...how Amaechi’s ambition turned Garden city into theatre of bloodshed
By OBINNA EZUGWU
The March 9 governorship election in Rivers State turned out, as probably expected from the unfortunate experience of the February 23 presidential polls, to be literally a brutal warfare. The protracted political rivalry between Governor Nyesom Wike and his predecessor, Chibuike Amaechi, Transport Minister, had cost yet another set of Rivers lives, set the entire state on the edge and there is no indication it would come to an end soon.
Wike, the incumbent governor and candidate of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is seeking reelection for second term – a legitimate aspiration. Amaechi, on the other hand, is not a candidate, neither is his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), in contention.
But for some reasons, he wanted to prove a point against the governor, the point, perhaps, that he is a man. The result: avoidable loss of Rivers peoples lives, orchestrated, shamefully, by otherwise non partisan soldiers of the Nigerian Army.
Rivers has become, easily, the most politically volatile state in the country. And perhaps, no individual bears more blame for this than Amaechi. Initially, it was his quest for vice presidency that pitted him against his own brothers and political allies, notably, former president, Goodluck Jonathan. But perhaps, now, it is mere ego and quest for political relevance.
Jonathan became Vice President in 2007, same year Amaechi became governor of Rivers. And although one could imagine governorship of oil rich Rivers to be a dream job for any individual, Amaechi, always wanting more, had his eyes on the seat of vice president that had just been occupied by Jonathan.
Many remember the rift between him and Jonathan as a 2013 phenomenon. But it started earlier than that. Indeed, it started in 2010, same year Jonathan became President following the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. It had taken the form of a disagreement between Amaechi and Jonathan’s wife, Patience, over demolitions and land ownership in Okrika, Patience Jonathan’s home town.
Whilst the disagreement between Amaechi and Jonathan lasted up until 2015, many saw it as a fall-out of the rift between the former governor and the former First Lady. But it was not, it was about Jonathan’s presidency being, for Amaechi, a threat to his own ambition. The rift was therefore inevitable.
The issues between Amaechi and Jonathan became more pronounced in 2013, or indeed the year before, in 2012. Amaechi was already in his second term as governor and it was time to plot for vice president. Thus, to stop Jonathan became a project that had to start early.
When eventually, Amaechi joined the APC and began to invest heavily on the party ahead of 2015, he expected to be named vice presidential candidate. But his ambition did not materialise, however, to his utmost disappointment. Professor Yemi Osinbajo was chosen at former Lagos State governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s behest, as Buhari’s running mate. Amaechi, it was said, felt so hard done.
Magnus Abe had alleged that the Minister gave in to shock when Prof. Osinbajo was named Buhari’s running mate.
“When Prof. Osinbajo was announced as vice presidential candidate of the APC, he (Amaechi) went into shock and a doctor had to be brought to treat him,” Abe claimed. “He was placed on drip all night to stabilise him.”
Abe was speaking in response to Amaechi’s assertion that he (Abe) fell sick when he chose Dakuku Peterside in his stead as APC governorship candidate in 2015.
Whereas the veracity of Abe’s claim cannot be ascertained, the choice of Osinbajo certainly, represented a huge blow to Amaechi. It partly explains his frosty relationship with Tinubu, Osinbajo’s political godfather who also did all he could to be on the ticket with Buhari, but was undone by the likes of Senate President, Bukola Saraki who staunchly opposed the idea of Muslim/Muslim ticket.
But in truth, Buhari never wanted Tinubu on the ticket, thinking him, perhaps, to be too ambitious to control, and had, from trusted sources, resisted Tinubu’s attempts in his own capacity.
Tinubu had, at some point, called Buhari to a meeting at his Bourdillon home in Ikoyi – the meeting had in attendance, Rauf Aregbesola, then Osun State governor; Adams Oshiomhole, then Edo State governor, among others – where he told the president that the South West had decided that he (Tinubu) being on the ticket was their condition to support his candidacy.
But Buhari stood his ground, offering only to allow Tinubu nominate two people, among whom he would choose one. Tinubu eventually nominated Osinbajo only.
