Nigeria's ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC), faces another internal crisis in the buildup to two governorship elections in states it controls, leading senior officials to express fears the results may not end well for the party.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has fixed September 19 and October for the governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States, respectively.
Following the release of the timetable, APC has gone ahead to schedule its primary elections in the two states for June 22 and July 20.
Both the governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, and Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State are seeking re-election for another four-year term.
But ahead of the elections, the ruling party is grappling with an internal crisis, which if not promptly and carefully resolved, may cost it victory in both states.
Interestingly, the issues at stake are somewhat akin to the ones that caused the party to lose Zamfara and Rivers States to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 elections.
The party lost all its seats in the 2019 elections in Zamfara State after a legal battle that terminated at the Supreme Court.
The court ruled that the party did not conduct valid primaries to select its governorship, national and state assembly candidates in the build-up to the elections.
The disagreement among leaders of the APC in the north west state led to the inability to hold the primaries within the stipulated time.
The faction of the loyal to ex-Governor Abdul'aziz Yari claimed it held congresses and had candidates, while the faction loyal to Kabiru Marafa, the then senator representing Zamfara Central, insisted that no primary was held.
In Rivers State, the APC suffered a similar fate as a result of the inability of factions of the party loyal to the Nigerian minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, and Magnus Abe, a former senator, to reach a compromise on the party's flagbearer.
The feud between the two APC leaders worked in favour of the incumbent governor, Nyesom Wike, who got a smooth ride to victory in the election.
Consequently, these issues formed part of the grievances of some party faithful, including NWC members, who not only demanded but plotted the removal of Adams Oshiomhole, as the national chairman of the party earlier this year.
Mr Oshiomhole was soon to be entangled in a crisis back home in Edo where he had been suspended after a vote of no confidence was passed on him by 18 chairmen of the local chapters of the party in the state last November.
The suspension, presumably instigated by Mr Obaseki-led administration, was confirmed by an Abuja High Court but was reversed by a Federal High Court in Kano.
It took the intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari and other bigwigs within the party who doused the political tantrum and jibes and saved Mr Oshiomhole's job in March.
However, the recent inauguration of Waziri Bulama by Mr Oshiomhole, as APC national secretary and the adoption of direct primary by the Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee for the June 22 Edo governorship primary election by a few members of the national working committee, have rekindled the crisis in the ruling party just a few weeks to the primary elections in Edo and Ondo.
Mr Bulama's appointment, as well as those of two others, was controversially announced at the height of the party's internal crisis in March. That was shortly after Mr Oshiomhole was suspended by an Abuja High Court.
Mr Bulama was appointed to replace the former national secretary, Mala Buni, who was elected the governor of Yobe State last year. He is from Borno State.
The move was sternly criticised by the party's national vice-chairman (North-east), Salihu Mustapha, and some other leaders of the party, who accused the national chairman of 'unconstitutional' and dictatorial actions.
Jolted by the inauguration of Mr Bulama, the aggrieved NWC members and a few others outside it but working in the background, have renewed their opposition against Mr Oshiomhole.
They contend that the appointment of the new national secretary hitherto did not follow the laid down procedure for making such appointment and that it could be a booby trap to make APC lose the elections in both Edo and Ondo State.
Their disputation may not be misplaced.
As national secretary, Mr Bulama would sign all party's correspondences to INEC, alongside the party's national chairman.
They believe that if the appointment of the national secretary was tainted with illegality, it could make the electoral body view all the actions of the party as nullity and therefore disqualify its candidates thereafter.
"There is already (an) absence of transparency. I am crying for the APC inside me. Zamfara, here we come again," Lawal Shuaibu, the party's national deputy chairman, said lamentably.
Apparently worried about the criticisms trailing its action, the party tried to clarify its action.
In a statement, following the inauguration of the acting scribe, the party categorically stated that "Bulama would remain in acting capacity pending the North-east zonal convention."
It did not however stipulate when the convention would hold.
Be that as it may, there appears to a blind spot in the APC constitution as to how an official will be replaced when a constitutionally elected person leaves office, asides the provision for the deputy to act in his place.
But far more contentious now is the recent announcement by the NWC that the party had adopted direct primaries to pick its governorship candidate in Edo State.
Although Mr Obaseki had boasted that he would win regardless of the mode of primary, the guideline has become a contentious issue in Edo where the APC has been factionalised with one group loyal to the governor and the other loyal to Mr Oshiomhole, both fighting for the soul of the party in the state.
Direct primaries involve the participation of all party members in the selection of party candidates while indirect primaries involve use of delegates.
Often party leaders at local levels, political appointees as well as elected officials are assigned to elect party candidates in indirect primaries.
The implication of adopting direct primaries is that Mr Obaseki's political appointees and other local supporters cannot be delegates thus blurring his chances of picking the governorship ticket.
Perhaps, the governor may have realised that with a direct primary election in Edo, his chances of picking the APC ticket come June 22 are slim.
Crusoe Osagie, his spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES that "whatever they (NWC) decide in the said meeting cannot stand the test of legality. The NEC is the one that is responsible for picking the kind of primary that is used to determine the candidate of a party in a governorship election."
The governor did not stop at rejecting direct primaries, he has embarked on moves to shoot the NWC decision down.
On Sunday, Mr Obaseki, accompanied by seven other APC governors, visited the leader of the party, Bola Tinubu, in Lagos apparently where they reportedly lobbied to change the decision of the NWC.
The next day, the embattled governor visited Mr Buhari at the presidential villa to inform him about his desire to seek re-election. At the meeting, he presented his nomination form to the president after which he told journalists that the president assured him of his support.
