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Why Rivers state politics is always so violent 

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Why Rivers state politics is always so violent 

About this time last year, the media was still awash with news of violence perpetrated in Rivers State in the course of the 2019 general elections. There was even a graphic video of serious gunfight in Abonnema, the capital of Akuku Toru Local Government Area. The question on many lips was: why is Rivers politics always violent? The short answer is that the Rivers brand of politics is about patronage and cronyism.

Now, a bit of background on Rivers State. Created in 1967 from the former Eastern Region, the state attained its current size in 1996 after Bayelsa State was carved out of it. Rivers is made up of 23 local government areas comprised of several ethnic groups and dialects, like the Ijaws, Ogonis, and Ikwerres. Rivers people were part of the minority groups whose agitations for political expression resulted in what is today known as the Willinks Commission Report and the several resolutions arising therefrom.

Upland vs. Riverine

Rivers people previously expressed their politics in what was known as the Upland/Riverine areas dichotomy.

Parts of the state were referred to as Upland areas. They had less rivers, and most of what they had were fresh water rivers and ponds. Geographically, this covered the various ethnic groups in the following local government areas: Ikwerre, Emohua, Obio/Akpor, Omuma, Etche, Ahoada East, Ahoada West, Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni, Oyigbo, Gokana, Khana, Tai, and Eleme.

The other parts of the state were the Riverine areas, which principally had salt water rivers running through them. The ethnic groups in this area inhabit the following local government areas: Akuku Toru, Asari Toru, Degema, Bonny, Opobo/Nkoro, Ogu/Bolo, Andoni, Abua/Odual, Okrika, Port Harcourt.

Port Harcourt, the Rivers capital, was traditionally considered Riverine, although it has grown to embrace several communities of the Upland ethnic groups, particularly that of the Ikwerres.

This Upland/Riverine dichotomy defined Rivers politics from the post-civil war era up till the return to civil rule in 1999. That was when prominent indigenes of the Riverine area did “the unthinkable”. They put forward and massively supported an Uplander, Dr. Peter Odili, for governor. Of course, there were several factors leading to that choice but one clear alternative in the governorship race was another Riverine person.

One consequence of that decision is that political power appears to have become firmly entrenched in the Upland areas which have produced an unbroken run of governors since 1999, despite agitations from the Riverine areas. Another consequence was the weakening of the Upland/Riverine dichotomy political system.

A new brand of Rivers politics

In recent times, a new kind of politics has entrenched itself in Rivers State. To an extent, this new politics can be found in varying degrees across other states and even in the politics of the center. However it is endemic in Rivers.

Prior to 1999, the military had governed Nigeria for over fifteen straight years. Military men and other uniformed government agents influenced all spheres of Nigerian life. To be connected to a military official was desirable – the higher the rank, the better. A civilian’s influence was mostly tied to the stature of the military officer(s) he knew. Merit – even in business and commercial circles – was often sacrificed on the altar of influence peddling.

When civilians took over in 1999, they did not move to establish a system of merit and fair play to show a departure from the military jackboot past. They established a patronage system that significantly cut across ethnic, tribal and religious lines. Yes, the patronage system had always been in existence, but the brand implemented by the state’s civilian leadership was peculiar. This peculiarity is why Rivers politics is the way it is. This peculiarity stemmed from the circumstances leading to the 2003 general elections.

In Rivers State, the major contenders in the 1999 gubernatorial elections were Dr. Peter Odili of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Mr. Ebenezer Isokariari of the All People’s Party (APP), which has morphed several times into what is now the All Progressives Congress (APC). As stated earlier, Odili, from the Upland area, won the 1999 gubernatorial elections. His success entrenched the PDP as the dominant political party in the state.

The PDP’s leadership style under Odili elevated patronage and cronyism to new heights. Odili’s PDP introduced the concept of “Loyalty” as the yardstick for measuring commitment to the government of the day and the party. Merit was almost completely erased from the collective psyche of the political class. Loyalty was all that mattered, even above individual judgment, conscience, or sense of right and wrong. Loyalty when recognized in an individual was also rewarded – amply: in cash and in kind. Indeed, it was in that era that the “brown envelope” syndrome was upstaged by the PDP-introduced “Ghana must go” syndrome. The PDP slogan which was characterized by a lone voice shouting “PDP”, and a response of “Power to the people” was parodied by the populace and became “PDP”, and a response of “Share the money.”

