By Olusegun Adeniyi
As I meandered my way through what would be described as the “Overflow” in a church setting, I could not but notice the fervency of the worshipers who were dancing and singing to the chorus being led from the inner sanctuary where the big men and women were gathered. And that was where a space was provided for me at the Bayelsa State Government House in Yenogoa at about 6.50am last Friday as I participated in what I learnt was a daily Christian morning devotional routine.
My reportorial curiousity was still taking the better part of me as I surveyed my environment when the Bayelsa State First Lady, Dr.Rachael Seriake Dickson, dressed in a simple overall and without any make up (apparently coming straight from bed) entered and sat down quietly. Shortly after, her husband and Governor, Mr. Seriake Dickson, who sported a T shirt and a pair of jeans danced into the venue with tambourine while the tempo of the worship increased. Thereafter, the Governor brought the praise worship session to an end with a short prayer and then he announced: “The State memory verse”.
While I was still trying to ruminate over what that meant, all the people around me chorused in unison: “Jeremiah 20 verses 11 and 12” as they began to chant the Biblical passage which was recited three times. In the process, someone who saw that I could not follow handed me his mobile handset where the passage had been downloaded so I could also join the recitation. It reads: “…But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause.”
Okay, I am sure many readers are already curious as to what I was doing in Bayelsa State since there is yet no proof that my parents were Ijaw men. Well, I was there on a visit to the military Joint Task Force (JTF) Commander, Major General Emmanuel Atewe, not only for us to reflect on old times but also, and particularly more importantly for me, so we could have a conversation on the issue of oil theft in the Niger Delta and what the military authorities are doing to contain the problem.
As a Lieutenant in the Nigerian Army in 1986, Atewe joined the Department of International Relations at Ife in our second year and we graduated together in 1989. Throughout those three years, Atewe (who was older than most of us), carried himself with much dignity and was so humble that he commanded the respect of all of us his classmates. He was brilliant, disciplined and evidently someone of strong character and because of all those attributes, we used to address him as “General”. It is therefore no surprise that today, he has earned the stripes.
As it would happen, I have for many years followed Atewe’s career in the army as he has followed mine in journalism and our paths almost crossed at the Villa where he became Commander of the Guards Brigade at about the time I was leaving after my tour of duty as spokesman to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Currently the JTF Commander with his base in Yenogoa, Atewe has been battling perhaps the biggest criminal cartel in our country today: those who make billions of dollars by stealing our crude oil.
It was in the bid to understand the nature of this criminal enterprise that has both local and international dimensions, that I decided to visit Atewe in Yenogoa last week and my interactions with him and some of his men have given me insight into what is going on but those will be issues we have to come back to after the elections. The menace of oil theft is one we have to seriously deal with as a nation not only because of the enormous financial leakages but also because of its security implications, the impact on the environment and what it all bodes for the future of our country. As I said, it is an issue for another day.
When I arrived Yenogoa last Thursday, I decided, out of courtesy, to send the Governor a text message that I was within his domain. Despite the fact that I had never met him before in person, he was kind enough to call me immediately. He also promised to send his aide to pick me so I could visit him before leaving town and that was how I ended up at the morning devotion last Friday. But because he had with him King Alfred Diete-Spiff, (the first Military Governor of the old Rivers State who is now a traditional ruler) during my brief chat with him shortly after the morning devotion, I could not ask the question that had been agitating my mind and that of many Nigerians: why he allowed some militants to use his office to issue threats about declaring war on Nigeria should President Goodluck Jonathan lose his re-election bid next week.
I am quite aware that religion and politics have so intertwined in Nigeria that there is hardly any public official who does not openly identify with one and no Government House in Nigeria is complete without either a Church or a Mosque, or in some instances both. While I have no problem with that, what baffles me is why such profession of piety does not reflect in our national life. In this instance, I found it particularly odd that the same Bayelsa State Government House where God was being worshipped so loftily could host a meeting where calls were made for war in the event that Nigerians decide to cast their ballots for somebody else other than their kinsman. As I found out, however, it would seem that the Governor actually became a victim of his good intention.
So much has been written about the “Yenogoa Declaration” by Asari-Dokubo and others which the PDP has quite correctly denounced. And I still wonder how such threats would help the president who needs the support of people across the country to win re-election. Nobody has captured the implications of the misadventure as succinctly as Prof. Pat Utomi who said, “to win elections from intimidation, a shower of insults and trying to diminish opponents rather than engage their minds can only produce pyrrhic victory.”
Interestingly, those were the considerations that formed the basis for the meeting at the Bayelsa Government House where I understand Dickson’s homily centred on the need for tolerance and restraint. “He kept educating all of us at the meeting on the virtues of non-violence, particular as it won’t be good to say it was under an Ijaw man’s watch that Nigeria went up in flames. At the meeting, the Governor predicted that rather than break up Nigeria, the upcoming elections would put a lie to all the prophecies of doom. He sounded very confident that the country would come out of the election stronger,” said an aide to the governor who gave me a lowdown of what transpired even though he said he had no authority to speak.
