The ambition of Mr. Tonye Cole, a businessman-turned politician, to be governor of Rivers State on the platform of the All Progressives Congress in the 2019 elections was cut short by a string of court judgments that stopped the party from fielding candidates, because of irregularities in its primaries. Cole had since maintained a quiet but active life. He shares his experience and plans for the future with Ernest Chinwo. Excerpts:
People are asking: What’s next for Tonye Cole having been stopped from running for the governorship of Rivers State by the courts?
We entered into what you may call a life-defining moment, when I plunged into politics. When I did, it was clear to me it was not a short-term thing. I sat down with my father who is an old politician and I asked him and other politicians whom I consulted and they said to me, if you have to do this you must not be two-minded; you can’t put one leg in and another out.
So as you know, I left Sahara and walked away from everything so that I could face this. So, the first thing in answering your question is that we are still in the game. The political architecture of Nigeria requires fresh blood in it; fresh people and fresh ideas to work there, and that is what we have. So, I am in this game now.
Many have advocated that technocrats like you should join politics to make it better. Has this really been the case? These days, it is difficult to see the difference between technocrats in politics and the real politicians, who have been there.
I must start by saying that there are certain values that you must maintain. The issue of who stands or who falls in anything depends on the character of the person. What is the line that the person will draw to ensure that he stands and not fall? If you win and you move in every direction, you will have problems. If you are there and decide to please everybody, you will have problems. If what you are there to do is to get power at all cost, you will have problems.
So, your character and your values are the first aspect: what do you have and what are you holding on to? I believe that in my life, the first thing that has been given to me and which I must ensure that I keep for my children is my name. It is very important. I did not come out of nowhere. Somebody built a name that they gave to me. My responsibility is to ensure that that name is not abused; that I do not erode the value in that name so that I can bestow the same to my children. That is the first aspect of it.
The second is that one has to have some values; that they must be accountable for all their actions. For me, that person, without mincing words, is God. I have to be accountable to him. The second is the people. One of the things I have discovered in politics is that the people do not matter much in the equation of decision-making of the political class. And that is something we must change. The people must matter.
What you are doing for them must matter. Having them hold you accountable for what you do must matter. And these are the things we want to change. Can I tell you what will happen after waking tomorrow? No. Nobody can. But can I be certain that values and integrity mean a lot to me; the name that I stand on means a lot to me; the God that I serve means a lot to me; these ones I cannot compromise.
Walking away from Sahara, how difficult was it?
It was extremely very difficult. It is what I have known for the majority of my life. Twenty-thrree years working with partners that I have come to trust; they were my family, everything that I did was around them. But when you carry a burden of nation building, politics that you walked away from in 1996 because of what you saw; by 1999 we had already established and was working. And between 1999 and 2002, we saw that every decision we took was affected by decisions in politics and that it was getting harder and harder to survive, because of the kind of politics that was being played.
We had to make a choice: do you continue holding your hand and earning for yourself and those around you or do you go out and change the system so that others can have the opportunity to earn for themselves? So, it was an extremely difficult decision to make but I believe it was the right thing to do.
So it was the desire to make a positive change that motivated you?
Absolutely! It did not come easy and it did not come quickly. It was something that I considered over the years. I started talking to young people about making generational changes and impact. If we cannot convince ourselves to coordinate the change from inside, then who will do it for us? In life, I realised that there is never a perfect time and there is never the worst time. Any time you need to do something, you should do it. There is no need to procrastinate. When the opportunity comes, you should take it.
However, the learning experience that I passed through is second to none. Politically, I went from nursery to PhD in political lessons. Everything that could go wrong within the political equation went wrong in Rivers State. This means that I was given an opportunity to see, where political actors did everything to prevent my party and I from progressing.
It had never happened in any state. I learnt how the judiciary can be brought to play; I leant how the Independent National Electoral Commission can be brought to play, I learnt how the police and the military can be brought to play, I learnt how the internal conflict within the party can be brought to play, I learnt how the NYSC itself, an institution, can be brought to play, how institutions that should help the electoral process can be brought to play to actually subvert the process. I would never have learnt all these things if I was sitting on the outside. So, I am very grateful for the lessons.
