The third force in the October 10, 2020 governorship election in Ondo State finally emerges, as the deputy governor, Agboola Ajayi, officially declares for Zenith Labour Party (ZLP). Though ZLP had conducted its primary election and elected an oil mogul, Mr. Solomon Benjamin, from the South Senatorial District as its candidate, news has it that he has willingly yielded the ticket to Ajayi.

Just last week, the state chairman of the party, Joseph Akinlaja, disclosed that the National Working Committee (NWC) of the party had concluded plans to substitute Benjamin with Ajayi as the flagbearer in the forthcoming election. The movement of the deputy governor from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to other parties had since last year been subject of controversy in the state.

Soon after leaving PDP, the deputy governor started hobnobbing politically with former governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, who is the national leader of ZLP. Ajayi, on June 21, 2020, resigned his membership from APC to join the major opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to contest the governorship primary election.

There were systematic gang-ups against the deputy governor by other PDP aspirants, who believed that he had come to usurp their opportunity. They had sent strong warning to PDP leaders against conceding the party’s ticket to Ajayi. However, the candidate of the party in 2016 election, Eyitayo Jegede, defeated Ajayi and six others.

Many political readers believe PDP’s primary election had a lot of external inputs, especially from Mimiko, who reportedly supported Ajayi to defeat Jegede and others. He is said to be intent on extracting a pound of flesh politically from Jegede. Mimiko, the estranged political godfather to the two-term PDP candidate, Jegede, had defied all political calculations in 2016 to impose the latter as the party’s candidate to the chagrin of some leaders, especially those from the South Senatorial District.

They argued that Mimiko, who broke the two-term jinx and hails from the same Central Senatorial District as Jegede, ought to have scouted for a successor either from the south or north districts. According to those who keenly followed the July 22, 2020 primary in PDP, Mimiko had chosen to support Ajayi, his maternal kinsman, against his former protégée, Jegede, due to the fallout of the 2016 election.

While destroying old bridges of friendship, the Akure people and kinsmen of the PDP candidate had accused Mimiko of selling out to APC and incumbent governor, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, who is an age-long friend, in the 2016 election. But Mimiko had absolved himself of blame, having delivered results from Ondo East and Ondo West councils, his political domains, for PDP, while Jegede lost in his own local government, Akure South, to APC.

According to sources within PDP, the allegation pitted the former governor against the party’s leadership and some of his then counterparts like Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike. This made Mimiko to eventually ditch PDP for ZLP. Without hiding their bitterness, Akure people, who are spread across Akure South, Akure North, Idanre and Ifedore councils, put up a vendetta against Mimiko when he contested for the Central Senatorial seat in 2019. The former governor and his ZLP party were defeated by PDP candidate from Idanre, Ayo Akinyelure, though he still established his stronghold in Ondo East and West councils, which he won overwhelmingly.

Mimiko’s political antecedents in the state give more colouration to the third force in the forthcoming governorship election due to the stunts he pulled with Labour Party (LP) a few weeks to the 2007 poll. ‘Iroko,’ as he is fondly called by his supporters, didn’t reclaim his mandate until over 30 months’ litigation when he ousted his predecessor, late Dr. Olusegun Agagu, despite the powers of incumbency at the state and federal levels.

Surprisingly, many politicians who fell out with Mimiko before the end of his two-term tenure, like his estranged deputy and APC Board of Trustees (BoT) member, Alhaji Ali Olanusi, have agreed to reconcile all political differences to support ZLP. Others are former Assembly speakers, commissioners, who also resigned from Akeredolu’s cabinet, business tycoons, governorship aspirants of other parties, amongst other people of note.

Nonetheless, many political observers are of the opinion that the former governor may not be able to spring up surprises. But his visit to Olanusi’s house recently left many people guessing. The APC chieftain and former deputy governor, Olanusi, is the major financier of opposition against Governor Akeredolu’s second term. He has been the sole leader of the Unity Forum, which mobilised 11 APC governorship aspirants that clamoured for direct primary option. Although most of the APC governorship aspirants like Olusola Oke, who made the 104 list of APC National Campaign Council for Ondo State, Isaac Kekemeke, Sola Iji, Segun Abraham, among others, have since collapsed their structures for Akeredolu’s second term, Olanusi refused to join him.

Beside, there are other subtle narratives playing out. It is being insinuated that the third force is a political ploy by Mimiko and Ajayi to whittle down PDP’s chances in the October poll, especially so as to break its jaws in the South District, which has been the party’s strongest base in the state. This is sequel to the clandestine meeting between Ajayi and the Chairman of APC Reconciliation Committee and Niger State governor, Abubakar Bello, in Abuja recently, shortly after he lost the PDP primary and Jegede kicked against his choice as running mate.

