Inside power moves at Southern Governor’s Forum
The press briefing addressed by the Southern Governors Forum (SGF) of Nigeria at the Lagos Government House on October 23, 2017 raised so much suspense that journalists who besieged the venue literally sat on the edge.
It was a four-hour waiting game. And for the journalists, that was really not a toodifficult price to pay for a forum that went moribund 12 years ago, barely four years after its inauguration. With so much at stake, the expectation was high.
But when the governors eventually emerged from their meeting to deflate the high expectation heralding their convergence, not a few were taken aback that their brief communiqué, read in two minutes by the Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, left behind a yawning gap.
“The southern states governors at its meeting of 23rd October 2017 held in Lagos House Ikeja restated their commitment to a united and indivisible Nigeria,” Ambode read from a prepared paper.
“The summit also reiterated its belief in true federalism and devolution of powers. They reinstated their commitment to collaborate with one another for the growth and development of their economies. The summit emphasized priority on security of lives and properties of its citizens. The summit also emphasised the need for effective linkage on good infrastructure within the space of southern Nigeria. The summit unanimously appointed Governor Akinwunmi Ambode as chairman and governors Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa and Dave Umahi of Ebonyi as co-chairmen. The next meeting is scheduled to hold in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.”
Brief and direct, the Lagos State governor delivered the message as sent by his colleagues. But moments earlier, his aides had made available to government officials who joined journalists in the Canopy Hall, the programme of events which also contained the governor’s opening address which Ambode did not eventually read to the gathering.
While lauding his predecessor, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu who pioneered the initiative, Ambode was also quick to list what he termed the forum’s “landmark achievements obtained through the pressure exerted by this forum in the past”. He cited the dedication of 13 percent revenue allocation to oil producing states by the federal government as the first feat achieved by the forum through “collective advocacy”.
“Another major victory won towards strengthening the country’s practice of true federalism was the declaration by the Supreme Court in 2002 that the then prevalent practice of the federal government deducting monies from the Federation Account as a first charge for the funding of Joint Venture Contracts, the NNPC priority projects, servicing of federal government’s external debt, the judiciary, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and other federal obligations was illegal and unconstitutional.
But in a tone that could be interpreted as activism blended with subtle defiance of the status quo, Ambode told his colleagues that they cannot remain beggars who always go cap in hands to Abuja every month to get tokens they will use to run their states.
“All too often, states are disparaged for always carrying begging bowls to Abuja in quest of hand-outs from the federal government. This is a function of our present national constitution that burdens the federal government with activities and responsibilities that rightly fall within the province of states.
“The productivity and revenue-generating capacities of most states are stifled, thus turning them into no better than street beggar states incapable of even meeting routine obligations of paying workers’ salaries and pensions without federal support,” the governor said.
Though Ambode said the whole idea of resuscitating the forum was geared towards forming a united front to deal with issues of similar interests and be able to “comprehensively look at the proposed constitutional amendments with a view to working with our respective Houses of Assembly, to ensure a coordinated response on our part,” there are political pundits who have started connecting the dots between what they perceived as “the sudden re-activation of the SGF” and the political maneuverings taking shape ahead of the 2019 general election.
Dr Dele Siteolu, a political scientist with the Lagos State University (LASU), will not say emphatically if the reconvening of the SGF 12 years after was anchored on political aspirations of certain political heavyweights within southern Nigeria. However, that is a possibility he will not dismiss either.
“I do not have the fact as to the viability of using the Southern Governors Forum for the presidential ambition of any individual. It is not impossible though bearing in mind that the All Progressives Congress (APC) leaders in the Southwest met in Ibadan about two weeks ago. I recall that these leaders resolved that any member of the party can contest for the presidential seat in 2019 and for me that is quite telling,” Siteolu said.
Indeed, at the meeting in Ibadan being referenced by Siteolu, Chief Bisi Akande, a former National Acting Chairman of the APC, was emphatic when responding to journalists’ enquiry that the decision on President Muhammadu Buhari ‘s re-election would be taken at the appropriate time and that the president hasn’t said anything about re-run.
Yet, the Southwest APC leaders’ meeting was the second of its kind to be hosted in Ibadan within one month. On September 7, 2017, leaders across political parties, groups and social leanings within the geo-political zone had gathered at the Obafemi Awolowo Stadium, Adamasingba, to proclaim what is now known as “Ibadan declaration” on political restructuring. Until that day, five of the six governors within the geo-political zone who are of the APC and had been reserved in showing open support for the restructuring agitation also declared their support through their representatives. But a leading convener of the Ibadan declaration summit and spokesperson of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Yinka Odumakin, disagreed that the convergence was called for political scheming ahead of 2019.
But for Joe Igbokwe, the spokesperson of the APC, Lagos chapter, there is nothing wrong if the reconvening of the SGF is for political reasons because “political power and economic power are Siamese”. He explained that anything capable of reviewing the country’s revenue allocation formula is no doubt political.
“We cannot talk about economics without politics. Both have linkages. And I can sense the move for balance of power in the summit because up till now, the Northern Governor’s Forum still meets. So if we agreed that the political power of Nigeria is in the North, I think it is only right to affirm that the country’s economic power is in the South. So, that is the balancing I’m talking about,” Igbokwe said.
Siteolu was however, of the opinion that any candidate being promoted by the southern leaders must have nationwide support to emerge as a president.
Michael Arubayi, a Lagos based sociopolitical commentator, agreed with Siteolu on the potential candidate’s country-wide acceptability but also added that if indeed there were schemings to use the SGF to promote a southern candidate that will square up against Buhari in 2019, the fact that some of the governors have robust relationship with Abuja should worry the promoters.
Aside Governor Ambode and Governor Emmanuel Udom of Akwa Ibom State, the Lagos summit was attended by the governors of Ogun, Senator Ibikunle Amosun; Oyo, Senator Abiola Ajimobi; Rivers, Nyesom Wike; Osun, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola; Ebonyi, Dave Umahi; Edo, Godwin Obaseki; Ondo, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu; Abia, Okezie Ikpeazu; Enugu, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi; Bayelsa, Seriake Dickson and Ekiti, Ayodele Fayose.
The Governors of Cross River, Anambra and Delta were represented by their deputies - Mr. Evara Esu; Dr. Ikem Okeke and Mr. Kingsley Otuaru respectively. It was only the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, who did not attend and did not send a representative.