Torrents of election violence and ebbing tide of democracy in Rivers State
More than any other state in the federation, the political intrigues that led to the unprecedented change of power in Aso Rock Villa, Nigeria’s seat of government on May 29, 2015, are taking their toll on Rivers State.
Months after the elections, when other parts of the country have moved on with the new realities, the gladiators in Rivers State are still at each other’s throat in their desperation to outwit one another thereby unleashing a deadly cycle of violence in the state.
While these political elephants, each with enormous weight of either federal or state influences behind it, continue their untiring and protracted wrestling for control of the people’s resources, the grass of democracy and its dividends suffer under their mindless stomping.
Like Lagos in the West and Kano in the North, the stakes are quite high in Rivers because of the state’s capacity to deliver mega votes, a highly conscious electorate and volatile political environment that has a lot of influence on national direction, making it one of the tripods of the country’s regional voting strengths.
In the cut-throat intrigues and struggle for political power that have gripped the state in the last three years, alliances and loyalties have been broken and quite a number of the characters in the macabre drama have been labeled traitors because of their antics to place self far above the collective interests of the people.
As the power tussle continues, the creeks are turning red with the blood of scores of victims, including security operatives deployed to ensure peace, members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) engaged to conduct elections, officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and members of the opposition camps.
To underscore the extent to which the beast in man has taken over his mind, some of the victims were beheaded or killed in other blood-cuddling ways, painting a new picture of Rivers as a state peopled by desperate politicians who would stop at nothing to have their way.
Sources put the number of those killed in the recurrent mayhem at over 500 since the crisis began while a thousand others have sustained various degrees of injuries. The loss in property is in billions of naira.
At every voting exercise, of which there have been several in recent times, more than in any state of the federation because of the inconclusive nature of the elections, armed hoodlums, at the behest of their sponsors always unleashed an orgy of violence on the citizenry causing socio-economic disruptions in a state that contribute substantially to the national economy.
Of course, characteristic of politicians, each camp has been blaming the other for the mayhem. When during the preparation for the rerun elections last year, three soldiers, including an officer with the rank of Major were killed by unknown gunmen in Abonemma, Akuku-Toru local council, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led state government blamed the All Progressive Congress (APC).
A statement by the State Commissioner of Information, Austin Tam-George said “we strongly believe that APC-sponsored cultists may be behind the killing of these soldiers in their ugly plot to pitch innocent Rivers communities against the military.”
But the APC, reacting through its governorship candidate in 2015 elections, Dakuku Peterside, who is now the Director-General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), blamed the killings on what he called provocative statements by the state governor, who he also alleged “was camping 3,000 boys in the area of the attack on the soldiers.”
While each party is pointing accusing fingers at each other, attempts at getting to the roots of the crisis and ending it have proved generally unsuccessful. Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to end the spate of violence in the state saying, “We will deal decisively with all sponsors of violence. I have given the security services clear directives in this regard. We will show that violence in any form will no longer be tolerated before, during or after elections.”
In the same vein, the House of Representatives once directed its Committee on Justice and Judiciary to investigate all the issues of election infractions that caused the tempers to boil over and expressed worry about the grave situation that portends great danger for the country’s democracy.
And in its attempt to investigate the crisis and identify the perpetrators, the Police High Command, which had earlier dismissed six of its men attached to Wike for engaging in “illegal duties,” set up an investigative panel that indicted some unnamed INEC officials for allegedly collecting over a hundred million naira from the governor to subvert the electoral process.
The Rivers State government, not wanting to be outdone in the game of buck-passing that has become another name for the various investigations into the crisis, accused the police of being instrument in the hands of the Federal Government to “intimidate Rivers’ people.”
Because these efforts to calm the tempest and stop the carnage have so far been self-serving and only attempted to find scapegoats, the warring parties continue to dig further into the trenches and violence persist unabated with armed cultists roaming the state to wreak havoc.
Only a fortnight ago, during the conduct of the rescheduled elections into national and state legislative seats of Etche constituency, the hand of a staff of INEC was chopped off by suspected hoodlums in another of the bizarre incidents in the oil-rich state.
