Other things being equal, the jostle for the governorship ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in the November 16 poll will be a straight fight between former governor Timipre Sylva and erstwhile Minister of State, Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri. Incidentally, Sylva has recently been nominated a minister. Except the unthinkable happens, everyone knows he is not giving up his long quest to return as Governor of Bayelsa State. Or has Sylvia’s nomination left Lokpobiri with a clear coast to sail unhindered?
And unless there’s a natural occurrence which will invariably put a halt to both men’s ambitions, the two politicians will finally square off at the party primaries scheduled for between August and early September by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
From all indications, none of the gladiators will yield ground in the run-up to the polls and both would likely deploy all antics in the books to outdo each other to ensure they emerge as the main challenger to the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which has ruled the state since the return of democracy in 1999.
Indeed, Lokpobiri has told anyone who cares to listen that he’s not in the race for the fun of it. Till date, he was one of the few aides who told President Muhammadu Buhari point-blank ever before the jostle started, that he wasn’t interested in being re-appointed minister, citing his governorship ambition as a reason.
But there’s one huge obstacle he must surmount if he will get the chance in the first place, of ever stepping into Creek Haven, the official seat of government in Yenagoa; that first hurdle is Sylva.
Before they parted ways, literally, both Sylva and Lokpobiri cut the picture of two pals who were genuinely interested in their friendship and political association, but as it was wont to happen, it was only a matter of time before the erstwhile political allies sensed that they were both interested in the same thing-to become governor-elect by November 16.
In the last state assembly and national assembly polls in which the APC did relatively well, given the outcomes of such elections in the past, each of the aspirants contrary to what obtained hitherto, campaigned separately, keeping the public speculating what was going on within their ranks.
Born on March 3, 1967 in riverine Ekeremor, his hometown, Senator Lokpobiri studied at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt, crowning it with an LLB Degree in 1992 before proceeding to the Nigerian Law School.
He is also said to hold a Doctorate Degree (Ph. D) in Environmental Rights Law from the Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom and was pioneer Speaker of the first Bayelsa Assembly before being elected twice as Senator.
Both himself and his main rival, ex-governor Sylva, observers believe, have the requisite experience to govern the mostly Ijaw state, which though is believed to be monolithic, actually has its fair share of centripetal forces which tend to pull it apart sometimes, hinged mainly on the core and non-core Ijaw debate.
In the Red Chambers, Lokpobiri headed the Senate Committee on Sports, initiated the National Sports Commission Bill, sponsored the Safety at Sports and Recreation Events Bill, the Petroleum Act Amendment Bill; the Anti-Trust (Enforcement Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill; the Trade Union Act Amendment Bill, the Federal Capital Authority Recovery of Premises Amendment Bill, among others.
As minister, his supporters say he initiated solar light projects in communities in Bayelsa, including Gwegwe, Etegwe, and Igbogene in Yenagoa Local Government Area; Agbere, Sagbama, Toru-Ebeni, Okumbiri and Ebedebiri in Sagbama Local Government Area and Ekeremor, Aleibiri, Azagbene and Ogbotubo in Ekeremor Local Government and completed water projects in Trofani, Aduku, Ekeremor, Angalabiri, and Toru-ebeni, among others.
His rival, Chief Sylva, is largely regarded as the leader of the APC in Bayelsa, according to reports, building the party in the last couple of years, before the support later rendered by other party chieftains.
Sylva was born in Brass, Bayelsa (formerly Rivers State, of which Bayelsa State was split off from in 1996), and was educated there and in Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria and later became a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly in the 1990s.
He was political adviser to late former Governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha up until 2002, one time Special Assistant to a former Minister of State, Petroleum Resources and governed Bayelsa State from 29 May, 2007 to 16 April, 2008 and from 27 May, 2008 to 27 January 2012 before he was removed from office after he fell out with the Abuja forces led by Dr Goodluck Jonathan at the time.
But close observers opine that their politics differ slightly. While Sylva seems to be more dynamic and could easily mix freely with even the most unfriendly critics, Lokpobiri, those who are loyal to his brand say, is more of a doer who doesn’t bandy words unnecessarily.
“Sylva will be moving along the road, see a group of boys taking a drink along the road, join them and start discussing with them like he had known them forever. That’s his style of politics and those who know him will easily attest to that. You will see him in your house without prior information just to surprise you.
“On the other hand, Lokpobiri might not have that kind of political trait or attitude, but he has his very strong points too. Lokpobiri is the kind of person that if you call him and he tells you come and see me tomorrow by 3pm, you can be sure that when you get there you will meet him and he won’t tell you stories” a top politician who has worked with both APC chieftains told Akelicious.
In the build-up to the contest, what he might also have going for him is that having just left Buhari’s cabinet, he probably has the ears of the president and even the APC leadership, captained by Adams Oshiomhole, who might still have an axe to grind with Sylva.