According to the aide, the problem started after the public endorsement of Buhari by MEND. “Governor Dickson, being a very discerning political leader, knew that such a declaration by MEND was capable of causing upheavals within the camp of the ex-militants. In such a situation, I doubt if the best approach was to behave like the ostrich by hiding his head in the sand, pretending that all is well. It is important to remember that Dr. Goodluck Jonathan is, first, Ijaw, then Nigerian- anyhow we may wish to view it.”
However, at the meeting, the aide explained that Dickson made it clear that while the president would appreciate the support of his Ijaw kinsmen, it was more important for him to secure the endorsements of people from other geo-political zones and “I recall Governor Dickson drumming into our ears that no singular ethnic group in Nigeria can muster sufficient votes to make anybody president. He also reminded us of President Jonathan’s catch-phrase that his ambition isn’t worth the shedding of the blood of a single man, woman, boy or girl.”
The aide told me that one of the issues that came up at the meeting was the steps taken by the governor to ensure that the APC presidential candidate, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) had a hitch-free rally in Yenagoa. “The sad aspect is that the success of Buhari’s rally in Yenagoa did little or nothing to avert the physical attacks on President Jonathan in some parts of the north.” That, the aide explained, may have accounted for the outbursts of some of the ex-militants after the meeting “even though there was no such discussion at the session which was at the instance of the Governor.”
To buttress his point that Dickson “should be the last person to be accused of fanning the embers of discord in the country”, the aide reminded me that, “at the dawn of the Fourth Republic, Dickson pitched his tent with the now defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD), becoming the party’s pioneer chairman in Bayelsa State. When he found his way into the House of Representatives, Dickson didn’t draw his friends from a particular ethnic group or region. His actions as governor have not been any different. He has not in any way initiated policies suggesting discrimination against non-Ijaws resident in Bayelsa State. The appointment of the Shehu of Borno, His Eminence, Dr. Shehu El-Kanemi as Pro-Chancellor of the state university is a demonstration of his commitment to building bridges of unity, understanding and tolerance in Nigeria.”
While I agree that Governor Dickson does not deserve the blame being pinned on him for what the ex-militants said, it is obvious that some Ijaw kinsmen of the president are working very hard to de-market their man with the Nigerian electorate by their utterances. In fact, it is because of the misbehaviour of some of them that the president has lost considerable support among some Nigerians who ordinarily believe his administration has not done badly in concrete terms.
However, for those who are ever quick to point fingers in the direction of Aso Rock anytime Asari-Dokubo issues a threatening message, they should be reminded that the man has built his entire career on such posturing and it did not start with President Jonathan. The height of it actually happened under President Olusegun Obasanjo on 4th February 2007. On that day at the Federal High Court in Abuja, Asari-Dokubo told the presiding judge, Justice Olayiwola Peter: “This court is toying with my life. Whatever your kangaroo court may have, you are a judge from the bottom of hell fire”.
Even as his lawyer, Mr. Festus Keyamo tried to restrain him, Asari-Dokubo railed at the judge as he shouted in the open court: “You are laughing. You will soon cry. When they are counting graves, your own will not be spared. The pain I will inflict on you will make your family weep. You are a stupid judge. That I will be in underground cell for six months and you idiot will sit down here and not be able to enforce your orders. Your family will weep when it will happen. I know where your family live. I am sure they will not escape this. I will make sure that your joy and that of your family is turned to sorrow”.
While I believe Asari-Dokubo, who was again on television yesterday making threats, should calm down and begin to embrace reason in his engagements, there are also people like him on the “other side” of the political divide who have equally been making incendiary pronouncements that are as condemnable. The point that must, however, be said is that the president has more to lose by what the ex-militants are doing and the goading by some of his Ijaw godfathers. The way things stand today, it is possible for Jonathan to win the re-election yet lose the country except he just wants to be president of Aso Rock.
At such a delicate time as this, all political leaders have a duty to publicly, unequivocally and repeatedly urge their followers to avoid any resort to violence or even threats of it. What the promoters and supporters of the two leading parties must know is that no credible election can be conducted in an environment of threats, harassment and intimidation. To that extent, when violent threats like the one emanating from the ex-militants are made, there should be a condemnation and denouncement of such treasonable rhetoric from the highest quarters.
What should not be ignored here is that the issues invoked by the ex-militants’ outbursts touch on fundamental questions of national leadership and communal living: In a multi-national federation, once any group gets used to extorting political and economic concessions through the threat or use of force, the democratic basis of national life is erased. Leadership succession will now be a contest among warlords while the rest of the nation becomes no more than mere helpless by-standers. As the prime protector of our collective democratic mandate and prospects, President Jonathan has a duty to call the Niger Delta war mongers to order very quickly.
Buhari, Ndigbo and ‘Yoruba Agenda’
Within the last one week, I have been to Ngor Okpala Local Government Area of Imo State twice. First, when I left Yenogoa last Friday, I drove straight toAmaforImerienweto spend a brief moment with the family of my friend, Dr. Sam Amadi, chair of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (who was burying his late mother that day) before proceeding to Abuja. Then on Sunday evening, I was back to Owerri to join the Imo State Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) gubernatorial campaign train of Hon Emeka Ihedioha that was to hit his Aboh-Mbaise-Ngor Okpala Federal Constituency the next day. Now, I need to state quickly that I am neither a PDP member nor that of any other party; I just went to identify with the aspiration of my friend.
