By Nosike Ogbuenyi
The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, Thursday afternoon, announced Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, as his running mate for the 2023 election, thus bringing a climax to the suspense and speculations that had attended the choice for weeks.
Mr Abubakar, a former vice president of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, made the
announcement during a meeting attended by PDP executives and top stakeholders, including the party’s National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu, at the Wadata House, Wuse headquarters of the party in Abuja.
Implications of Okowa’s choice
The choice of Mr Okowa as the vice-presidential candidate throws up various implications, which may make or mar Mr Abubakar’s presidential quest, depending on how the ensuing contours are managed or navigated.
First, many analysts and PDP stakeholders see the choice as wise, considering Mr Okowa’s calm mien and political savvy nature which are a polar opposite of the abrasive and combative approach of his Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike, who was Mr Okowa’s main rival for the number two slot.
In Delta State, Mr Okowa’s choice and possible emergence as the nation’s vice president, if the PDP wins the coming presidential election, is bound to alter the political power equation in the state.
Since his election as governor in 1999, the Oghara, Delta Central-born James Ibori, has been calling the shots, determining who gets what as far as the governorship seat in the state was concerned.
In fact, Mr Okowa was seen by many as a product of the Ibori political dynasty in the state. He was first appointed commissioner by Mr Ibori in 1999 and later became Secretary to the State Government under Mr Ibori’s successor, Emmanuel Uduiaghan, before his election to the Senate to represent Delta North district in 2011.
In the build-up to the governorship primary of the PDP in Delta State last month, Mr Okowa clashed with his erstwhile godfather, Mr Ibori, over the choice of the party’s flagbearer. While Mr Ibori was rooting for his trusted former Commissioner of Finance, David Edevbie, Mr Okowa backed the incumbent Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Sherriff Oborevwori. Both aspirants are Urhobo from Mr Ibori’s Delta Central Senatorial District.
In the end, Mr Ibori’s candidate, Mr Edevbie, was floored by Mr Sherriff to the dissatisfaction of Mr Ibori. Sources close to the PDP in the state alleged that Mr Ibori had vowed to extract a pound of flesh from Mr Okowa for jettisoning his anointed candidate, Mr Edevbie.
Whether that is true or not, the reality is that the political scale in Delta State has profoundly tilted with the emergence of Mr Okowa as the vice-presidential candidate of PDP. By that turn of events, he has become the undisputed leader of PDP in the state, ahead of Mr Ibori, his erstwhile godfather.
Okowa: Bridge between South-South and South East?
Mr Okowa’s emergence as Mr Abubakar’s running mate also means that one of the most formidable strongholds of PDP, the South-east geo-political zone, has become potentially sidelined as far as the party is concerned. The zone, which has consistently voted PDP overwhelmingly since 1999, now stands the risk of being excluded from the top echelons of leadership if the PDP wins the coming presidential election.
The South-east had hitherto pushed for the zoning of the party’s presidential ticket to the South and possibly micro-zoned further to it. However, such appeals and pressure failed as the party threw its presidential ticket open with Mr Abubakar clinching it at the convention of the party held on May 29. The unveiling of Mr Okowa as the running mate might therefore be counted by some as the second successive loss for the South-east in PDP.
Nonetheless, if there is only a thin line between the clamour for Igbo inclusion and that of the South-east, then Mr Okowa’s choice may assuage Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group.
To many Nigerians, including some Igbos in the South-east and elsewhere, the Delta State Governor is an Igbo man, at least linguistically. Mr Okowa may thus serve as a bridge between the South-south and the South-east zones in the coming election.
Unlike Mr Wike who had consistently denied his Igbo link, Mr Okowa has consistently refrained from such comments while at the same time maintaining an affinity with the diverse groups that make up Delta State and the complex South-south, thus making himself relatively more acceptable across the two zones.
In the aftermath of the social disturbance in Obigbo, a border community in Rivers State, Mr Wike in a viral video vehemently denied being an Igbo man.
Also, when he met PDP delegates in Anambra State early this year, he bluntly told the people that any vote they cast for their former governor, Peter Obi, (who was then a presidential aspirant under the PDP) would be tantamount to a waste of efforts.
He was alleged to have taken further swipes at Mr Obi and harangued him to the extent that the latter decided to quit the PDP and pitch his tent with the Labour Party. Mr Obi is today the presidential candidate of his new party and is touted in some quarters as a potential third force in the 2023 presidential bout.
Mr Okowa carries none of such baggage as Mr Wike who once publicly declared Rivers a Christian State. The Delta governor is a nimble politician who speaks softly and carefully chooses his words. But beneath his quiet demeanour, he is said to be a steely and dogged operator who does more work underground than on the surface.
