Peoples Democratic Party’s non-elective convention held penultimate Saturday in Abuja might as well be the game changer for the once troubled opposition party, writes Onyebuchi Ezigbo
Since the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lost out in the 2015 presidential election, leaders of the party have been obsessed with the desire to stage a come-back. The party, having set a record as the only political party since the country’s independence to sustain its hold on power for 16 uninterrupted years, definitely has what it takes to stage a come-back. Beyond losing the presidency, PDP was still in control of affairs in 12 states until recently when it lost the governorship election in Ondo State.
In terms of numerical strength, the party still retains a large chunk of its followers, even while in opposition and an array of political bigwigs that possess the capacity to galvanise the electorate for support during elections. It is therefore based on this resurgent confidence that a critical assessment of some of the issues the party is likely to face in the days ahead has become compelling.
Basking in the euphoria of a new-found unity and solidarity, PDP launched a big comeback in its bid to reclaim power with a non-elective national convention that attracted a record crowd of party supporters in Abuja. At the convention, the party resolved to extend the tenure of the Senator Ahmed Makarfi-led National Caretaker Committee by another four months. Most of the prominent PDP leaders, who spoke at the non-elective convention, shared common optimism that the party was on its way back to power by 2019.
From one speaker to the other, the general opinion was that the PDP had regained its unity and cohesion and that what remains of the party was to correct the mistakes of the past in order to take back power at the centre. Their speeches were greeted with loud ovation from an enthusiastic crowd made up of delegates and party stakeholders who had thronged the Eagles Square, venue of the convention.
Chairman of the PDP National Caretaker Committee, Makarfi, captured the mood of most party members when during his welcome speech, he said: “Today is a happy day for not just me, not just PDP, but for Nigerians. Today is a further affirmation that PDP is government in waiting, God willing. Today is a beginning of building upon the foundation that was laid long ago. PDP is a political party, not an alliance. PDP is a family and blood-related – blood-related in the sense that we knew that we are Nigerians.
“What we say in daytime is what we are going to say in the afternoon, and is what we are going to say at night. If you wake up from sleep, what you will hear from us will not be different from what you will hear from us when you are awake, because we are prepared – we are experienced. We have seen it all, we have gone through a lot, we have learnt a lot and we intend to do a lot for Nigerians”.
Makarfi did not forget what the party had gone through in recent past and the fact that it took the positive intervention of the judiciary to pull the main opposition party back from disintegration. Even as the leaders of the PDP were celebrating and beating their chests over its victory at the Supreme Court, there were still signs that the conflict was not yet over and that danger might still be lurking around the corner.
At least, Makarfi confirmed these fears, when he told the gathering that the convention would not have been possible if not for the forthrightness of the judiciary. While heaving a sigh of relief, the former governor of Kaduna State said at least five fresh attempts were made to stop the convention within two days but that the judiciary did not buckle.
To this, Makarfi said, “We must thank them for standing firm; for standing for Nigeria and standing for democracy. We must give credit to them”, even as he also gave credit to the untiring contributions of PDP leaders and members, the governors, senators, House of Representatives members, the BOT members, the army of former governors, former ministers, former national officers, deputy governors and ambassadors and all who stood by the party during its most trying period.
Makarfi said all of them in the PDP would have to learn a lesson from the travails of the past two and half years of turbulence in the party, adding that all have something to contribute to building the party and deepening democracy.
On the chances of the party in the 2019 presidential election, Makarfi said the future was very bright and that he was optimistic the PDP would defeat the APC and President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019.
“We wish our President well and will continue to pray for his full recovery. We want him to be fit, when we will defeat the APC in the general election. We will continue to pray for him, but that does not mean we will go to sleep. We will work hard to replace the APC government come 2019 election”.
He went further to five reasons why he was so optimistic about victory. “Nigerians may wonder: what has PDP got? Well, what are you getting now? Are you not hungry? Are you not jobless? Are you not unsecure? My God! Pray for PDP to come back. We will tackle insecurity. It has spread across the length and breadth of the country, because of joblessness”.
Similar optimism was also shared by former President Goodluck Jonathan under whose watch the party lost power in 2015. An obviously elated Jonathan told the party faithful and delegates not to be intimidated anymore but to brace up to do battle to reclaim power.
The former president, who spoke for about 20 minutes, said his administration made a lot of impact in various sectors, including the economy, agriculture, employment and wealth creation.