The internal squabble within your party was one of the factors that torpedoed your ambition. What lessons did you learn from that?
Yes, it was one of the factors. Even the Bible says it that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The story of the Tower of Babel was that God himself knew that the people could achieve their ambition with the spirit of oneness with which they were building the tower. So, he had to intervene.
The only way he could stop the people was to set confusion among them. That is God that created us. So, moving forward we learnt that for us to achieve our goals, we need to build a commonality of interest. Whether in Nigeria or Rivers State, we need to build a commonality of purpose, interest, if we need to achieve our aim.
Quite a number of your party members considered you an outsider, who came into a house he never built to reap where he did not sow. Do you think you did enough to change that perception and bring the people together?
To answer that question, you need to look at two factors. The first is the time when I stepped into the equation and the time when election itself happened. When you look at the time factor, there are only so many people you can reach and who you can talk to. Now, did I do enough to reach the people that I needed to reach? Yes. So, I reached everybody I could reach.
The second aspect is that, did I come as an outsider to take something that one did not labour for? Now, that is where the frustration comes in. The next aspect of life is that people are grudging all the time into agitation. What they should be asking is that if you have the capacity to take us from A to B, and that is the type of politics we need to look at. In the private sector where I come from, we know globally that you can take a person, if he has the competence, from one sector and move him into another sector for the growth of the company.
I think, they were asking the wrong question. The question should be: Do you have what it takes to move the state forward? And what does it take to move the state forward? Can you manage it well; can you manage the resources; are you there to steal the money of the state or are you there to bring business into the state; do you have relationships that can bring investments into the state; have you proved yourself in one line, where you were able to build things from nothing and you have the track record?
These are the kind of questions we expect and if anybody had sat down for one minute to ask those questions, they would have known that without any doubt whatsoever, I was by far qualified to deliver on these things. Politics is about people. It is about the desire to serve people and I tell people, there is no business that succeeds in life over time, one decade or thereabout, that is not built on serving the people. So we are here to serve; we are here to manage human beings; we are here to ensure that we can generate revenue for the state. They should give me one and I can transform it to 10.
People blame your principal ultimately for what happened for his refusal to allow a free and fair process within the party. What is your view about this?
I believe that when people look at things with the benefit of hindsight, they will have answer to any problem: you should have handled that this way; you should have done it this way. I always see that. Apportioning blame like that is something that I refrain from. But what are the issues that were at play? There was a system that was in place before I came in and that system seems to have always worked in this particular way.
And everybody that was fighting the system they had used the same system to move forward. That was the system they were operating before then. My thinking is that the same actors, who had gone to court, who were also beneficiaries of the system, should have sat down with other leaders (because they were also leaders), including the leader of the party, to agree on how they will handle the next elections they were going into. If you do that, I will think there is maturity among all of you as leaders. One thing that happened was that when one person saw that the system was going against his ambition, he decided to scatter it. And that was how the whole fight started.
Was there an agreement between the APC and the African Alliance Congress Candidate that in the event of his winning the gubernatorial election in Rivers State, he would resign and you will take over?
That is rubbish thought. The constitution does not even allow that. Once you are on the ballot, you cannot drop for anybody else. So the governorship candidate of the AAC in the event of winning that election could not have stepped out for another person to take over. The constitution does not allow it; the electoral act does not allow it. So, the minute AAC was to run on the ballot, nobody could take him out. So, all those talks were not logical and there was no substance to them.
Your name was earlier touted to be on the ministerial list. If that had happened, would you have seen it as a compensation having not been allowed to run for the governorship of your state?
