By OBINNA EZUGWU
In many ways, the recently held National Assembly bye-election in Rivers State – which was cancelled by the state’s residence electoral commissioner, Obo Efangha on account of widespread violence and snatching of ballot boxes – portrayed a signal of intent. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is out for Governor Nyesom Wike, the state governor, and is determined to taking over the country’s oil rich state in 2019.
With last month’s Ekiti State governorship election, an election characterised – as confirmed by many observers and video evidences – by massive vote buying and intimidation, the President Muhammadu Buhari led administration has, perhaps, made clear its intention to take over states it has interests in, using whatever means necessary. And Rivers State appears to be very much in focus for quite a number of reasons.
Like Governor Ayo Fayose in Ekiti, Wike has been a staunch critic of the president. But more importantly, Rivers is the country’s treasure base, rich in oil wealth and by implication, has, since the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) lost the presidency, been the party’s financial backbone. It is the first time control of the state is in the hand of the opposition party, an unpalatable situation to the ruling party.
PDP’s control of the state with its resources, constitute a significant threat to the ruling party. Yet, there is Rotimi Amaechi, the immediate past governor of the state and current Minister of Transportation who is ever eager to establish a political foothold at home. Amaechi’s interest coincides with the overall interest of the APC and the Buhari government.
And from the Ekiti example where erstwhile governor of the state, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who served as Buhari’s minister of mining and industry, until he resigned to run for the governorship election, was a beneficiary of the massive display of federal might, one can get a hint of just how far Abuja can go to take control of states.
Wike’s government has come under increasing scrutiny from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The agency, last week, accused his government of illegally withdrawing N117billion from its accounts. It’s a familiar terrain in an anti corruption fight that is becoming increasingly selective.
Since Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom ditched the the APC for the PDP, he has had to battle the anti corruption agency which at some point, froze the state’s accounts. The story of Akwa Ibom is similar. Former governor, Goodwill Akpabio’s defection to the ruling party was followed by an onslaught against the incumbent governor, Udom Emmanuel of the PDP.
Wike is practically on hot seat, and the seat can only get hotter as the all important 2019 general election approaches. But does the APC have what it takes to dismantle a man now dubbed Mr. Projects by his people?
Rivers state presents a slightly different scenario from Ekiti, and indeed a number of other states. APC, in some ways, is popular in the generality of the South West. Indeed, Ekiti had remained the only state the PDP controlled in the entire zone. At the same time, Fayose had increasingly become unpopular with a good number of the people over matters bothering on non-payment of salaries, lack of respect, imposition of candidate and controversial arrest of the traditional ruler of Ikere, the Olukere of Ikere, Ganiu Obasoyin over an alleged murder of one Femi Kolade.
Thus, while many, including international observers, point to the fact that rigging and massive vote buying characterised the Ekiti governorship polls, the truth still is that you can only rig to a certain degree where you are popular to a certain level.
In Rivers on the other hand, Wike has the grassroots and is extremely popular with the people. His government has pushed infrastructural development to a level many say is unprecedented in the state. Indeed, walking through the streets of Port Harcourt and elsewhere in the state, his performance is clearly evident. Entirely new roads have been built, like the Trans-Amadi to Elelenwo Road, while many others like Elelenwo Road have been reconstructed with at least three ring roads.
Yet, his projects are not only noted for their preponderance, they are also praised for their quality. He is employing some of the most reputed construction companies in the country, mostly Julius Berger and RCC.
“Elelenwo Road is fantastic. Wike has not done badly,” said Emeka, a resident of Port Harcourt. “And he is not concentrating on only few areas; he has works in every part of the state. I would say he deserves a second term.”
Emeka noted further that Wike has outperformed the Amaechi administration in the area of infrastructure, but said people are also asking questions about accountability.
“If you put it to vote, many people will agree that Wike is doing better than Amaechi. Amaechi focused on school facilities mainly, but Wike is embarking on massive road construction and rehabilitation; it is unprecedented. And he is trying to carry everybody along.”
Yet, for the governor, he has not only his projects going for him. In Rivers, like nearly all the states in the South South, PDP is dominant and for many, APC is just not welcome.
It would be foolhardy, however, to discountenance the fact that in most South South states, political heavyweights are defecting to the ruling party. In Akwa Ibom, Senator Akpabio’s defection will pose huge threat to the PDP in the state. In Delta, former governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan has also defected, altering further, the political equation in the state.
