Rivers 2019: Amaechi Raises Fear of Imposition

 

Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi is ruffling political feathers in his All Progressives Congress following his adoption of a crony as the party’s candidate ahead of the governorship primary thereby dimming the prospects of other aspirants

 

Minister of transportation and former Rivers State governor, Chibuike Amaechi is once again on a familiar turf in the politics of Rivers State as the 2019 governorship race in the state gathers steam. The leader of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in the oil-rich state with history of political volatility and bloody electoral contestation is riding on a storm he personally created. This time, the moot point is his incendiary act of anointing a candidate ahead of the governorship primary election of his party. By so doing, Amaechi did not only stir the hornet’s nest in his party which is in opposition in the state but also raised the red flag in the ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, given the choice he has made in the person of Tonye Dele Cole. Cole, an international businessman and oil magnate, is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)/Executive Director, Sahara Group. Born January 11, 1967, Cole also sits on the board of Atlas Mara, Bloomberg TV Africa, Enactus Nigeria, Nigerian Chamber of Shipping and Digital Jewels, among others. He is the son of Patrick Dele Cole, former managing director of Daily Times, and one-time Nigerian Ambassador to Brazil who also served in the first term of ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration.

The unsettling news of Cole’s adoption broke August 31, 2018, following a meeting Amaechi held in Lagos with his core loyalists prior to his departure to China as part of an advance party of President Muhammadu Buhari’s entourage. Said to be at the meeting were two senators namely Andrew Uchendu and Osi Ideozor; former Executive Director of NDDC, Henry Ogiri, NIMASA DG, Dakuku Peterside, Tonye Princewill and Dumo Lulu-Briggs. Others mentioned were George Tolofari, former Commissioner for Transport in Rivers State, Sekonte Davies, Azubike Wanjoku among others.

Before coming out with it, the minister himself knew he was going to ruffle feathers more so when some of his audience also nurse governorship ambitions. A report in the Daily Post quoted the former governor as stating that “We are aware that not all would find it easy to accept the decision but I am also conscious that the decision was made for the best interests of the party and the group. We are aware that interests are divergent and numerous and that they can only coalesce if we get someone neutral; someone who is able to get every interests to converge as one. What is critical is victory. Loyalty is not only when it favours you but when you are tempted and stretched to your limits. Ventilate we must, but to move ahead, we also must, as the battles ahead are numerous and tedious.”

Reminding his audience of their mandate to him, the minister said “You all urged me on to proceed to make a decision and swore to stand by that decision. The time has therefore come to be together. God bless all of us.” A pin-drop silence was said to have enveloped the room as his listeners suddenly became tongue-tied; too perplexed to react to what had just hit them like a bolt from the blues. Uchendu, the senator representing Rivers East Senatorial District, was the first to find his voice after recovering from the initial shock. He expressed surprise at the announcement. Apparently speaking the minds of others that Cole was a stranger to them, Uchendu was quoted as saying, “I am not sure any of us here has Tonye Cole’s telephone number much more meeting him in person. So, Your Excellency, how would we market him?”

Indeed, until now, Cole was not a known name in the polity in Rivers State. Apart from being a ministerial nominee in 2012 when his name was submitted with that of incumbent Rivers State governor, Ezenwo Nyesom Wike who eventually served as minister of state for education, the only political credential of the multi-billionaire business mogul is his close relationship with Amaechi since his tenure as governor. It is for this reason and more that his choice as the preferred candidate of the party amongst the several other aspiring political heavy weights in the party had sparked off outrage, controversy, and condemnation from within and outside the party. The controversy that trailed the development was as a matter of fact triggered by the minister himself who tried to distance himself from the decision only to be controverted by Tonye Princewill, one of his henchmen who once contested the governorship of the state.

