They call him ‘Mr. Projects‘ – and for good reason.
Since his inauguration in May 2015 as the 6th civilian Governor of Rivers State, Nigeria, the administration of Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, CON, has carved a niche for itself for its frenetic pace of action, especially in the construction of infrastructural and other projects critical to the state’s economic development. The veritable avalanche of commissioning ceremonies Wike has carried out across Rivers State throughout his eventful tenure is a phenomenon the likes of which has not been seen in Nigeria’s recent history. By most informed accounts, Wike is one of the most consequential state Governors the country has had since the advent of civilian rule in 1999 – at least as far as the provision of physical infrastructure and other far-reaching developmental initiatives is concerned. He has become THE reference-point to whom many Nigerians – especially those living in other states of the federation – point when assessing their own leaders.
Beyond his remarkable work in transforming the infrastructural profile of Rivers State, Gov. Wike is also known for his rhetorical interventions in the Nigerian political space. Often given to hyperbole, acerbic wit, a flair for drama and the occasional invective, his unfiltered, no-holds-barred comments and uncompromising positions on various aspects of national life usually command the front pages of many national dailies and set various online platforms abuzz. Friends and foes alike have learned to anticipate his remarks in respect of the country’s affairs with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Often called ‘the Jagaban of the PDP‘, Wike has been compared with the President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who, for years was known to have expended enormous financial resources, energy, time and political capital in building up the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) into the behemoth it is today. In the same way, Wike can be said to bestride the PDP like the proverbial colossus; he is one of the party’s chief financiers, especially in the period since 2015, when it lost power at the centre and embarked on an often fractious sojourn in the political wilderness. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that when Wike sneezes, the PDP catches cold!
That was certainly the case in the build-up to the 2023 general elections, as he – along with four of his gubernatorial counterparts, who called themselves the G5, opposed both the leadership style of the party’s chairman, Sen. Iyorchia Ayu, and the emergence of former Vice-President Atiku Abubukar as the party’s presidential flagbearer in said elections and in the process kept the nation feverishly guessing as to what their next political move might be.
But who, really, is Nyesom Wike, and how did he rise to become such a resonant voice in the affairs of the enterprise called Nigeria?
Born on December 13, 1967 in Rumuepirikom, Obio-Akpor LGA of Rivers State, Wike had his early education at the Government Secondary School, Eneka, also in Obio-Akpor LGA, where he sat for his O’Level exams before proceeding to the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUT) in Port Harcourt, where he obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree. Thereafter, he attended the Nigerian Law School in 1997. Wike also holds a Master of Arts degree in Political and Administrative Studies from his ama mater (RSUT).
His political odyssey began upon his election – and subsequent re-election – as the Executive Chairman of Obio-Akpor LGA in 1999 and 2003. At the expiration of his tenure, he was appointed Chief of Staff to the Governor of Rivers State at the time, Right Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi. He was in this role until 2011, when he was appointed Federal Minister of State for Education by then-President Goodluck Jonathan. He became the substantive Minister of Education in September 2013, following the resignation of his predecessor. He stepped down himself the following year in order to contest in the 2014 PDP gubernatorial primaries in his home state.
Having won the governorship ticket of the PDP, Wike chose as his running-mate, Dr. Ipalibo Banigo, former Secretary to the Rivers State Government. In the governorship polls held in April 2015, he emerged victorious ahead of a field of candidates that included, among others, Dr. Dakuku Peterside of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Dr. Tonye Princewill of the Labour Party (LP). He was re-elected Governor in 2019.
Gov. Wike’s tenure has been a catalogue of far-reaching reforms and innovations that have positively impacted the various aspects of Rivers State’s socio-economic life. Apart from the aforementioned infrastructural projects (roads, bridges, flyovers, pedestrian crossings, office buildings, etc) and other giant strides, one of the notable beneficiaries of this tidal wave of reforms is in education; the Governor set the tone of his reforms in this critical sector at the very beginning of his tenure when he declared public primary and secondary education free. He followed this up in 2019 by announcing free registration for citizens of Rivers State origin in the annual Joint Examinations and Matriculations Board (JAMB) exams.
