An Emperor and His Nemesis

with  Chidi Amuta

The drama of political bad manners in Rivers State is about to enter  the ‘last corner’.  Incumbent governor Mr. Siminalayi Fubara has dealt a survival kick after being pushed to the wall for most of his one year tenure. In quick succession, he has turned the table on his chief adversary, FCT minister, Nyesom Wike. Mob support for the embattled governor has invaded the streets of Port Harcourt. The governor has won a decisive and most significant court fight to invalidate the legitimacy of the pro-Wike legislators. The 25 former legislators are now illegal occupants of their very quarters. A better funded appeal may yet problematize the subsisting court outcome. For now, Mr. Wike is yet to find an appropriate political vocabulary to describe his fading political glory.

In the interim, all the political outcomes seem to favour the governor.  Similarly, most of the significant political voices in the state have come out openly to challenge Mr. Wike’s long standing domination of the Rivers political turf. From most indications, Mr. Wike’s imperial reign seems to be entering its last days.

Unfortunately, as the unfolding drama goes on, there is very little real governance going on. If this turf war goes on and worsens, Rivers state may be another case of a state with immense resources but an arrested development. The ordinary people of the state may end up as the ultimate losers in this drama of an emperor with his ultimate nemesis.

The unwritten handbook of godfatherism in Nigerian  politics is about to be shredded. Mr. Wike had done an untidy job of handing the baton of state governorship to his former state Accountant General. The illicit logic was perhaps that the critical challenge of all former governors in Nigeria is the extent to which they control the bag of tricks played while they were in office. Who better to guard your money secrets when you leave office than the chief book keeper of the state? That thinking seems to be up in smoke now that governor Fubara, the ex- Account General turned governor has rediscovered that he is first and foremost a state governor and not an errand boy of a departing emperor. His recognition seems to be that  he needs to be in both office and in power in order to command credibility no matter how they got to office.

The trouble is perhaps that Mr. Wike schemed to put Fubara in office and not in power from the beginning. The governor  seems to have realized that the opposite is what he needs. He needs to be in both power and in politics.  The key hubris committed by Mr. Wike is that he did  not allow Fubara to be  minimally in office. He therefore reportedly surrounded the new governor with commissioners whom he himself chose. He reportedly dictated the portfolios, reporting line and created a separate line of reporting which ultimately ended with him in far away Abuja. Most importantly, all the state legislators were sponsored and loyal to Mr. Wike. As it were, Wike was to run Rivers State from his duty post in Abuja. He also put in place a coterie of local government chairpersons in all 23 local governments. Effectively, the entire political structure of Rivers state was in Mr. Wike’s back pocket. He himself openly boasted that he had paid the nomination fees of all political office holders in the state.

In order to keep his home base in tact politically, Wike maintained an eagle eyed watch over the state as an extension of his political manor. He had while in office either alienated or marginalized all major political voices in the state. An army of political jobbers and handpicked war lords maintained surveillance for Mr. Wike from inside the governor’s office,  the state assembly and the local governments. An imperial rule was put in place over an entire state and has lasted for nearly 9 years.

But in pursuit of his imperial oversight  over the state, Mr. Wike forgot a few rules of power incumbency. A man in a powerful political office such as that of a state governorship would want to be seen to wield the power of his office. Secondly, there can be only one captain on board a ship of state.  The commissioners were either serving Wike or Fubara. Similarly, the state legislators could not afford to be at variance with the governor who pays their salaries, allowances and sundry costs. Most importantly, the rule that governs the relationship of a political god father and his surrogate is ruled by distance. The political god father must keep his distance . A god father who insists on having overriding influence over  his surrogate and also sharing political visibility  and the limelight with the surrogate is preparing for suicide. Wike wanted both control, influence and visibility. At the slightes opportunity, he was present in Rivers state, attending church events and converting them into political sermons, visiting key constituencies and holding sundry political meeting.  Confronted with such a god father, the incumbent who wants to survive in office has only one choice: commit political regicide in order to regain his freedom.

