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Tonye Cole: A dark horse as the trump card

Tonye Cole, Rivers State gubernatorial aspirant
Tonye Cole, Rivers State gubernatorial aspirant

There has been a lot of back and forth since former Rivers State governor and Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, disclosed to the state’s All Progressives Confess (APC) stakeholders at a meeting in Lagos that billionaire business man, Tonye Patrick Cole is his choice candidate for the potentially explosive governorship contest in 2019.

The state’s APC has made efforts to clarify that contrary to media reports to the effect that the minister had chosen Cole as the party’s governorship candidate he had no power to do so as an individual, but only expressed his opinion as is natural in a democracy.

But Amaechi, the obvious leader of the APC, not just in Rivers, but in the South South geopolitical zone, has decided on Cole and given the nature of Nigerian party politics, it’s almost a settled case. In 2019, Tonye Cole will most likely fly APC’s governorship flag and set off what promises to be a pulsating contest with the current governor of the state, Nyesom Wike of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)

Mr. Cole had since resigned his membership of the Sahara Group board, an Energy conglomerate he co-founded in 1996, to officially enter partisan politics.

Worth over $1.4billion, Cole is resourced enough to match the incumbent Wike toe to toe in a political terrain where elections are largely won and lost on the strength of the pocket. But more importantly, the Kalabari born billionaire philanthropist fits into the growing agitation by the coastal areas of Rivers State to produce a governor of their own, the upland groups having dominated governance since 1999. He could very well be Amaechi’s political masterstroke.

With eight of the state’s 23 local governments and about 30 percent of the voting population at the maximum, the Ijaw led coastline areas, whose agitation, Cole’s candidacy will serve, may not ordinarily have the numbers to challenge the voting bloc of Ikwerre, Ndoni, Etche, Ogoni and other upland areas who share 15 local governments and well over 70 percent of the voting population.

But it’s not strictly a contest between the Ijaw led coastal local governments and the Ikwerre led upland areas; it is a contest between two individuals who in some ways, are nearly evenly matched. More importantly, it is a contest between two political parties, one, the PDP basking on grassroots support and the other, the APC hoping to deploy the heavy federal might to impose itself.

Praised for his projects and running under a platform that is way more popular with the people and coming from a political bloc with a clear majority, the Ikwere born incumbent governor, Wike, many agree, will still have an edge. But Cole presents a different kind of challenge; one that neither the Opobo born Director General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Mr. Dakuku Peterside, who ran on the APC platform in 2015 but lost to Wike, and was hitherto, widely believed to still be Amaechi’s choice, nor the Rivers South East senator, himself a governorship hopeful in APC, Magnus Abe, presents.

“Tonye is a different kind of person. He is not your everyday politician,” said Nyebuchi Amadi, a local politician in Port Harcourt. “He has the resources and the reputation. And coming from area that has been agitating for governor, he will cause Wike problems.”

The 51-year old Cole, an architecture alumnus of the University of Lagos and Harvard Business School’s advanced management programme, fits into the demand a technocrat-governor who will leverage on Rivers potential to turn the state into an economic success, having achieved fame and fortune as an entrepreneur for great repute.

The Sahara Group he co-founded in 1996 has grown from a single entity to a group made up of ten companies across the energy value chain. The company runs operations in eight countries across three continents and employs 3,200 people with an annual profit of more than $12 billion.

He, in addition, serves as a board member for Atlas Mara, Bloomberg TV Africa, Enactus Nigeria, Nigerian Chamber of Shipping and Digital Jewels.

Cole is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) and the Private Sector Advisory Group of the United Nations Sustainable Development Fund (UN SDG-F), as well as the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council for Energy.

A philanthropist working to promote entrepreneurship and better the lot of the less privileged, he established the Nehemiah Youth Empowerment Initiative, through which he supports other foundations such as the Down Syndrome Society, Slum2School Foundation, and Bethesda School for the Blind. He also serves on the advisory boards of various youth focused charities such Africa 2.0 Foundation and Sapinda Rainbow Foundation.

A motivational speaker, ordained minister an entrepreneur, he would however, need more than his philanthropy and speaking ability, coming from a relatively unpopular party in the state, to topple Wike who has sufficient grassroots support base and is praised for his many projects across the state.