Political honeymoons, like some celebrity marriages, tend to be short-lived.
Except that, while some marriages are driven by passion, political marriages are driven by cold-blooded self-interest. The high-stakes drama currently playing out in Nigeria’s oil-rich Rivers State is akin to the popular TV series, ‘Game of Thrones,” a taut, thrilling and high-octane story of power, intrigue, lust, intricate webs of conspiracies, as well as shifting loyalties and fair-weather allegiances – and the shocking betrayals that go with them.
The crisis threatening to engulf Rivers State as a result of the face-off between the state Governor, His Excellency, Siminalayi (or simply Sim) Fubara, and his predecessor and current Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), His Excellency, Hon. Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, is already having repercussions across the state and beyond its borders. Already, the latest episode in a power tussle that is threatening to escalate into a conflagration now involves the State House of Assembly and its badly-divided membership – which is torn between the Governor and the Minister – and even Mr. Fubara’s State Executive Council.
It has been a crisis of many low moments. One of the lowest moments in this tense sequence of events has been the recent demolition of the State House of Assembly Complex in Port Harcourt, the state capital, by the Fubara government. This action, ostensibly because the integrity of the facility had been compromised, thereby necessitating a renovation after an explosion and fire incident which occurred back in October 2023. However, not a few people noted that the said explosion/fire coincided with an attempt by 24 lawmakers (allegedly loyal to Wike) to initiate impeachment proceedings against Gov. Fubara.
Also, the demolition of the HOS building happened right at the time when the Governor was presenting the state’s 2024 budget (in Government House, the Governor’s residence and seat of power) in front of a small number of pro-Fubara legislators – a whopping FOUR of them, in fact! Few people believe the government’s ‘building integrity‘ rationale for bringing down the Assembly Complex; indeed, some (especially in the opposition All Progressives’ Congress, APC) are saying the action was simply to prevent the 24 anti-Fubara lawmakers from holding plenary. These voices have even gone as far as to accuse Gov. Fubara himself of being the mastermind of the October explosion and fire – especially given the fact that till date, the Fubara-led administration had NOT set up any formal body (whether committee or panel of inquiry, etc.) to investigate the causes of the fire, in order to take appropriate measures, beyond promising to rebuild the structure.
It will be recalled that, at the height of the saga, the House Speaker, Hon. Martins Amaehwule and three other principal lawmakers were removed from their positions by pro-Fubara forces, who thereafter elected and inaugurated the Leader of the House, Hon. Edison Ehie, as the new Speaker. The political drama took on a new dimension when the 24 pro-Wike lawmakers eventually defected from the ruling PDP to the APC. In reaction, the remaining 4 lawmakers then sat and declared the seats of the defectors vacant. On their part, the defecting lawmakers, led by former Speaker Amaewhule, held a parallel sitting at the auditorium of the Assembly Quarters and continued their legislative duties.
In a crisis that just seems to escalate with every passing day – a new twist here, a new revelation there – the Governor had, on more than one occasion, alleged that there was an assassination attempt on him by some ‘compromised’ police officers who reportedly fired live bullets as he visited the HOS Complex to assess the extent of damage caused by the bombing and burning. He has also challenged the lawmakers who sought his removal to show cause for their action, adding ominously, “If Siminalayi Fubara is impeached, I won’t be the first, neither will I be the last. But … any attempt that is not justified will be resisted.”
And that’s just from the Assembly end of things.
There have been rumblings, too, within Governor Sim’s own Cabinet. At the last count, at least 9 of his Commissioners (all of them known Wike loyalists) have resigned from the Executive Council – including the highly-regarded Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Prof. Zacchaeus Adangor, SAN, who had served in that capacity in Wike’s administration before being re-appointed by Fubara. Others included Dr. Des George-Kelly; Mrs. Inime Aguma; Isaac Kamalu; Prof. Chinedu Mmom; Dr Jacobson Nbina; Dr Gift Worlu; Austen Ben-Chioma and Emeka Woke.
