If poses were prophecies, one interesting photograph of the candidates during the signing of the peace accord in Ondo would have offered a relatable cryptic message. Akeredolu stood a little distance away, arms behind him, decked in a shirt, jeans and a fez cap – he appeared relaxed. Eyitayo Jegede was next, hands clasped in front of him, smiling to the camera – his pose radiated ‘anything could happen’, while Agboola Ajayi seemed to be consciously trying to avoid breathing the same air as his former principal; he chose instead to stand inches behind Jegede. That was October 6, 2020 — four days to the governorship election.
To say it was a keenly contested election may be rendering it an overstatement on varying levels, considering the peculiarities of the candidates and their political parties, but for the players that took an active role in the just concluded election in Ondo state, especially for the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Zenith Labour Party (ZLP), the political possibilities were dicey.
Barely one year ago, despite the internal ramblings said to be affecting the ruling APC, Akeredolu seemed to be sitting pretty on the reelection seat with Agboola Ajayi, his grassroots political deputy, by his side. However, the cards became crudely shuffled when Ajayi announced his exit from the APC in June 2020, and pranced his way into the PDP, where he was welcomed amid wild jubilation. On losing the ticket, Agboola again danced into the waiting arms of Olusegun Mimiko, former governor of Ondo and face of the ZLP, and this time, he was given the flag of the party for the governorship election.
In the build-up to the election, following accusations and counter-claims, it looked like Akeredolu’s chances may not be so bright after all. Then election day dawned and it became up to the voters to make the final choice. Although violence was not as pronounced, voter inducement was too obvious to ignore. Across various polling units of the state, party agents were seen publicly offering cash to residents to vote particular candidates. Eventually, the election process was concluded, despite the rains, and it was time for results.
As results started to trickle in from polling units, it seemed like the APC was in a comfortable lead, trailed a long distance off by the PDP, while ZLP was yet to take off from the starting line. Around 2:30am, INEC had announced results from 12 LGAs, and called for a break till 9am for the remaining results. At this time, the race had heated up with APC on a precarious edge by a margin of less than 30,000 votes – six LGAs were yet to turn in results.
Later on Sunday morning, more results arrived at the central collation venue, and after hours of waiting, Akeredolu swept, albeit on a tight ship, to victory, polling 292,839 votes against Jegede who secured 193,585 votes. Ajayi’s ZLP eventually jogged a few steps behind PDP and finished the race with 60,051 votes.
But could Akeredolu have won the election strictly on his previous performance in governance? A little hard to say, but one thing was sure — several contributing factors laid the foundation for his victory, five of which are presented below:
Although there have been a few examples of big-name politicians performing woefully during polls, it is not very common within the Nigerian political setting for governors to lose their seats as incumbents, however overwhelming the opposition may be – Godwin Obaseki of Edo, Emmanuel Udom of Akwa Ibom, and Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano readily come to mind. With too many faction-induced theatrics in the build-up to the election, a victory against Akeredolu may have been possible, but the governor took major steps to put his house in order just before the election. After all, the government was his to run as he saw fit and the senior advocate of Nigeria did not look ready to lose. Using resources at his disposal, he inaugurated major projects across the state including the new administrative complex of the Rufus Giwa Polytechnic which was declared open seven days to the governorship poll, and also inaugurated a chocolate factory in Idanre in late September. Using his influence as the sitting governor, Akeredolu moved to mend fences with political heavyweights, including the prominent unity group of the APC in Ondo.
“I have no doubt that Governor Rotimi Akeredolu is a good brand for the APC to market,” were the words of President Muhammadu Buhari, hours to the election. And the party at the federal level did its best to market him to the Ondo populace. Moving to the state in large numbers, led by an entourage of at least 10 governors and Bola Tinubu, the party’s national leader, the APC big-wigs campaigned for their brand relentlessly, with the full support of the administration at the centre. Unlike Ize-Iyamu who held the APC’s flag in Edo, Akeredolu basked in the warmth of Buhari’s influence, which extended to him receiving support across board within the top ranks of the party. Did his deputy leaving APC dry also contribute to providing the necessary sentiment to receive solid backing from the federal ranks? Very likely!
