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Ayade’s Defection: Unveiling the Curtain of Betrayal

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It is no longer new thing that Governor Ben Ayade, had two weeks ago, defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC) from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) after spending ten years, four as a senator and then six as governor under the PDP.

While the Governor’s loyalist said Ayade was frustrated out of the party, PDP leadership and members are accusing him of sheer betrayal. In this report, our Correspondent, JOSEPH KINGSTON, takes a look at behind the scene happenings which culminated in Ayade dumping the PDP for APC, and what the future holds for the now politically volatile Cross River.

Although the defection of Gov Ben Ayade to the APC has continued to raise political dust across Cross River, a good percentage of people from the PDP and APC, who interacted with this writer, said the Governor’s defection was long expected due to certain indices which seemed to have portrayed him as a PDP member in the flesh but APC in the spirit.

The Birth of Distrust and Sour Relationship

The relationship between the Governor and his then party, the PDP, became far from being cordial few months after Ayade became governor. From those early days, the Governor had given the PDP leadership at the centre a cause for worry as he showed he was more at home with APC leadership especially when the former Chief of Staff, late Abba Kyari held sway.

In less than five months after his swearing in, Gov Ayade had succeeded in bringing  President Muhammadu Buhari to Cross River state for a ground breaking ceremony of proposed 275km super highway project, a feat that was hailed by both the PDP and the APC.

Although the conceptualization of the project turned out to be a subject of controversy for some years, Buhari again became a guest of the Cross River state government on a June 26, 2018 when he arrived Calabar to commission the rice seedling factory.

Apart from his closeness to the centre during his time as a PDP governor, he was also close to very prominent APC chieftains and was attending their functions. For instance, in December 3, 2016, Gov Ayade was available in Liberty Gospel Church, Calabar during the thanksgiving service in honour of the then minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, Pastor Usani Usani, and in which other APC governors were in attendance. This did not go down well with some PDP loyalists as he was the only PDP governor in that event.

Again, during a time that all PDP Governor’s were expected to join hands together to solve a leadership crisis that threatened to engulf the party, the Cross River governor refused to support Ahmed Makarfi, the Caretaker Committee Chairman, who was believed to have been generally accepted by many of the PDP leaders.

He instead pitched his tent with Ali Modu Sherriff who was seen by many PDP leaders as an APC mole and interestingly, Sheriff went back to the APC immediately he lost out at the Supreme Court which finally confirmed Makarfi as PDP chairman.

The Governor had often been accused of not identifying with his party during period of emergencies and wasting no time in lambasting the party at any slightest provocation.

When his friend, Mr. Chris Agara, lost out in the race for the Cross River Central Senatorial primary, an angry Ayade had described the PDP leaders as people without conscience, cloth with injustice.

He said “In spite of it all, that he (Agara) has spent more money than any other candidate in this state, a party that is so unfair and has got no conscience, a man came ready for election and you take out his name from the ballot. You take out his name, because you know he is too powerful. When people use God-given opportunities to do injustice, injustice would await them.”

These utterances may have precipitated anger and fanned embers of feelings of betrayals against the governor.

Ayade was also accused of not attending most PDP meetings. For instance, The Governor did not attend the August 13, 2017 PDP convention in Abuja that produced Uche Secondus as Chairman. His accusers alleged that he stayed back partly because his candidate, Modu Sheriff, lost out and that he was more comfortable with Sheriff who was soon to go back to APC, than Secondus. This was another harbinger of crisis.

PDP’s Pound of Flesh/ Initial Efforts to Cut Ayade to Size

Top sources at the PDP secretariat in Calabar had told this reporter that the party was dissatisfied with the governor’s ‘recalcitrant’ attitude and his embrace of the government at the centre and so was looking for an opportunity to pay Ayade back with his own coins.

This may have explained why PDP lawyers in the case between Joe Agi versus Ayade in 2016 at the Supreme Court elected to testify against the Governor.

The appellant, Joe Agi (SAN) had sought for the removal of Gov Ayade on the basis of an alleged falsification/perjury and loss of membership of the party during the December 8, 2014 PDP primary. Surprisingly, the PDP lawyer, N. Ibegbulam, had told the Supreme Court that the party was in support of Agi’s appeal and that Ayade be removed.

Unconfirmed reports say it was through serious political compromises, with the ‘help’ of the then Chief Justice of Nigeria that the Governor was given a clean bill of health by the Court while the party leadership told the then embattled governor to retrace his steps. But, their relationship had remained sour as soon as the governor returned from Abuja.

