BY EDDIE IROH
Those who know me and my antecedents in public affairs can vouch for one thing: I am not a praise singer. They will also attest that I belong to only one political party – FRN: The Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is from this non-partisan standpoint that I have been able to look at Nigerian issues and affairs objectively and comment on them quite dispassionately over the years.
It is against this backdrop that I took my reporter’s notebook, a physician’s stethoscope, and a laboratory technician’s microscope to examine why so many people and institutions across the usually bitterly divided Nigerian political spectrum are pouring encomiums on Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State. And this is at a time when few governors can claim to be popular; most are unable to meet their constitutional and statutory obligations like paying workers’ salaries and contractors’ debts; indeed at a time when recession has taken a huge bite off the fabled national cake, and has become a ready excuse for explaining these failures, let alone have extra resources for infrastructure and other capital development projects.
First there is Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari, the APC governor of Zamfara State, an unlikely admirer of a PDP rival in a Nigeria where political bitterness and rivalry are synonymous with enmity, doing the unthinkable. Yari who is also the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) crossed ethnic, zonal, geographical and party lines, indeed “crossed carpet”, to pay fulsome compliments to Wike. On a visit to Rivers State and after seeing things for himself Yari had this to say: “It is quite commendable that Governor Wike has managed to come up with some programmes for the betterment of the people of Rivers State.” Yari continued: “This is in spite of the economic crisis in our hands which we are all trying to manage.”
At other times in Nigeria’s often volatile political climate, Yari might have been suspended by his party or even expelled for what will be termed “anti-party activities”, for crossing into the camp of the “enemy” and even commending the achievements of a governor from an opposition political party! What sacrilege!
If Yari is a politician and may be accused, even if unfairly, of being diplomatic with his host, you cannot say the same about the gatekeepers of the Nigerian Fourth Estate. On an earlier occasion the Nigerian Guild of Editors, a body of top media chieftains, highlighted Wike’s accomplishments in the areas of not just economic development but most importantly security, without which any form of development in any society would be almost impossible. Indeed, kidnapping and armed robbery were rampant fare in pre-Wike Rivers State, such that Ms. Donu Kogbara, arguably the most famous journalist from the state, was kidnapped and held hostage for one week by an armed gang which also terrorised her 79-year-old mother.
In a communique issued by the guild at the end of their executive committee meeting in Port Harcourt the state capital, the NGE commended Wike for the steps he has taken to improve the state of security in Rivers. With the improved state of affairs, Port Harcourt, which those of us who grew up there fondly nicknamed Pitakwa, “The Garden City” has once again become a conference and retreat destination for various organisations like the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and Rotary International.
Among the myriad bodies and groups that have praised Wike are the River State Elders Consultative Council and a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Austin Opara. Some may suggest that these are indigenes of the state and have vested interests. But when two national newspapers with disparate ideologies and editorial outlook unanimously but independently elected to honour Wike for his achievements then it is only fit and proper that we take note and raise the question of whether there are lessons that other state governors can learn and implement in their own situation for the betterment of their states in particular and Nigeria in general. For in an interdependent federation like Nigeria, where resources by and large depend on federal largesse, the country is as strong as its weakest link.
First, The Sun Media Group chose Wike as their Sun Man of the Year 2016. Then The Independent newspaper chose Wike as The Best Nigerian Governor in 2016, for defying the recession and breaking new grounds in infrastructure and human resources development in Rivers State. From the USA, Asia and other parts of the world, a coalition of Rivers State indigenes weighed in and joined the chorus of applause for Wike for fulfilling the legitimate expectations of his people, citing road and agricultural projects that have had direct impact on the populace.
The probing, begging question here is: what factors account for Wike’s success in an economic environment of reduced revenue intake and depressed national economic outlook? What accounts for the success of Rivers State when many other states in the federation are barely managing to keep body and soul together, to keep their heads above water even after federal bailout?
To be absolutely fair, it is important to note and to keep matters in perspective that Rivers State, as one of the half a dozen or so states that comprise the oil-rich Niger Delta region that accounts for 80 per cent of the Nigerian treasury. Thus Rivers, like other states in the region, receives a commensurate percentage of federal oil revenue following the principle of derivation. One can rightly also argue that even in a situation of falling oil prices and disruption of local production caused by militancy in the Niger Delta region, and consequently diminished federal oil revenue and allocation to the states, River State’s share is still much higher than those of the non-oil producing states.
But that is only half the story. Wike has proved that his state cannot live by revenue from crude oil alone. He has proved that there can conceivably be life after crude oil. Wike did what many Nigerian leaders rarely pay attention to – income tax collection and other forms of internal revenue generation. In less than two years in office he more than doubled the internally generated revenue of the state from N4 billion to N9 billion.
Of course one can have all the money in the world and still miss the boat. We know of some governors in the same Niger Delta who got massive oil revenue and ploughed it into their personal treasuries and invested it in choice properties abroad and personal luxuries. Still money alone cannot achieve development. The decisive factor in statecraft is the human element, in this case leadership. I believe this is where Nyesom Wike has considerable advantage.
Unlike many leaders in Nigeria over the years who found themselves in positions of power by some fluke of faith, or had power thrust upon them, Wike is no accidental public servant. As we would say in local journalistic parlance, Wike has paid his dues. The man is a living example of the value of apprenticeship in politics, something not quite common in Nigeria where hardly any Nigerian governor has allowed his deputy, a person who had under-studied him for eight years, to succeed him. Wike went about his political career via the grassroots of local government administration.
Yes, Wike is a lawyer which is more than enough qualification to propel him from his law chambers to bid for governorship of his state. But he chose the route of local government administration and eventually became chairman of his local government council in Obio Akpor for eight years, and rose to become President of the Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON). It was from here that his then political godfather, Rotimi Amaechi poached Wike, first as his chief of staff, and subsequently to mastermind his gubernatorial campaign in 2011. His successes in these endeavours catapulted him to the federal level, where he was a minister for four years.
Wike’s successes in these various positions afforded him priceless experience and valuable insights into the challenges of governance at the local, state and federal levels, and provided him the tools he brought with him to tackle similar challenges in Rivers State. By the time he made a bid for the governorship of the state in 2015, Wike was well equipped, ready, willing and able. Wike left us another lesson here, namely that in politics things do not just happen; people in power make them happen.
The final point to consider here in understanding the nationwide applause being accorded Wike is the political and legal hurdles that he has had to surmount even as he was tackling the challenges of statecraft in Rivers State. As often happens in Nigerian politics, the relationship between the two erstwhile political allies, Amaechi and Wike, deteriorated quite dramatically as they found themselves in two opposing political camps, the All Peoples Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), respectively.
In more tolerant political climes, the two erstwhile buddies could have separated their personal comradeship from heir political differences. But in the do-or-die political atmosphere of Nigeria, it was all out war and no holds were barred when Wike contested the governorship on the platform of the PDP which had ruled the state since 1999 even under Amaechi. Wike had faced a herculean task because Amaechi, now a chieftain of the APC, was under pressure to deliver his state to his new party. Wike’s eventual victory was challenged by the APC in court where his victory was reaffirmed. But the tension and the rancour did not disappear immediately. Irrespective, Wike has soldiered on to achieve the remarkable success for which he is being applauded and honoured by his peers as well as his subjects, and honoured by two media houses.
Late U.S. President John F Kennedy once defined courage as “grace under pressure”. Wike’s achievements in less than two years in the teeth of rival opposition, pressure and prejudice, seemed like mission impossible. But time has proved his record as a testament to remarkable personal ability and political courage. As Nigerians will say, his is an honour well deserved
▪Eddie Iroh is a former Director General of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria