The Presidency’s unrelenting efforts to rein in Chibuike Amaechi, Rivers State governor, at all costs pose some threats to President Goodluck Jonathan’s 2015 ambition
As the political horse-trading climaxed for the election of a new leader for the Nigerian Governors Forum, NGF, last week, governors strove hard to stave off an extant, but not too unfamiliar interest. It was one exercise that was filled with unusual theatrics, from its troubled conception to the planned election last Friday, in Abuja. All through the week, governors exchanged notes on how to handle the intimidating posture of the Presidency, which appeared bent on unseating Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State who was also seeking re-election as chairman of the forum. By the time the exercise closed, it was seen more as a contest between the forum and President Goodluck Jonathan. So whatever little camaraderie existed between the clan of governors and the Presidency suffered a serious damage. That was not the only casualty of that contest. At the close of battle, rather than bringing closure to the raging war of attrition between President Jonathan and Governor Amaechi, the outcome has actually worsened it. Since it is an open secret that the Presidency does not want the governor to continue as chairman of NGF, the election has only taken the feud between the two political gladiators to lower depths where the battle will be further fought with bare-knuckle tactics. Even then, it is believed that what looked like simple politicking may be the genesis of a further political crisis for the President.
As the governors converged on Abuja for the crucial assignment of choosing their leader, not unmindful of moles that had been planted in their midst, they also quickly designed measures to outwit the stratagem of Aso Rock. Over the past few months, some of the governors have watched with distaste the relentless hostility of the Presidency towards Amaechi, without fully coming to terms with the real motive of the bickering. But as the NGF election drew near, it soon dawned on them that Jonathan’s shadowboxing was to actually decapitate the NGF and supplant its vibrant leadership with a more pliant hand.
The barefaced hostilities being orchestrated against Amaechi actually bear a tinge of self-serving motive. Like an albatross, which it has snowballed to become over the last few months, the object of the roiling proxy war against Amaechi is to break the bone of NGF, considered as one of the potential obstacles to Jonathan’s re-election bid. After several moves to coerce Amaechi to drop his re-election bid, the Presidency stepped up its game, using promises of easy access to funds that governors are legally entitled to as the last bait to get the support of some of them to dump Amaechi for Jonathan’s anointed candidate for the NGF chairmanship. Having realised that the candidature of Ibrahim Shema and Isa Yuguda, governors of Katsina and Bauchi states, respectively, did not fly, Abuja quickly settled for another governor, to save its face. But, at last, Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau State lost by three votes to Amaechi who polled 19 out of 35 available. Governor Ibrahim Dankwabo of Gombe State was absent. The magazine learnt that all the six governors on the platform of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, and governors of Delta, Imo, Niger, Kano, Borno, Adamawa, Sokoto, Zamfara, Jigawa and three other states yet to be confirmed by press time voted for Amaechi. Before the election, the Northern Governors Forum met and asked Shema and Yuguda to step down, but the duo refused. So they asked the two governors to go out, after which they chose Jang and presented him at the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Governors Forum, PGF. Again at press time last week, the PGF was unhappy about the outcome of the election. Thus when it became obvious that whatever cracks may have been created in the tribe of the governors could be mended by them, Presidency strategists appeared to have dumped the initial objective of beheading NGF, by not being seen to have been defeated.
Contrary to media reports that the onslaught against Amaechi has something to do with his stubborn streak, facts emerged last week that the seed of discord between Jonathan and Amaechi was planted in 2010, only that it is being harvested now that the race for 2015 is in the air. The magazine learnt that what has snowballed into an almost intractable animosity began when Amaechi, in his characteristic frankness, took a stand over whether or not Jonathan should become substantive president, as was being canvassed by aides of the then acting president. That time, late President Umaru Yar’Adua was back in Nigeria, but held incommunicado by his associates, then branded cabals in government. When Jonathan invited Amaechi for a confirmation of his position on the matter, the governor maintained his stand, explaining that it was in the best interest of Jonathan to remain the acting president so he would not be seen as being too desperate for power since President Yar’Adua had not died. The explanation notwithstanding, the President and his associates assumed that Amaechi took that stand more because of his allegiance to Yar’Adua. In fact, they concluded that the Rivers State governor was opposed to Jonathan becoming president.
