In this interview with select journalists in Abuja, a former governorship aspirant and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress in Rivers State, Tonye Princewill, spoke about some of the intrigues that affected the fortunes of the party in the state and other sundry issues. Shola Oyeyipo brings the excerpt
After the 2019 elections where the APC was excluded in Rivers State, are there efforts to carry out a comprehensive reconciliation among members and where does the party stand ahead of 2023?
Anybody who wants to win wants peace especially, anyone who is not blinded by ambition. I know peace efforts were made before the elections and I suspect peace efforts will be made again soon. But it has to be initiated from outside. That means it is the duty of the party to find a way to bring all sides back to the table.
The national office in my opinion is best placed to midwife a genuine peace process. Disagreements are commonplace in politics. Friction is a function of interaction. So, we await the party. Clearly as the dust begins to settle and ministers are put in place, the need for a state-by-state reconciliation will come to the front burner.
I will say, however, that party disunity at the state level was not what made us lose the election. It was disunity at the national level buoyed by a few in the judiciary and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that were willing to use the guise of local issues to implement a plan hatched in Rivers State Government House.
We were naive to think that those threatened by Amaechi, were only in PDP. Now we know that was not the case. His unadulterated closeness to Buhari and his refusal to ‘play’ with some of his fellow leaders at the national level meant that his enemies became Wike’s friends.
If an Amaechi without a state government was so influential; an Amaechi with a Rivers State government would be unstoppable. 2019 for us was about 2023, not 2019. Amaechi was taught a lesson and we in Rivers State paid for it, through no fault of our own. Anybody weak enough could be induced to be disunited. Our fault was we underestimated how much Amaechi was hated within his own team. So, at the federal level, we were really in government, but we were not in power. That lesson has been learnt and filed away for the history books.
Now that a new cabinet is in place, what are your expectations?
The president has already set agenda and so it’s not for me to do that. But I would expect that it would be a more intense pace and higher targets. This president won an election with the media against him, the elite against him, ethnic bigots against him, religious zealots against him, the generals against him and the west against him.
At one point, I suspected he even had some people in INEC against him. All he had going for him were his APC die-hards and the masses. This victory is for them. That means he has to deliver on the things that are important to them.
Jobs, an improved fight against corruption with several high profile convictions, improved power distribution, rail infrastructure networks and a further acknowledgment of industries outside of oil like agriculture, the creative sector and information technology. Buhari has his legacy to protect. Ministers have been given their marching orders and any who falls short will be denied the glory of their posts.
At the national level, the party seems to be fragmented along interest lines. There are those who feel the APC is losing its goodwill and that the party may not be in reckoning come 2023, particularly, considering that the cult-like followership of President Buhari would no longer be there. How do you react to that?
It was a former British Prime Minister that said, “A week is a long time in politics.” That applies here too. My prediction is that there will be an alignment and realignment of interests leading up to the next elections. We see it all the time. It’s nothing new.
What may be new is the president may sign into law – a new electoral act that will introduce electronic voting. People will become more important to politicians if that is the case. In many states, that has not been the case. Both the APC and the PDP will be affected by this and it means the possibility of a third force will become more likely.
I agree APC would need to begin to reflect on life after Buhari. Like I said earlier, it was Buhari that won that election, against all odds. So, if he wasn’t there, it would be different. But if Buhari raised the hand of anyone, he or she already has a head start over the opposition.
Buhari won’t raise anyone’s hand in 2023 unless he genuinely believes that such a person can do justice to Nigeria and take her to the Promised Land. It will be that person versus someone, who can take us back to the days of sharing and I know, in the end, the progressives under whatever banner, will win again.
Amaechi is perceived in certain quarters as a stumbling block in Rivers APC and not a rallying point. He couldn’t stomach Magnus Abe, Lulu Briggs and a few others, who left the party for him, because they alleged he imposed Tonye Cole. As a strong force within, what is your take?