In 2015, Oshiomhole headed the electoral committee that was appointed with six other members from the APC to conduct the governorship primary in Bayelsa State in which Sylva was a contestant.
In the aftermath of the exercise, which was later cancelled, due to some irregularities, Oshiomhole accused Sylva of sponsoring thugs to take over the sports complex where the exercise was to take place.
“They practically prevented the actual delegates from participating and as a result, we could not proceed with the exercise. The committee was virtually held hostage, including my humble self and, this time, they were supervised unfortunately by one of the aspirants, the former governor of the state, Timipre Sylva.
“He said to my face and to the committee that we could not leave the venue of the conference unless we conducted the exercise without accreditation, as prescribed by the national secretariat.
“When it became clear that our lives were under threat, I had to call Abuja to prevail on the Army and the Joint Task Force to provide me with security to enable me to leave the venue because the thugs had effectively blocked the gate under the instructions of Sylva,” he added at the time.
But Sylva in his response said Oshiomhole came with a predetermined outcome as to who he wanted as the candidate of that primary where he squared off against Timi Alaibe, now an aspirant in the PDP.
Whether Oshiomhole, who is now the national chairman of the APC has forgiven Sylva for that alleged action remains to be seen , but if Sylva’s insinuation at that time that “Oshiomhole came to Yenagoa with a clear agenda, which was to get me out of the race at all cost…to pave the way for one of the aspirants” still holds, then Lokpobiri’s battle may just be easier.
Undeterred, the former Minister, has already set out to work by appointing the Director General of his campaign organisation, officially inaugurated his campaign office and got a quick endorsement from Chief Audu Ogbe, a foundation chieftain of the APC.
On whether the purported zoning formula favours him, his supporters argue that the three senatorial zones of the state have had their fair share of the governorship slot, from Diepreye Alamieyesigha, who hailed from the Central Senatorial District, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan from the East and Chief Timipre Sylva who served out Jonathan’s term when he was elevated as Vice President. Governor Seriake Dickson, the incumbent governor is from the West Senatorial District, just like Lokpobiri.
Their proposition is that there is no rule that says it must start afresh from the Central where it began in 1999 since the West seemed to have waited for a long time for their turn before Dickson had it.
On Sylva, Lokpobiri’s loyalists believe that he had a chance in 2015, but lost it, so he should allow the erstwhile minister to fly the flag of the party this time.
Director General of the campaign organisation of the former minister, Mr Warman Ogoriba, in a chat maintained that Lokpobiri remains the most qualified among the bunch in the APC, noting that mistakes of the past would not be repeated.
He noted that the minister was focussed on his mission to provide competent and transparent leadership to the people of Bayelsa state and waived the reported altercation between Lokpobiri and Sylva as a non-issue.
“2015/2016 is not 2019. Many things have changed. Bayelsans are wiser. They need a candidate they can trust because as it is today the people of Bayelsa are suffering. No development, the government is based on propaganda” he added.
On the alleged power struggle within the APC in the state, he posited that the aspirant remains focused on his ambition and not that of others.
“We are not bothered by what others are doing. We are focused on our candidate. If you know senator, if you have followed his history, you will know that he doesn’t pretend. That is why he is focused on being the governor and waived the idea of being reappointed minister” he said.
Ogoriba also disputed those who argue that his zone has had its turn. “Each time people talk about zoning, there was never a time Bayelsans sat down and said we will zone this position to so so and so. From Alamieyeseigha to Jonathan to sylva to Dickson, at anytime they contested, people from other zones contested against them” he said.
While denouncing the insinuation that the party was not on the ground, Ogoriba, a former two-time House of Representatives member, said the performance of the party in the state in the last general elections was a pointer to the surprises the party could pull in the November poll.
However, he insisted that the party must put aside sentiments and select the man who is most qualified to run the state, citing the former minister’s records as Speaker, Senator and as aide to President Buhari as examples.
“Those statements by the opposition (that APC doesn’t exist in Bayelsa) are unfounded. If we didn’t have capacity, we wouldn’t have won elections during the last poll. As we speak, we have rep, senate and assembly seats and even in the presidential election, we did very well. Today, INEC has issued certificates of return to our elected representatives” he maintained.
” Let the best person govern us. Bayelsa is in need of infrastructure and development. We cannot allow incompetence to play a part because of zoning” he argued.
But the former governor is not a pushover. He is still believed to have fierce followers, especially those who benefitted from his government during his first stint as lord of the Creek House in Onopa Yenagoa.
For now, he is yet to publicly declare his intention, though he made some insinuations to that effect last week during his 55th birthday in Yenagoa.
Lokpobiri seems to be ready to battle all the odds and grab the APC ticket in a couple of weeks. Will he succeed despite the obstacles? Will one of the gladiators stoop for the other and settle for the ministerial slot for the state? Certainly, it promises to be an interesting battle royale between the two APC heavyweights.