President Buhari has controversially nominated Lauretta Onochie — the Special Assistant to the President on Social Media and an All Progressives Congress (APC) loyalist — as an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) commissioner. If confirmed, however, the principal beneficiary will be the Senate deputy president Obarisi Ovie Omo-Agege (b.1963) who, like her is also from Delta State. He is interested in contesting the state’s gubernatorial election in 2023 and he probably wants Onochie appointed so there is someone he trusts in the INEC.
The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has controlled the strategically important oil producing state since 1999 and there is no sign that it will lose it in 2023. The APC’s Omo-Agege will therefore need a lot of help if he is to flip Delta State. So far attempts to flip other states — including Rivers, Akwa Ibom, and Bayelsa — have been unsuccessful. Edo State was APC until Governor Godwin Obaseki was forced to defect to the PDP after falling out with the APC. The ruling party’s chances of winning Delta State are therefore slim unless it receives help from the INEC.
Using the INEC to flip Delta State carries significant risks for the stability of the South-South’s oil-producing states. Current and former Niger Delta militants are heavily involved in Delta State’s politics and it cannot be peacefully flipped with the INEC’s help unless they are included in the plan.
Support needed from James Ibori and Tompolo
One of the key players in Delta State’s electoral process is its 1999-2007 governor, James Ibori, who was jailed in the UK for money laundering after he left office. He has since returned to Delta where he remains a kingmaker and will influence the gubernatorial election. The Federal Government has largely ignored Ibori since he returned and, although it could do so it has refused to prosecute him for the crimes that he was convicted of in the UK.
The other key player in Delta State elections is Government Ekpemupolo (a.k.a. Tompolo) who still has considerable influence over Niger Delta militants. He has used the money he made as a militant, to become a philanthropist and supporting the local Ijaw communities which have been neglected by the government. He therefore has influence over how people vote, particularly in Delta State, but also in Bayelsa, Rivers, and Akwa Ibom states.
Abuja has a hold over both Ibori and Tompolo. It could prosecute Ibori for looting Delta State funds if it chose to do so, while the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has frozen a significant portion of Tompolo’s assets. Using this as leverage, it has now engaged with Tompolo to back down on both the political and militant front before some of these assets are unfrozen. Senior government sources have told Menas Associates that Ibori would avoid the future prosecution if he cooperates with the APC and the government. This leverage is encouraging the APC to believe it can flip Delta State in 2023 with Onochie in the INEC to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
The snag, however is that Omo-Agege is not alone in wanted to become Delta State’s next APC governor because the Minister of State for Labour Festus Keyamo is also interested in the position. Omo-Agege has the upper hand but Keyamo’s ambitions mean that both men will seek the support of the key players. Whichever can obtain the best government concessions for Ibori and Tompolo will probably win their support.
Omo-Agege and Keyamo will also have to contend with the outgoing Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, who will be seeking to ensure that he has a say on his successor. He recently removed perceived Ibori supporters from his cabinet which has set up a clash with Ibori over the choice of his successor and one of them could defect to the APC. The major challenge for the APC, however, is that it remains extremely unpopular in Delta State. To flip it to the APC would require the extraordinary defection of both Ibori and Tompolo in order to impact voter behaviour so significantly. The defection of only one of them would almost certainly lead to greater insecurity which will lead to greater violence both during the electoral campaign and immediately afterwards.