Thank you for that question. Let me start by saying I am not a strong force, just a very stubborn politician, who will not play politics as usual. I am easy to understand. My loyalty to party is not at the expense of my loyalty to my people. As long as my party respects my people, my party can have no problem with me. Who are my people? The youths, the vulnerable, the disabled, the masses, the Niger Deltans, the Ijaws, Rivers people and of course, the Kalabari Kingdom.
Mess with any of these groups and you have messed with me. It is therefore impossible to impose where I am seated. I won’t take it. Amaechi did not impose anyone on us. He did not even allow the writing of results at the ward, LGA and state congresses. He, like his father Buhari, became an extreme democrat.
The amount of sincere consultations we did in Rivers State, impressed even a sceptic of our politics like me. I have been a victim of the popular will being reversed many times before and I can tell you, that didn’t happen in Rivers State. Yes, it is true Amaechi expressed an opinion as to Tonye Cole at the end, but he did so only after we gave him that option. I was one of the last to agree.
But I know Amaechi has genuine love at the grassroots and the best way to fight the opposition was lining up behind one position, no matter whose ox was gored. Can I agree behind closed doors and reject it publicly? No. I cannot do that. We the leaders agreed on the process of choosing a candidate and we agreed on Tonye Cole – collectively.
With respect to my brother, the distinguished Senator Magnus Abe, he jumped the gun and expressed an interest to contest very early. Amaechi refused to endorse him, but he was left free to express his views and free to associate, including with Wike. He could never have won, so he ensured nobody won. I am sure he is very happy about how he made his point. Wike owes a lot to him.
Nigeria is experiencing dwindling external reserves and the GDP isn’t encouraging. In specific terms, what do you think should be done by the new cabinet to drive the economy, particularly with its mono-product economy?
There are a lot of things they can do sector-by-sector, but I think there are a few areas that I see quick wins. Improved agricultural output is already a priority and I expect that this federal government would do even more, same for infrastructure. We need more rails, roads, better ports and airports. Our refineries also need to be online and effective. Decades have passed without progress. That is no more.
Two areas are dear to me. The first is that I want the power sector to be a key target and I want to see it improve, especially at the level of distribution. It really should be a standalone ministry with someone, who is prepared to fall on his sword. This issue frustrates me so much so I took time to study it.
No matter how much we generate, we don’t have the infrastructure to distribute more than 4,000 MW. The discos are a bottleneck and I now see why. The issue needs to be addressed. No excuses. Get back power and you give power to the people. You reduce their costs, you improve their quality of life, you attract manufacturing, you give them jobs, you light up their neighbourhoods and you reduce insecurity.
The next area for me is the creative industry – our music, our film, our comedians, our artists and our collective culture, popularly called the entertainment industry. This is the lifeblood of our youths and one of the largest employers of labour.
I see that the CBN and BOI are doing a good job of recognising them, but they need to do more and this has to be a serious and a directly supervised initiative by the executive under the ministry of information and culture and supported by justice. When I produced 76, it not only sold Nigerians to the world, it sold Africa to the world. Sent out positive images. That is what Burna Boy, Davido, Genevieve, Mo Abudu and others are doing on a daily basis. Where therefore is the institutional support for them?
You have been around for long: a friend to Atiku, you worked with Tinubu in 2007 and you are one of Amaechi’s confidants. Yet you are at home in the Villa. How have you been able to manage or navigate around all these power blocks and tendencies?
I am a willing student and I did not join politics for what I can take. I joined for what I can give. Both Atiku and Asiwaju brought me up very well politically. Atiku gave me the opportunity to contest and allowed me a voice; Asiwaju stood by me and gave me the tools to fight for justice. They both handed me over to Amaechi even though they both denied it at the time.
I now know why. Since then, we have been a team, even though his refusal to support me for governor kept me away from him for a while. All politics is local and so in Rivers State, you are either with Wike or Amaechi. I have tried the third party option. It doesn’t work. There is no way I can work with Wike.
As for the villa and the presidency, I believe in Buhari and I am not alone. Ninety per cent of my LGA agreed with me. He got our votes. We rejected anything and everything associated with Wike and we have seen a man for the masses. I’m sure they see that in me.
With the problems that trailed APC’s adoption of direct primaries in some states of the federation, do you see it as a better method than indirect primaries?