As 2019 approached, the party threatened not to give the Governor its ticket but reliable PDP sources said due to certain understanding and horse-trading, the PDP again allowed Gov Ayade to contest the 2019 election. This showed their relationship from 206 had never been smooth.

After the elections, thing were still far from being what the PDP leadership had expected and so tension between the governor and the party continued to mount, even as party leaders alleged Ayade was breaching the terms of agreement which caused them to soft-pedal even as they alleged the governor was gradually drifting from the party leaders and was not consulting before taking some decisions.

This insinuation may have been supported by the fact that on April 9, 2021, PDP Governors had a closed door session in Markurdi, but the Cross River state governor was not available. Again, on May 17, 2021, they had another meeting in Ibadan, Oyo state, in which they demanded devolution of power to the state, and Gov Ayade could not make it to the meeting and did not send any representative.

Apart from distancing himself from PDP Governors, the Cross River governor was not available at the Southern Governors’ meeting of May 11, 2021.

This and other action, analysts say, may have contributed to why some leaders of the party from the state openly decided to engage the governor in a power tussle over party structure at the ward level.

Rumblings by NAS members and Other Stakeholders

As crisis festered, founding fathers of the PDP and other stakeholders had alleged that the Governor was hijacking party structures and singlehandedly selecting local government chairmen and councilors without inputs from other leaders.

Mr. Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, member representing Yala/Ogoja Federal constituency in the House of Representatives, who was seen as the arrowhead to whiten down the governor’s influence on the party, had expressed the concern of his colleagues and other leaders.

“How has my dear Governor played politics with ethics? Is it by handing over the PDP structure to his younger brother? The last ward and chapter congresses of the state were conducted from the comfort of his younger brother’s living room.

“He picked and chose who became ward chairmen even in the wards of National Assembly members and even serving commissioners, with total disregard for NASS members and other stakeholders.

“We are in a democracy and this affords us the opportunity to challenge non-participatory and dictatorial decisions. We did not give you (Ayade) the party as a Franchise,” he stated.

Besides, a group, Movement for the Restoration of Cross River Peoples Democratic Party (MFTROCR) had, mid-last year called for the suspension of Governor Ayade and five others for dragging the national PDP and its officers to court over congresses.

The group is made up of mostly PDP founding members, former elected and appointed officers and National Assembly members (NASS).

The Coordinator of the group, Comrade Raymond Takon, had said “we are aware that some of his (Governor’s) die-hard loyalists are advising their boss to quit PDP if they refused to allow them have their way in terms of who takes over the party structures. We also have it on good authority that the Governor has been discreetly discussing with some top APC members in Abuja on how to defect.

“Against this background, we call on the national party leadership to take drastic action against the state leadership led by Ntufam Inok by sanctioning all those who took the party to court and their sponsors.”

The Governor’s Romance with APC, another Cause of Dispute

An aide to the Governor, who preferred anonymity, told this newspaper that the National leadership of the party was just bent on disgracing Ayade, and that the Governor left PDP out of frustration and not because of his love for the APC, saying Ayade could return to the fold if multiple issues surrounding the matter are sorted out.

This, multiple PDP respondents disagreed, saying the governor had been in veiled love for the APC since 2016. One of the sources claimed that taking the party structure at the ward levels from the governor was the best thing the party could do in the face of uncertainty on where the Governor belonged.

He said “this is a man who had one leg in our party, and another leg in APC. He himself had confessed that he was sitting on the fence. It was wise that we did not allow him to destroy the party because he had already betrayed the confidence we reposed in him.”

It was further learnt that many PDP eggheads and majority members of its National Leadership, had expressed anger over the way the Governor was openly praising the APC government at the centre.

They had, since some few years ago, vowed to take the party structure from him. This, a source said, was so that “he would not handover the structures and everything PDP used 22 years to build to the APC on the platter of gold.”

A member of the party’s National Working Committee, NWC, who pleaded anonymity had said, last year “We don’t even know how to classify him, but all we know is that he is APC body and soul, and only PDP in name.

“You can hardly find him at PDP events, not even during South South PDP leaders’ meetings, but he is always quick to speak elegantly of Buhari and his APC government, and this is a man who is supposed to be an opposition governor.”

According to one of the National Assembly members from Cross River, the PDP’s gang up against the governor was for the interest of the party and so was justified.

“Look at it this way. In terms of financial war chest, the governor has enormous resources at his disposal to run all of us out of the party, but this fight is not one money can sway, the battle to rescue Cross River  PDP is being directed from above. It’s therefore, not our personal fight, it’s the party’s fight,” he had submitted.

