The Rivers State All Progressives Congress governorship candidate, Tonye Cole, has a date with justice at the Supreme Court and a day with destiny at the March 2 gubernatorial election in Rivers. Cole exemplified his grassroots touch in the state as he went on ward-by-ward tours to see, hear and feel the pulse of the people ahead of the governorship poll. The billionaire entrepreneur and co-founder of Sahara Group, exuded confidence in the “politics of peace” as he fielded questions from Ernest Chinwe and Bayo Akinloye in this interview. Excerpts:
You are an architect and a successful businessman. Why did you venture into the murky waters of politics? Is this about getting power to enhance your accomplishments or to render public service?
Twenty-seven years ago, I joined millions of Nigerians in the euphoric prospects of a democratic nation as we began the transition from military regimes to a civilian government. My father, Ambassador Patrick Dele Cole, had returned from Brazil and was running for the office of President so I quit my job as an architect in Brazil and came to join his campaign. It was a glorious opportunity to know the beauty of this nation called Nigeria as we traversed east to west, north to south but what happened thereafter with the ‘Maradona Saga’ left an overwhelming percentage of my generation disillusioned about the sincerity of politics. Many, including myself, focused on entrepreneurship, building businesses where we believed we had more control of our fate and destiny.
We succeeded tremendously in building a business of international repute but what soon became apparent was that politics affected every aspect of our lives as businessmen and citizens. No matter where I went in the world and no matter how successful we got, I could never be anything other than the perception the world had of Nigeria. If the world perceived Nigeria as corrupt, then as a Nigerian, I was corrupt. Whatever negative tag Nigeria was given, I was given. I became consumed with portraying a positive image of Nigeria but discovered that without getting involved in politics, the ability to make the necessary impactful change was limited. This is also true in the area of philanthropy which I remain actively involved in and discovered that no matter how many lives I touch and impact, the potential to exponentially impact millions and generations to come lies in the true service of humanity through politics.
It is generally believed, especially here in Nigeria, that politics is too dirty for good men to go into. What impact do you think you’re going into politics will have on the participation of the elite and professionals in politics in Nigeria?
I sense that the toga of ‘dirty’ politics is primarily used to keep good people away from politics. My entry into the arena has been received in two distinct ways, the first being apprehension from those who are genuinely worried that politics isn’t a place for people of integrity while the second is high expectation that it is about time that our politics was infused with people of integrity. The first is driven by fear, while the second is by hope. I chose to be the latter.
Many people consider Rivers State politics as one of the most violent in the country since 1999. What encouraged you to join the gubernatorial race; and what are you going to contribute to Rivers politics apart from winning the race?
So my opening answer had to do with not being able to outrun the perception index of your nation. It becomes double wahala as a Riverian as we became the poster child for violence in the Niger-Delta. While most of the South-south states that were involved in the militancy battles have rebranded themselves, Rivers State somehow retained the image of violence. Unfortunately this could be traced to election seasons with the 2015 elections being widely reported as ‘flowing with rivers of blood’ at a time when nationwide electoral violence was in the decline. 2019 offered a perfect opportunity to showcase Rivers State in a different light and bring in a new brand of politics that would eschew violence and integrate peace.
I have since introduced #politicsofpeace, refused to be baited into heating up the polity, determined to show leadership by example going to communities that are considered ‘extremely dangerous’ and meeting with a cross section of stakeholders especially former militants, clergy, imam, traditional rulers, elders, youths, non-indigenes, etc., on the vast potential of peace in attracting much-needed development to the state post-elections.
Your entry into the governorship race of the Rivers State APC brought to the fore the divisions within the party. Some aspirants left the party in protest while the legal tussle generated by that is subsisting. Any regrets?
No regrets. No regrets at all. If there is something I discovered upon fully entering mainstream politics, it was how deep rooted the politics of division was within the state. I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t understand it. You have a very pervasive spirit of betrayal that seemed to cloud everything and which led to situations where childhood friends would no longer greet themselves in public or even attend functions of mutual friends. I saw families so bitterly divided that in one case a widow and her children were not permitted to attend her late husband’s funeral. This is simply unacceptable. If there is one thing I appreciate my entry bringing out, it is forcing the issue into the open discussion. It is only when we can be true to the hidden faults within us that we can heal the divisions amongst us.