The outspoken Woke, in particular, was the Chief of Staff to the former Governor for 8 years.
Needless to say, all these rumblings are like music to the ears of the Rivers State chapter of the APC, who have gleefully expressed their solidarity with the defected lawmakers, saying they did not need the demolished House of Assembly Complex or any physical structure, for that matter, to carry out their legislative duties. Speaking at a press conference recently, the Chairman of the Rivers State Caretaker Committee of the APC, Chief Tony Okocha has even urged Wike to defect to the party, lead its structure in Rivers State, and help it take over the reins of power in the state.
How did Rivers State get here?
The bare facts behind this crisis are as simple as they are befuddling. Sim Fubara was, until May 29, 2023, the Accountant-General of Rivers State under ex-Governor Wike. His emergence as the PDP’s gubernatorial candidate in the 2023 polls and his subsequent victory at the polls was, rightly, seen as the handiwork of Wike. With Fubara’s emergence at the helm of affairs in Port Harcourt (and Wike’s subsequent ascension to the ‘juicy’ Ministry of the FCT in the administration of President Bola Tinubu), the former Governor joined the ranks of so-called ‘political godfathers’, those individuals imbued with an almost supernatural able to monitor and teleguide their successors at will from behind the scenes, like master puppeteers.
In Wike’s case, it was said that he single-handedly penciled down the ENTIRE list of Commissioners, Special Advisers and other key aides (as well as their respective portfolios) and handed it wholesale to Governor Fubara; the Governor reportedly had ZERO input into these appointments. Since their resignations, the Commissioners have been derided by Fubara’s supporters as ‘moles‘ planted to spy on his Administration. “Let those who want to go, leave,” said one of the Governor’s allies, “and the Governor will assemble members of his (own) team.”
Speculation is rife in both Abuja and Port Harcourt that the Cabinet resignations were to prepare the ground for the ex-Commissulioners’ official defections to the APC. If this happens, surely – as suggested by APC’s Chief Okocha – Wike’s defection cannot be far behind …?
This raging war is ultimately a battle for the soul of Riivers State. Or, to put it in more pedestrian terms, it is a battle for control of the PDP ‘structure’ in the state, a structure that, in its present form, was put together by ex-Governor Wike. It is a structure which, as the brash FCT Minister has said, NOBODY was going to take away from him. This battle is therefore, fueled by the perception – from the point of view of the Wike camp – that the Fubara faction is trying to do just that: take over the structure in Rivers State.
Another perceived reason for this fight is that, according to reports, Governor Fubara has, in the months since his assumption of office, been reneging on a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that he would cede 25% (a quarter) of the state’s monthly federal allocations to his godfather. Although this has been disputed by Wike and his group, it is true that nothing animates these kinds of battles (as far as Nigerian politics is concerned), than arguments over MONEY – not over differences in ideology or the state’s or country’s socio-political orientation, no. Just money.
A third reason for the crisis, it is said, is the struggle over who would become the Chairmen of the 23 LGAs in Rivers State, come February 2024 when Council polls are scheduled to hold.
There’s a fourth, less tangible but perhaps more sinister, reason for this fight, some say: while some use the words ‘self-interest’ and ‘entitlement’ to describe the way Wike has approached this matter, others use stronger words like ‘greed’, ‘hypocrisy’ and even ‘hubris’. The former Governor’s overweening manner, say his critics, runs contrary to his own position on the issue of godfatherism in the recent past. While there is no denying that he played a pivotal role in Fubara’s ascent to power, he seems to forget that any meaningful success, especially in partisan politics, is the result of a collective – rather than an individual – effort, and he, too, had benefited from such support during his various political roles – which makes this brazen attempt to exert total control over a sitting Governor (a practice Wike had spoken so vehemently against in the past) such a contradiction. Is this not this same Wike, for example, who as Governor, fought his predecessor (and former boss) Governor Rotimi Amaechi to a standstill and never allowed ANYBODY to control him or teleguide his activities in any way? Why, many wonder aloud, does he now want a serving Governor to remain perpetually answerable to him?