A press statement by the minister’s media aide a few days after the reported endorsement, described as “preposterous, mischievous, wholly and intentionally disingenuous and deceitful for anyone to claim, allege or even insinuate that the Honourable Minister has “appointed” a governorship candidate for APC in Rivers State.” The statement was, however, quick to note that “As an individual, a registered voter and a card-carrying APC member from Rivers State, it is the Honourable Minister’s inalienable, constitutionally enshrined democratic right to back/support/promote any qualified fellow party member of his choice, to aspire to be the candidate of the party in the state in the forthcoming governorship election or any other election. However, as a true and thorough democrat, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, a foundation member of the APC and a leading light of the party, recognises that the party’s candidates for the 2019 general elections will be chosen/elected by party members through the prescribed democratic process in the party’s constitution, rules and regulations.”

But political observers contend that no one can be fooled by Amaechis foxy position on the issue knowing the overwhelming influence of political godfathers of his ilk. His followers and party leaders only need to read his body language correctly to know where his interest lies. And that is exactly what the reaction of Princewill seemed to suggest – Amaechi’s choice is our choice. Contrary to Amaechi’s claim that a candidate would emerge democratically, Princewill confirmed that the choice of Cole to pick the party’s ticket had been sealed by the minister and other party leaders in the state. Princewill’s reaction which was conveyed in a Facebook post titled “Choice of Tonye Cole – Matters Arising” reads in part: “Being one of the few privileged to be in the room when the decision was taken, one would have expected me to speak a little sooner. After all, I have been known to shoot from the hip, speak my mind, plus my thoughts on the decision were pretty clear, right from the moment it was made.

“I had repeatedly told my supporters and my associates, that my role in this process was to be a facilitator, to help the leader and his leaders achieve victory in 2019. I joined the APC to help ease Wike out of government house, not to run for the position of Governor. I was a witness to at least two caucus meetings chaired by HE Amaechi on the issue and several one-on-one meetings that spanned many months. Chief Dumo Lulu Briggs and Dr. Dakuku Peterside had put up a good case for their consideration, Engr. Bekinbo Dagogo Jack had also made himself available and, to be honest, either of them could have done us proud if given the chance. But alas they weren’t. Amaechi’s preference, our preference rested on the shoulders of Tonye Cole.”

Though he tried to defend the perceived imposition of Cole after stating clearly that other aspirants in the room had tried to get the minister’s support for their aspiration but were denied, not many would buy Princewill’s argument when he said “I say our preference because it was not imposed on us. We all agreed. “Amaechi leads, We follow.” Not only when it suits us. It was not dependent on how he leads, neither was it dependent on where he leads. This was hard for me to swallow because I am used to being my own boss, being the candidate, but I opted to be a team player by choice. So my word to my team is my bond. Good leaders must also be good followers. So Tonye Cole is my choice and I urge us all to support him. Why? Because it’s either him or Wike; he has a track record of success, not failure. He puts his friends above profits, he’s not materialistic and he represents a total departure from the status quo or business as usual. Let’s actually try something truly new. We may get different results.”

Watchers of political events in Rivers State are quick to decipher the real intent of Amaechi’s choice of Tonye Cole, a man with massive war chest that could give the sitting governor a run for his money. For Amaechi therefore, the 2019 governorship election is another make-or-mar supremacy battle between him and his arch political enemy and former ally. So far, Wike has succeeded in demystifying the former governor he helped to enthrone and stood solidly by in the course of fighting his legal battles. The battle this time therefore for Amaechi, is one he must win. It is an ego trip. Nothing would excite him more than see Wike sent packing and disgraced out of office. It is for this reason he needed a candidate with equally limitless war chest to confront the governor who is seeking a second term in office. From all indications, Amaechi, in his desperate desire to oust Wike from office, had been busy scouting for a possible match for the governor before eventually settling for Cole. Hence, even before his choice was finally announced, the former governor’s foot soldiers under the aegis of the Rivers State Unity House, RUH, had been busy selling Cole’s candidacy to those who matter in the party.