What some do not know is that right at the formation of APC as a party, I have been there. I was there when the hard decisions on if to stay within the party or leave by the PDP governors was raging. Expediency required staying in the background nevertheless it doesn’t diminish my contribution to the party in any way.
When the manifesto of the party was being debated at the national level, I was one of the keynote speakers in Abuja and worked informally with several committees that drafted the final interim plan that saw the new government assume power. It is my belief that if you are true to the party, it is enough to keep you rooted there and leaving is not the solution. I wholly believe that I am ‘the reconciliation’ the party needs and in time will ensure that the wounds would be healed and peace will reign. Many of those who left will return so together we can work to bring about a healthier and more prosperous Rivers State.
Some people have said if you have known the level of internal conflict within the APC in Rivers State you might not have accepted the invitation to fly the party’s flag in the election. To what extent is this true?
That was fake news. Someone concocted the entire story.
Do you have anything to say about the internal conflict in the party? Was it avoidable?
It is my earnest belief that it was entirely avoidable and reminds me of a saying that a stitch in time saves nine. When the congresses were being held, a group felt they were being unduly disenfranchised principally by being denied access to forms with which they could contest for party executive offices. They carried their grievances to the party which began to look into the allegations but before that could even be addressed, they proceeded to court and got an injunction against the said congress of May 5th.
The fact that the national body of the party in Abuja was not served the court order but the state body in itself is a debate for the courts today. Nevertheless in respect to the court injunction and particularly the grievances raised by the appellants, the party at the national level instructed that the said congress be cancelled and fresh ones conducted. They went further to insist that all interested participants should use their payslips as evidence of interest and application forms would not be needed. For reasons best known to Ibrahim Umar and 22 others, they chose of their own freewill not to participate and rather continued the case in court.
Furthermore, the fresh congresses that were conducted on the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st were all conducted on the basis of a legal order of court from the Federal High Court in Abuja. Nothing could be further from the truth than the claims that APC ignored a court injunction and continued with congresses when the said congress was cancelled and annulled by the party.
The eventual judgement that resulted from the civil case against the May 5 congress should never have been allowed to proceed but that is where we are today and the battle to unwind these judgements is what is currently before the highest court in the land.
Some politicians in Rivers State have described you as a friend of the former Governor and Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, drafted to seek election to as a way of maintaining a hold on the state. What is your reaction?
I have heard this many times and I have come to the conclusion that it is driven by fear from those who are afraid of the changing landscape that I represent. There is no human being that is an island and we all exist as a measure of the relationships we build while alive. The quantity and more critically, the quality of the relationships you have will determine your net worth. I have both in spades, locally, nationally and internationally.
I respect the honourable minister a lot but if there is one thing that I respect even more, it is the genuine desire to balance the injustice the riverine communities of Rivers State have been under. He nearly singlehandedly pursued an argument that having a situation where no Riverine indigene had been governor since 1999, and with the upland in power continuously from 1999 till date, it was only fair that power should rotate now. It is this desire for balance that he is being castigated for.
He has done his eight years as governor and will never in this lifetime be a governor again. He is a federal minister and God alone knows where else He has planned for him. But governance and control of Rivers State isn’t one he aspires for or desires.
The Justice George Omereji Judicial Panel of Inquiry into the sale of Valued Assets of Rivers State indicted the former governor, Amaechi, and companies allegedly owned or controlled by you: Sahara Energy and others, over the purchase of power plants and other assets including Hotel Olympia. You have neither denied this nor taken steps to free yourself from this indictment. Why?
There is little or nothing I can say about that. The truth has a way of coming out no matter how deeply you try to bury it. Those who have peddled this falsehood know the truth as they were part of the administration that handled the sales. They are also aware that there was a very strict due diligence organ called Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP) headed by a very uncompromising and diligent gentleman called Franklyn Nlerum, whom many didn’t like because he wouldn’t compromise. I liked and respected him. Suffice to say that we didn’t do contracts that took money out of the state but rather invested well over N180 billion ($500 million) into the Rivers State economy. Time would vindicate me and my dealings with Rivers State government in these matters.
Recently, the Rivers State Government has terminated the sale of the said assets to your companies. How does this decision impact your companies and what are the implications for investment in the state?