The Immediate Cause of Trouble

A source close to a sitting Senator from the state told this newspaper that the national leadership of the PDP had taken a decision to handing over the Cross River PDP structure to some members of the National Assembly from the state.

Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, representing Ogoja/ Yala Federal constituency in the House of Representativesis was said to be the arrowhead of the ploy to undo the governor in terms of who controls the structure. The NAS were out to ensure that the initial Ward Congress list which was heavily skewed against the governor stands.

To make matters complex, Jarigbe decided to contest for the Cross River North senatorial seat despite Ayade insisting on Dr Stephen Odey as candidate of the party. Till today, the stalemate remains and the Governor, it was gathered, sees Jarigbe’s aspiration as an affront.

The battle for the soul of the party had climaxed in the fictionalization and subsequent inauguration of parallel executive committees at ward and local government levels. One faction is led by the Governor while the other is loyal to the national assembly members.

Not All Leaders Agreed with Cross River NASS members over Ayade matter

While the accusation and counter accusation continued, some PDP leader had however supported the Governor to control party structures in the state. A former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, had disagreed with some PDP leaders over the issue.

Fani-Kayode, during a visit to Calabar some months ago, threatened that many PDP bigwigs, including himself, would leave the party should Ayade be forced to defect over controversy surrounding who controls the party structure.

“It would be a big mistake for the National Working Committee of the PDP to take the party structures in his state away from Ben Ayade and hand them over to anyone else. If this is done and Ayade leaves the party, be rest assured that many of us will leave with him.

“You cannot and must not undermine a sitting Governor or attempt to humiliate him in   his own state and before his people. Some of those that are advocating and behind this nonsense would never allow it to happen in their own states. A word is enough for the wise.

“No-one, no matter how big or powerful, should think that they own the PDP. If there is any attempt to undermine Ayade it will spark off a crisis in the party that will split it right down the middle and the consequences will not be limited to Cross Rivers state,” Kayode had warned but it seemed other leaders gave deaf ears to the warning.

2023 Permutations as One of the Reasons

Another angle to the controversy is on who takes over from Ayade in 2023. Reports say those opposing the Governor were bent in ensuring he does not produce his successor, who they feared could take after him.

They were also doing everything possible to stop the Governor from producing the state chairman of the party who they said would have a big role to play on who flies the party’s flag in 2023.

While Ayade is supporting the Director-General of the state’s Due Process Office, Barrister Alphosus Ogar Eba, most of the National Assembly members and party fathers want Mr Venatius Ikem as Chairman.

Were PDP Governors Fanning Embers of Crisis?

Governor Ben Ayade’s loyalists had alleged that Gov Nyesom Wike of Rivers state was the unseen hand behind PDP troubles in Cross River, saying he was seeking to install one of the sitting senators as governor.

Rt Hon Awatt Ekpenyong,  Executive Director of a group, Youth Success Institute, had accused Gov Wike of intruding into Cross River politics. In a press statement, the youths said they would not fold their hands and watch the Rivers state governor insult Ayade and the people of the state with impunity.

“Wike’s approach is destructive and is calculated to snare the Governor of Cross River state and its people. Although no society is not without its peculiarity, Cross River state cannot be run through the Governor of River state.

“He (Gov Wike) has no such authority, neither has the constitution made such provision. To think otherwise is tantamount to a plan of annexation and parochialism. Wike should be reminded that Ayade is the Executive Governor of Cross River state who enjoys full mandate of the people of Cross River,” they had submitted.

Investigations indicated that many of those who defected with the Governor did so out of anger, saying the Rivers state strongman was undermining Ayade and fueling embers of crisis so as to bring on board his cronies as leaders of the state in 2023. They are seeing Ayade’s defection as breaking of the political yoke.

What’s Next?

With the Governor’s defection, the stage has been set for one of the biggest political battles in the history of Cross River state. The 22 years of PDP’s political monopoly of the state has been brought to a dramatic end, but analysts predict interesting political battles ahead.

While the APC and PDP boast of political heavyweights, financial muscles and the know-how on how best to outwit the other in 2023, youths from both political divides have vowed to ensure their principals emerged victorious in the oncoming contest.

As it stands, Cross River political horizon is uncertain but the people are praying for peaceful electoral processes in 2023 to avoid unprecedented bloodbath never witnessed in the history of the state. The prayer is necessary because when two elephants fight, the grass and trees suffer.

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