If well managed, it can be a solution to many of our problems. It’s expensive and it can be an invitation to violence, but if you can check that, I will forever be an advocate for it.
The Buhari administration has faced strong criticisms from Nigerians, who feel he is not holding on to his campaign promises especially, in the area of the fight against corruption. Would you not agree that the fight against corruption could be better fought?
Of course it could be better fought. There is room for improvement. I will be the first to agree with this. But let us not be fooled by those who think nothing is being done or no significant progress is being made. Critics are available like sand. I ignore them. What I listen out for are the constructive critics.
They want to see more high profile convictions and fast tracking of cases and their wishes are being heard. I am reminded what a banker once told me. He said he can’t make it impossible for people to steal money, what he can do is make it harder and harder for them.
From your arguments, it is obvious you consider the last governorship election in Rivers State as a sham but there are those who would argued that Governor Wike was solidly on the ground in the state and that he understood the politics better and had earned for himself the sobriquet, Mr. Project in Rivers. What is the chance that APC has with another four years of Wike?
INEC declared him governor. So that is what he is until the judiciary says otherwise or till his four-year term expires or God takes control to the contrary. We all know it was a sham; it is not breaking news. What was a surprise was who and who were involved.
But now we know. He is now planning to endorse Austin Opara as his successor, because he has seen that cash is King. Anybody can be bought – the media, the police, the judiciary, the opposition and the youths.
He knows our moral fibre is weak and that hunger has left many of us thinking with our stomachs and not our heads. We are here and watching. Let the buying begin. APC’s chances depend on APC.
If like in 2015 and 2019, you predicted a President without Rivers; that may not be the case going forward. We need candidates that are popular, grass-rooted and can appeal across party lines – at all levels. We can’t afford a disgruntled electorate.
You’re a southerner. Many people from that region have vehemently protested against federal government’s proposed Ruga settlement for nomadic herders. Where do you stand on this very sensitive national debate?
Yes, I am a southerner, but I am also a Nigerian and I would like to think I am fairly reasonable in my thinking. The position is that unless a state wants it, the settlement will not happen. The former Minister of Agriculture being from Benue State and being a farmer is reported to have tried to establish one without the permission of the state. That action has since been stopped in its tracks. So what’s the fuss?
How many ways can you say No? I think that the federal government has got the message. The mistrust fueled by irresponsible actions on all sides, means that the government needs to go with only the states that are ready. If the trust is rebuilt and other states see that they can profit from RUGA, then, they can adopt it. Not before. One Nigeria is also about respect for each other.
Would you say you’re satisfied with the state of security in Nigeria presently and what are your suggestions to bringing about enduring peace?
Satisfied with security is a luxury we cannot afford. There is a lot of work to be done. But unlike many who see security as strictly a federal government assignment, I see it as much more than that. Seeing what insecurity has done to Rivers State, I know the limits of the federal government. I also know the limits of the police.
Taking Rivers State as a case study, we see you need social security too. Free health and free education and the refocus on the creation of jobs have a direct correlation with insecurity. The fact that we are number one in unemployment cannot be unconnected with our levels of insecurity. Is that strictly Federal Government? No.
Is that a police problem? No. Nigerians focus on Abuja as a fallout of military regimes gone by. They have not upgraded their thinking to what goes on in their states or in their local governments. As a result of this archaic and analog thinking, they give governors a free certificate to deliver if they like. Not me.
I can go on and on about what to do as I have done in the past, but I’m not sure anyone is listening. The absence of consequence is the beginning and the end of the problem. If it is profitable to be disruptive and a menace to society, why would people not be? If arming youths actually wins elections, why won’t armed youths be a new normal?
And if that is the new normal and there are no jobs, why won’t there be insecurity? I have said we need to be tough on crime, but also on the causes of crime. I’m glad The US embassy has taken some action following the elections.
Albeit a tap on the wrist, we know what to do but for selfish reasons, we don’t or won’t want to do it. Support the right people to lead even if you have to make a personal sacrifice. That is what I have done. I try to lead by example.