Let me clear about what my mindset is about politics in Nigeria. The first aspect of it is that I use myself to set example as a role model for a whole generation of people to find governance and politics as something that they must get involved. That is my mindset. And that is, get there and if you can get things done; if you can show it is possible, if you can show that there is a way you can get things done, then you will encourage others to know deep inside that they can also do the same. The mere thought that I ran for governorship encourages so many people about politics in Nigeria.
Number two, if there is an opportunity given to you to come and serve whether as minister or any other position, remember that what I have done now is a total career change. This means that I have put myself directly in the service of Nigeria: whether that service is through being a governor, or through being a minister or through participating directly in the political arena. The state and the nation is my focus. For me, my focus is not that I should be compensated here or there. No, that is not my focus. My focus now is in participating and shaping the political landscape of Nigeria.
So, I am there as a role model for a whole generation of Nigerians that are looking up to me. Let us work together; let us turn things around. That is what I am there for. I don’t know what opportunity that will open up. If the opportunity opens up in 2023 for me to run again for Rivers State governorship, I will be there; if the opportunity opens up to serve in bigger capacity, I am there; if the opportunity opens up for me to continue to influence and bring people’s view, I am there. I am there in this political equation for the foreseeable future.
Give us an assessment of what your party, the APC, has done at the national level. Has the party been able to change the nation?
I think it has been a very tough four years for Nigerians and it has been a very tough years for all the political parties. But having said that, let us look at the long-term implications for Nigeria. If you look at it at the short term, you will always fall for some parameters that have made life extremely difficult: the fall in oil prices, the recession that came and many other excuses. But let us look at foundations that have been laid to make us move forward.
The first aspect of it is for us to look at projects that were started by the last administration. Most administrations will stop all projects started by their predecessors and initiate new ones that they eventually end up not finishing. I will say that one thing the APC did very well was to look at those projects and complete them because they were all infrastructure projects that will form the backbone of what you want to do moving forward. That, in itself, is a good thing, whether it is the airports or the railways or the maritime sector that has been improved. These are different infrastructure areas.
The second thing the APC government did which I will say, stood by what they wanted to do, because they were not wide in their policies, they did not get to policies that cut across every single thing. They said they were going to focus on certain aspects. They talked security. Security in one particular area; they began to succeed in that aspect which was the fight against Boko Haram. They had a new battle on their hands, which was the herdsmen issue. But did focus on security in the states as against the Boko Haram, which was the primary security threat, they did not follow on that. They talked about infrastructure and they did focus on the infrastructure business.
The third aspect of it, they said they what would work on when they were coming in, was unemployment. That one too took a bashing, because of the state of the economy – recession and all that. Generally they managed to progress well. Now we are in the longer term, let us see what will happen.
A lot of people have said Nigeria cannot move forward, progress or make any headway if it is not restructured. What is your take on this?
Nigeria seems to be already heading in that direction. We need a very frank and honest discussion with ourselves as a nation. We need to look at a whole on the nation and decide which way to go. The main problem, and that goes back to the beginning: are we united as a nation in vision as to where we want to go? Are we united as a nation in purpose as to where to go? Are we united as a nation on how we want to go? We need to talk to the different ethnic groups, especially now that we are breaking up into various ethnic nations.
There is a nation in the West, a nation in the North, a nation in the East and a nation in the South that is not united into one Nigerian nation. As long as that is the case, we have a problem. So, we need to have that honest conversation that allows us to appreciate that we are different in languages, culture, food, etc. but that we are still one as a nation; that even though we are different, we respect our diversity. We must come to an agreement as to where we are going. A discussion must be held and we must come to an agreement that even though we have different religions, you cannot impose your religion on me.
So, my take is that Nigeria, as a nation should have a frank discussion about our future as we have had a national conference. We need to have a completely different one. The Nigeria that we have today and the sentiments that are ingrained in us now are different from the sentiments back then. If we had implemented what was discussed then, it would have started correcting some of these things. I believe it (the old national conference) is outdated and what we discussed then are not what are obtainable now. The level is totally different. I believe that for a new Nigeria to happen, let us have a discussion. I believe it is long overdue.