Except for the 2011 election when I was not in the country, I have since 2003–when he made his first foray into the House of Representatives–always spent at least a day on Ihedioha’s campaign train as a show of solidarity. And it is not a tradition he would allow me to miss, especially now that he is gunning for the governorship of his state. Therefore, on Monday I was part of the team that included Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, former Governor Achike Udenwa, Senator Chris Anyanwu, Dr. Kema Chikwe, Dr. Douglas Acholonu, Prof. Viola Onwuliri, Nze Fidelis Ozichukwu, Prof. Jude Njoku, Major General Eugene Nwanguma (rtd), Air Commodore Luke Ochubor (rtd), Chief Austin Papa Nwokorie, Hon. Jones Onyesiri, Eng. Ebere Udeagu, ace footballer, Kanu Nwankwo and several others.
In all the campaign stops, Ihedioha made his agenda clear: to restore sanity to education in Imo, against the background that in the last WASC results, students from the state performed woefully; revive agriculture with a solemn pledge that when elected, his mission would be to cultivate, cultivate and cultivate while instilling transparency and accountability in the conduct of government business. As a punch-line on Monday, Ihedioha would reel out the figures from the federation account of how much had accrued to Ngor Okpala Local Government from June 2011 to October 2014, before asking the people to demand that the incumbent Governor Rochas Okorocha render account on where the money has gone.
Throughout the day, there was pomp and drama and as to be expected there was full tradition on display with the Igbo rituals of kolanut breaking adding colour to the occasion at every stop, from Ngor Okpala to Aboh-Mbaise. However, the major highlight of the campaign for me was not the endorsement of Ihedioha by the various PDP bigwigs but rather the passion with which they all campaigned for President Goodluck Jonathan. I have never seen such genuine support and affection for the president anywhere, not even among his Ijaw kinsmen.
It all started at the Umuneke, headquarters of Ngor Okpala where the traditional rulers were gathered to receive the team when Iwuanyanwu said that being a son of the area, support for Ihedioha should be taken for granted: “the real case I want to make here today is for the man who is not here and I am talking about our beloved son, President Jonathan who is contesting against Buhari. Just this morning, I was shown a story where Buhari was quoted on BBC Hausa Service that we Igbo people hate him because of Biafra and that given another chance, he will do what he did again. That is a declaration of war on Igbo people. How can we support such a man?”
I have read different versions of the “BBC Hausa Service interview” referred to by Iwuanyanwu on the internet but when I did a google search, I couldn’t find the story which means it may have been fabricated to just give the APC presidential candidate a bad name among Igbo people. Yet on Monday, where Iwuanyanwu stopped, others took over with Senator Anyanwu saying rather vehemently that in this election, as far as Igbo people are concerned, “there is no alternative to Jonathan.” When it was her turn, Mrs Chikwe asked the question that became her singsong throughout the day: “what should happen to any Igbo man who votes for another candidate other than President Jonathan?” The crowd responded: “Holy Ghost fire!”
Interestingly, a conspiracy theory was woven around the candidature of the APC presidential candidate. According to Anyaechie who first made the point that was echoed by several others at the campaign rallies in the course of the day, “Buhari’s aspiration to be president of Nigeria was as good as dead until our clever Yoruba brothers revived it so that they could have an easy route back to Aso Rock.” The allusion, of course, is to Buhari’s age which some other speakers would make reference to. Nobody remembers that the Zimbabwean President, Mr. Robert Mugabe, at 92, is old enough to be Buhari’s father yet he is not only fully in charge of his country, he has also just been elected chair of the African Union! In any case, who except God can determine the length of anybody’s life?
On the whole, it is not that the Igbos I met at the campaign train in Imo State hate Buhari; it is that they don’t believe he has the predisposition to deal fairly with them if he becomes the president of Nigeria. I can understand their fears. The Igbos are carrying many scars and a deep memory from Nigeria’s struggles to create an equitable country. The Igbos have traversed our diverse country and are to be found settled all over Nigeria. Most of them, however, seem to doubt if the APC presidential candidate can guarantee a modern democratic state that protects the equality of citizens. Only Buhari and the APC can determine whether they have done enough to allay such fears.
However, with a brutal insurgency in the North-east, chronic inter-communal strife in the North-central; and militancy in the South-south, it is not surprising that several parts of our country are asking for assurances as to how to restore their sense of belonging and co-ownership of Project Nigeria. Therefore, should he win, Buhari will have a huge task of persuading the widest spectrum of Nigerians to see him as someone who can protect the rights of all citizens wherever they may live, whatever section of the country they come from and regardless of the religion they profess. That way, he may eventually win over the Igbo people, majority of whom for now do not trust him.
- This series will be concluded next week with the closing arguments on Muhammadu Buhari versus Goodluck Jonathan