And surely, Amaechi had reasons to have sympathy for the then president. Yar’Adua, it was who, in the face of open discomfort by a section of the top leadership of the ruling PDP, facilitated the inauguration of Amaechi as governor, in line with the ruling of the Supreme Court in 2007. Unknown to some followers of the ongoing onslaught to cage the governor, by the time that landmark judgment was delivered, Amaechi was in Ghana where he was said to have locked himself up in prayers. Determined to demonstrate his commitment to the rule of law, the late president quickly sent for Amaechi to return to Nigeria to take his oath of office without further ado. Yar’Adua did this in defiance of protests from the top hierarchy of the ruling PDP, which had then contrived a plot to contest the apex court’s ruling. To them, the late president should have delayed the execution of the judgment while asking Michael Andoakaa, then attorney general of the federation and minister of justice, to seek further interpretation of the judgement from the Supreme Court.
That advice from the PDP leadership and some hawks against Amaechi was based on the argument that it was wrong for Amaechi to become governor that easily, as he did not contest the governorship election nor was his declaration as governor part of his prayers to the court. Defending his action, Yar’Adua, an advocate of the rule of law, reportedly told his party that though the judgement might appear wrong in the realm of politics, it still remained the position of the law and that he wanted all court decisions obeyed during his time – no matter how unpalatable the outcome may be for his party.
Having benefited from this presidential large heart, to the chagrin of some party stalwarts, Amaechi began a chummy relationship with the late President and a visit to Aso Rock to pay his debt of gratitude to Yar’Adua further earned him more respect and confidence from the former who was then desperate to tackle the restlessness in the Niger Delta. Although former President Olusegun Obasanjo battled to resolve the Niger Delta problem before he left office, the administration of Yar’Adua ended up inheriting the crisis, prompting the new government to evolve a plethora of measures aimed at arresting the drift into anarchy. As fate would have it, all this coincided with Amaechi’s ascension to office. So, by the time the governor visited Aso Rock to express gratitude, his visit came in very handy. Yar’Adua reportedly sounded out Amaechi on how the Niger Delta conundrum could be resolved, knowing full well that the governor was already one of the big players in the politics of the state, having served as the speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly during the administration of Peter Odili.
Amaechi, in his usual forthrightness, reportedly cautioned against granting amnesty in haste, which was one of the cards on Yar’Adua’s table at the time. Although the governor was reported to have actually described the amnesty policy as a welcome idea, he cautioned against the federal government granting it from a position of weakness that could further embolden likeminded “criminals and miscreants” to take up arms against the state.
Amaechi advised the federal government that it should first demonstrate that it could bite; that is, use the option of force first to deal with criminals before dangling the amnesty carrot. This was also exactly the line Amaechi toed when he settled down to the business of governance when he successfully fought daredevil kidnappers to a standstill, saying he was not ready to dialogue with criminals, a strategy which forced the hoodlums to leave for safer havens in neighbouring states. Later, Amaechi emerged as one of the few governors in whom Yar’Adua was confiding.
This undercurrent of hostilities, according to one source, was why Patience Jonathan, wife of the President, engaged in a shouting match with Amaechi in clear breach of protocols, when she was on a visit to Rivers State in 2010. It is believed she was acting on the mistaken notion that Amaechi did not want her husband to become the substantive President. In spite of his unhappiness with Amaechi, Jonathan was even reportedly enjoying patronages from the Rivers State government under Amaechi, and was given the honour to nominate some people into Amaechi’s cabinet.
However, matters worsened when the governor emerged as NGF chair in 2011, after the expiration of the tenure of Bukola Saraki, former governor of Kwara State, whose reign marked a turning point for NGF. But much to the discomfiture of the Presidency, Amaechi began championing the popular cause of how to infuse more transparency into the disbursement of revenue accruing from oil export among the three tiers of government. Under his leadership, the NGF demanded greater accountability in how the commonwealth is shared, which all along appears to make the Presidency uncomfortable.
Since the time of Obasanjo, it has become a norm for the federal government to merely declare how much was available to be shared without giving specifics regarding how much actually accrued into the federation account, a practice the governors had consistently frowned at. Then came the controversial Sovereign Wealth Fund, SWF, which governors also said they did not want, though after they had given their consent. As a demonstration of their opposition to SWF, the governors even went to court just as they objected to the operation of excess crude oil account, though the parties eventually opted out of court and embraced the option of a political solution.
Because of his outspokenness – and some say, stubborn streak – Amaechi has transformed the NGF into a formidable body that can effectively challenge the excesses and overbearing tendencies of the Presidency. Unknown to the governor, the Presidency had put its foot soldiers on red alert since Amaechi became NGF chairman in 2011, thus surreptitiously preparing for the final showdown. Now that jostling for 2015 is already in the air, Aso Rock finally decided to go for the governor’s jugular.
