With the setting up of a joint committee by the major parties involved in the deal, opposition parties may have reached a crucial stage in their bid to form a coalition that will upstage the ruling Peoples Democratic Party in the 2015 general election. But will they break the jinx of deadlock that has frustrated similar bids in the past?
Some leaders of the merging political parties recently said they were determined to employ both orthodox and unorthodox tactics to achieve an eventual union of opposition parties. What this means is that the opposition leaders might attempt to play to the gallery and even gamble with some of the sensitive issues in the merger process with a view to selling a dummy to their opponents while at the same time spin out surprises as the ultimate goal.
As a fall-out of the new tactics, the parties have elected to keep negotiations out of public glare and also to gag its members involved in the talks from giving out information on progress at negotiations. As such, most of the credible information about the talks can only be obtained under anonymity, if at all they are correct. The opposition party leaders therefore defended their new position, saying "genuine marriages are never formed in public glare".
In addition, the opposition leaders have also made it clear that the coalition presently enjoys the support and patronage of certain key politicians from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) who would not like to show up in the open, at least, not for now.
But more critically, one of the issues that have continued to bother followers of the opposition coalition bid is how they would allot political offices especially that of the flag-bearer of the prospective coalition party. Interestingly, that remained one of the hardest nuts to crack in previous attempts at forming an alliance.
However, in their determination not to falter with merger this time, leaders of the two prominent opposition political parties involved in the talks- the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) have assured the Nigerian people that the issue would be seamlessly handled.
Before the 2011 experiment was rested between ACN and CPC, the two parties had made some significant progress in arriving at agreements on how to work together. Issues of how to share positions were to a great extent concluded but for the last minute clash of interests allegedly between General Muhammadu Buhari and ACN leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Defending the decision to go ahead with an ACN-CPC merger this time, Buhari, last week, said there was already an existing agreement between both parties arising from the botched alliance in 2011. He explained that the parties considered it wise to leverage on the existing understanding and move it to the next level rather than embark on an entirely fresh exercise.
"We feel we should exhaustively pursue our terms of reference with the ACN before going to explore another one with other parties because to us, it is a continuous exercise with the ACN."
He noted that the idea was to allow ACN and CPC to concretize their existing ties and fuse into one party before engaging the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and a splinter group in the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA).
Perhaps, another game plan by the opposition coalition parties, observers say might be to continue to play-up the issue of a possible Buhari candidacy as a way to putting pressure on the PDP government. It is also being used to sustain the tempo of support for the merger by Buhari faithful from the north.
But as many analysts foresee the trend playing out, Buhari, they are of the view, might end up stepping aside and anointing a much younger and equally popular candidate from the north to fly the flag of the new coalition for the 2015 presidential election. That, in a way, may have been designed to get round at least, a critical factor responsible for the failure of the talks the last time.
A top member of the intending coalition who pleaded anonymity said: "That is the joker the new coalition party might use to rattle and defeat PDP".
Following perceived destabilisation plot by their political adversaries, leaders of the opposition, however, adopted fresh strategies aimed at avoiding any obstacle that could stand in the way of achieving a successful merger. For instance, the parties have changed their negotiating pattern to exclude some top leaders as a strategy to deflect attention from them.
In this regard, the opposition parties formed contact committees made up of carefully selected personalities who are not easily compromised and most of whom are not current officers of the party.
Thus, while the ACN committee is headed by Alhaji Yusuf Ali, that of the CPC is chaired by the impeached former Deputy Governor of Bauchi State, Alhaji Garba Gadi. Both men were reportedly chosen after a painstaking effort of the parties and because of their desire to have persons of strong character and principle head the committees.
This idea, according to the National Publicity Secretary of CPC, Mr. Rotimi Fashakin, was to avoid controversy and clash of interests during merger negotiations. Fashakin said the former deputy governor is seen as a very principled politician who has been tested and found to be reliable. It is the same yardstick that saw Ali being called to duty to steer the ACN contact committee.
But in spite of the careful selection of committee members, there were still fears that the merger talks might be derailed and interfered with and so the merger contact committees were given terms of reference which included areas to discuss and some no-go areas that would be referred back to the national leadership for its opinion.
Another strategy also being considered is to spell out issues to be decided on and allow the parties meeting separately to discussing and making inputs before finally coming together to harmonize and seal the agreement.
Under the arrangement, the committees were asked to meet at secret locations and avoid drawing public attention. In line with the new strategy to ward-off prying eyes of the PDP, the merger negotiations already scheduled to hold on inter-party basis between the various committees had to be shelved and in its place, the committees were asked to separately discuss proposals for a unified constitution, logo and a new party name.
The parties said the new mode of operation was adopted to ensure that no booby-trap is laid on their path. "We are adopting a strategy that is unorthodox and before you know it, there is a merger."