The state chapter of the party led by Anselm Ojezua, which is sympathetic to the governor, shares the governor's view, insisting it is illegal.
Aside from faulting the "illegality" of Mr Bulama's appointment, Mr Shuaibu, a former senator, who was recently recalled from an indefinite suspension, accused the national chairman of breaching Article 9.1 (ii), 9.4 (i), Article 20 (iv), and Article 25 (A) (1) of the APC constitution which he said could later haunt the ruling party after the two-state elections, just as it was seen in Zamfara State.
While Article 9.1 (ii) and 9.4 (i) of the party constitution stipulate conditions for member's eligibility and registration, Article 20 clearly explained the procedure for arriving at the party's type of primaries and candidates' nomination or appointments.
Conversely, a breakaway faction of the party loyal to Mr Oshiomhole is expectedly excited about the decision of NWC and has gone ahead to implement it.
Last week, the faction nominated via consensus Osagie Ize-Iyamu as its governorship candidate for the September 19 election.
A founding member of the APC in the state, Mr Ize-Iyamu ran as the PDP candidate in the 2016 Edo State governorship election but lost to Mr Obaseki.
He returned to APC in November 2019, shortly before the crisis in the state's branch of the party went overboard.
He was granted a waiver at the Oshiomhole-led NWC which adopted the direct primary to determine the party's governorship candidate for the next election.
In the main, Mr Ize-Iyamu, a cleric, seems to be having a smooth ride in the faction. Some days ago, six other aspirants dropped their ambitions to support him.
Was the NWC right in adopting the direct primaries? The body may have relied on the provisions of the party's constitution to take the decision.
Section 13:4 of the document stipulates that the NWC can "PROPOSE to the NEC, party electoral regulations, to govern the conduct of elections to all party offices at every level and to govern the procedure for selecting party candidates for elective offices, subject to the constitution." It may have done just that.
Unless the feuding groups mend fences, there is a possibility that the APC may end up conducting two primary elections in Edo State, clearly preparing for an abysmal outing during the September 19 main election.
Amid speculations that Mr Obaseki might defect to the PDP, which is waiting in the wings to offer him its ticket, the governor sounded reconciliatory after his meeting with Mr Buhari on Monday.
What is not certain is if his estranged political godfather and his group would toe that path. If not, what happens?
Mr Oshiomhole, a former Edo governor, says the party would go ahead with the direct primaries.
"Obaseki is not here but issues of primaries are well spelt out in our constitution and we are following it as strictly as possible. So, nothing to worry about at all," he said after meeting with some APC governors in Abuja on Monday.
Going by its own guideline, INEC recognises primary elections it observed. What this means is that if the factions of the party hold two primaries in the state, then INEC is bound to observe the one it deems appropriate and in this case the Ojezua-led exco which is the recognised one in Edo State.
But if it ignores both, that means Edo polls will hold without an APC candidate, a repeat of what happened in the past.
Meanwhile, procedurally it is the NWC that forwards the names of nominees to INEC.
Should the Ojezua-led exco pick Mr Obaseki as its candidate, will the NWC led by Mr Oshiomhole send the governor's name to the electoral body? If not, will it send to INEC the name of Mr Ize-Iyamu who was thrown up by an unrecognized group of party members.
Will APC lose Edo as a result of the lingering feud between Mr Oshiomhole, a former governor of the state, and his estranged political godson, Mr Obaseki?
Omoruyi Aigbe, the senior monitoring evaluation officer for Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), believes the disunity in Edo APC may not only affect the party's chances at victory but also distort the entire election process in the state.
"When the (party) constitution is silent, it creates a sort of opening for anybody to manipulate the process," he said on the Bulama controversy.
He added, "They (APC) should have studied all the Supreme Court verdicts. In Zamfara and Rivers, the court ruled that the party had no candidate in the election which means that the party primary was a flaw."
"The APC stands a chance to present the next governor of Edo. If Obaseki wins the ticket, he is likely to become the next governor of Edo.
"If the ticket changes and he (Obaseki) joins the opposition party to contest, he may not win because the people who vote in an election are not people who like his performance, but those with interests. He may not be able to secure the votes of the majority of party members who are against him. He will not also secure the votes of PDP members who think he is an outsider," Mr Aigbe offered another view into the party's deepening crisis.
Also, a political analyst and commentator, Jide Ojo, said the festering crisis in the party may not only lead to a loss for them at the polls but also its last foothold in the entire South-south region "if the elders of the party fail to reconcile the factions before the primaries."
"If APC should lose Edo State, it means it doesn't have any correct foothold in the South-south. It would rub off and embarrass the national chairman that he failed to deliver his own state and strengthen the opposition party in that state," Mr Ojo told this newspaper.
He likened the faceoff between Messrs Oshiomhole and Obaseki "to what was obtainable between Ali Modu Sheriff and Ahmed Makarfi of the PDP "who ran parallel to each other and therefore affected the party."
Mr Ojo also added that the emergence of the incumbent governor of Edo as the party candidate may not be a total victory without appeasing the members of the State House of Assembly whom he refused to inaugurate for almost a year after they were declared elected.
"Both camps risk the chances of losing a lot of goodwill. Obaseki will lose the goodwill of pro-Oshiomhole's state lawmakers who he has not inaugurated, a case which is in court," he added.
Going forward, how these permutations will play out in the state which is the homebase of the national chairman of the country's ruling party will no doubt stir ripples not only in the state's political fortunes but at the national level.
Unless the party acts on time, the APC may just kiss Edo State goodbye come November when the swearing in of the occupant of Dennis Osadebay Government House, Benin City will take place.