AGBOOLA, SSG AND THOSE WHO WALKED AWAY
Although there were reports of issues between Akeredolu and others on his style of governance, not many saw Ajayi abandoning the APC ship weeks before the election. Following the exit of the deputy governor from the party, Ifedayo Abegunde, the secretary to the state government (SSG) dropped his resignation in July 2020. At this time, it became obvious that the governor needed to make serious moves to reunite the party in the state at the risk of losing his seat. After all, with his influence, Ajayi appeared to be on the top list of popular faces familiar with the grassroots. As such, between July and October, the governor moved within and outside state borders, holding meetings with key figures within the party, with his efforts yielding fruits including securing the support of Oke. The SSG also returned to the party. Besides, anyone who followed the 2016 election may understand why Akeredolu may have needed Oke to join his camp. They had contested on opposite platforms – Oke ran for governorship on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) – and secured an impressive 126,889 votes against Akeredolu’s 224,842 votes at the time. This time, Agboola had taken away his influence, but that was easily countered with Oke’s popularity within the state. Ilaje, Oke’s LGA, did impressive with votes by bringing in 26,657 for the APC, against 11,128 and 4,405 votes secured by the PDP and ZLP, respectively.
OSHIOMHOLE’S TIMELY SUSPENSION
“In election matters, the more you look, the less you see,” were the words of Olusola Oke, after the APC declared Akeredolu its governorship candidate. However, the weeks before the final decision of the primary election were characterised by intrigues that may have possibly cost Akeredolu the party’s ticket. Under the leadership of Adams Oshiomhole at the time, the party had suspended Akeredolu alongside Rochas Okorocha, former Imo governor, Ibikunle Amosus, former Ogun governor, among others, over anti-party activities in the build-up to the 2019 elections. Though not listed in official quarters, Akeredolu had been reportedly accused of supporting an opposition candidate for the position of member of the house of representatives. However, in December 2019, the party lifted the suspension. At this time, Oshiomhole was already deeply involved in a major tussle with Obaseki over control of the APC in Edo state.
There are also reports that following the suspension, the Ondo governor and Oshiomhole may not have been on the smoothest of relationships, raising concerns over the possibility of the party handing the ticket to another candidate. However, in June, the court of appeal affirmed Oshiomhole’s suspension. And just like that, whether connected or otherwise, events started to line up in Akeredolu’s favour. One month later, he clinched the party’s ticket — a move which led to serious cracks within the party in the state, especially as the unity group of the APC had preferred Olusola Oke. However, whoever would dismiss the influence of the unity group, would be doing so at a great risk — one which Akeredolu probably weighed and decided against ignoring. Reconciliation moves started and after ultimatums and meetings, Oke — Akeredolu’s major contender who had openly expressed reservations about the party’s decision to go with the incumbent governor — collapsed his structure in favour of the APC.
If money were a person, that man or woman would come daringly close to carrying the prize for most the influential factor in the Saturday exercise. According to reports from election observers and journalists, while not much in terms of violence was witnessed during the governorship poll, the distribution of cash for votes, although done discreetly in many polling units, was the order of the day, with many party agents who claimed to be representatives of the APC outspending their rivals.
From classrooms to tree shades, and in some cases, apartments converted to emergency ‘distribution facilities’, informally-dressed agents were seen carrying bags of various shapes and sizes, armed with notebooks and pens, as they took down records of persons who voted for the party and exchanged same for cash ranging from N5,000 to N2,000 in some cases — and with the full cooperation of the voters in many cases, irrespective of age or social standing within communities. Save a few polling units where such moves were strictly resisted, if anyone asks if money influenced the election, without doubt, it did.