The battles between godfathers and their gubernatorial godsons are of course, not new to Nigeria’s political history. In fact, the advent of our democratic experiment is replete with confrontations between former Governors and their hand-picked successors. In Kano State, for example, Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso anointed Abdullahi Umar Ganduje as his successor. Less than a year into the Ganduje Administration, however, a cold war reared its head and simmered for a while before snowballing into a fierce conflagration. The feud between the two men is still unresolved till date. A similar scenario also played out in Zamfara State and Sokoto States. A more recent – and perhaps messier – example played out in Edo State as Governor Godwin Obaseki fought his predecessor and benefactor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, to a standstill. Till date, as in Kano, they are still at loggerheads.
Perhaps what distinguishes the Wike-Fubara confrontation from these other ones is that it has come so early in the successor’s term. And it has so far conformed to the reputation of Rivers State and its politics, which is usually characterized by thuggery on the streets and mafia-type conduct by key political players.
It may well be that Wike, who has been variously described as the ‘Jagaban’ and the ‘Asiwaju’ of Rivers (and indeed South-South) politics by his admirers, might be hankering after the kind of influence the original bearer of those titles wielded – and has managed to maintain – in Lagos State, even over a decade and a half after leaving the Governorship of that state.
If that’s his aim, then he’s going about it the wrong way, because that’s NOT how Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu went about it. Yes, Tinubu is a godfather and a kingmaker (perhaps, as has been asserted in many quarters, the BIGGEST godfather and MOST SUCCESSFUL kingmaker in Nigeria’s political history) but there was some finesse to his influence in Lagos State. Perhaps ‘finesse‘ is not the right word to characterize President Tinubu’s political modus operandi, but it is certainly far from the bare-knuckles style that Wike has so far adopted. Far from breathing down the necks of his successors – Governors Babatunde Fashola, Akinwunmi Ambode and Babajide Sanwo-Olu – or constantly reminding them WHO put them in their gubernatorial seats, Tinubu let them actually GOVERN and exert the authority of their exalted office. He even let them display their own particular charisma and personal aura. In the process they accumulated some political capital for themselves. Although his hand, like the Biblical hand of Esau, was ever-present in the running of those administrations, Tinubu’s shadow did not loom 24/7 over them like some phantom in a horror movie.
Even when these Governors seemed to cross the line, as if to try to shake off Jagaban’s influence, his response was mature, not petulant. Neither did he throw temper tantrums in public. He certainly didn’t try to undercut any Governor by directing their appointees to resign, or legislators to defect, anymore than he would defect from the APC. In the case of Gov. Ambode in particular, it was said that Tinubu did not personally know many of the latter’s Commissioners.
Tinubu’s reported feud with Gov. Ambode was devoid of wild accusations or displays of paranoia about party structures and who might steal them. None of BAT’s successors were ever heard to suggest that their godfather, or his agents, tried to assassinate them (as Rivers State’s Fubara has alleged) or harm them in any way. Tinubu found legal and civilized ways to check any godson perceived to be recalcitrant. Asiwaju took political setbacks in his stride with the patience of a long-distance runner with an eye on the endgame. He would lick his wounds and simply wait for a new election cycle to come around – and an opportunity to put his enormous influence on the line once again.
The best scenario for Nigeria’s democracy is for there to be NO godfathers in any shape or form. But perhaps, at this point in our political evolution, it is an unavoidable reality. As Tinubu has shown, however, it is possible to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation.
That’s the lesson Chief Nyesom Ezenwo Wike – the Jagaban wannabe – must learn from his current boss, the President . Politics in Rivers State has never been an affair for the fainthearted. But it does no one any good for the current crisis to escalate any further than it already has. It is time for the two protagonists (and especially the FCT Minister) to sheathe their swords for the sake of the people of Rivers State, and the sustenance of democracy in Nigeria.