Like prey out-powered by a colony of predators, the President’s agents, all fuelled by the lingering mistaken belief that Amaechi is a political foe of the President, buffeted him on all fronts. One of the stratagems to clip his wings was the sudden formation of PGF, formed at the Presidential Villa, apparently as a counterbalance to the influential force represented by the NGF, which Amaechi leads. Betraying the interest of the President, Bamanga Tukur, PDP national chairman, openly celebrated the birth of the new group led by Godswill Akpabio, Akwa Ibom State governor: “Now I can see very well because I know, in form of leadership of PDP Governors Forum, they are for us. I can tell President Goodluck Jonathan, if he was sleeping few hours in the night because he does not know how the party is going, he can now go and have (a) siesta.” Akpabio, the new helmsman, also did not mask what he was about saying: “What the PDP is trying to do now is to cleanse its house, to try to identify the ones they called Judas and whisper it to them and say go out, the train is moving and you cannot stand, otherwise we will crush you.”
While critics say there is nothing wrong in having a forum for the PDP governors, since there are similar associations of governors based on regional or party affiliation, they berated the timing of the birth of PGF and the purpose it was meant to achieve. By this calculation, Jonathan’s strategists are reportedly banking on the assurance that a more pliable NGF would help the President enjoy support of the governors, who hold almost all the aces when it comes to determining who wins the PDP ticket and eventually the general election. In short, Amaechi is being vilified because of his refusal to read the signals emanating from Aso Rock that it is averse to his continued leadership of NGF, since Jonathan wants somebody he can trust to help mobilise the governors to canvass support for him.
Before all these issues blew into the public domain, the Rivers State government had lodged complaints in the last two years to the federal government over the reallocation of some oil wells belonging to the state to Bayelsa, where Jonathan hails from. The Presidency is also said to have ignored the suggestion by Amaechi that the money accruing from the oil wells in question be safeguarded in an escrow account pending the final resolution of the dispute. That was said to have been ignored with Bayelsa allegedly collecting the monies till date. Prior to that, Jonathan was also said to have influenced the relocation from Rivers State of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, NLNG, and Nigerian Air Force Base to Bayelsa State. Yet Rivers State, argue Amaechi’s supporters, was one of the states where the President got the highest number of votes in 2011.
In the final analysis, these are the disagreements that have coalesced into what has become a relentless onslaught against Amaechi, now involving the use of brute force. To achieve the plot, the embattled governor was being frequently mentioned in a possible vice presidential ticket with Governor Sule Lamido of Jigawa State, with an apparent motive to simply paint him as overambitious. Though the Rivers State governor has repeatedly denied nursing the ambition of contesting on a ticket with anybody in 2015. While the governor continues to deny commissioning the posters showing him as rooting for the villa, sources say that nobody has ever approached the governor over the issue. Besides the fate of Jonathan in 2015, the magazine learnt that the governor is also being persecuted to make it impossible for him to influence who succeeds him in Rivers State come 2015. Since Patience, wife of the President who is also from the state is interested in who becomes the next governor of the state.
As part of efforts to resolve the Amaechi-Jonathan war, some well-meaning Nigerians, including Sa’ad Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto, Ibrahim Babangida, former military president, and one former governor from the South-south have intervened in the roiling crisis to no avail. It was gathered that Abubakar reportedly advised Jonathan not to dissipate energy on a conflict with Amaechi at a time when there are enough security challenges on his table. Babangida, who was also said to have toed a similar line of reasoning, advised that creating crisis in Rivers State over some disagreements with a governor in his party and region is not only un-smart politics, but also an unnecessary distraction. A highly respected Nigerian religious leader and one of the world’s most influential men had also conferred with Jonathan on the feud, but he reportedly told the pastor that he had no problem with the governor. He however took the advice of the cleric to invite Amaechi and talk things over with him, by suggesting that the man of God should pass the message to the governor. If Amaechi spoke on phone with the President as suggested by the cleric, it is not clear if that gesture made any positive impact.
