In my adopted home state of Rivers, they do not “play” politics. They wage bitter “fights” over politics. Political outcomes are more of spoils of murky wars than victories of democratic rituals. While the contest for power and supremacy rages, instruments of violence are fair. People are killed routinely. Even long after a political battle has been won and lost, the bitterness endures. Political families become enemy camps. Political dispensations survive or die out according to their ability to sustain their camp with the spoils of war. So, political solidarity in Rivers state tends to be short lived and fluid as foot soldiers change camps and drift in alliances and allegiances. Show me political adversaries of yester years in the state that are still on speaking terms today!
The historic symbol of this distinction is the gunboat, the principal instrument of power with which slave traders, palm oil traders and colonial warlords contested for and asserted power and authority in what has become Rivers State of modern Nigeria. The oil Rivers of old was a zone of perpetual conflict and instability. Centres of authority shifted with changing fortunes in terms of military power measured by possession of arsenals of the maxim gun supplied by white traders from Europe. Bloody contests among rival ‘houses’ for supremacy in wars over slaves, palm oil and waterways were perennial.
Fast forward. Slaves are now a no no. Palm oil has been replaced by crude oil and gas. The children of the old kings and ruling houses have become chiefs, kings and leaders of oil producing communities, middlemen in endless engagements with international oil majors. Fast forwards still. The great grand children of the oil river middlemen and chiefs have become the politicians of present day partisan democratic contests. The warlike instincts remain alive. The bitterness of influence contests has survived the centuries as well. Those in search of the source of the scorched earth politics of today’s Rivers state had better look at the history books of the area in the past.
Look next door at the South West. At the frequent weekend owambe parties in Lagos, known political adversaries meet and mix, share jokes and pounded yam and ewedu soup and exchange banter, only to go back to the political trenches next week with the usual exchange of political insults. No bitterness. Just a game which has its dividing lines and its own rules and language. Political adversaries in the South West even exchange their children in marriage at the weekend only to resume the ‘drama’ of political fights the next week.
In the last one week, the ancient political bad manners of Rivers have been on full display. Barely a month after the dress rehearsals of the brewing scuffle between Governor Fubara and his political mentor, Nyesom Wike, the second act of the duel is well underway. Incumbent Governor of the state, Mr. Similayi Fubara, seems to have remembered a bad chapter in the political playbook of his ill mannered political god father, Mr. Nyesom Wike. Love him or hate him, Tinubu’s Federal Capital Territory minister, Nyesom Wike, has recently emerged as Nigeria’s leading political emperor with scant attention for decency.
The governor woke up earlier in the week and ordered an instant demolition of the state house of Assembly. Bulldozers stormed the sprawling edifice and razed it to the ground, contents and all. There was no time for the rival political camp controlled from Abuja by Wike to mobilize thugs or police men. There was no where for the assembly to meet. A house of assembly whose majority 27 members had the previous day decamped from the PDP to the ruling APC found no where to sit and complete the impeachment of the governor which was obviously their next line of action. It did not matter to them that by changing parties overnight, they had technically lost their seats in line with the stipulations of the constitution. A homeless legislature is an unsightly travesty of democratic drama.
The governor did not stop with just the physical demolition of the state House of Assembly. He proceeded to present his N800 billion plus 2024 budget to an audience of four of the remaining PDP assembly members. The venue was a section of his living room in the Government House. The rest of the ‘audience’ were many empty chairs in a scene reminiscent of the absurdist play Chairs by Eugene Ionesco. In a touch of sardonic and cruel irony, the embattled governor still had the presence of mind to send a birthday message to Mr. Wike in Abuja, referring to him rather sarcastically as “My Oga”, a cruel reminder to Wike that he and the young man share quite a few intimate details not fit to print!