One of the merger committee members said the opposition parties are well aware of the destabilizing plot of PDP and are determined to keep their discussions and plans out of the reach of the ruling party, even if it means using unusual tactics. He explained that opposition parties have perfected a strategy of selling a dummy to the public regarding their plans so as not to let their political adversaries into their secrets.
"What we are doing is to keep our plans close to our chests as much as possible and to sell a dummy where possible to our opponents. Part of the dummies being sold to the public is the time frame for actualising the merger."
Insiders on the talks said the fusing of ACN and CPC will be formalised well before the deadline. Another example is the issue of whether Buhari will contest the presidency election on the merger platform which is being left to guess as part of strategies to keep the PDP in perpetual panic.
He said as a matter of strategy, deadlines mentioned for the concretisation of the merger might just be a dummy, adding that the parties intend to spring a surprise by coming up with a union very much earlier than is being predicted. Part of the lessons said to have been picked up from the failed alliance plan during the 2011 elections was that both the ACN and CPC allowed its ranks to be infiltrated and as such, had individuals in their midst who were mere moles.
In the previous attempt, intrigues and unwavering interests of some personalities allegedly ruined the move. Although, the two merging parties have approached the present merger talks with more maturity and seemingly determined spirit, there are still signs of cracks in the walls of one of the love birds, CPC.
The problem, observers believed, has to do with the emergence of influential power blocs within the party with each trying to outwit the other. The resultant struggle for the control of the party apparatus between the various influential groups is said to be frustrating efforts at convening the party's National Executive Committee meeting for over nine months.
The power blocs engaged in the tussle for control of the party machinery included the one led by its national chairman, Tony Momoh; another one loyal to the National Secretary, Alhaji Buba Galadima, and a third group which comprises new entrants and foot-soldiers of former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Mallam Nasiru El-Rufai.
There is yet another force by the splinter group made up of former national officers of the party led by Senator Rufai Hanga, who are opposed to the present leadership of the party and had taken it to court, challenging their authenticity. Hanga and other members of the protem national officers of CPC took the party to court on grounds that the current national leadership was a product of flawed convention.
The faction seems to be raising dust lately as it has cautioned other opposition parties against further talks with the CPC national leadership. In a letter by its Spokesman, Chief Dennis Aghanya, copies of which were sent to the National Chairmen of the ACN, ANPP and APGA, the faction said the legitimacy of the Momoh-led national executive is still in doubt and advised the parties to avoid running foul of the electoral law by going into the merger talks with the party leadership whose legitimacy is still being contested in court.
"I write on behalf of the legitimate leadership of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) to express our surprise and reservation that in spite of a pending court case awaiting determination on the legal status of the Prince Tony Momoh self-appointed Executive Committee; it appears that you have already concluded arrangements to commence merger talks with the representatives of the said faction of the party.
"We want to bring to your attention that the illegal convention of the 4th to 6th January 2011 national convention which produced the said national executive took place without conducting congresses in twenty states as observed by the INEC in its letter dated 11th January 2011, with ref. no: INEC/DPPM&L/CPC/266," the letter stated in part.
But despite the obvious crisis situation in CPC, the party is still believed to revolve mainly around the influence and personality of Buhari, who at the end of the day would determine the party's direction.
On its part, ANPP appears indifferent on the opposition marriage as it is still mopping up support for participating in the merger. Though, the party leadership under its National Chairman, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, has always expressed his beliefs in the efficacy of an opposition coalition as a veritable means of defeating the PDP, recent developments in the party showed that some influential elements would prefer re-strategising and re-building the party structures before discussing issues of alliance or merger.
ANPP's involvement in merger arrangement was said to have ignited controversy during its last Board of Trustees (BoT) meeting when the move by former Borno State Governor, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, to have the issue stepped down was voted out by majority of the members.
However addressing journalists shortly after a meeting of the ANPP BoT, Sheriff said the party has decided that it would give its best to first reposition the ANPP structures in the states just as the merger negotiations are in progress.
"Our plan is to look at ANPP structures first before going into talks with any other party. There is a committee on merger and they are talking but what we did here today is discussing about how to re-build ANPP. The committee's report which we looked into has nothing to do with issues of merger; it is purely a party affair. We are trying to look inwards and consider how best to reposition ANPP as a party.
"We believe that for us to talk to anybody on the merger, we have to first repair our home. If today your wife has left you, will you go and be discussing it with your neighbour? You have to first of all, bring back your wife," he said.
Also, one of Sheriff's Special Assistants, Comrade Umar Duhu, who also chipped in a telephone interview, said Sheriff was fully committed to the merger process. Duhu dismissed insinuations that Sheriff had been a PDP mole, saying he remained a loyal party man "fully committed to the ideals of the party and the popular desire to evolve an opposition alliance."
