GUEST COLUMNIST BY CHIDI AMUTA
On a recent international flight into Nigeria, Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, found an all too familiar co-passenger: Dr. Peter Odili, his mentor, political ‘father’ and predecessor in the office of Governor of Rivers State. On arrival, Amaechi waited at the door of the aircraft for Dr. Odili to disembark. He then proceeded to carry Odili’s carry on bag and patiently escorted him to claim his baggage before departing.
Against the background of an elongated political estrangement between both men and the lingering bad blood in Rivers State politics, this chance encounter is a metaphor for much needed peace and rapprochement. It brought together the two principal actors and the combination of humility and forgiving understanding required to restore peace to Rivers State.
The tragic progression of events in the recent political history of the state is all too familiar. The state has somehow come to embody the ugly face of present day Nigerian politics. Political contest has often turned into armed conflict. Rival private armies have clashed openly and left a trail of blood and destruction. The official security forces have either looked on helplessly or indeed helped themselves to the spoils of the partisan fray.
At other times, the security forces have been hopelessly outgunned by rival militias and sundry gunmen in vicious pursuit of private interests dressed as the common good. The great expectations of goodness that democracy should bring has turned into mournful processions to the gravesides of innocent victims. This ugly narrative is an insult and a tragic derogation of a strategic state with a proud people and illustrious heritage. The story needs to change and urgently too.
The challenge of changing this narrative is a historic and generational assignment. It invites the present generation of dueling partisans to alter the age long pattern of conflict for power and political pre-eminence in what historians call the ‘Oil Rivers’ or now the Niger Delta. From the warring boat houses and war canoes of old that clashed over supremacy in the slave and palm oil trade in the swamps in pre-colonial and colonial times, we now have gangs of armed political thugs clashing over the power of control over crude oil and gas revenues. There has only been a progression in the article of trade and object of power rivalry: from slaves and palm oil to crude oil and natural gas. The time has come for the present generation of Rivers sons and daughters to look back at this past with anger and utterly reject it.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am an interested party. I am a Nigerian. Although my birth cord lies buried beneath a kola nut tree in a village in Abia State, I lay rightful residency claims to two other states in this imperfect federation. I live and work in Lagos, discharging all the obligations of citizenship in that state. I lived and worked in Rivers State for more than a decade of my younger and more productive years as a teacher at the University of Port Harcourt. As a young idealistic Marxist scholar, I and others undertook outreach community projects to see first hand the devastation of gas flaring and oil pollution in the lives of ordinary people in rural Rivers. The insensitive exploitation of the oil companies made us very sad.
At a personal level, most of my children were born in Port Harcourt just as a good number of my best friends are from Rivers State. So, I feel psychologically and emotionally involved in the drama of Rivers State. As the French would put it: Je suis Rivers!
More directly, the major protagonists and actors in the current political drama of the state are well known to me. Specifically, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transport, stands out in this regard. I have known him for the better part of 35 years as my former student at the University of Port Harcourt and subsequently as a friend, younger brother and more.
In a teacher’s update of his testimonial, I can attest to his tenacity of purpose, altruism and tempestuous commitment to whatever cause he commits himself. A revolutionary idealist, he is politically sagacious and therefore impatient with stasis. He is as efficient as he is impatient. Amaechi is at once fearless and irreverent but sometimes disruptive in a progressive way. But he remains humble and very humane at the core.
I got to meet and know the other major actors through Amaechi. As Director General of the Amaechi Campaign Organisation for a second term, I watched Mr. Nyesom Wike at campaigns throughout the state. I was struck by his political agility and I did then remark casually that he is a man to watch. Governor Wike has the memory of an elephant when it comes to grassroots politics. He knows by name literally everyone who matters politically in every ward in the state. He combines this grassroots political familiarity with fierce and fearsome courage and feisty impatience.
Senator Magnus Abe is that rare combination of technocratic shrewdness and razor sharp intellect with a strategic and analytic mindset that is rare among political animals in these parts.