The sparks of the trouble unfolding in the state are still flying and cascading all over the state. The romp of the parliament, the five assembly men still in the PDP, have kept sitting as though they were the entire house. After all, they are in the ruling party of the state with the governor. Similarly, the 27 member majority who decamped from the PDP into the APC have also found some location to keep sitting, passing bills, and resolutions as if nothing has happened even if, by law, they have become illegal and illegitimate. The governor can actually order the police to round them up for “unlawful assembly with intent to cause public unrest and disturb the peace of the state”!
In the interim, day- to- day governance is threatened. The state Attorney General whom the governor inherited from Mr. Wike’s cabinet has resigned. Five other commissioners have since followed suit. Others may follow since an estimated 80% of the cabinet were dictated and imposed by Mr. Wike. It is said that as he headed for the exit door, Wike literally set up a full government machinery and imposed it on Mr. Fubara while he directed the affairs of the state from his Abuja power fortress.
On its part, INEC is yet to make a categorical statement on the situation as it concerns the status of the 27 legislators who decamped to the APC. Both the PDP and the APC as parties have conflicting positions on the development. The ruling APC is clearly uncomfortable with the sudden influx of PDP legislators into their party which they see as a destabilizing strategy. For the PDP, it looks like good riddance to Wike loyalists from the party. While waiting for INEC to formally declare the seats of the decampee legislators vacant, alienated elements in the PDP are already rehearsing to vie for the seats in a by- election.
In this vortex of events and happenings, we can still make out the lines of demarcation among the conflicting forces. At the primary level, there is an open turf war between Mr. Wike, a political god father and long term ‘investor’ and this stooge governor. Perhaps, Mr. Fubara asserted his independence too early and to the consternation of Wike who may have taken the governor’s political naivety for granted.
On his part, Mr. Wike may have taken on too much at once and acted too quickly. He straddles two major political parties –the PDP and APC- and behaves like a chieftain of both without being an effective member of either. While he may still be a nominal member of the PDP, Mr. Wike went into an electoral business alliance with the APC during the February presidential elections. He helped Mr. Tinubu wrest the state in a very controversial outcome. The fruit was a seat at the table of Tinubu’s crowded cabinet as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory. In that status, Mr. Wike is virtually the 37th state governor in the country in view of the special status of the FCT in the constitution.
The kernel of the political turf war between Mr. Wike and governor Fubara is essentially based on Wike’s do or die determination to control the political structure of Rivers State. There is of course the tangential issue of also wanting to control the flow of resources even after leaving an office he occupied for eight years with unbridled and arguably reckless control of the resources. He could not do that without himself definitively decamping into the APC and carrying the state governor along. In the present circumstances, that aim is looking more like an unrealizable dream. The governor is already a marked and freshly injured man who has however realized that his only choice is to survive by fighting fiercely. To survive, Mr. Fubara has to keep his job. To keep his job, he needs to contain the Wike menace. To achieve that feat, he needs to ensure that the injured poisonous snake is not just scorched but decapitated politically.
Over and above the personality scuffle between both men, however, some real frightening strategic monsters have come to the surface. Hidden under the political kaftans of both men is the political balance of power that holds Rivers State in place. The strategic balance between Upland and Riverine is the unwritten code that keeps the state going peacefully in political terms. Mr. Wike may have realized that he needed to placate the riverine half of the state by enthroning one of their own, albeit one he thought he could pocket and control.
In his haste to control his surrogate governor, Mr. Wike, an Ikwerre upland man, is now presenting as threatening the ‘turn’ of an Ijaw reverine governor. The Ijaw elite have risen in unison to defend their son. I am not sure that the upland political elite would be unanimous in any support of Wike in this duel. Wike succeeded a fellow Ikwerre man, Rotimi Amaechi, who was governor for eight years. In the wake of the recent harassment of Mr. Fubara, Wike has unconsciously changed the status of the governor in ways that ought to concern Mr. Wike himself. Fubara has graduated from Wike’s stooge to an illustrious son of the Ijaw nation. He is no longer alone. He is no longer unprotected and at the mercy of an all powerful Wike. The governor is no longer weak; he has been strengthened by a familiarity with Mr. Wike’s rough political manners and buccaneering tactics. The governor is further strengthened by his past as a loyal servant of Mr. Wike in matters unfit to print. From seemingly harmless cells in a laboratory test tube, monsters usually emerge to devour their progenitors.