“Let it be known, in all nooks and crannies of our country, that the PDP is back to claim its rightful place in the affairs of the nation. As we have always done, we are ready to return Nigeria to the path of unity, peace and prosperity”.
Other PDP leaders, including the chairman of the PDP Governors Forum, Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, shared the optimism that the party was on its way back to reckoning.
Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, who headed the convention planning committee, said the fact that the party survived the baptism of fire was an eloquent testimony to the resilience of its grassroots structure, organisation and appeal.
“Today, let it be known to all Nigerians, who prayed for us during our time of travail that the PDP is back with a bang. We shall not disappoint you. We are rebounding back. We must realise that there is a champion in each and everyone of us in the party, and that a collective leadership and partnership, resolve to do things right is all that we need to build the strength to recapture power.”
Going forward, the PDP has come up with several proposals drawn from fact-finding Committees it set up in the past. One is the post-2015 election review committee headed by Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekwerenmadu, which has been hailed by most stakeholders of the party as a starting point in the push to rebrand the PDP.
Recently also, another committee known as the Strategy Review and Inter-party Relations headed by Prof. Jerry Gana was set up and the committee has completed and submitted its report. Both reports contain ideas and initiatives targeted at improving the operations of the party and making it more democratic.
Indeed a lot has been said about how the party lost the 2015 election due to its undemocratic practices and impunity, but not much has been done to ensure that it does happen again. After all, it was in the wake of efforts to rebrand the ailing affairs in the PDP shortly after it lost power in 2015 that the immediate former national chairman, Senator Modu Sheriff, was imposed on the rest of party members by an influential clique.
Thus, apart from recommending the zoning of the presidential ticket for the 2019 election to the northern part of the country and the chairmanship of the party to the south, the Ekwerenmadu committee also suggested the adoption of direct primary election for choosing candidates for every election. Former President Jonathan has also supported the proposal saying the best way to check the imposition of candidates is to make sure that delegates are not controlled by few individuals.
“If we go by delegate election, it would be the easiest to manage. How to select delegate is that at least, 70 per cent of the delegates should not be under the control of anybody,” he said, noting that the direct primary option, which the committee recommended is ultimately the best form of election but cautioned that it is difficult to manage as compared to the indirect delegate method. He suggested that the party could come up with an initiative that will ensure that people who had held certain offices in the past are made statutory delegates.
Just before the convention, an elder statesman and leader of the Ijaw nation, Chief Edwin Clark, took it upon himself to remind the party leadership on the need to dust up the Senator Ekweremadu-led Committee Report. Clark said part of the Senator Ekweremadu Committee Report, which zoned the presidency to the North, and the National Chairmanship to the South should be adopted.
According to him, the party should ensure that in trying to select the best candidate for the presidency, all presidential aspirants from the 19 states of the North should be subjected to one primary, whereas all national chairmanship candidates from the 17 States of the South should also be subjected to one primary, to contest together, so as to produce the best candidate, to practicalise democracy,
So far, the Makarfi leadership has proposed a number of amendments to the party’s constitution, using the recommendations of the Jerry Gana committee as a stand point. The proposed amendments, which have been sent out to all the branches of the party in the states for their feedback, contain changes in the constitution that will help avoid those issues that often lead to protracted legal tussle.
For instance, one of the amendments is seeking to approve the election of a deputy national chairman each for north and south, in addition to six Vice Chairmen from each of the six geographic areas. One of the deputy chairmen is to be chosen from the zone that produced the national chairman so that in the event of the exit of the chairman before the end of his tenure, the deputy will take over immediately without allowing any leadership vacuum. There is also a new introduction that will create statutory positions for persons with disabilities in the party executive at the national, state and local government levels. Beyond the rhetoric being bandied regarding the desire to rebrand the PDP and to stir it away from the mistakes of the past, there is the need to begin to walk the talk. No doubt, the party may have gained some measure of goodwill from some Nigerians, who have become disappointed and disillusioned over the current state of affairs in the country.
The fact that the poor economic situation in the country has driven some people to begin to look elsewhere for solution does not confer automatic electoral advantage on the PDP. The opposition will need to prove that it has learnt lessons from its mistakes of the past and that it is now better than the ruling APC.
To this end, all eyes will remain on the party to see how it could resolve the outstanding conflicts among stakeholders, especially the leadership crisis in the South-west zone and the troublesome Anambra State chapter, which seems to have defied solutions. Political pundits see the November 18 governorship election in Anambra as an acid test for the PDP on how it could resolve the crisis in the state chapter and be able to make significant impact in the election.