But the governor is raising the alarm that Amaechi’s choice of Cole has an underlying sinister and self-serving motive. Hinting that the tussle would be fierce, Wike vowed not to allow Cole defeat him at the 2019 polls because that would amount to handing over the resources of the state to two business partners – Amaechi and Tonye Cole. By so saying, Wike was referring to what transpired during the judicial probe of Amaechi’s stewardship during which Cole was fingered in the questionable sales of some of the state’s assets. In particular, NG Power HPS Limited, an affiliate of Sahara Energy Resources Limited, which is a subsidiary of Sahara Group of Companies with links to the purchase of Olympia Hotel, was indicted in the sale of the state’s multi-million dollars gas turbines. The four power plants allegedly sold under shady circumstances were the Omoku (150 megawatts), Trans Amadi (136 megawatts), Afam (180 megawatts) and Eleme (75 megawatts) gas turbines. Tonye Dele Cole, said to be a close associate of the former governor, was mentioned as one of the directors of Centrum Properties as well as the Sahara Group. As revealed during the public sitting of the Justice George Omereji Commission of Inquiry, Sahara Energy Resources actually sourced for the loan with which NG Power HPS acquired the plants as admitted by George Oluwande, the chief operating officer and technical adviser of NG Power. There were discrepancies in the actual amount the power plants were sold. While the permanent secretary, Rivers State ministry of power, Emeka Obisike Peter told the commission that the power plants were sold at the cost of $302,960,000, to acquire 70 per cent equity in the plants, the former accountant-general gave a conflicting figure claiming that they were sold for $274.5 million. Peter, however, stated that he was not part of the series of negotiations that led to the sale of the plants. According to him, the first meeting was held in the office of the then commissioner for power, Augustine Wokocha and he was told to excuse them as according to Wokocha, it was an investment for which the ministry of finance was in charge. Disputing an earlier figure given by Peter, Abu said he was hearing for the first time that the sum of $302,960,000.00 was paid for the acquisition of the plants. Under cross-examination, Oluwande however, insisted that his company paid $302,960,000 for the plants consequent upon which the state government signed off on the shareholding agreement and management of First Independent Power Limited for NG Power HPS. The company could not however, provide evidence of the government’s acknowledgement of the purported receipt of the said sum. Counsel to government, Zaccheaus Adangor, was to fault the process leading to the acquisition of the gas turbines pointing out that from the documents submitted to the commission by the company, a memorandum of understanding, MoU had been signed with the state government for the sale of the power plants even before the government had officially made its intention known.

Accepting the recommendations of the Commission, the government, in its October 2015 white paper, directed the office of the attorney general and commissioner for justice to recover the sum of $116,552,042.46 “from NG Power-HPS Limited, Sahara Energy Resources Limited, Tonye Cole and other persons involved in this fraudulent transaction.” The said sum is made up of $63,456,440.41 “being outstanding balance on the purchase price of $302,960,000.00, and $53,95,000.602.05 being monies transferred from Rivers State Government domiciliary account from the Access Bank to Sahara Energy Resources Limited as a purported repayment of a non-existing loan.” It goes without saying therefore why Wike vowed to resist any attempt to foist Cole on the state as governor given his role in the scandalous sale of the state’s valued assets.