I am so grateful to God Almighty that He gave us the wisdom to build a company that is grounded in good governance and integrity. It made us resolute and robust. It was why I could walk away from everything I had joined my partners to build for over 23 years with the knowledge that it was well prepared for succession and any shocks that may follow. I no longer answer for the company since I voluntarily resigned but I am certain they will handle the terminations with the utmost integrity and reverse the decisions in due course.
You are accused of not being a grassroots man and that you do not know the nooks and crannies of the state. How well do you know Rivers State and her peoples and how do you intend to solve the problems of a people you barely know?
That amused me when I first heard it, especially against the backdrop that those who would say such had no knowledge of who I am, my capacity to learn, my management of resources both human and capital, my ability to build nor did they have any idea of the value I place on networking across multiple strata. When I informed my party colleagues that I intended to visit every ward in the state, they initially logged it down as inexperience talking. I was told in no uncertain terms that it was not possible and not necessary. I was advised to stick to local government area rallies as is the norm.
It took them by surprise when I began a ward to ward campaign, visiting over 230 of the 319 wards, visiting communities and meeting people who had never as much as seen a politician in their lifetime not talk of one running for the office of the governor. The experience, even for the seasoned politicians amongst us was humbling for we all saw the reality of the conditions people where living and serving under but more important, it was glaringly obvious that those who claimed to be ‘grassroots generals’, were mere propagandists.
They had neither been to the grassroots nor were they aware of the issues that troubled the people of the constituencies they governed and as a result had no solution for addressing their problems. I not only went there, I saw firsthand with my own eyes. I touched the people with my hands and I felt in my heart their pain. Few today know the grassroots like I do and this frightens the opposition. No wonder they rushed to the court to stop the most effective campaign strategy they have witnessed to date in the state. It is my solemn promise to complete the ward tours whenever we get relief from the courts to continue.
It is barely three weeks to the presidential elections. With the myriad of litigation facing the state APC and the fact that your name and those of other candidates of the party in the state are not yet on the ballot, your campaigns are to say the least lukewarm. Even if the Supreme Court gives judgment in your favour, don’t you think the time may be too short for you to reconcile aggrieved members and step up your campaigns to win the elections? What impact do you think this will have on your success at the polls?
That would have been uppermost in the strategy of the opposition; nevertheless, I am not that worried. What we achieved in our ward tour is something that cannot easily be erased. I don’t agree with you that our campaigns have been lukewarm. Holding rallies and bringing out the people for the cameras to showcase is not hard and every politician knows that while it is good for the news, it certainly doesn’t translate to the votes.
We, on the other hand, have guaranteed voters that cannot be bought. We took our time to go and meet them in their domain and we gave them an opportunity to express themselves and contribute to the way the incoming government will operate. We recognized them as critically important stakeholders in the democratic process and they saw our sincerity. No matter when the Supreme Court gives us victory – which I have absolutely no doubt in my heart that they would – what you will witness is a tsunami of support that is guaranteed to sweep away every opposition on the election day.
The ruling party in the state, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has said you and the state APC are relying on INEC and security agencies to rig elections in your favour. What is your reaction?
I believe they are laying the grounds for litigation and contesting the results as they are deeply worried they would lose. How else would they be able to explain any such loss but to say it was rigged? I have utmost confidence in the integrity of INEC and the security agents to do their jobs as this would be one election where the voters would be out in force and no one would be in doubt as to the true outcome of the results. There is a way a man is defeated in a contest, he knows immediately that there is no point in complaining. That is the scenario we will witness post-elections.
Your case has been taken to the Supreme Court and you are awaiting their judgement. What is your expectation?
I am a firm believer in the ability of the Supreme Court to deliver justice when every one else fails. It was clear to me once the matter got out of the lower courts to the appellate courts and we started getting some surprising judgements that the matter would end up at the Supreme Court.
I always knew that we had a solid case but for whatever reason, we were never allowed to make the cardinal facts of our case known and so kept getting judgements against us. My faith was however strengthened by the fact that matters before the Supreme Court would be presented before justices with decades of experience under their belts and they are obliged to hear all the matters before them and not cherry pick.
Their competence and vast experience was on display when one of our cases came up on Monday 21st January and fundamental issues around whether our case, being a intra party affair surrounding a congress can suddenly become a pre-election or not was extensively debated.
Armed with this knowledge and knowing how clayfooted the foundation upon which the judgements against us has been thus far, I was and am completely optimistic that justice would be done and we will win our mandate back.