As revealed, Governor Akeredolu and the third-term Senator representing Ondo North District, Prof. Ajayi Boroffice, were privy to the meeting as they arrived the venue when the deputy governor was leaving the state’s lodge. It is believed that since the South District could not get the PDP ticket, it is envisaged that through Ajayi’s candidature in ZLP, the rank and file of the party in the district would be broken.

People from the South, who cry foul about marginalization and abandonment, often pointed out that they could not endure Mimiko’s eight years tenure and go for another eight years’ reign of Jegede in PDP. Though the major contenders: Akeredolu, Jegede and Ajayi hail from the three districts, North, Central and South respectively, the people of the South believe they can endure another four years with Akeredolu and wait for their turn in 2025.

More so, there is a lot of infighting among PDP governors over the soul of the party ahead of 2023. Many of the governors are working tirelessly to keep at bay politically the former vice president and party’s presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. There’s no doubt that this would drastically affect Jegede, who is a close ally of Abubakar. Many PDP governors would see his victory, as a political pathway in 2023 for the former vice president in the South West.

It was reliably gathered that more than five PDP governors were behind Ajayi and wanted him to clinch the PDP ticket, as a way of stopping the former vice president. But since the tables turned, it is believed that they won’t hesitate to also support ZLP to ensure Jegede does not win the election.

Contrary to what is on the public domain, the Media Adviser to the deputy governor, Mr. Allen Sowore, who confirmed his boss’ resignation from PDP in a letter dated August 9, 2020, dispelled all insinuations that Ajayi’s candidature was being sponsored by APC.

According to him, “This decision is as a result of the call on the deputy governor by majority of the good people of Ondo State to give hope to the hopeless, provide credible and purposeful leadership in our dear state. He wishes to reassure his teaming supporters to remain focused and committed as he will be announcing his next line of action shortly.”

The aide disclosed that the PDP leadership in the state displayed outright animosity towards the deputy governor, adding that they never hid their resentment towards his boss, who is a foundation member of PDP. He, alongside other political readers, stressed that PDP is more interested in producing a candidate than winning the October governorship election. He revealled that the last congress of the party was a winner-takes-it-all affair for Jegede at the expense of others.

According to Sowore, the same defect rocking APC, where Governor Akeredolu has pocketed all the party machinery, is the same path being toed now by Jegede and his supporters, warning that such attitude would not bode well for the party. Sowore stated that massive defection looms in the ruling APC and PDP to ZLP, and listed other gladiators, who have teemed up with Mimiko in the project to include Niran Sule, Dare Emiola, Gboye Adegbenro, Sola Amodeni, and Abdulsalam Taofiq.

He noted that their consultation train had been given wide reception by a majority of PDP members and leaders from the South Senatorial District, who would soon abandon Jegede to support Ajayi.

But PDP state Publicity Secretary, Kennedy Peretei, said the exit of the deputy governor from the major opposition party would have no negative effect on the party’s prospect of winning the governorship election, accusing Ajayi of desperation to be governor.

Peretei, who hails from the South District, claimed that “As a party, we have not received his (Ajayi) letter of resignation, but we wish him well in his political journey. However, his exit from the PDP will not affect our prospects of winning the October gubernatorial elections this year.

“PDP remains solid, strong and more determined than ever before to win the forthcoming governorship elections with a credible and competent candidate in the person of Eyitayo Jegede.”

In a development intended to dampen the hope of ZLP a few weeks to the election, the party’s state Deputy Chairman and the Organising Secretary, Engr. Abayomi Adebayo and Femi Ikoyi respectively, led scores of party members to defect to APC. The ZLP leaders hinged their action on the candidature of the deputy governor coming to their party, lamenting that Ajayi doesn’t deserve their support. They claimed that the arrival of Ajayi to ZLP would turn the party to a ghost town.

According to them, party members moved out of ZLP en masse from the state level to the 203 wards and 3009 units. They argued that they preferred to support Governor Akeredolu for a second term than to work for the deputy governor.

Adebayo and Ikoyi said, “We are the political engine of ZLP. We heard someone is coming to Akure. Well, if he comes he will meet only the shell,” affirming that with other alliances the group is bringing to the table for Akeredolu, his re-election is certainly a done-deal.

Akeredolu is excited by the support from such unexpected quarters for his reelection, as ZLP’s chieftains have shown. He likened all the politicians regrouping against his second term, as people who have been relegated to the backdoor. For the first time, he publicly cast aspersions on his old time friend and former governor, Mimiko, describing ZLP as a car without engine meant for people who are ready to end their political careers.

Without mincing words, he faulted his predecessor on payment of salaries and infrastructural development, adding that the owners of the party are undertakers who are only interested in carrying dead bodies.

As keen as the next few weeks promise to be across the 18 local government areas of the state, a lot of uncertainties await the incumbent governor and the opposition parties trying to wrest power from him and APC. However, observers keenly await the aftermath of the October poll that could either make or mar the third force in Ondo politics: Mimiko and Ajayi.