Governor Willie Obiano, who is facing reelection on Saturday, had the most to lose going into the (s)election debate with four other candidates on national TV tonight. And he did his best to ensure he made the other candidates look good. It was a combination of the arrogance of power and poor presentational skills and perhaps, the fact that he was not a politician (a bank exec plucked from obscurity by former governor Peter Obi as his replacement three years ago) that ensured Obiano came out of the debate looking like a man promoted beyond his capabilities.
The governor, who belongs to the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) was lined up against Tony Nwoye of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Oseloka Obaze of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Osita Chidoka of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and the no-hoper Godwin Ezeemo from the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA). On paper there were a lot of “progressives” in the house, but the reality and the evidence from this debate were completely different.
Nwoye had trouble getting his words out of his mouth – quite unusual for someone that kept banging on about his student union activism. He got the chance to start first but wasted his allocated two minute opening statement with shout-outs to all and sundry. However, he did land a few blows on Obiano with the claim that the governor employed over 700 special assistants paying them about 500m naira ($1.4m), presumably monthly.
Watch the debate below:
Obiano started off saying he wanted to build a state that would attract economic investment and then went into stuff around building “enablers and pillars”. He appeared like someone that crammed for the night and was not quite on top of his brief as he kept stumbling. He claimed security as his government’s greatest achievement.
Obaze, in contrast to Obiano, was quite articulate. He said the state wasn’t working and the government was not working for the people. He used his opening statement time well to claim that his focus if elected would be human development, healthcare and social welfare. He also stated that he would guarantee local government elections as soon as he got elected. None of the other candidates addressed this point.
The least said about Ezeemo, the better. It was clear he had no business in this setting – apart from being a successful businessman with a lot of money to burn. He claimed he will address “skill-based education” because the country was producing unemployable graduates.
Chidoka said his focus would be on “human infrastructure”. He slammed Obiano for the state ranking low on corruption. He managed to stick to the allotted time, but he was all about grand, feel-good statements, with little detail.
The next round of questions focused on some of the personal failings of the candidates. Nwoye was asked about why he is serving as a PDP member of the House of Representatives and running now as an APC candidate for governor. He handled the question quite well, claiming that the PDP collaborated with APGA to deny him his mandate as a PDP legislator. He denied being involved in the “kidnap” of governor Chris Ngige in 2003. Nwoye also ridiculously claimed that as a student union leader he “arrested cultists”. He never explained how he gained the powers of arrest.
Obiano was asked why he fell out with his “godfather” Peter Obi. He said he wasn’t running against Obi and didn’t answer the question, claiming instead to have “conquered security”. He said he grew the economy of the state but never adequately explained how. By his reckoning, his state’s economic growth was higher than Nigeria’s. The moderator, Seun Okinbaloye, pressed again on the Obi question, forcing the governor to admit that he fell out with his mentor because “a request for payment was declined” and Obi had joined another party.
Obaze was unruffled when questioned why he served as Secretary to the State Government under Obiano and was now running against him. He said he wanted to leave after working in the same role in Peter Obi’s administration. Obaze then said that Obiano asked him to remain in that position when he succeeded Obi to ensure a stable transition.
Ezeemo shockingly claimed that a majority of people in the state were not sincere and his urge to help his state made him leave the UK that was “flowing with milk and honey” to return home. That did nothing to dispel the notion that he wasn’t a serious candidate. He didn’t even understand the question about how his businesses could create conflicts of interest if he became governor.
Chidoka was quizzed about belonging to the PDP and now the UPP. He claimed that the platform didn’t matter. His cavalier attitude was a sad indictment on Nigerian politics – in which parties were just vehicles for motives such as self-aggrandisement. Chidoka hit Obiano again with the claim that the governor inherited debt of $45m and it had risen to $85m. He dismissed the governor’s claims about GDP growth as coming from “US consultants”.
The candidates were then questioned about industrialising the state. They all had canned answers with little detail on delivery. Nwoye was the only one to stress the importance of running water.
Obiano never missed a chance to remind viewers that he paid salaries on time. At a point, he said he was the only governor in Nigeria “paying salaries and doing road work”. As if the “road work” was not enough, he also chose to take the low road with low blows against his opponents. He said Obaze was a former UN official who should really be in Syria dealing with the crisis there. The governor said Nwoye had never done a proper job in his life and that while Chidoka was his only opponent with executive experience, he should be “directing traffic”. Chidoka was a former boss of the Federal Road Safety Commission. Chidoka was the only to rise to the bait and hit back with the claim that Obiano retired at 60 “only” as an executive director at “a mid level bank” before he became governor.
The debate got increasingly tetchy when it came to claims and counter-claims about how much Obiano’s predecessor (Peter Obi) left in the kitty. While the others showed a bit of decorum, Obiano kept interrupting other speakers. Very little of worth was said by any candidate. The much-hyped Chidoka thought empty sound-bites were a substitute for concrete ideas. He only had something of note to say on issues around Biafran agitation and aviation – from his time as a minister. On how to handle the crisis of separatism instigated by Nnamdi Kanu and his Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Chidoka landed an instructive blow on the incumbent, stating that Kanu was a former chairman of the London branch of APGA who left when the party became a “money-making machine”.
Obiano couldn’t answer the question why he couldn’t fix the much-derided Enugu-Onitsha federal highway and then bill the federal government for the work. He first rambled about increasing internally-generated revenue, getting 40% less federal allocations than his predecessor, and yams being exported to the UK. In case, anyone was in doubt, he emphasised “you will see” the Anambra yams in the UK. But people were more interested in seeing good roads in his state. He finally arrived at a plausible reason for not improving the Enugu-Onitsha road – his state was being owed 43bn naira ($120m) by the feds.
His opponents didn’t buy this excuse. Nwoye reeled out a long list of state roads in disrepair. He said in some places traders were raising money to fix the roads themselves. Obaze claimed that the government had not built “a two kilometre road from start to finish”. According to the PDP candidate, a lot of money has been spent with nothing to show for it.
Obiano was pummelled from all sides on the decision to build an airport in the state with two airports in close proximity in Enugu and Asaba. He replied that the money was going to come from private investors and not public funds. But, like everything else he said, he sounded very unconvincing. The airport had the makings of a white elephant. White elephants don’t fly but they provide huge opportunities for inflated contracts and transporting public money into private pockets.
If debates had a bearing on Nigerian (s)elections, Obiano would have blown his chances of success on 18 November and Obaze was the only candidate that came out looking like a governor. Chidoka seemed like an empty vessel that liked the sound of his own voice and has bought into his own hype. Nwoye sounded like there must be some truth in Obiano’s claim that he had never done a proper job in his life.