Guest Columnist: Emeka Offuru & SegunSangotade
The recent outbreak of a political quarrel between Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State and political interests obviously inspired by President Goodluck Jonathan is an unfortunate development for Nigeria’s desperate search for a political order based on democracy. In less than a fortnight, federal aviation authorities have grounded Governor Amaechi’s brand new official executive jet with a litany of spurious bureaucratic excuses. Almost simultaneously, an Abuja high court has delivered a politically toxic and legally dubious verdict, ceding control of the ruling PDP in Rivers State to an anti-Amaechi party executive.
In a choreographed series of consequent maneuvers, the new PDP executive in the state has quickly issued a series of directives to both factional party faithful and even the elected government of the state. The undisguised aim is to antagonise the sitting governor of the state and create and atmosphere of confusion. In tow, the Nigeria police command in the state has behaved in a clearly partisan manner that leaves no other conclusion than that it is out to protect the anti-Amaechi forces. It has taken over the premises of a duly constituted local government and overrun the premises of the State House of Assembly. As if that is not enough, the police have reportedly withdrawn police security from a sitting local government chairman for daring to openly express support for Governor Amaechi.
These developments came in the immediate aftermath of a series of Abuja meetings between the president and a selection of governors in a bid to convince them to avoid re-electing Governor Amaechi who may be seeking a second term as Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum sometime in the near future.
Taken together, these events and actions indicate clearly that Mr. Amaechi’s recent political troubles are coming directly from the presidency in Abuja. The footprints are all too familiar: presidential political displeasure with a governor followed by the unleashing of the instruments of the federal state to intimidate and harass the offending governor; EFCC, spurious allegations of wrongdoing, the use of the security apparatus to partisan ends, the recruitment of political jobbers and miscreants to create confusion, compromises of the judiciary to obtain court judgments that will justify a forcible takeover of the administration of the state… This seems to be the path that the Jonathan forces are treading on the Amaechi matter.
Beyond this repugnant show of Abuja might, however, the Rivers State situation has implications that go far beyond the immediate egos and personalities in conflict.
Unless it is checked now and effectively too, a number of tragic consequences await the nation.
Party elders in the state have expressed their displeasure at the turn of events. Labour has sounded a note of warning. Students and youth of the state and the nation have indicated that they will defend Amaechi. The ordinary people of Rivers State are unhappy that their recent developmental gains may be lost if anything untoward happens to Amaechi. A critical majority of governors of both the PDP and the opposition parties have weighed in on Amaechi’s side. An otherwise localised development looks set to aggravate tensions in a nation already beset by numerous national security threats. This must be avoided.
The PDP, which secured the highest single state vote tally in Rivers in the last election, is likely to lose the state. If Rivers divides up between the PDP and the new powerful opposition, the president’s hope for a 2015 re-election will present a factionalised Niger Delta home base. Invariably, the support base of the party could cave in as politicians in the South-west, the entire North-east and North-west are fast alienating themselves from Jonathan. The South-east is a toss up as the region is yet to be convinced that their massive support for Jonathan in the last election has yielded any significant dividend.
We are more concerned with what the people of Rivers State stand to lose from the current diversion if it is not checked. If this political distraction persists, Governor Amaechi may be forced to spend less time on governance and development and go into a political self- protection mode. There is a national consensus that Governor Rotimi Amaechi has acquitted himself most creditably both in terms of practical governance and in the delivery of social and economic development in the state. Massive physical infrastructural expansion and renewal is taking place all over the state. Investment in social infrastructure in Rivers State is perhaps next to no other state in the country. Hospitals, heath centres, world-class primary and secondary schools are being built.
Very strategically, the educational revolution that has taken place under Governor Amaechi can only be rivaled by the free education programme under the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the old Western Region. More than any other administration in pre and post colonial Nigeria, Rivers State is devoting the greatest percentage of its annual budget to education.
A relatively more accountable, more transparent and more people -responsive government has seen Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) sky rocket from less than N2.5 bn at the inception of the administration to nearly N10 bn today. Peace and order are in place while general security has brought back investors and the expatriate community in the oil and gas industry. Criminals, miscreants and militants now avoid Rivers State.