By 2003 the opposition parties had had enough. They organized themselves to wrest power from the PDP at the polls. There was a growing undercurrent of disaffection against the government and the PDP all over the State and it was clear that all parties saw the 2003 elections as decisive. However, the PDP’s patronage system had become deeply entrenched in the State and had elevated what would have been simple politics to a matter of fighting for survival. The beneficiaries of the patronage system were in no mood to give up or brook any interference with the PDP’s governance of the State, which had become to them the source of livelihood.

To ensure the status quo remained, thugs, cult groups, and militia groups were promoted, sponsored and armed. Eventually, the PDP won and a pattern was set. Politicians and their cronies knew that politics in Rivers was about protecting their source of political livelihood and relevance. They knew that to win was to fight and protect their spheres of influence or those of their political godfathers.

Today, the biggest enterprise in Rivers is politics. Serious minded businessmen and businesswomen are unable to win contracts on the merit as those are awarded to politicians in order to oil the wheels of the patronage system. These politicians then sub-contract the work to others after they have creamed off a substantial part of the contract sum, leaving the professionals with little option but to manage what is left as best as they can. The consequence is poorly executed work littered all over the State.

The politics of party expediency

The APC – a child of circumstance in Nigerian politics was doubly so with respect to Rivers State. The leaders of both parties in the State, the incumbent governor – Nyesom Ezenwo Wike of the PDP, and his predecessor in office – Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi of the APC, were both members of the PDP. Wike was a former chief of staff to Amaechi when the latter was governor of the State.

Consequent upon some internal political wrangling in the Rivers State branch of the PDP, Amaechi left the PDP with his supporters to the APC, with a view to ensuring that the PDP did not return to power both at the Federal level and in Rivers State in the 2015 general elections.

There is a school of thought regarding Amaechi’s exit from the PDP which says that he and Wike were in cahoots with a view to achieve the aim of transferring power from the former to the latter. It is alleged that they orchestrated the quarrel between themselves with the aim of putting Wike in control of the PDP political structure and positioning him as the only person within the PDP with any chance of withstanding Amaechi’s political prowess. The suggestion put forward, therefore, was that it was expedient for Wike to represent the party at the polls if the PDP was to succeed. The aim of this, it is alleged, was to whip up party loyalty above ethno–religious and other considerations so as to suppress contrary positions, particularly those advocating a shift of power to the Riverine area in accordance with the Upland/Riverine area dichotomy.

Whilst it is not clear how long this principle of “party expediency” is to last, or whether it is a given that it is the new ethos of the party in Rivers State going forward, it appears it is still extant as Wike, once again, contested for a second term as the PDP’s gubernatorial candidate during the party’s primaries, this time without the charade of an opposition.

In any event, whilst the PDP lost the 2015 Presidential elections at the Federal level, it held on firmly to Rivers, winning elections at all levels and losing only two seats of the State House of Assembly to the APC.

Thus, the 2019 election was meant to be a defining one, a type of battle royale between the PDP and the APC by which the APC led by Amaechi would finally wrest power from the PDP; and it, indeed, turned out to be a battle.

Firstly, the pre-electoral battle within the APC, which became factionalized between the Amaechi led faction and the Senator Magnus Ngei Abe led faction. Then, there was also the battle between the Amaechi led faction of the APC and the PDP. The pre-election battle ended with the judicial disqualification of the APC (all factions inclusive) from the electoral process.

Then, there was the electoral battle between the Amaechi backed gubernatorial candidate of the African Action Congress [AAC], Engr. Biokpmabo Awara, and the PDP. Amaechi’s alleged backing increased the AAC’s profile and positioned its candidate as the principal opponent of the PDP and Wike. In fact, it was alleged that Amaechi directed all his supporters to support and vote for Engr. Biokpmabo Awara; he was also alleged to have secured the keen participation of the military and other security agencies in the electoral process in a bid to influence the election in favour of his preferred candidate.

