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Rivers: Tendering a garden of intolerance

By Owei Lakemfa
ABOUT two years ago, I got a text message from somebody who said he was Soboma George. He wanted to  react to a column I had written but could not reach me. I called him. He sounded surprised, spoke about my column and I promised to publish his reaction which he sent in a text message.

He had other things on his mind; he protested that he was a freedom fighter of the Niger Delta, but was concerned that he was being projected as a common criminal. I knew that he had once escaped from  the Port Harcourt Prisons and a police station and in any case, I  was in no position to declare him a freedom fighter.

We ended the discussions. Over the next few days, he called wanting to find out how I could assist him to project his true image rather than that of a fugitive, but I  explained to him that I am not for hire. The calls stopped. Then one day he called again. “I have a problem with my boss, I want you to settle it for us. It is people who are causing problem between us”.

“Who is your boss?” “Asari Dokubo” “So how do I come in?” “Somebody told me that you can talk to him on my behalf, they say he respects you.” “My brother, it is true that I know Asari, but that was pre-GSM, I  don’t have his number, and I have neither seen nor spoken with him for some eight years. So I can’t be of help to you”.

I had the impression that Soboma wanted a way out of the activities that had thrown him up. When on June 24, 2009, then President Umaru Yar’Adua declared amnesty in the Niger Delta, I knew that Soboma would take it. He did. On  August 24, 2010 Soboma was riddled with bullets in Port Harcourt.

The murder of Soboma shows that while the country is moving forward following the amnesty, there are people who still want to drown the Niger Delta in rivers of blood. One curious aspect of the murder is the speed and rather reckless manner the Rivers State Police Command named three suspects in connection with the shooting.

The Police did not give details how it came to its conclusion. Was it based on eye witnesses, intelligence reports or intuition? To me, it appears that the Police is in a hurry to divert attention. Is it  aware that by its action, it may expose the men mentioned  to possible reprisal attacks? Ironically, one of the suspected executioners is reported to have been  bedridden for eight months. The Police need to verify such claims,  and be careful that it is not used to settle scores or trigger renewed crisis in a state that badly needs peace.

Unfortunately, the Soboma issue is not the only threat to peace in that state; in fact, the main threat in the state is the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which has  insatiable thirst   for power and immense capacity for  factional infighting.

The signs were there from the onset of the PDP rule; Governor Peter Odili appeared a man who wanted only adulation. He sought to present himself as a pious man to a people who were not in search of angels but credible leaders who could provide the basics of existence and security. Some months into his reign, I visited  the state and my impressions were captured in a column titled “What  has Odili to hide?”

What I got in return was an avalanche of attacks, they were couched in such manner as to suggest that I had committed a capital crime for which the whole state had risen as  a tidal mob ready to lynch me if only I was a resident or within reach.

Even some of my professional colleagues in the media were mobilised to haul missiles at me from Port Harcourt. I called  my old friend, Augustine Wikinaka who was then Odili’s Chief Press Secretary and asked him what kind of a state they were building or turning beautiful Rivers State into.

I mentioned my worry amongst friends, but some of them in the human rights movement singled out the then Speaker, Rotimi Amaechi as a credible person in the establishment. Odili easily got a second term with thugs roaming the streets and establishing themselves as war lords. In the 2007 gubernatorial elections, Amaechi, the PDP candidate was shoved aside, the Supreme Court in turn shoved technicalities aside to declare him the governor.

It was a right decision and a few months later when I visited Port Harcourt, there were roads either being built or reconstructed. I also followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during which the incredible high level of intolerance, thuggery and violence in the state was exposed. I was happy that  the state was making progress. But sad to say that  the level of intolerance is still quite high.

Last month, 12 persons were arrested  by the Police for being cultists and holding a secret meeting to  plot how to destabilize the state. The suspects turned out to be leading members of the PDP who are not in the good books of Governor  Amaechi. In a democracy, even one’s enemies must be allowed to operate.

That same month there was an  altercation between the Governor and  First Lady, Patience Jonathan in Okrika. In anger, the “resignation” of her  cousin, Tamunokro Oba,  the Chairman of the Okrika LGA was forced for allegedly failing to submit his income and expenditure to the House amongst other “crimes”.  But Oba claims he never resigned; that his signature was forged.

Even if Oba had committed alleged crimes, the timing of his forced “resignation” with the  altercation is too coincidental to be a credible process. Amaechi can still change the face of Rivers State for the better by  sowing seeds of tolerance, peace and sustainable development rather than  operate with a siege mentality.


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