC has been able to claim it is the real national party. Now the PDP, still chronically weak in the north, has found it can chew away at APC support in the south. As the attacks continue in the north and Middle Belt, and unrest restarts in the Niger Delta, this points to the danger of regionally polarised elections next year.
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