By Solomon Bob
Every politician is a fair game, but a visitor to Nigeria who has witnessed the frenzied bedlam and concurrent media attacks against Governor Nyesom Wike since last Sunday’s pulling down of two seedy hotels in Rivers State would be forgiven for thinking that the most egregious act of absolutism has just occurred.
But that is so far from the reality that the desperate overreactions cast the individuals going off on a tangent to push that suggestion as false alarmists and whited sepulchers. They close their eyes to actual dictatorship and injustice everywhere while inventing a love-in with willful lawbreakers in Rivers State as they seek to scapegoat a soft target. For some reason, Wike has always been a target and fall guy of a section of the media and commenting public who are too scared to call a spade a spade and invariably come off as flat track bullies. But what is their grouse against him this time?
Here’s their case: that in these extraordinary times when even the most basic of freedoms cannot be enjoyed due to very drastic restrictive measures being adopted globally to curb the spread of the deadly Coronavirus, that under these exigent circumstances, the governor ordered the taking down of two hotels whose continued operation violated a lawful regulation and potentially imperiled the lives of the people. Stripped of the deliberate conflation of facts with politics, this is the case against Wike.
Now, the unique circumstances of our world today in the light of the covid-19 pandemic warrant the exercise of emergency powers by chief executives across the board in order that they can take charge of a really perilous situation and respond as appropriate.
In the United States, which has a long history of such a powerful instrument for executive response during a time of crisis or emergency and from where we have copied the practice, they’re styled as Executive Orders.
Although relatively an uncharted territory for us in Nigeria, this administration has relied on executive orders more than any and popularized their deployment. There is no doubting their legality or force of law because they qualify as subsidiary legislation under our law. In fact, a House of Representatives committee has placed reliance on an executive order signed by President Muhammadu Buhari to broaden its jurisdiction beyond the scope authorized by the enabling Act.
Wike signed Executive Order N0. 7 of the Quarantine (Coronavirus and Other Infectious Diseases) Regulations of 2020 requiring all hoteliers in Rivers State to temporarily cease operations as the government battled to prevent a wave of community infection from the virus. All over the world people obey such directives without a need to compel them because they realize that these are extremely difficult times with a killer virus lurking. But the victim-playing hoteliers in Rivers State did not only engage in a bewildering act of serial violation of the regulation requiring them to shutdown, they, in fact, launched an audacious and brutal assault on state officials on covid-19 regulations enforcement duties. Many of them are in the hospital today fighting for dear life.
James Burnham, America’s 20th century political prophet characterizes effete inaction represented as an iteration of liberalism as the “ideology of Western suicide”. In the face of the daring and unflagging recalcitrance displayed by the hoteliers, Gov. Wike’s executive orders would have lost their deterrent and coercive lustre if he did not respond in the manner that he did. And in the event of an escalation in covid-19 cases in the state, he could very well have faced charges of culpable surrender or abdication from the same sanctimonious and saber-rattling babble calling for his head today.
Those pushing the argument of illegal denial of a citizen’s right to property or means of livelihood are unwittingly framing this as a battle between wealth and health. I would stand by health every time because only the living can chase wealth. The governor did what every responsible leader should do — place the health of the people before any and everything else. There is, therefore, justification for the actions taken from both the legal and utilitarian standpoints. In any event, those aggrieved have time and opportunity to litigate their grievance.
In the grand scheme of things, governance is about taking tough decisions. Even so, Wike did not pull down the princely mansions and radio stations of his political opponents as governors elsewhere are wont to do and have been doing. And just last year, federal authorities in Abuja demolished a stately hotel on the flimsiest, if silliest, of excuses including that it offended an indeterminate social behavior! But we didn’t hear the voices of venom-spitting activists and social crusaders. But it is no secret that whatever connects to Rivers State is treated differently. To many in the ruling party, Governor is public enemy number one and the elephant in the room. They harbor what amounts to visceral animus against him.
Unsurprisingly, their invisible hands, forever chomping at the bit, have pounced on the hotels incident as their latest lightning rod – with mendacious ammunition duly supplied by implacable home opponents. From the Bar, too, they have not pulled their punches. Button-down senior lawyers and others with self-exalting god complex who have been shutting their eyes to execrable arbitrariness, lawlessness and outright illegality have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Groggy from five years of timorous slumber, they’ve been spitting guff without knowing the facts.