By his body language, which critics say further emboldens his aides to continue to scale up their onslaught against the governor, Jonathan is giving the impression that the plot to decapitate the governor is irreversible, despite the intervention of some well-meaning Nigerians. On his part, in order not to destroy the NGF, Amaechi was reported to have offered to step down from NGF chair, if he would be allowed to recommend a “consensus candidate,” one who will be generally acceptable to his colleagues. On hearing that Governor Rabiu Kwankwanso of Kano State is Amaechi’s nominee, the Presidency reportedly said that it would rather live with the migraine of Amaechi than crown Kwankwanso as NGF leader. At one meeting, the Kano governor was said to have been so angry at the idea of Governor Akpabio as chairman of PGF that he openly challenged him as to who put him there. The duel almost reportedly degenerated into fisticuffs before reason prevailed.
Also in an effort to mediate in the crisis, Obasanjo was said to have sent for Amaechi, but nothing seemed to have been achieved, as Jonathan has before now reportedly stopped taking telephone calls from the former president, who is seen as his benefactor. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Patience had been making passionate appeal to many state governors not to let Amaechi ‘disgrace’ her husband. Realising that the candidature of the two people it had earlier banked upon as a replacement for Amaechi was not getting traction, the Presidency resorted to outright intimidation last week to whip some governors into line. Yet the Presidency has on several occasions denied any dispute with Amaechi or precipitating crisis in Rivers State. Reuben Abati, special adviser to the President on media and publicity, described such insinuation as the handiwork of mischief-makers, “who are perpetually disseminating black information with an obvious intent to discredit the President for their own selfish reasons.” Abati also said the President’s wife “does not dictate the political process either in Rivers or elsewhere in the federation.”
Perhaps that counters the allegation that Presidency officials, including the wife of the President, had been making threatening telephone calls to intimidate some of Rivers State officials, especially those known to have the ear of Amaechi. On a recent visit to the state, the President’s wife also reportedly yelled at the state commissioner of police, ordering him to tell the inspector general of police to remove all the security aides of Amaechi, even in the presence of Judith, the governor’s wife, and the wife of deputy governor, Tele Ikuru. Though he has denied it, Nyesom Wike, former chief of staff to Amaechi who is now the minister of state for education, is also one of the arrowheads of the war. To further underscore the determination of the Presidency to suppress Amaechi, one of the close aides of the President also reportedly boasted recently that, “we must bring Amaechi to his knees and crush him to teach other governors a lesson,” in response to a suggestion that he should work towards calling a truce.
Some days ago, under the pretext that he wanted to see the governor, Mbu Joseph Mbu, the state commissioner of police, reportedly drove into the Government House, Port Harcourt, in a convoy which included his official car and three armoured personnel carriers, APCs, fuelling wild speculations about the motive behind such unusual practice. But the governor was out of town. However, security men at the Government House gate were said to have prevented the APCs from being driven in even though the commissioner was allowed in with his official car.
On another plank, the noose is being increasingly tightened on aides and loyalists of Amaechi. Recently, Otelemaba Amachree, speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly, had alleged that there is a plot to impeach Amaechi illegally. On May 16, Amachree also alleged that Mbu had withdrawn his security aides. That was barely 78 hours after unknown gunmen murdered Eric Ezenekwe, aide of Godspower Ake, ousted state chairman of the PDP. That is why even some PDP governors are now saying Jonathan is not playing good politics, with some of them asking if the President can be trusted if he gets re-elected for a second term. When the magazine recently sought an interview appointment with a former governor, he quickly declined, saying the atmosphere is not auspicious because the President “is fighting like a rattlesnake.”
Rather than put his house in order, Tam David-West, former minister of petroleum, said Jonathan is fighting dirty because of 2015, using his aides and kinsmen to continue to pollute the air with inflammatory statements about the next general election. The former minister said the likes of Edwin Clark, First Republic minister of information and Mujahid Asari-Dokubo, a former militant in the Niger Delta, were doing more harm than good to the President’s re-election bid. In a recent interview with the magazine, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State also admitted that it is Jonathan’s men that are dividing the South-south. Were general elections to take place today, Jonathan, it is said, will have an uphill task. Of the six geopolitical zones, he seems to enjoy maximum support from only South-east, prompting some watchers of unfolding events to conclude that it may be difficult for the President to win substantial votes in the remaining regions, including his South-south zone.
After completing a national tour of states to mediate in the crisis afflicting the party across the country, a top PDP bigwig, who was in the reconciliation committee, reportedly told a confidant that even if Jonathan successfully muzzles his way to get the party’s ticket, he “cannot win a general election and he also cannot rig it.” The reason he cited is that the mood of the public is foul against Jonathan, a situation made worse by his shadowboxing. Is the President reading very well the writing on the wall?