If there is anyone within the APC in the state who would stand up to the minister, that person, expectedly, is Magnus Abe, the senator representing Rivers South-East senatorial district. While other associates of the former governor would rather pledge blind loyalty to him, Abe opted to be his own man in pursuit of his dream. Abe is driven by the passion to redress perceived injustice in the state whereby since it was created 57 years ago, no Ogoni man had been a governor, deputy governor, speaker of the house of assembly, nor even occupied the office of the chief judge of the state. Abe’s ambition had pitched him against his former boss and political leader. Reacting to Amaechi’s adoption of Cole at an event to open his governorship campaign office at Eleme, Abe described Amaechi’s action as of no consequence because “the decision did not meet the recent party standard for selection of governorship candidate, which included Rivers South-East Senatorial District and party members who have laboured for the party.” Addressing his teeming supporters, the Ogoni-born senator retorted: ”If some leaders gathered together in Lagos to choose a person who will govern Lagos, with that there is no problem. But if they met in Lagos to choose a person who will govern Rivers State, that, we will not agree. If some APC leaders chose a candidate in Lagos; that one is for Lagos. Other leaders will choose theirs for Rivers.” Vehement in his resolve to resist any attempt by the leadership of the APC to impose any candidate on the people, Abe stated unequivocally that “any such decision that is not in favour of my senatorial district would be opposed” adding that “issues affecting the party in the state cannot be decided in Lagos and expected to be carried out in Rivers State.” He expressed hope that the party would adopt direct primary where members of the party would decide who to be their governorship flag-bearer.

Though hitherto tipped to fly the flag of the party as he did in 2015, losing to Wike, Dakuku Peterside, like some other aspirants present at the meeting, would gladly go along with their leader’s choice. In a statement he titled “Unity to Triumph” a day after Cole’s endorsement, the NIMASA boss said he was all for the action of his principal. According to him, “I personally pledge my loyalty to the leader (who is to me family) and the decision he has made. I enjoin all my supporters to queue behind our leader CRA (as Amaechi is fondly called) and ensure total victory for our party.” As far as Peterside is concerned, there was need for everyone to be united against a common foe – Wike.

Lulu-Briggs, from his statement, however, did not appear to share Peterside’s sentiments as he seemed unhappy with the turn of events. Unlike the NIMASA boss, his position was non-committal. His position also seemed to put a lie to Princewill’s claim that Tonye Cole was not imposed. He believed he had put in so much for so many years for his ambition to be terminated by fiat by a leader. According to him, “My interest in the governorship seat of Rivers State was not a hasty decision. It has spanned over a decade; built on consultations and supported by people who have volunteered because of our extensive engagements and consultations and their dreams of a greater, more prosperous Rivers State. My aspiration has acquired a status that is beyond Dumo Lulu-Briggs. It is therefore in this respect that we are unable to make a definitive statement at this point in time, considering that we have to consult and inform our supporters about the August 30th endorsement of Architect Tonye Cole by our leader.”

But in the interim, he reaffirmed his “unequivocal belief in the unity of our great party, the APC and my unalloyed loyalty to our leader, Rt. Hon. Chibuike Amaechi, whose favourite mantra is the scripture that says “God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this: that power belongeth unto God (Psalm 62:11)” While assuring the party that “our final position on this matter shall enhance the gains of our great party, the APC in Rivers State and make it even bigger and stronger,” Lulu-Briggs posited that “We do this believing that the will of God in my life and the lives of each and every one of us shall surely happen” and therefore admonished his supporters not to “despair and let none be disrespectful of the party, its membership and our great leader.”

And as the news of Cole’s adoption tears the party apart and causes ripples in the state’s political space, the state chapter of the APC has lent its voice to douse the growing tension within its fold. The state publicity secretary of the party, Chris Finebone, said the party was not aware of such an endorsement by the minister, stressing that the party’s constitution had no room for adoption as governorship aspirants have to contest in the forthcoming governorship primaries. According to Finebone, “The process for choosing candidates, whether presidential, governorship and state assembly as ratified by National Working Committee, NWC, does not recognize adoption. If people are speculating who the leader (Amaechi) would support, he has always made it clear that he would support somebody but whoever he would support has not been made known.” But not many members of the party are impressed by the party’s position. The Abe camp and some other interest groups in the party did not believe Finebone was being sincere. They are insisting on a direct primary instead of the indirect primary favoured by Amaechi and the party leadership allegedly for the purpose of imposing their candidate. The next few weeks indeed promise to be quite intriguing as events unfold.

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