The assault on Amaechi and the NGF is likely to mortally injure Nigeria’s quest for a viable democratic culture. If Amaechi’s crime is that he is opposed to the president on a number of national issues, then we need to review our understanding of democracy. The freedom to canvass opposing views is integral to any healthy democratic culture. Even the fact of belonging to the same party does not deprive individual partisan leaders of the right to disagree on policies and issues. In the best of democratic traditions, most large political parties contain various strands and tendencies. We see the emergence of radicals like Rotimi Amaechi in the PDP as a healthy development if the party were to reform itself and align with the currents in the larger polity. The rise of a progressive arm of the PDP would be the best guarantee that the party will not be swept out of power by the oncoming gale of progressivism that is the driving force of the new opposition merger.
Even if Governor Amaechi were to challenge President Jonathan in an open convention for the next presidential ticket of the PDP, it probably would enhance the democratic credentials of a party that makes such a contest possible. For instance, the current vice-president of South Africa is on record as having contested against President Jacob Zuma in the last presidential elections. In spite of that, they have worked together in the ANC to the present point where they occupy the top two positions in the country and the ANC is the stronger for it. Similarly, Hillary Clinton waged a vicious contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket against Barack Obama but ended up being one of America’s best Secretaries of State in US history and easily Obama’s greatest political asset and ally. We are not aware that Governor Amaechi has declared interest in running for any office higher than that of governor of Rivers State.
The attempt to truncate or destroy the NGF, which we see as the primary source of this face-off, is a veritable threat to Nigeria’s fledgling democracy. Every one agrees that the near absence of democratic institutions is one of the problems with our polity. The NGF is a free association of governors of the 36 states of the federation. It is essentially a trans partisan platform for governors as chief executives of their states to compare notes on development challenges, review the performance of each other as peers and reach out internationally for ideas and affiliations that could enhance governance and enlarge investment and ideas windows.
The NGF has in the recent past proved an invaluable instrument for national stability in its numerous mediatory roles in crises between the federal government and labour, between the federal executive branch and the legislature. The forum played a significant role in ensuring national survival in the grey transitional zone of uncertainly between an ailing President Yar’dua and then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan. To a great extent, Jonathan’s relatively painless succession of Yar’dua before the demise of the latter owes largely to the NGF’s strategic intervention with the National Assembly to define and legitimise the now famous ‘doctrine of necessity’ which eased Jonathan into the presidential saddle first in an acting capacity pending the outcome of Yardua’s medical sojourn.
Since assuming leadership of the NGF, Governor Amaechi who remains a faithful PDP partisan, has enlarged the patriotic role of the NGF. For instance, the NGF under Amaechi has come to be associated with advocacy of positions on issues on which the popular masses feel quite strongly. These include an advocacy for state police, an outcry against the fraudulent fuel subsidy regime that has literally sacked the Nigerian treasury, championing a new national minimum wage regime and resistance to the establishment of the Sovereign Wealth Fund. What is significant about the NGF’s positions on these issues under Governor Amaechi’s is that where they have tended to clash with those of the federal government, the NGF has sought judicial interpretation. This is in line with the best traditions of democratic culture.
This is not to say that Governor Amaechi is a paragon of political beauty. It has been pointed out by his admirers and antagonists alike that his radical rhetoric does not help the popular causes he champions. Others have said that his political method requires a dose of diplomacy and political double speak in order to navigate the brackish waters of Nigerian politics and the sensitivities that drive it. But those who must do political business with Amaechi must be prepared to put up with a man who says things the way they are, driven by the modesty of his beginnings and the radicalism of his university education under the best radical intellectuals and Marxist scholars. It is precisely those who do not understand where Amaechi is coming from that have problems with him as governor.
But as an individual, Amaechi is acknowledged as frank, modest, straightforward, honest and very patriotic. Ideologically, he is coming from the left and has had to run an administration in the best traditions of social democracy. This has meant that the administration of Rivers State under him has been more people oriented with heavier investment in social infrastructure. The traditional Rivers political elite are not likely to be in love with him on this score.
In the interest of the political face-off between President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Rotimi Amaechi needs to be quickly resolved through the urgent intervention of well-meaning Nigerians. It is in the interest of both men. It is in the interest of Rivers State, the Niger Delta and indeed the nation that is beset with problems of grave strategic implications.
•Offuru and Sangotade are Abuja-based public policy analysts