by Stanley Azuakola
I remember when I first noticed the Rivers governor, Chibuike Amaechi, in a TV interview. It was in 2005 or 2006, and he was speaker of the Rivers state assembly then. My first impression of him was: Ah, what a childish man!
He had shifty eyes and looked restless – fidgeting nonstop, flying from one point to another before the first had been well made, and at different times during the interview, I noticed how he played unconsciously with items on his desk in his office where the interview held.
“And this is the man who wants to govern Rivers state?” my brother said to me.
“We are finished,” I responded.
We were certain the PDP candidate would become governor, and at that time Amaechi was the runaway favourite, so we were resigned to fate.
Then things happened quickly. Olusegun Obasanjo, the president at the time, suddenly realised that Amaechi’s candidacy had “k-legs” and he was unfairly kicked out of the ticket. When he was disqualified, I felt no sympathy for him. By then, my mind was made up anyway – after 8 years of enduring Peter Odili’s reckless rule, I would sooner have voted for a cow than a PDP candidate. My vote in that election went for someone else, although the PDP’s Celestine Omehia – Amaechi’s cousin and usurper – was declared winner by Maurice Iwu’s INEC.
We know the story of Amaechi’s defiant fight and how he snatched an improbable judicial victory in the nation’s highest court. I was ambivalent about it all. I admired the tenacity, the discipline to go against the grain despite the entreaties to compromise. But I remembered how the Rivers assembly which he led for the 8 years of Odili’s misrule was just an appendage of the governor’s office, never going against the dictates of the Brick House (Rivers government house), and I shrugged.
But Chibuike Amaechi surprised me.
Yes, my expectations were very low, but as governor from 2007 to 2011, Amaechi led a hardworking government, recording achievements in primary education, health care, agriculture and security. Rivers people cheered his every stride; we even cheered his excesses.
Oh, there were many excesses, but who didn’t have those, we asked. He was authoritarian and could show an inhumane side like his slums demolitions project done without adequate notice or compensation, but these things needed to be done if progress is to be made; government was run as if on a whim, but that’s his unique style; he seemed to be doing everything at once, with no mind for structures or systems, hence unleashing chaos, but at least something was being done, nothing else mattered.
We defended him at every turn. Our governor is a maverick, he would follow his guts and damn the cost, we loved to say.
In 2011, I was not in Rivers state during the elections. I would have voted for Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi if I were. Even though my family in Port Harcourt was divided on the choice of a presidential candidate to support, every one was Team Amaechi.
Performance-wise, Amaechi has declined considerably since his re-election. His mind seems to have moved on past Rivers onto his 2015 ambitions. His every action seems to be with an eye for a bigger stage, he acts nowadays like one auditioning before a national audience.
Port Harcourt roads continue to be an eyesore, despite his repeated assurances. In fact during a guided tour of projects in the state last August together with some other youths, his information commissioner hemmed and hawed when asked about roads. We were shown those lovely accomplishments of the governor – the model primary and secondary schools (befitting), the primary health centres, the maxillofacial clinic, the Kelsey Memorial hospital (grand), the Songhai farm (ingenious), and others. The thing is that most of those were first term achievements – we continue to await the promises of the second term.
Now, concerning the strain in Gov. Amaechi’s relationship with President Jonathan, the interests of the two men just do not align presently. The president’s handling of the matter in recent times has been bizarre – instigating divisions within the Nigeria Governors’ Forum; unleashing his surrogates (like the minister of the Niger Delta and the minister of state for education) on Amaechi; and allegedly – if a report by the Leadership newspaper is to be believed – placing Amaechi under constant surveillance. Unbelievably desperate moves by Aso Rock!
However, Amaechi bears a chunk of the blame. I see the creeping rise of the governor’s churlishness, that pettiness which tarred my first impression of him eight or so years ago. But he has been fortunate. He is self serving and lacks a sense of proportion, yet we all – especially the media – continue to cut him so much slack.
Last week in Ekiti, he spoke at the Symposium for Young and Emerging Leaders, and all his excesses were on full display again. It was a painful thing to watch.
Amaechi was unprepared – he said so himself. But whereas for others, that might have served as a cautionary marker to watch what comes out of their mouth; for him it was a licence to run amok.
It is unbecoming of the governor to use every given opportunity to throw barbs at the president.
Hear him: “On fuel subsidy, what have we done? A lot. That’s why they want to remove me as chairman of the Governor’s Forum. They face a radical chairman that’s why they want me removed.”