Worse, most have been doing so not in the lofty diction that their assumed ethical high ground demands, but in indecorous and undignified diatribe. Such double-facedness will rub up the wrong way on the discerning. What manner of senior advocate flies into a temper and gushes ad hominem on the basis of a beer parlor gossip? Lawyers casting unjustified aspersions on Wike are unknowingly engaging in an act of collective self-abasement. The governor has done more for the enhancement of rule of law in this country within the last 5 years than any other public officer. He has also shown support for the comatose Nigerian Bar Association with a view to piggybacking them to public relevance.
The minuscule air of democratic freedom and pluralism enjoyed today owe in large part his boldness, unbowed zest and prescience in calling out this administration while his whimpering traducers either connived or condoned. Nearly four years ago when hooded men raided judges houses at midnight and desecrated the temples of justice nationwide, only Wike stood up to the unprecedented state-sponsored gangsterism. Today’s hypocritical and name-calling senior advocates and self-appointed activists were either quiet or cheered the lawless derring-do while the Governor took the extraordinary risk of facing down armed men at midnight to prevent the well-coordinated assault and arrest of a federal judge within his domain.
Some say Wike’s fearlessness in stranding up for his people and what he believes in stems from his assurance of immunity as a sitting governor. And I’ve asked if other governors do not have immunity. As we say in law, you cannot give what you don’t have. Wike is wired to oppose injustice in any shape or form. He is an instinctual stickler for law and order and an untiring advocate for constitutionalism.
He is a standout outlier among today’s crop of leaders on the vexed question of principle in politics. This and his no-nonsense direct talking and hands-on style constitute his endearment to his people; and they trust him because they know he will never betray them or trade his conviction for personal gain. Few leaders in Nigeria today can walk the streets to raucous acclaim like Wike.
But the media is awash with a different painting of the governor. We witnessed the same tendentious bile when Caverton helicopters, acting on the capricious directive of the Minister of Aviation, were flying in passengers to Port Harcourt, passengers whose covid-19 health status were unknown, culminating in a series violations of an executive order signed by the governor which require everyone entering Rivers State to submit to a check in verification of their covid-19 status.
As in the current hotels demolition controversy, the usual suspects jumped into the fray, assailed and tore into the governor. Are Nigerians secret felons at heart who embrace lawbreakers? Rather than excoriate the minister who, in an apparent and disrespectful power grab, did not bother to make contacts with authorities in Port Harcourt concerning extant Covid-19 health protocols on the ground, they charged that the Governor was warmongering, obdurate and insubordinate.
The governor has a job to do, just as the President. He doesn’t hold his office at the pleasure of the President and he is not accountable to him but to the people of Rivers State. As we have seen in the UK, U.S. and elsewhere, central authorities generally defer to constituent governments to take absolute charge of their domains in the covid-19 enforcement measures. There’s no known instance in which President Trump or any of his secretaries went against the executive order of a governor either by refusing to comply or issuing a counter order. The logic is simple, the governors are more acquainted with their terrains and are directly responsible to their people.
Nevertheless, we have seen more brazen acts of obstruction and threatened arrest against federal agents by other Nigerian governors since the Caverton incident, but no allegations of warmongering and insubordination against them are screaming in the media. Not even a whimper from the bleating gaggle. There’s something to be said about some Rivers people who use everything for politics and politics for everything and who fall for the bait of outsiders to trash their own. We need to have a sense of enlightened self-interest in the unforgiving theater of Nigerian politics. It is extremely foolish to join outsiders to unnecessarily and unconstructively traduce your own in the name of politics. No outsider will stand for Rivers State when it comes to it. We’ve been here before. They say if rattles like a snake and slithers like a snake, then it is a snake.
With a tremendous record in service delivery under very unfriendly conditions, Wike is a great leader. Many states wish they had him. For his people he has the passion of a preacher, the boldness of a self-assured and the meticulous gravitas of a judge. He’s laying everything on the line for their sake. In the ongoing coronavirus crisis, he has typically played a blinder and Rivers State is relatively removed from the ravages elsewhere despite its strategic location as a hub of business and travel.
––Bob is a member of the House of Representatives from Rivers State.