A justifiable feeling of political entitlement has now united the Ijaws of Rivers state behind their own. Gradually, through the pronouncements of men like Chief E. K Clark and other Niger Delta leaders, consciousness of Fubara’s symbolism as an Ijaw son is likely to spread across the major states of the Niger Delta. I doubt that Mr. Wike has the political skin to withstand the heat in the kitchen of his own making. I am not even sure that his valued control of the Rivers political base will fare too well now that he has activated a counter current in the state.
From this point on, therefore, the rumblings in Rivers State have gradually acquired a national security meaning and coloration. Rivers state is a key gateway to the Niger Delta. It is also multiply important for the Nigerian economy and national security. To that extent, the situation requires an urgent national intervention at many levels.
First, the two major political parties need to rein in their attack dogs. Mr. Wike ought to be advised by his new political friend, President Bola Tinubu, that he cannot possibly be so prominent in the federal government and also be seen as instrumental to the destabilization of a major state of the federation. If the situation in Rivers becomes unmanageable, President Tinubu may be required to declare a state of emergency in the state. In that event, Wike’s position as a federal minister and political agent provocateur may become untenable. It will be a sad day when Mr. Tinubu will have to choose between Wike’s continued presence in his cabinet and the peace and stability of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The anticipation of this nasty eventuality should compel Tinubu to rein in Mr. Wike to back off and go into discussions with both governor Fubara and the leaders of the Ijaw nation whose interests he has trampled upon.
The ruling party, the APC , at both the national and state levels needs to insist that Mr. Wike either joins the party through the front door or reconciles with his original party, the PDP, and relates with the ruling party as an electoral ally for now until he can build up a strong enough political base for a reconciled APC in the state to initiate a change. The present strategy of mass commandeering of the political human assets of the PDP and forcing them into a “one chance” bus of the APC will fall flat on its bloodied nose. Whatever Mr. Wike’s eventual political interest and ambition may be, he cannot possibly achieve it so quickly through microwave political engineering and rough guerilla warfare.
The PDP to which Rivers State has traditionally belonged needs to initiate a serious dialogue to strengthen the support base of the governor. The 27 members that have decamped need to be pulled back and reassured that they are better off in solidarity with the governor but they must renew their allegiance to him. Basic party supremacy and discipline demands no less. This is an opportunity for Mr. Wike to either reclaim his importance in the PDP or quit and join the APC on whose gravy train he has already jumped and is already “eating”.
Governor Fubara should now operate from a position of strength; strength of Ijaw solidarity, strength from wide public backlash against an overbearing Wike and strength as an agent of peace and stability. In the wake of these suggested discussions, the governor should quickly initiate reconciliations with the legislators while reinforcing his hold on the machinery of government. He needs a new cabinet and a revised leadership configuration in the state house of assembly. He needs to influence the rise of friendly agents in all 23 local governments of the state.
Over and above these intra government gestures, the governor needs to convene a pan- Rivers political dialogue with key political figures from across all partisan divides to create a new sense of inclusiveness to nullify the divisive bitterness that Mr. Wike has engendered in the recent history of the state.
Governor Fubara cannot inherit Wike’s political enemies and divisions. He needs a reassurance of the general populace that the development of the state is above partisan and personal political interests. In general, the governor needs to lower the temperature of the political atmosphere in the state. In doing so, this is the moment for him to remake the political architecture of Rivers state in his own image. Nothing in these suggestions suggests that he should not treat Mr. Wike with some gratitude and courtesy but only as one of a line up of former governors like Peter Odili, Rufus Ada George, Celestine Omehia and Rotimi Amaechi. Mr. Wike is Minister of the FCT and should sit down in Abuja and do his job. He should only visit Rivers state in normal circumstances with the knowledge of the incumbent governor. Enough is enough!