I recently passed through Port Harcourt on a trip to Owerri, Imo State. The road was a bit lonely, thus raising security concerns for me. But I received assurance from my very gracious driver and travel companion Chimdi that a local vigilante is active securing the road. With his assurances, wrapped in the song “Take a message to Mary” by Everly Brothers playing in the background, I fell asleep.
I woke up from my power nap about thirty minutes later in an area with a huge palm plantation. When I inquired on this route and site that was unfamiliar to me, Chimdi informed me that it is an alternative expressway to Imo state constructed under the era of the former governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi. Out of curiosity, I further engaged him further in a chat about the potentials of using oil palm production to replace crude oil as we have in countries like Malaysia. One topic led to the other and Chimdi aired his state level political opinions, also sharing how many indigenes and residents of Rivers state perceive the current administration. He recalled with nostalgia the development strides of their former governor. Typically, I should be bored by now listening to his single narratives, but I was somehow taken aback that a ‘common’ taxi driver could be so politically savvy. Then again, this guy spoke very eloquent English, possessing an awareness of his socio-political environment in ways I least expected.. I listened attentively as he passionately recounted the number of roads that were constructed or rehabilitated during the eight years under the Ubima born politician who is now the Minister for Transportation. “My brother Rivers people are missing Amaechi and that is the truth. What we are witnessing currently under Nyesom (referring to the current administration of Governor Nyesom Wike) is a complete mess and complete caricature. Apart from these flyovers, there is very little you can associate as the legacy of the current government.”
He continued sharing, drawing from his history: “I was born and bred in this city and I can assure you that even after many years, it was only during the days of Amaechi that government presence was felt fairly and equitably across the state. Both of them Amaechi and Nyesom are my brothers and we now know the difference. Like him or hate him, Amaechi touched lives.” Reflecting comparatively on their assessment of these two men whom he called brothers, he shared some regrets. “Those of us who supported Wike are now regretting it but I guess it is now too late. At the end of his tenure, Wike’s biggest achievement will likely be fighting Amaechi. People are worried but fear for their lives. The man is brutal. Instead of consolidating on the achievements of his predecessor, Wike is out to make sure that such achievements are either completely undermined, destroyed or abandoned.” Chimdi glanced through his rear-view mirror to ascertain that I was listening to him. Upon establishing eye contact, he continued even more confidently: “Let me tell you sir, this governor (Nyesom) is the one buying the best properties in Port Harcourt as I speak. All of us know that he is probably one of the richest people in Nigeria. Look at me, I come from the same community but I am driving taxi with a Master’s degree.” At this point, it all made logical sense to me how a ‘common taxi driver’ could command such confidence, and communicate his socio-political awareness with depth. Chimdi not aware of how his last information suited my puzzled mind, continued to buttress his positionality with examples: “Did you not hear that he donated 500 million naira in Sokoto State while Rivers people are suffering? Wherever you see new private construction going on in the city, it is either for the governor or his proxies”.
The driver went on and on as I listened attentively but absentmindedly. Slowly I started having some recollections on some of his narratives and momentarily became sober. I remembered that I once accompanied the former President of Botswana, Festus Mogae from Washington DC to Rivers State for the inaugural session of the Claude Ake memorial lecture in 2010. I recall vividly how the face of the former President was brightened up as he inspected some of the projects under the former governor. “Just continue to do these simple things, those were the same things I did in Botswana back in the days” the former President said.
Mr. Chimdi continued with his story as I lapsed back and forth into sleep though marveled by his recollections again and again. Reflecting over the last decade, he talked about the foreign scholarships granted students from the state to many universities abroad. He talked about schools and health centers that were built across the state and the employment of over 13,000 new teachers. He reminded me about the agricultural projects like the fish farm in Buguma, the Songhai Farm in Tai and the Plantain plantation in Ogoni. According to Chimdi “all these projects have been abandoned just because Wike does not want Rivers people to remember Amaechi anymore. Imagine where this state would have been if he continued from where Amaechi stopped?”
Coincidentally, the two personalities that dominated our conversation have currently been in the news due to some verbal exchanges arising from their lingering political conflict. The current governor of Rivers State Nyesom Wike is one of the most vocal voices of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Unsurprisingly, he has been constantly critical of the policies and actions of the ruling party. Fair enough. While it is difficult to challenge or question his motives, many people consider his methods as crude and confrontational. He is constantly at war with colleagues and regularly makes uncomplimentary remarks against fellow governors from his own party.
For instance at the peak of the pandemic, the governor shut down the operations of an airline daring the federal government. Although the state is an independent entity in a federation, state governors are expected to accord some respect to the President and federal government even when they do not belong to the same political party. Governor Wike’s case has been different. In his several media outbursts he tongue lashed the federal government and the President as though he is an untouchable. Many people doubt his claim to a law degree because of the likely implication of some of his utterances. Some even say this could be a carryover of his sour relationship with his former political ally Amaechi while others say there is more to it.
Close observers of politics in Rivers State insist that Governor Wike’s regular media engagement is a calculated effort to sell himself to national relevance in the next political dispensation. As highlighted by Chimdi, Wike’s recent public donation to the victims of fire outbreak in Sokoto State sent tongues wagging about what his next political intentions might be. There are strong indications that he may take a shot at the Presidency in 2023 under the People’s Democratic Party.
Coincidentally, there is a strong push for power to shift to the south in 2023. And for different reasons, there is a strong push within the ruling party that Amaechi should be given the ticket to run for Presidency. Visible promoters of this effort within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) include the governor of Borno State Babagana Zulum and that of Kaduna State Nasir Elrufai. Although the Minister Rotimi Amaechi has not made any public statement to that effect, many Nigerians are quietly rooting for him. They generally perceive him a daring developmentally minded and courageous leader who is capable of confronting the ongoing criminality by enforcing security and rule of law as he did during his tenure as governor.
While he was known to have inherited a state where militants and cultists reigned brazenly, he did not yield to sentiments, attempt to placate them with any form of amnesty or treat them as freedom fighters. He rather treated them as criminals and allowed the law to run its course. Those who are familiar with the situation at that time in Rivers State are quietly seeking a leader with such a temperament to take over the country and bring in some sanity. They see it as one way of arresting the ongoing trend of kidnapping, banditry and terrorism.
Back into my travel reality on the expressway, a stark difference is observed as soon as we entered the Imo State part of the road. I was told that although the road we drove on was categorized as a federal road, that it was under Amaechi’s government that it was rehabilitated. Few minutes later, we arrived at a security check, the tenth one on the road over a distance of less than ten kilometers. As the security men tried to delay us with frivolous questions, I thought about Nigeria. Our country is currently on a bad spot.
Someone needs to come to the rescue. While we may not know the person yet, we all do have an idea of the quality of leader that the country requires at this time. And to speak my truth, I think that if we do not get it right in 2023, this country may go up in flames. While we may be divided by ethnic and religious differences, we are firmly united in the search for a new Nigeria. The elections are still months away. For now, maybe I should limit my anxiety and apprehension to a mere soliloquy.
•Dr. Uche Igwe is a Visiting Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa (FLCA) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org