Regardless, Tinubu continued to hold Saraki and the likes of Amaechi responsible for his inability to be on the ticket, and that was when the rift between the two started. For Tinubu and Amaechi, it was, and still is, a clash of interest.
Being denied the APC vice presidential slot was a blow to Amaechi, but even so, there was no option for him than to dust himself up and work for the defeat of Jonathan, failure of which he would certainly be toast. But in Amaechi’s quest to stop Jonathan, Wike, his old time ally serving as minister in Jonathan’s government, became a major obstacle.
Wike had clout and grassroots appeal in Rivers. With this and the massive support PDP had because of Jonathan, , he opted to challenge Amaechi who was fronting Peterside on the APC platform, for the governorship. In a sense, Amaechi saw Wike’s action as betrayal. But in the same token, Wike saw Amaechi’s opposition to Jonathan as betrayal.
During the governorship election in 2015, Wike, running on the PDP platform that enjoyed local support, easily defeated Amaechi and his candidate, Peterside. Amaechi had incurred double loss. His ego was bruised and with his party, the APC in charge of the federal government, he decided to bring federal might to bear and make Rivers too hot for Wike.
Amaechi would suffer another blow in his quest to take over Rivers, which had become both an ego trip and a pursuit of political relevance. He took on Abe who he didn’t want to be governor, and the resultant crisis led to the disqualification of the APC from the entire elections in Rivers. A tragedy Amaechi, somewhat, blames on Wike.
His anger towards the governor had grown to boiling point, and with or without the APC in contest Amaechi was out to pay Wike back. But more importantly, he needed a political structure of his own to avoid a slip into political oblivion,
But he was no longer the only person who had issues with Wike. The Buhari led federal government had set out to decimate the PDP using media propaganda and anti corruption war. But Wike emerged in the picture and ensured that PDP stood, before the likes of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Sokoto governor, Waziri Tambuwal, Saraki and so on, eventually returned to the party.
The APC government, perhaps, felt that it should take over Rivers with its resources as payback to PDP and Wike. Amaechi whose grouse is more personal took the lead. On the APC campaign trail ahead of the elections a few weeks ago, Amaechi promised to fight Wike like a man. The 2019 polls had presented another opportunity for a fresh squaring up. Amaechi was out to prove a point.
Speaking at President Buhari’s rally in Port Harcourt, amid war songs, Amaechi had declared: “You know it gets to a stage that a man must be a man. It gets to a stage a man cannot be any other thing but a man. Your Excellency, I’m not going to Abuja again. Im here from today to the election-day. On Saturday, they should get ready. The support we want is that Mr President should just thank us when we finish. We are ready for them.”
True to his words, about two days to the election, soldiers, allegedly on his request, were massively deployed to Rivers from Zamfara and elsewhere, and when the election eventually came, Rivers practically became war zone. And sadly, for the simple reason that the army wanted to subvert the will of the people for the Minister.
Amaechi had adopted the little known governorship candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Engr. Biokpomabo Awara and fought to foist him on Rivers, on the condition that he will literally run the state with him as his proxy.
To carry this out, the soldiers transformed – as video, pictorial evidence and eye witness accounts showed – into political thugs snatching ballot boxes and harassing staff of the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in what was a show of electioneering shame and a profoundly new low for the once respected and otherwise independent Nigerian Army, forcing INEC to suspend proceedings.
INEC’s Head of Department of Voter Education and Publicity in Rivers State, Edwin Enabo gave a chilling recollection of how the military seized the collation centre, screening, seizing and collating the results by themselves: “The INEC office is under siege by men in army uniforms, uniforms of the air force and police who have taken over. They are stopping and screening people. They are clearing results before they enter the office to the extent that up till now, no collation has been done.
“We don’t understand where the people were deployed from. We are not accusing the Nigerian Army or the Nigerian Air Force, but we say the people right now in the office are wearing uniforms of the army and the air force.
“If they are not from them, we are calling on them to come and rectify the situation and allow our officers to enter with their results without molestation and harassment.
“Throughout the elections, we had so many reports of insecurity, molestation, harassment and assault on our staff and ad hoc staff, disruption of the electoral process throughout the state in all the local government areas with the consequence that by yesterday evening, we were unable to get any results and by 1pm today, the office is under siege by men in army, air force and police uniforms.”