Another area, perhaps more in keeping with his background as a lawyer, is judicial reform. Recall that he came into office at a particularly perilous time for that arm of government, when courts and other judicial institutions were under lock and key, courtesy of the previous government – rendering many judges without a means of livelihood, to the point where some reportedly had to resort to menial jobs in order to feed their families! In one fell swoop upon his assumption of office, Gov. Wike (who is himself married to a Judge of the Rivers State High Court, Hon. Justice Eberechi Nyesom-Wike) resolved the controversies that had led to the lockdowns by approving the appointment of Hon. Justice Daisy Okocha (which had been blocked by the previous administration) as the state’s first female Chief Judge. Remarkably, Wike followed this up with the appointment of another lady, this time a ‘non-indigene’ of Rivers State, Hon. Justice Adama Iyayi-Lamikanra as the next Chief Judge – in spite of opposition from various quarters, and in the face of a controversy that has lingered to this very day in judicial circles (as to whether a Judge who is non-indigenous to a state – even if married to an indigene – should head that state’s judiciary or represent it at the level of the National Judicial Council or at the superior courts of record, ie the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court). By his action, though, Wike set an example that resonated across the Nigerian legal ecosystem and forced the NJC to rethink its stand on the issue.
Not only that, it is perhaps fair to say that the judiciary and other legal institutions domiciled in Rivers State have never had it so good, in terms of the welfare of their personnel, better workings conditions, and infrastructural upgrades, as during the tenure of Gov. Wike. From the various divisions of the state’s High and Magistrate Courts, to federal institutions such as the National Industrial Court, and the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and its Law Schools located within his sphere of influence – all have felt the Wike touch.
The ultimate aim of judicial reforms, as the Governor fully understands, is the protection of human rights, and in particular the rights of vulnerable groups in society, such as women and children. He demonstrated this understanding in 2022, for example, when he signed a measure into law to strengthen a woman’s right to inherit property and to provide women with the legal tools and avenues that would enable them to claim what is rightfully theirs.
From the foregoing, it is probably safe to say that if Barrister Nyesom Wike were a legal practitioner or even a Judge (instead of a successful political player and public office holder) his practice or judicial pronouncements would have been tinged with no small amount of ‘aluta continua’ activism! He certainly has a fighter’s doggedness.
Needless to say, Wike’s tenure as Governor has been a tumultuous one indeed, thanks to the manner of his emergence in 2015, the boldness and impact of his innovative reforms, and the sheer passions he arouses in those who do not agree in principle with his actions or pronouncements, or who are invested in opposing political tendencies, or whose strategic interests are directly threatened by his reforms. The angst of these adversaries is not helped by the fact that the Governor is not one to pull punches, or apologize for his positions. He says it as he sees it – all of which makes for conflicts and controversies that have kept him, and the politics of Rivers State, in the public eye on a constant basis.
Part of Wike’s obstinacy comes from his belief, and that of his teeming followers and admirers, that his quest is no less than the liberation of Rivers State from political and economic subjugation, and for equity and justice, not just for the people of the state, but for the South South geopolitical region, and indeed for Nigerians as a whole. In a sense, he sees himself, and is seen by many, as a champion of the poor, the marginalized and the dispossessed; and for the enthronement of genuine democracy in Nigeria, anchored on strong, impartial and credible institutions whose bedrock is the rule of law. Far from being blinded by his own delusions of grandeur, as some of his adversary claim he is, Gov. Wike puts his money where his mouth is. If there is any political leader in Nigeria today who can be said to be visibly walking his talk, it is Nyesom Wike.