Mr Okowa has a tough task of galvanising PDP in the three southern zones: South-south, South-east and South-west. He has the advantage of being relatively acceptable in the region as a politician that is not used to stepping on powerful toes openly.
Okowa’s road to the top
A cursory review of Mr Okowa’s profile reveals a man who did not stumble on power by accident but intricately sketched his way to the top. Born July 1959 at Owa-Alero, Ika Northeast Local Government Area in Delta North Senatorial District, Mr Okowa attended Edo College, Benin City (1970–1976), before proceeding to the premier university in Nigeria, the University of Ibadan, where he studied Medicine and Surgery.
Upon completion of his national service (NYSC), he worked with the defunct Bendel State Hospitals Management Board (HMB) as a Medical Officer. In 1986, he resigned from the services of the Board and began private
practice as the Medical Director, Victory Medical Centre, Igbanke, Edo State.
He began his political career when he served as the Chairman of Ika North-East Local Government Area between 1991 and1993.
As the Delta North Senatorial district coordinator of the defunct Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM), he worked closely with the likes of Borno-born Gambo Lawan (National Chairman), Festus Okubor (National Publicity Secretary) and Mr Ibori, another member of the GDM.
Mr Okowa was a founding member of the PDP in 1998 and played a pivotal role in the victory of Mr Ibori in the governorship election of 1999. He was first appointed as the Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources from July 1999 to April 2001 before he was redeployed to the Water Resources Ministry between April 2001 and May 2003.
In September 2003, he was appointed the Commissioner for Health and held the portfolio till October 2006 when he resigned to seek nomination as the PDP governorship candidate. He lost the primary contest to Mr Ibori’s anointed candidate and nephew, Mr Uduaghan.
In June 2007, the newly inaugurated Mr Uduaghan appointed Mr Okowa as
Secretary to the Delta State Government. He resigned the position to vie for the position of the senator representing Delta North Senatorial candidate in 2011. In the election, he defeated the incumbent senator, late Patrick Osakwe, and others to clinch the seat.
Okowa as Delta Governor
As a senator, Mr Okowa was the surprise winner of the PDP governorship primary in December 2014. In an intriguing and pulsating contest for the ticket ahead of the 2015 gubernatorial contest, Mr Okowa achieved victory through some deft moves that perplexed his opponents and many stakeholders in the state.
For instance, he was able to forge an alliance with the acclaimed Ijaw ethnic leader, Edwin Clark, Government Tompolo and some Delta Central leaders like former Information Minister Sam Oyovbaire.
Mr Okowa went ahead to win the April 11, 2015 governorship election. With that victory, he made history as the first person to be elected governor of the multi-ethnic state from the Igbo-speaking Delta North Senatorial district. In victory, he remained humble and unassuming while describing the outcome as an act ordained by Almighty God.
As governor of Delta, Mr Okowa has been able to blend the multi-ethnic state as one organic body. From Burutu to Okpanam, Sapele to Aboh and Jesse to Emevor, he is at home with the reality of the people and the affairs on the ground. That explains why he was able to garner crosscutting support in the complex state during his first election as governor in 2015 and reelection in 2019.
The concordance of his sweeping victory in 2015, at a time the influential ex-governor and acclaimed godfather of PDP in the state, Mr Ibori, was in jail in the United Kingdom, speaks volumes about Mr Okowa’s sagacity.
In the absence of Mr Ibori, the outgoing administration of Governor
Uduaghan propped up and massively supported David Edevbie who Mr Okowa beat in 2015.
In the coming election of 2023, Mr Okowa has his task cut out for him as the running mate of the PDP’s presidential flagbearer, Mr Abubakar. He brings to the table vast experience that cuts across different aspects of leadership and governance. With a sound educational background, he started from the grassroots as a public servant, entrepreneur and local councilman. His experience as a grassroots mobiliser will be an added advantage for Mr Abubakar and the PDP.
Furthermore, his experience as a party administrator, state commissioner (across many ministries) and secretary to the state government will count. He served a tenure in the Senate before assuming office as governor of Delta State in May 2015, thereby affording him some insight into the working of governance at the centre.
Some analysts perceive Mr Okowa as not strong enough for a potentially
domineering Mr Abubakar if they win the presidency. Despite former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tough demeanour, he found it exerting to contain Atiku Abubakar’s alleged overarching influence as the vice president. For instance, the manner Mr Abubakar supervised the sale of some signature national assets such as NITEL left many tongues wagging at the time.