Given these misgivings and the expectations by Nigerians for a virile opposition that could match in every way possible, the machinery of the PDP, observers contend that the merging parties therefore have a responsibility to make the successful outcome of the ongoing talks an assignment that must be discharged religiously.
Failure, some analysts contend, is not an option as far as proposed merger is concerned. Indeed, it is also being argued that the merger may not eventually secure the presidency as planned, but a determined opposition with the merger forces it currently boats can change the focus of government and put the country in better stead for the challenges of this age.
This is why leadership of the ACN and CPC especially must see this assignment as one beyond them and shelve personal interest at the expense of national stakes. Only this way, observers argue, can the political class say it is adding value to the course of good governance, political stability and the growth of democracy.
Let PDP BoT Chair Return to Ekwueme
In a country where the contributions of distinguished people are appreciated, the current struggle for the Chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the largest political party in Africa would be unnecessary. His Excellency, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, former Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a founding Chairman of the PDP, first Chairman of the Board of Trustee of the party would be requested, appealed to and even begged to return to the position as he towers above every other contender.
Ekwueme has many firsts in Nigeria's political history and has the distinguished record of making his intellectual endowment available to the country by his proposition of six political zonal structures in the country which has ensured the political stability of the country till date.
He mobilised the group of 34 eminent Nigerians who risked their lives to stand up against the dictatorship of former military ruler, General Sani Abacha. He co-led the 28 member NDI/Carter Centre-sponsored observer team to the Liberian Presidential run-off election in 2005.
Most recently he was invited by the ruling party in Nigeria, the PDP to head the Reconciliation Committee in the wake of intra-party discord following the last two presidential elections. The recommendations of the Ekwueme Committee have been used as yardstick for reconciliation in the party and re-admitting aggrieved/expelled members of the party.
His unceremonial removal and replacement with Chief Tony Anenih was one of the arbitrary actions of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. However, even the then scheming President has discovered that what goes around comes around as he had since been betrayed and humiliated by the monster he created - vaulting ambition which overleaps itself and falls on the other. Apologies to William Shakespeare!
Having schemed himself into the position through amendment of the party's constitution, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, found the seat too hot for him and had to throw in the towel.
This is the time for the party to return to sanity and its democratic credentials and hand over the chairmanship of its BoT to a man with the disposition and intellect of Dr. Ekwueme who commands deep respect and following in all parts of the country.
It was the late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who wrote boldly in his sitting room that "only the deep can call to the deep". Dr. Ekwueme is deep and as he has already done by prescribing solutions to some of Nigeria's seemingly insurmountable problems, he will do more if given the challenge.
The Board of Trustees is the conscience of any organisation. As a founding father of the PDP, Dr. Ekwueme regards the party as his baby and has been nurtured to adulthood. It will be a personal tragedy for him to see the party disintegrate and pulled down by anti-democratic elements that later infiltrated the party, seized its highest echelons and used them for personal vendetta.
Now that history has vindicated the just, the founding father of the party should be humbly requested to return to his seat on the party's Board of Trustee to give the party its respectful direction and befitting image it lost in the past 10 years.
It has been argued that at 80 years of age, the elder statesman is too old to play party politics, agreed! But this is a major reason an eminent position as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the party suits him. Dr. Ekwueme still has the mental alertness, strength of character and courage to attend meetings of the BOT and direct them appropriately.
Afterall, even at party meetings and conventions, Dr. Ekwueme stays throughout the proceedings lasting more than those half his age. It is something of pride to us that we have a man of his age with all his faculties intact, able and willing to continue to contribute the wealth of his knowledge and experience to the progress and development of our great country.
Let all the contenders to the position of chair of PDP BoT including Mr. Fix it rise in unison and concede the position to Dr. Ekwueme. None of the present contenders to the position can hold a candle to him. Is it in terms of contribution to the party, principle, commitment, steadfastness and staying put in the party despite all odds?
Mr. Fix it should concentrate his energy on the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to which he has returned as Chairman and make it more efficient as well as organise ways and means of returning Edo State which we have lost to Governor Adams Oshiomole of ACN in the past 5 years to the PDP.
A piece of advice to President Jonathan: Your chances of re-election in 2015 hinge on two major factors. One is the power situation in country and the other is reducing endemic corruption in the polity. The power situation is now being very effectively handled as the situation has improved drastically.
And unless a serious attention is given to tackling corruption, I am afraid the country is lost. This is where Dr. Ekwueme comes in. Since, unfortunately, Dr. Ekwueme cannot be President of the country again, he will certainly as BoT Chairman, give it an honourable image and assist to transform the party and polity towards an anti-corruption environment.
•Nwandu wrote in from Abuja