In its wake, the electoral umpire said its female staff were raped. But perhaps, more painfully, one of its ad-hoc staffers, Mrs. Ibisiki Amachree, among about 27 others, was shot dead.
The electoral body, which is the only body empowered to organise elections, and invite security forces when necessary, was gravely undermined, in clear abuse of extant laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and painfully, by the same institution that is supposed to uphold and defend it: the army.
For the Minister, it was perhaps a proof of his manly credentials. But for many, it was a show of ignominy, a sad day for the country’s democracy.
“Rivers is a sad case!” regretted Chief Goddy Uwazurike, senior lawyer and political analyst. “Soldiers were the ones writing the results. At a point, the police were even shoved out of the way. And the real shame is that the army spokesman said they were fake soldiers. Now, the GOC in charge of that place is justifying the intervention of the army. So, who do we believe? The spokesman who said they were fake soldiers or the GOC who explained why the army intervened.
“It is unheard of for soldiers to come out and brazenly take over elections. The election of 2019 left a lot to be desired. First sign was the threat to the international observers. That’s when they told us which direction they wanted to go.”
It took intervention of several bodies and individuals, working behind the scenes, to restore a bit of order. The intention of the army and the Minister, apparently, had been to hijack materials at the collation centres, change the results and force the INEC residence electoral commissioner to announce the AAC candidate as winner, but Wike – who had smelt a rat and was said to have collated results from each ward through his party’s agents – stood his ground and the police resisted, leading to a clash between them and the army.
The army, it was said, had initially driven the police away from the collation centre, but the police reinforced and came back to insist that the votes be counted. But more critically, a group of Niger Delta agitators also confronted the military, swearing to blow up critical oil installations and bring the economy to its knees should the AAC candidate be declared winner. Foreign oil companies, notably, Shell, were said to have intervened also. The British government allegedly sent words to Buhari, prompting them to backtrack.
The UK Government would later take to its Twitter handle to issue strong worded condemnation of the soldiers’ interference, insisting that INEC staff should be allowed to do their jobs without intimidation.
“Extremely concerned by reports including from @UKinnigeria observers of military interference in the election process in Rivers State
“Monitoring the situation closely; @inecng staff must be allowed to do their job in safety, without intimidation,” the tweet from @UKinNigeria, read.
The first reaction of the military authority was to deny the invading soldiers. In a statement by its spokesperson, Col. Sani Usman, the army said the soldiers were armed thugs in military uniform, a blatant falsehood not lost on Nigerians.
The aftermath has been eventful. Condemnations have come from all corners of the globe. The European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission for Nigeria 2019, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and other foreign election monitors, condemned severely, proceedings in Rivers and a number of other states.
The observer bodies in a report said of Rivers, that, Observers, including EU observers, were denied access to collation centres in Rivers.
“There was misuse of incumbency, including on state-owned media, which prevented a level playing field.”
The EU Chief Observer, Maria Arena, and the Deputy Chief Observer, Hannah Roberts, who addressed the media at Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja subsequently, expressed dissatisfaction with systemic failings and electoral security problems, which they said show the need for serious reform ahead of future elections.
A similar report by NDI/IRI on the governorship and state Houses of Assembly elections, presented by the Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and West Africa (NDI), Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, and the Regional Director for Africa IRI, Mr. John Tomaszewski, said:
“There were instances of intimidation, vote-buying and violent acts during the voting, counting, and collation processes in some places. Incidents of violence and disruption to the balloting process were observed in Lagos, Benue, Rivers and Nasarawa States,” the report said.
“The delegation was informed of the loss of life as a result of election-day violence. The mission deplores these losses and expresses its deepest condolences to the bereaved and to the Nigerian people.
These actions and the impunity with which some electoral actors conducted themselves, including some polling agents and members of the military, undermine citizen confidence in elections and threaten the legitimacy of Nigerias democracy.”
The Southern and Middle Belt Forum, in a statement signed by Chief E.K. Clark, PANDEF Leader; Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Afenifere Leader; Chief John Nwodo, President General, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and Dr. Pogu Bitrus President, Middle Belt Forum, described the situation as worrisome even as it blamed soldiers for the crisis.
