Rivers of blood
Rivers State is burning, as if you did not know. Heads and limbs have been broken and people have been killed. Let us not pretend that it is merely an isolated pocket of local politics gone awry. It mirrors our political problems. Major and minor political skirmishes attend every election. The Rivers State situation has degenerated from a war of attrition over the years into the sporadic shooting war, the worst kind of war, as you would imagine, that has bedevilled the state. What is happening in that state points to one inescapable fact: we have not yet gained the shores of democracy. After more than 16 years of civil rule, our democracy remains blissfully nascent because our politicians remain arrogantly steeped in their impunity.
The state has not quite known peace at least since the diabolical attempt by five members of the state house of assembly to remove the speaker from office in 2013. Nothing has been the same in the state ever since. The contest for power has assumed a new and dangerous dimension. The struggle to win has been turned into the right to win elections no matter what it takes – lives or limbs. The heavy weight personalities involved in the power struggle are pretty much aware of the high stakes and choose to fuel the crisis rather than end it. It has since gone from bad to worse, as all problems do that are not attended to. Complicated and complex political factors have compounded the problems and made them patently intractable.
I am not sure the people of Rivers State would be proud of this dubious record: all the elections held in the state last year were nullified by the courts. The state had the worst excesses of election rigging in the country so far. The state has had no senators, members of the House of Representatives and no state house of assembly since 2015.
The March 19 re-run elections were meant to remedy this. But even before the INEC blew its whistle, violence had erupted in some parts of the state, signalling that victory might go to those with the greater capacity for violence. Intimidation is part of the game.
I am prepared to believe, against a seeming evidence to the contrary, that the people of Rivers State are not happy that their once peaceful state has been turned into a killing field. Both the APC and the PDP are in the mutual blame game mode. That still leaves the state in limbo. The House of Representatives took over the state house of assembly for about five months in 2013. Absent of the legislative arm of government in the Wike era, the state government rests unsteadily and I believe, unhappily, on two pillars – the executive and the legislature. That is a no no in our form of government.
The political leaders in the state do not need to be persuaded to do something and urgently too to end the crisis for their own sake and our own sake too. I shudder to think that the violence in the state can be exported to other states too with the same dire consequences for our democracy, our country and the rule of law.
It is their responsibility to rise to the challenge of restoring peace to their state. A macho attitude is infantile. It is a drag on responsible political leadership. I urge these leaders not to listen to the hollow sound of their chest beating and throw away the golden opportunity to rescue their state from a state of anarchy in which life has become increasingly uncertain, brutish, violent, deadly and short.
Rivers is home to some of our most redoubtable men and women. It is, therefore, painful to see them allow the crisis fester for this long with obvious consequences for the ordinary people. Of course, they too are part of the problem. Generally speaking, they are the godfathers of the murderous militants ever ready to do their violent bidding. The struggle for political supremacy comes with party politics but there must be a rhyme and reason for how a sane, civilised political battle is waged. The violence that attended the re-run election has elicited nothing more profound than the blame game. That is in character.
I have listened to hear them say those words that soothe nerves and force people to take bullets out of their AK-47. I have listened in vain. I have waited to see them gather at the shrine where political differences are buried in an oath before the gods. I have waited in vain.
On the face of it, this is a contest of will between the former state governor, Rotimi Amaechi, and his successor in office, the rather combative Nyesom Wike. Amaechi and Wike are formidable politicians and fierce political fighters. Each has a solid army of supporters, some of whom think nothing of their own lives and much less of other people’s lives.
Being powerful and stubborn, Amaechi and Wike also are in contest to see who blinks first in every case of eyeball to eyeball confrontation between them. Yes, Amaechi and Wike are the pugilists in the ring. Yes, both men lead the opposing political camps: Amaechi, APC and Wike, PDP. But as I see it, both men have become unsuspecting puppets. Their supporters manipulate the string. It is no insult on their integrity. It is just the way political battles involving personality clashes are waged. If you remember that former President Jonathan and his wife, the very formidable Patience, have their fingers in this hot political pie, then you have some idea about the nature of our political puppeteering.
The lovers of democracy, present company not excepted, should be worried that we, the people, are turned into cannon fodders in the endless struggles for power and political supremacy down the length and bread of this country. We continue to be trampled under the feet of the big African elephants in our political circus rings. Absent of ideological struggles to build a better society driven entirely by the sacred tenets of democracy and party manifestoes, what we have are personality clashes sold to us as genuine struggles for the welfare of the people. Nonsense.
One way or another the re-run elections would produce winners. Perhaps, by the time you are reading this, the three sets of elections would have been concluded. The dead would have been buried and the injured treated and discharged from the hospital. Some semblance of peace would settle on the state. And life would peep again through the dark clouds, letting in the sunshine of a flickering hope in a state where militancy and violence remind us that democracy is a difficult form of government to manage sans the right temperaments.
We cannot say this too nicely: Rivers totters towards anarchy. The end of the re-run elections would not be the end of the battle for political supremacy in the state. However, if it is any consolation, the state is by no means alone. In almost every state of the federation, there is a simmering political discontent between the state governors and their godfathers.
Here is part of the problem as I see it. Every state governor is officially intolerant of other parties. He insists on a single party in his state. This is partly the reason that our elections have become do-or-die battles. This attitude is strange to democracy. Democracy is not much use if it is stripped of political pluralism and the right of the individual to belong to and support the political party of his choice. The states have become the killing fields of political pluralism. You can see why our democracy is nascent.
President Buhari, in his reaction the electoral violence in Rivers State, has promised that “violence in any form will not be tolerate before, during or after elections.” This is not likely to frighten anyone. He should go further. We need to hold people responsible for their deeds. Under our laws, a state governor is the chief security officer of his state. The constitution expects him to take necessary steps to sufficiently protect lives and property of the people in his state, before, during and after elections. What happens when the chief security officer turns himself into the chief thug of his party to lead the do-or-die battle to secure a win for his party at all cost? Your call, Mr. President.
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