In Uduaghan’s case however, his defection would have more of symbolic than actual impact. He remains a political flyweight in a state still under the grips of his predecessor, James Ibori. As governor, he was unable to choose his successor as many of his contemporaries did. Even worse, he could not manage to bring himself to the Senate. Notwithstanding, he could provide a pathway for an all out APC onslaught in the state. But Ibori, the big masquerade of Delta politics is himself, on his way to the APC, having hinted on his defection last week. It’s a prospect that may well seal the fate of PDP in the state.
In Rivers, the issues are a lot more complex. Amaechi controls a significant chunk of the elite political structure in the state. His influence has ensured that virtually all of the state’s senators are in APC. But in terms of popularity with the masses, Wike stands shoulders high above him. Indeed, many assert that Amaechi cannot defeat Wike in any election that has any semblance of credibility.
“Amaechi can’t stand Wike,” said Jude Amadi, “Wike is far more popular, and while Amaechi is using the police and SARS, he has surrounded himself with militants
“Amaechi would use federal might, but that federal might will be weakened during general election as APC can’t concentrate only on Rivers.”
The minister is also contending with factionalism in the state’s APC. He is battling, viciously, with Rivers South East senator, Magnus Abe, for control of the party structure. It is a given that Amaechi is the leader of the APC in Rivers, indeed in the South South. But in Rivers, he is a general with an insignificant ground troops.
Abe is not by any means, a push over and the tribal politics of Rivers plays partly in his favour. Easily the most influential Ogoni politician – an ethnic group of about 2million people – he has his people largely behind him. Indeed, his major campaign point against his PDP opponent, Olaka Nwogu, in the election that brought him to the senate, was that Nwogu was not Ogoni enough and could only speak Igbo.
Amaechi is Ikwere, undoubtedly the most populous group in the state which, along with other upland voting bloc, constitutes nearly 70 percent of the voting population. But so is Wike, and when it comes to acceptability among the Ikwere, and other upland areas, Amaechi can only count on his few groups of political allies.
Incidentally, the Ogoni usually form political bloc with the Ikwere and other upland groups and between them, have 15 out of the state’s 23 local governments, the Ijaw dominated coastline share the remaining eight with the Kalabaris. Thus, while Abe can count on his Ogoni group, Amaechi has no Ikwerre backing to rely on. In truth, he is only relying on federal might as events have shown.
Amaechi’s grouse with Abe is that he doesn’t want the senator to run for governor. He previously backed Dr. Dakuku Peterside, the Opobo born Director General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency in 2015 but lost to Wike. In the run up o the 2019 most political observers believed that he will still back Peterside especially after he appointment as NIMASA boss.
However, indications have merged that Amaechi may be pitching his political support with billionaire oil merchant, Mr. Tonye Cole, of Sahara Energy. This new dynamic may change the outcome significantly, because of the hue resources Mr. Cole can deploy to fray.
But Abe is resolutely pursuing his governorship agenda, which has sustained the rift between him and Amaechi. It is a scenario that will further complicate matters for the APC going into the elections.
There is nonetheless, the ever present push for the Coastline area of the state, mainly the Ijaw, Kalabari, Opobo and so on, to produce the governor, which the upland Ikwere, Etche and Ndoni areas have dominated governance since the return of civilian rule in 1999. It’s an agenda being pushed by Wike’s opponents and it is gaining momentum.
“Of course, we have legitimate claim to the governorship,” said Charles Diboyesuku, a Kalabari. “The coastline areas have been relegated to the background politically.
Nonetheless, the need to keep the PDP in power and avoid APC take-over could well prove enough deterrent in this regard, and Diboyesuku admits that it may not be in the interest of anyone to deny the incumbent governor a second term.
“I think he deserves a second term, after which power must, as a matter of justice, be ceded to the coastal area. But I can say that the APC is gaining a bit of momentum and nothing is guaranteed.”
Wike’s popularity appears to cut across all the ethnic groups on account of his performance and indeed, the popularity of the PDP. In any case, with the expected backing of the Ikwere who, as noted earlier, along with other upland groups who usually form a voting bloc, have more than 70 percent of the voting population, coupled with the massive number of non indigenous population in the state, most of whom are from the Eastern states and will most likely vote PDP, Wike would have little to worry about should the election be determined strictly by votes.
However, it’s highly unlikely that interested parties would sit back and allow votes to count. The APC, from the recently held bye-lection during which security agencies were said to have assisted thugs to invade polling booths to steal electoral materials, may have just unveiled its plan for the state ahead of 2019.
But with significant grassroots support, and as they say, booths on the ground, Wike would mount a spirited resistance. Indeed, as states prepare for elections in 2019, it might be safe to say, for a state that has continuously witnessed violent crimes and electoral violence in recent years, Rivers could be preparing for war.