A bitter rivalry
From 2007 when Rotimi Amaechi, the current Minister of Transportation defied his benefactor, former governor Peter Odili to emerge as the governor, to the last gubernatorial election when he was paid back in the same coin by incumbent governor, Nyesom Wike, the Rivers political debacle has been revolving around individuals whose relationship to each other and the polity is cast in the mould of treachery and unbridled ambition bordering on selfish control of the commonwealth.
Without minding the effects on the generality of the people whose interests they claimed to be protecting, the crisis in Rivers has been reduced to a supremacy tussle between Amaechi and Wike and the duo, heading rival groups, have so far been implacable.
This bitter rivalry among players in the state’s political field is traceable to the intrigues that culminated in Nigeria’s first major power change when Rivers State became a factor in the emergence of new power blocs in the national horizon.
The state became the hotbed of national politics and a gauge to measure the country’s political temperature which was then almost at boiling point making political analysts, including foreign ones, to predict that the approaching election may well be the cause of Nigeria’s final disintegration.
Before this, political normalcy took a flight from the state in mid-2013 following a crack that appeared on the wall of the ruling PDP over the removal of the state chairman, Godspower Ake, causing frosty relationship among supporters of Amaechi, the then governor, and Wike, his former aide who was the Minister of State for Education.
The Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), of which Amaechi was chairman, was then being turned into a potent instrument by a focused opposition against the administration of Goodluck Jonathan in the grand plan to prevent the incumbent from securing a second term.
With an ally in Amaechi, who later became a pillar in the opposition camp’s formation of the APC, an amalgam of politicians across political parties desirous of chasing the ruling PDP away, the battle was taken to Jonathan’s backyard.
Swimming against the current
In joining the opposition, Amaechi, a two-term Speaker of the House of Assembly on the verge of completing a second term as governor, was swimming against the current in a state that gave the highest number of votes to Jonathan in the 2011 presidential elections.
This expectedly had its consequences and Amaechi had many tales of woes, including withdrawal of security guards, curtailment of movement, alienation from the presidency and several state-backed attempts at impeachment, to tell.
Indeed, the configuration of the politics of Rivers State, which was and still is solidly based on the sentiments of the people for Jonathan making them to see anything against the former president as an affront against their sensibilities, is proving too much for an Amaechi to surmount. But like a determined power broker that he is, even while almost dressed in the garb of a Brutus to his peoples’ collective aspiration, the former governor is not relenting.
His tenure (between 2007 and 2015) ended on a not so palatable note. For close to two years, the state’s judiciary and legislature were under key and lock and he had operated more like a sole administrator. Coupled with his open quarrel with Jonathan and his wife, Patience, Amaechi and his APC team in Rivers State had entered the 2015 electoral contest with a heavy baggage.
Stripped bare, the choice of the people was not so much between contestants from both parties (the PDP and APC) in the 2015 general elections but between Jonathan and Amaechi. The people naturally would go for the former. This is the point the APC establishment in Abuja has not come to terms with hence perhaps the endless push to reverse the PDP electoral gains in the state.
The foundation of today’s carnage and political unrest was laid during the period with news of fracas among lawmakers in their hallowed chambers, take-over of the state legislature by the National Assembly and clashes of cult members loyal to the two political divides making the headlines.
Building on this massive support for Jonathan’s second term bid by the people of the South-South geo-political zone, of which Rivers State is the melting pot, and of course with support from Abuja, it was easy for Wike to become the centre of another power base in the state.
This was consolidated with a 87.77 percent win in the April 11, 2015 governorship contest with Peterside of the APC during which the PDP swept the House of Assembly seats. Two weeks earlier on March 28, the party also won all the three Senatorial seats as well as the 13 seats in the House of Representatives.
Although Peterside, citing violence, outright rigging, voter intimidation, official collusion and other electoral malpractices as reasons for his request, lost the bid to have the governorship elections cancelled at the apex court, the judiciary upturned PDP’s victory in the senatorial seats, 11 in the House of Representative and 22 out of the 32 seats in the House of Assembly in the stream of litigations that followed the exercise.
Reversal of roles
With Amaechi’s appointment as a member of the Federal Cabinet in Abuja’s new dispensation despite strident opposition from “his people” including the three Senators from Rivers State and Wike’s confirmation, through the January 27, 2016 Supreme Court verdict, as the governor of the state, a new cycle of the protracted crisis, with the two gladiators swapping positions and power bases, commenced.