For this reason, he has no shortage of opponents – both real and perceived. They range from the Federal Government of Nigeria, whom he has consistently attacked for failing to give Rivers State her due in the distribution of federal projects, and for withholding benefits that are rightfully hers. Not long ago, his administration, along with other interested parties, insituted a court action against the FG over the propriety of the latter collecting Value Added Tax (VAT) on alcoholic beverages and then sharing the proceeds among states which have enforced bans on alcohol consumption! He has also clashed on various occasions with the denizens of the APC within and outside his state. On a regular basis, Wike rails against the APC for trying to undermine his administration’s developmental efforts, belittle his landmark achievements and rubbish his legacy, and for putting narrow partisan advantage ahead of the stability, prosperity and welfare of Rivers State and its people.
As already mentioned, he sustained his dispute with the Ayu-led PDP over the Atiku nomination (which he famously described as an ‘anti-party’ activity as it was contrary to the principle of zoning enshrined in Section 7(3)(c) of the party’s constitution regarding the rotation of elective and appointive offices in the party). Not did he rally some brother-Governors to his cause, he ended up endorsing a different candidate for the 2023 poll – and dealt a severe blow to the fortunes of the PDP and its presidential campaign in Rivers State and the S/South. Another sore point is Wike’s belief concerning the rightful place of Rivers State in the national scheme of things – vis a vis her status as Nigeria’s No. 1 producer of crude oil and natural gas (the resource that remains, till date, the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy). While not advocating for 100% control of the resource, as has been agitated for in various quarters, Wike believes the principle of equity and fairness should apply in the operations and business model of that industry to the greater benefit of his state.
More than just a visionary leader or activist, Wike is also a pragmatic politician – as he demonstrated in the runup to the last elections. His political brinkmanship in dangling the presidential endorsement carrot this way and that way between the other candidates, minus Atiku, was simply meant to extract the maximum political gain for his people and his party, the PDP – evidence being the fact that the PDP thereafter suffered only minimal losses in the Governorship and in both the federal and state legislative polls.
One major success for which Gov. Wike can proudly claim full credit, as he prepares to vacate Government House, Port Harcourt in May this year, is the victory of his political protege, Siminilayi (or Sim) Fubara, as the winner of the March 18 gubernatorial election. Same goes for the victories of all three PDP candidates to the Nigerian Senate, namely, the current Deputy-Governor, Dr. Ipalibo Banigo, as well as Hons. Barry Mpigi and Allwell Onyesoh. The same also goes for others who constitute the PDP’s overwhelming wins at both the federal house of representatives and the state house of assembly, where the party will maintain its healthy majority. Thanks to Gov. Wike’s well-crafted succession plan, Rivers State under Governor-elect Fubara and his co-travellers in the new dispensation is expected to fire on all socio-economic cylinders, as in the Wike Era, and continue to be the hub of the South-South zone in all ramifications.
For the incoming Governor of Rivers State, the ground from which to spring forth has been well watered by his illustrious predecessor. But however well-prepared he is, he will find the example of Gov. Nyesom Wike a tough act to follow, and his records hard – but hopefully not impossible -to beat. For this is a man who, through a combination of single-minded focus on actualizing the most heartfelt aspirations of his people, as well as his sincerity of purpose and a transparency which could be seen by all and sundry, including his adversaries, lifted the fortunes of Rivers State and dragged it from the margins to the mainstream of the Nigerian scheme of things. This is, also, a man whose all-encompassing political vision transcended his primary constituency to include the entirety of the nation’s South-South geopolitical zone, where many relevant stakeholders today recognize him as the undisputed leader and the most eloquent channel for the articulation of their aspirations and concerns, and the actualisation of their dreams for peace, progress and prosperity within the Nigerian community.
Somehow, it will be hard to imagine a Nyesom Wike sailing into the proverbial sunset at the expiration of his Governorship tenure in May. Already, there is talk of him playing a key role in President-elect Tinubu’s proposed Unity Government. If the speculations are anything to go by, then the next administration will be yet another stage in the career of a cosummate political player who came, saw and conquered – and in the process gave his people a glimpse … nay, more than a glimpse, a taste … of what visionary, selfless and hands-on leadership is all about.