THE selection of Barrister Nyesom Wike as the PDP’s ticket bearer for the 2015 gubernatorial contest was, without a doubt, one of the most bitterly contested decisions to have been taken by the party in Rivers State since the return to civilian rule in 1999. Apart from the fact that this choice went against conventional presumptions of regional power-sharing between the riverine and upland communities in the state, a substantial proportion of local political champions regarded it as having been imposed on the elite traditional structure of the state’s polity by a new generation of activists. However a sufficient number of knowledgeable and experienced elders foresaw that the election was going to be fought in highly charged circumstances that would need material and human resources that only Barrister Wike seemed able to marshal in the PDP in any confrontation with the then Governor Rotimi Amaechi.
This group of elders went to the grassroots under extremely difficult circumstances and faced down enormous pressures in order to throw their weight behind Barrister Wike in their communal constituencies. At the same time it was obvious that the challenge to overcome a legacy of bitterness that had been promoted both in the party and throughout the state by Governor Amaechi’s machinery, in order to rubbish the PDP’s ascendancy, was the major problem confronting the party and its flag-bearer in the state.
The fall-out of this conditionality explains the confusion and outright impropriety that attended some aspects of the general elections in Rivers State in April 2015, which led to the re-running of a substantial proportion of the national and state assembly polls later in the year. But, as the Supreme Court eventually decided, even in those circumstances Barrister Wike had built an unassailable support base that ensured that he scored the highest number of legally verifiable votes in the gubernatorial contest and so was popularly elected.
It is not surprising given the circumstances of his victory that Governor Wike has become the target of provocative opprobrium from some elements of the political opposition at the Federal level. Nor is it surprising that this provocative campaign has been spearheaded by his former colleague and ally, Minister of Transport Rotimi Amaechi. The circumstances that surrounded ex-Governor Amaechi’s abandonment of the party that gave him his first real taste of power and the opportunity to lead his state made it absolutely necessary that he should seek to destroy the political credibility of any major leadership figure who failed to join him in that adventure. In the case of Wike, their early collaboration had been so close that many people in Rivers State had assumed that a substantial proportion of Amaechi’s relevance and popularity depended on actions initiated by him. It began to become clear especially in the early days of Amaechi’s second term however that major differences of opinion had emerged between them. In one particular detail, the issue of loyalty to then President Goodluck Jonathan, they soon occupied the opposite sides of a vast chasm of political disagreement. Coming after an election in which the solid support of the Rivers people for Dr. Jonathan’s presidential mandate had been expressed in no uncertain terms these differences generated severe tensions in the political arena of the state.
While it cannot be denied that Rotimi Amaechi’s performance as Governor exhibited a laudable commitment to developmental goals that attracted support from the people it must also be acknowledged that he performed best as part of a team in which Wike was a major factor. In fact he was able to achieve notable successes with the cooperation and support of the PDP machinery in the state as soon as he took over the Governor’s seat in 2007 not by election but rather on the basis of a controversial Supreme Court ruling. Modifications made to the electoral act and the rules of engagement since then make it highly unlikely that subsequent rulings on similar cases would have the same result. That he was able to secure a popular mandate for his second term was made possible by the team that had helped render his controversial first term credible. In achieving this men Wike utilised their close ties with the President to ensure that the PDP in Rivers State enjoyed privileged treatment wherever possible and necessary. Because of this when ex-Governor Amaechi began to express dissenting views and disenchantment with the President’s policies cracks developed in the unity of his cabinet and the state legislature. As a direct consequence of this development Wike withdrew from collaboration with the Amaechi Administration well before Governor Amaechi eventually publicly announced the transfer of his loyalty from the PDP to the APC. The breakdown of relations between two such vital political leaders of Rivers State at that time reflected deep and bitter divisions in the state’s political arena. Barrister Wike was eventually to emerge as the leader of the movement to preserve stability and the existing status quo, while Governor Amaechi and his followers were to evolve as the promoters of opportunistic change.