“Soldiers, Air Force personnel and thugs have been deployed to terrorise opponents, INEC officials and many citizens in Rivers State in the last few days and creating a state of panic and anxiety all over the state,” the statement read.
“There has been a spill-over of the Rivers situation to Bayelsa State where Mr Timpire Sylva of the ruling APC has also been alleged to be terrorising residents with impunity.”
A lot has happened since then. INEC had re-collated results of 17 local governments following the suspension of proceedings. The electoral body, to AAC’s disappointment, went back to the various wards in the state to re-collate results and from the collated results, the PDP which had swept all assembly seats announced before INEC put further announcements on hold, is said to have maintained unassailable lead.
On March 27, the electoral body in a statement by its head of voter education and publicity, Edwin Ebabor, announced that it would resume collation and announcement of results on April 2 and 5, while supplementary elections would be held where necessary, on April 13 and results announced on April 13 and 15, and certificate of return issued on April 19.
From INEC’s decision, it seems apparent that Amaechi may have lost out in his bid to foist the AAC candidate, Awara on the state, and the party’s camp is already in disarray.
On March 25, it’s deputy governorship candidate, Chief Akpo Bomba Yeeh, issued a press statement announcing his resignation from the party and subsequent defection to the PDP. In a long press statement published in ThisDay, Tuesday March 26, he insisted that the state governorship election had been won and lost. Lost, he said, by his party, the AAC, and won “overwhelmingly” by Governor Nyesom Wike.
He explained that it had dawned on him, after the party’s primaries, that it was not serious about contesting elections as it failed to campaign and did not field any candidates for National and State Assembly seats. He said however, that it was only 72 hours to the election that news came to the effect that Amaechi’s APC had adopted the party.
Yeeh said Amaechi promised to do everything under the sun to ensure that the AAC won the election, assuring them that he had “already assembled security personnel drawn from the Nigerian Army, the Police, Department of State Security (DSS) and Federal Anti Robbery Squad (FSARS) to provide adequate security cover and enablement for members of the AAC and APC to effectively rig governorship election and have us declared winners come March 9th 2019.”
However, he said the minister laid down some conditions for them, first being that he would appoint 90 percent of all political office holders, including commissioners, special advisers, and chairmen, and members of government boards, agencies and parastatals.
Second, that he must be the one to produce chairmen of all 23 local governments and other principal officers of councils. And that himself and Biokpomabo, must take instructions from him on all financial, policy and fiscal matters, as well as award and payment of contracts and other financial transactions upon inauguration as governor and deputy governor of the state.
Yeeh disclosed that in addition, he was forced to sign an undated letter of resignation as deputy governor to pave way for Amaechi to nominate another person of his choice as deputy governor.
His disclosure generated heat within the Rivers political environment, and particularly in the AAC/APC ranks, the governorship candidate, Awara, who hit back. He accused Yeeh of collecting N200 million from Wike, claiming that himself had turned down an offer of N3billion from the governor.
He said Yeeh’s attempt is to “smear the towering image of and figure of Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi,” stating that his claims are “blatant lies.”
But the AAC governorship candidate will soon have other defections to contend with. On Wednesday, the party’s Deputy Chairman in the state, Comrade Amezhinim Prince Atuma, announced his own defection to the PDP. Atuma corroborated Yeeh’s claims, stating that he had realised that “there is a sinister plot and evil intentions in the AAC/APC alliance just to rig the 2019 governorship election in Rivers State, thereby, subverting the will if Rivers People and denying them the opportunity to electing the Governor of their choice.”
Scheming and counter scheming have continued. The AAC had gone to court to stop further collation of results by INEC, but it proved futile. Last week, Tonye Cole, Amaechi’s handpicked APC governorship candidate who was stopped by the Supreme Court, called for the cancellation of the entire election and a new election date fixed.
“If there is anything I’m certain of, it is that the entire election of March 9th is totally and completely compromised from head to toe,” Cole said last week. “INEC must therefore declare the entire elections of March 9th null and void and set out a new date for fresh elections.”
But INEC appears determined to see through the process, and it would seem apparent that Wike is headed for victory in the end.