Like before, the battle line was drawn between Abuja and Port Harcourt but with reversal of roles for the leading gladiators as the warring camps sought to use whatever influence they can muster within the system to outdo each other.
The rescheduled election of March 19, 2016 proved to be the first test of strength between the two forces with Amaechi allegedly flooding the state with soldiers to intimidate opposition elements and Wike, unsparing in his efforts to deploy state resources and the popularity of the PDP, to ward off the “invasion”.
Few days to the exercise, Amaechi in a statement that confirmed allegations that security forces have been compromised along partisan lines, told APC supporters in Etche and Gokana councils that soldiers would be deployed in the election because the state governor had bought the conscience of the police. He reportedly said, “The Commissioner of Police in Rivers State has failed. So anywhere you see the military on Saturday, know that the police have failed.”
What followed were alleged massive clampdown on the opposition prompting the state government and the PDP to petition international bodies and foreign governments on the threats to democracy in Nigeria urging them “to urgently initiate and maintain diplomatic pressure on the Federal Government to allow a free, fair and violence-free election in Rivers State.”
At the end of the exercise that proved to be bloodier than any election ever conducted in Nigeria, another usage was found for INEC’s new lexicon for aborting the voting process. The poll was declared inconclusive in the 8 local councils of Khana, Bonny, Gokana, Andoni, Tai, Eleme, Etche and Asari-Toku.
While announcing the suspension, INEC said the conduct of the exercise in the councils was greatly marred by such violence and irregularities that cannot make the election stand the test of a credible exercise.
According to the commission, “There were reports of numerous attacks resulting in fatalities, kidnappings, ballot snatching, diversion of officials and materials, amongst others.
“Several permanent and ad hoc staff engaged have been attacked, again resulting in fatalities, while some have been forcibly abducted and taken to presently unknown destinations. Under such difficult circumstance, the Returning Officers were only able to collate and declare results in one Federal and nine State constituencies.”
Although Amaechi’s APC was able to secure the Rivers South East Senatorial seat for Magnus Abe in another round of rerun elections held in December last year, the cost in human and material was huge on the polity as the exercise, like the ones before it, was also held in an atmosphere of insecurity.
And the losers are….
A week to the first in the series of the rerun elections, Amaechi, to confirm that the lingering power tussle between him and Wike is more of personal pride, told the people of Rivers State “to please, remove shame from my eyes by voting APC next Saturday.”
While their supporters are losing lives and limbs, the gladiators in the crisis that is disrupting socio-political and economic development of Rivers State only measure their loss in terms of bruised egos that have been masked as the collective will of a people that desire dividends of democracy.
Apart from the monetary cost of conducting endless elections by INEC and all relevant authorities including security agencies and monitoring bodies running into billions of naira, the effect on the psyche of the average Rivers State indigene, in terms of anxiety, trepidation and social disturbance cannot be quantified.
Before and during the conduct of these elections, the state is always locked down with state and self-imposed restrictions on the people with negative consequences on the economy and social interactions.
With a troubled government that could not focus on development because of these distractions, the people of Rivers State are on the receiving end of the stick while united leadership continues to elude them.
When the acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo visited the state two weeks ago to discuss development issues, the crack in the political leadership was on display as he had to hold separate meetings with Governor Wike at the Government House and another one with Amaechi and his APC followers at the party secretariat. The ability of the people to speak with one voice has been lost.
But by far the greatest loser in the protracted crisis is the institution of democracy, which main pillars, election and representation, face direct assaults from the warring groups who engage in the game to frustrate quality representation through compromised voting processes.
For the better part of the current term, the people of Rivers State had no legislative voice at federal and state levels, denying them an important ingredient of representative government crucial for a people to demand for what is rightly theirs in a multi-region structure that Nigeria is and constituting a clog in the wheel of effective running of government at the state level.
With the approaching mid-term appraisal of the Wike administration, it is time for the gladiators in the two power bases of Abuja and Port Harcourt to spare a thought for the state by sheathing their swords and allowing the people to enjoy the fruits of democracy.
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