Principles and privileges of power
Once he assumed this role Wike began to emerge not only as the most likely candidate for the governorship seat in the PDP but also as the guardian of the principles and privileges of power that accrued to Rivers State as the economic powerhouse of the South-South geo-political zone.
In this position he was given the authority to organise the resistance to Governor Amaechi’s executive revolt almost without any limitation except that of legal circumspection. With this mandate in hand he confronted the unprecedented impunity which the Governor had encouraged as he sought to close down the PDP’s long-established structures in most of the communities throughout the state. This created an atmosphere of intense hostility among the political class and distressing insecurity for the ordinary people of the state. However Barrister Wike appeared to recognise that the fall-out from this conflict ran counter to the maintenance of social stability after he attained his victory at the polls and his efforts to calm tempers and maintain an accelerated pace of development and delivery of service to the people of the state earned him support from a cross section of observers and a growing body of popular opinion-makers. As a consequence by the time that protests and petitions from the opposition forced re-runs of legislative polls it had become obvious that if the gubernatorial contest was also re-run Governor Wike was likely to win with an even larger majority than the one that the Supreme Court eventually endorsed.
Ability to deliver service
To many of those who had been undecided in their support for the new Governor his ability to deliver service when he was under pressure from the mighty Federal Government, and his willingness to put his personal image on the line in defence of his mission portrayed him as being both courageous and focused to an extent that they had hitherto not assumed.
It turned out in the end that the PDP’s choice of him as the leader of the offensive against the Amaechi onslaught had touched a sensitive spot in the overall mood of the people of the state. The eventual outcome of the re-run polls was overwhelmingly in favour of the PDP at a time when many voters believed that the gubernatorial contest would also be repeated.
It was only a few days after the legislative exercise that the Supreme Court voiced its historic decision to uphold Governor Wike’s April 2015 victory. The upshot of this combination of circumstances is that while the Governor must have been relieved at the outcome of events he must also have felt intimidated by the enormity of the task that his victory has placed on his shoulders.
He is now without a doubt the lynchpin of the PDP’s efforts to overcome the bitterness and disenchantment that his predecessor sowed in the state and throughout the South-South geo-political zone.
Governor Wike has to consider the support of the PDP’s mandate in the neighbouring PDP-ruled states of Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom as being an important element of his own mandate now. His predecessor’s bitter battle against President Goodluck Jonathan was regarded as being particularly treacherous in these two states.
This was especially so since Bayelsa State is the former President’s home and the then Governor of Akwa Ibom, Senator Godswill Akpabio, was one of Dr. Jonathan’s most publicly devoted supporters.
In fact former Governor Amaechi’s followers mounted a highly vocal and vehement campaign of calumny against Akpabio after he emerged as Chairman of the PDP Governor’s Forum regardless of the fact that this threatened to undermine the good neighbourly relations that the two states had enjoyed for several decades.
They also joined the ousted former PDP Governor of Bayelsa State Chief Timipre Sylva to try to undermine the mandate of Henry Seriake Dickson in Bayelsa State. The consequence of this mounting of negative propaganda traceable to sources in Rivers State against these neighbouring PDP champions was to create an impression that a major split was imminent in the unity of purpose of the leaders and the people of the entire South-South geo-political zone.
Expressions of sympathy
It has fallen to Governor Nyesom Wike to undertake initiatives that will reverse this perception and he has taken steps to implement this process in recent months. His support and expressions of sympathy for the people of Bayelsa State during the recent burial of the former Governor Chief D.S.P. Alamieyeseigha is a case in point.
Governor Wike has made it his duty to maintain a constant and meaningful dialogue with his fellow governors throughout the South-South geo-political zone, and he has expressed a desire to make the improvement of economic and social cooperation among all the states of the zone one of the hallmarks of his tenure in office.
He believes that this will help to overcome the negative and bitter legacies that emanated from the actions taken by his predecessor in pursuit of personal political ambitions. This is the greatest challenge that confronts his mandate.
By Lindsay Barrett