Interestingly, in 2012, when they – meaning President Jonathan – took the bold, mistimed, callous decision to remove subsidy on fuel and the whole nation was about to combust, all the fingers pointed to Aso Rock. Amaechi and the other governors in the NGF from all parties, the instigators, remained strategically silent, allowing the president take the hits on their behalf.
To be clear, Amaechi never said he was opposed to the removal, but no one heard him come out to speak forcefully in backing the president. When labour leaders met with him during the Occupy protest in Rivers, he said, “Please let’s bear with the president, we have only one country.” Then in the midst of it, he announced a N4 subsidy, slashing the price from N141 to N137 in Rivers, and asking that motorists cut fares which had increased following the subsidy removal.
And that’s exactly how he does it – by playing both ways. On the one hand he announced the laughable N4 subsidy and the bus fare slash, small gestures intended to show that he was making motion; securing his ‘lovability.’ Behind the scene however, he maintained pressure on the president to stay firm and not budge to the people’s demands, and he was at the forefront of the hawks who clamoured for soldiers to be deployed to Ojota (he mockingly said so himself at the symposium.)
Let’s hear more quotes from Amaechi: “Because government is the biggest enterprise in the country, that’s why when the president enters, everybody catches cold, so that’s why I keep getting advise ‘Amaechi don’t talk again oo…’” and “I went to Turkey with the president and that’s the last trip I went with him. They don’t like taking me to travel with them…” and “They’ve threatened me with the EFCC, they’ve hunted me, there’s nothing they’ve not threatened me with… If I was not a governor with immunity, they would have taken me down.”
Did I mention that people cheered him on? But of course! We love the “me” vs. “them” stories which Amaechi tells so well. His “David” vs. “Goliath” epics, in which he is always the “David” with his tongue for a sling and haughty words for stones, felling every giant in sight.
But while he ‘photoshops’ his narration of his records, he cannot photoshop our memories. And we remember that it was he who pushed for the noxious Rivers Governor and Deputy Governor Fringe Benefits Bill last year which entitles all Rivers ex-governors and their ex-deputies to two houses in Rivers and Abuja, three new vehicles to be replaced yearly, 300 per cent funding for any furniture of their choice, pension equivalent to the annual basic salary of the incumbent governor or deputy, amongst other benefits. These bills of course would be footed by the Rivers taxpayer.
The assembly members couldn’t dare oppose the bill. You see, part of Amaechi’s ‘maverism’ is that he doesn’t tolerate dissent.
Imagine if it was Jonathan who had proposed and signed such an obscene law – Verily, verily I say unto you, the nation would have known no peace.
When you hear Amaechi describe Jonathan as a “dictator”, you wonder if it’s not the same Amaechi who sacked 11 duly elected local government chairmen because they failed to attend a meeting at the Governors’ Office. When you hear him claim to be a Marxist and a radical socialist opposed to the ‘greed of capitalism’, you wonder if it’s not the same guy who six months ago blew $45 million to procure a new Bombardier jet. Oh, and by the way, in Ekiti, when he saw a small reference to the absurdity of his jet purchase in an Enough is Enough (EiE) flyer which was distributed at the event, he simply accused the executive director of EiE, Yemi Adamolekun, of “trying to incite people against me. Tomorrow when you come and ask me to carry you in my jet, I won’t.”
“Hahahahaha,” roared the audience. Our maverick has spoken.
So in essence, Amaechi has a blank cheque – he can say whatever he likes (“kidnapping can be seen as a form of redistribution of wealth”), change positions whenever he likes (“Orubebe is an incompetent minister”/January 2013; “Orubebe is a transformational leader”/March 2013), and still have everyone in his corner. What a charmed life!
He’s the only one who can condemn oppression and claim to be an oppressor while making the same speech, and be applauded both times because he is just being himself, he speaks his mind, and he is a maverick. No, no, no, he is a politician, people! He should be judged on a case by case basis and the press should not be too quick to make excuses for him.
The governor is not incompetent and he is by no means a failure. If any comparison is made between him and the president, only the deliberately mischievous can claim that Jonathan has been a better performer.
But it’s time to tell him that he hasn’t done anything extraordinary, that he is taking his eyes off the ball, that his double speak and double mindedness would not go unchallenged henceforth and that for some time Rivers people have been reaping thorny fruits of his neglect. It’s time for someone to tell Gov. Amaechi that he talks too much, that he needs to tone down on his self-serving arrogance and that next time he feels the need to criticise President Jonathan, he should go right ahead, but only after removing the Iroko trunk in his own eyes.