Again, some viewed this as a charade aimed at ensuring Wike’s victory. The person within the APC who was perceived to be able to withstand Wike in an election was Magnus Abe, an Ogoni man and a key participant in the top echelons of Rivers politics since Odili’s tenure. Abe had declared his interest in and preparedness to stand for the gubernatorial elections in good time and had consequently positioned himself early enough in the consciousness of the people as a contender. On the other hand, Amaechi’s preferred candidate, Mr. Tonye Cole, a business man of Kalabari extraction largely based in Lagos State, was drafted into the race with not much time to man his bases. The suggestion was that Cole was preferred above Abe because, unlike Abe who already had a large political following, there was no likelihood of him besting Wike in the elections.

Expectedly, the PDP held on to the State, winning all positions at all levels either at the polls or via subsequent judicial proceedings, with Wike winning the gubernatorial position handily.

Conclusion

The question remains, Why is Rivers State politics so violent? I have here attempted to capture the notable characteristics of Rivers State political topography, particularly that exhibited since our present democratic experience commencing from 1999 and since then with a view to showing the changed nature of Rivers State politics – from the Upland/Riverine dichotomy to the PDP manufactured patronage system and its offshoot principle of “party expediency.” I also ventured to posit that the current disposition regarding politics is that it is the biggest enterprise in the State and because the returns are huge; an enterprise with guaranteed huge returns on investment for members of the successful party. Thus, Politics is no longer a call to or a quest for service for majority of the players but a means to wealth, and in some cases incredible wealth.

I am constrained, therefore, to conclude that the reason why Rivers State politics is so violent is because everyone fights to ensure that their sphere of influence or that of their political god-father(s) is preserved in order to protect their source of political relevance, the loss of which would automatically translate to their loss of influence, the right to partake of the “very heavy” easy money that flows within political circles, and the economic sustenance that arises therefrom for them, their political god-father(s), and their dependents. The stakes are considered too high to leave the electoral process to chance or the whims of the fickle electorate. 

Unfortunately, this quest to manipulate the electoral process has left in its wake highly deleterious consequences for the State, including the loss of lives, militias, and all manner of cultic and occultic activities and the attendant disposition to criminal behavior, gross decay in moral values and the destruction of time honoured socio-political and socio-cultural values. The wider implication is that the State may be raising a generation of people who think the status quo is the norm. It has been reported that some children have even expressed a desire to become militants when they become adults. The breakdown of social and moral order is worse in the villages. The traditional authority of the kings, chiefs and elders have been mostly eroded, the youths dictating the pace by force of arms of by threat of same.

Until Rivers people look beyond party and self-interest to the common good of the State, Rivers State will only go in one direction – downhill. For the avoidance of doubt, the responsibility to turn the State around does not lie on the political class, the elder statesmen or the rulers of the various communities and kingdoms. It is, rather, the collective responsibility of all Rivers people wherever they may be. Rivers people all over the world have to commit to, and indeed, work for the best interest and the common good of the State however little or insignificant they may consider their contributions to be. Most importantly, accountability must be demanded of, and given by, leadership to the people. The Rule of Law must not only be heard to be upheld but be seen to be so upheld, and so with one good step after the other taken consistently we may have the Rivers State of our dreams.  

Today, the drumbeats of politics have been muffled into silence and the political landscape is so serene it seems all that happened only a year ago was merely a nightmare. Whether this serenity will last until, during, and beyond the next general elections remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Rivers people must think, act, and work strategically from now, taking advantage of the serene atmosphere within the State to break the cycle. Merely hoping that things will change without actively taking steps to ensure that change may be a mirage. The task is not only for a selected few, though it may be so driven, but for all – every Rivers man, whether born in, affiliated to, drawn to, living in, lived in, or a member of any of the ethnic groups of Rivers State.

Sopakirite Kuruye-Alele is a lawyer and partner at Accord Legal Practice.

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