These gentlemen are all friends and largely members of the same political family that is traceable to the leadership of former Governor Peter Odili. To that extent, the current political differences that have turned the state into a virtual theatre of war is in a sense a political family quarrel that has been allowed to fester into ugly clashes of rival partisan gangs. Naturally, too many external interests have invited themselves into this squabble among friends.
While the right of historical precedence belongs to Dr. Peter Odili, Rotimi Amaechi can justifiably lay claims to a precedence of commitment, focus and undeniably demonstrable legacies.
Apart from the founding legacies of the revered Alfred Diete Spiff, Amaechi stands out as easily the most experienced and illustrious Governor that has presided over the state. He was House Speaker for eight years, governor for eight years and has been federal minister for four years and still counting. To that extent, he is a reservoir of experience and service. For this reason, he may be entitled to a certain understandable messianic swagger.
In fairness to Governor Wike, he has strained to match or surpass the achievements of his immediate predecessor to the best of his ability. While his aspirations and achievements equally deserve acknowledgment, ultimate judgment ought to be left with the people and posterity.
However, what is undeniable is that all the significant current contenders for political pre-eminence in the state rose to prominence mostly at Amaechi’s behest: Governor Wike was his Chief of Staff; Senator Magnus Abe was his Secretary to Government while Dr. Dakuku Peterside was his Commissioner for Works.
This background can serve the interests of those who insist on the benefit of hindsight. But the challenge of the moment is somewhat different and more urgent. The future of a whole state is at stake. Because of the strategic import of Rivers State, the peace, stability and continued prosperity of the Nigerian federation is also at stake if we allow Rivers State to unravel.
In the aftermath of the political and judicial battles of the 2019 elections, therefore, the clear imperative that urgently invites all the interests in Rivers State is that of an enduring peace. A genuine peace process must be rolled out quickly. The first condition of that process is non-partisanship and the abandonment of all forms of violence in pursuit of selfish or partisan goals. No party is right and none is wrong. The only right now is the right of the people of Rivers State to a peaceful existence. At stake also is the right of other Nigerians and foreigners who have come to see the state as home. The call to that peace is urgent and above party, above upland and riverine; it is above sectional interests and all divides.
It is only wise that the feuding partisans should sheathe their swords and be seen by the ordinary people to have agreed to reunite for peace and progress. Governor Wike should as the presiding sovereign authority of the state demonstrate a statesmanlike readiness to create an atmosphere for an urgent peace process. Similarly, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi as the pre-eminent federal commissar from the state, exemplary former governor and emerging national statesman must bury the hatchet. Other activated interests like Senator Magnus Abe with their followership have earned a seat at the table of peace and must get involved with a sense of humility.
Beyond the immediate partisans, the Rivers State peace process must have guarantors from among key segments of the populace. It must include traditional rulers, notable elders, religious leaders and representatives of women and youth groups.
The pillars of such a peace process must include the following:
1.The discontinuation of all politically motivated court cases by the Rivers State Judiciary through a serial nolle prosequi
2. The withdrawal of all petitions and suits regarding the outcome of the 2019 governorship and other elections in the state
3. A moratorium on all hate speech and divisive propaganda by all parties in the social media and the popular press
4. A community-based biometrics based and comprehensive youth disarmament programme supervised by the Nigeria Police and military authorities with inbuilt incentives (arms-for-jobs; arms for amnesty or arms for SME credit through the Rivers State Micro Finance Agency).
I therefore suggest an urgent convening of an All Rivers Peoples Peace Conference. This Conference should be hosted by Governor Nyesom Wike and chaired by Dr. Peter Odili with Hon. Rotimi Amaechi as co-Chairman.
I suggest further that the conclusions of the conference should include the setting up of a Leaders Advisory Council, a state equivalent of the National Council of State to meet quarterly to examine matters of leadership interest to the state.
The major agreements must be guaranteed by non-partisan stakeholders and witnessed by credible representatives of pan-Nigeria.
•Dr. Chidi Amuta is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board.