The initial role of President Tinubu in the crisis was a bit more problematic. He had a primary responsibility to ensure peace and security in Rivers state failing which he would be confronted with an impossible national security challenge. He needed to protect Wike who had become his political axe man in Rivers in order to use him to guarantee APC support in the strategic state. Ostensibly , Wike had risked his political neck in order to guarantee both electoral victory and political support for Tinubu and the APC in Rivers. The President needed to play multiple impossible roles: impartial political arbiter as head of state, interested political leader of an embattled APC in Rivers, the protector of the political interest of his minister  of the strategic FCT. That was the source of the early agreement that restored minimal co-operation between Wike and Fubara. But that respite evaporated soon enough because it was untenable and not founded in any sensible appreciation of the realities of Rivers politics.

But the grounds of that agreement were precarious and tenuous. It did not have understanding or control of the crucial factors that determine what happens in Rivers politics. The flow of money to oil the machinery of support could not be controlled from Abuja. There is no open campaign and so ‘political money’ cannot be used to buy support in the state. There is a limit to Wike’s war chest. He is not contesting an election in the state and cannot run riot with FCT resources as he probably could as Rivers state governor. Only Mr. Fubara has control over the money and power required to keep political support in Rivers State. 

Most importantly, the abiding polarity in Rivers politics is the divide and balance of power between the demographics of the upland areas counter balanced by the resource base of the riverine areas. It is a balancing act between the Ijaw of the ancient oil river areas and the rest of the state. In recent times, Ijaw nationalism has acquired an unmistakable militancy  which it has weaponized in pursuit of resource control at  national and international  levels. Niger Delta nationalism in pursuit of resource equity in Nigeria has become part of the international vocabulary about minority rights in the world.

The ability of the Ijaw to make life impossible for the rest of Nigeria is no longer in doubt. That capacity is even more enlarged in the context of states like Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta especially.

Therefore, Mr. Wike’s open threats to Fubara’s governorship reminded the governor that he is primarily an Ijaw son. He has now weaponized that latent political asset to arrive at the present pass. This obviously creates serious problems with President Tinubu’s initial apparent support for Wike. As the table seems to have turned in favour of Fubara, Tinubu has retreated under the fire of the changed canvas of the confrontation. He cannot afford to endanger the national golden goose of the Niger Delta. He cannot also afford to back a minister who seems to be losing his support base very feast. It is safer to play and sound neutral and statesmanlike. That is the safe harbor where Tinubu is right now.

In line with the logic of the twist of power towards more of governor Fubara,  the political pendulum in the state is fast shifting towards support for the previously embattled governor. Key political figures like Odili, Secondus, Opara, Omehia and others have swung towards the governor. There is no end to the number of political enemies that Wike made during his imperial rulership of the state as governor. These have now become natural allies of the governor. Inside his own party, the PDP, Mr. Wike may not find the support to fight a local battle in the state. A state that had previously been celebrated as a PDP state is now so badly shaken that it is neither a PDP state nor an APC state. Wike has himself become something of a political bat, neither a bird nor a mammal. He is neither APC nor PDP.

At the national level, he is tolerated by the APC hierarchy as the president’s hatchet man  and ‘friend’ but a risky political capital. If Tinubu admits him into APC, it will be a risk he took alone and may have to pay for later. The PDP at the national level cannot re-embrace Wike because he is a divisive figure who has grossly damaged the party and literally neutralized its national and state chances.

The real nightmare for emperor Wike is the impending probe of his governorship by his successor.  Mr. Fubara has uncovered his trump card. He believes that Wike wanted him politically dead. He is likely to fight like a mortally wounded lion. He has all the paperwork on Wike’s glorious days as emperor of Rivers state. It may in fact be the first time in Nigerian history where a chief accountant of a state becomes the chief advocate of a probe of the tenure of his imperial predecessor. Nigerians cannot wait for the probe to begin. Even the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings, preferably on live television, may uplift our collective subdued mood in these troubled times. It promises to be a curious combination of comedy and tragedy, scenes and slides difficult to forget.

So we have an increasingly isolated figure who may not have much political use in the near future. Yet he does have a residual nuisance value. He can cause Fubara a few sleepless nights through purchased mobs and miscreants inside Rivers. He could try to recover political relevance at home using the blackmail of money and intimidation but to little avail. He could just serve out his tenure with Tinubu depending on his nuisance and embarrassment value. If he is indicted by a fair probe, he is likely to leave the stage a badly bruised and miserable lonely man. If he survives the probe, he will be more of a political pariah, an embarrassment to all who embrace him.

Incidentally, there would be no tragedy either a s an art form of a fact of real life if emperors do not rise and then fall resoundingly.

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