‘Civil war’ in the Rivers House By Niyi Akinnaso

As in a typical civil war in which two or more commanders confront a single enemy, the Rivers State House of Assembly had two Speakers, each with its own army while the war lasted, one claiming to have “defeated” the other, while the other was still busy putting his “army” together. It had the smell of an ambush but it was eventually thwarted. The weapons used included a fake maze; a camera tripod; clenched fists for boxing; and open palms for slapping opponents. There were also guns drawn by participating policemen and other weapons reportedly brought in by thugs and other miscreants.

The main combatants were legislators and the battleground was the hallowed chamber of the state House of Assembly. A small group of five legislators, openly opposed to Governor Chibuike Amaechi, sought to impose its will on 27 or so others by claiming to have impeached the legitimate Speaker in a kangaroo plenary. The result was a free-for-all in which some security officers even participated. True, there were no casualties; but there were injuries, leading to hospitalisation. One was reportedly beaten into a coma and may have been flown abroad for treatment as you read this.

The gladiators are not as important as the actors behind the scene as well as the remote causes of the short-lived war. Nor are the details of the fight any more important than their implications for our democracy and civilisation. We often made derisive comments whenever we watched videos of such fights in some far-away legislative houses. How barbaric? What sort of democracy is this? When will civilisation catch up with these people? These and other derogatory comments often poured forth from our thoughts. That’s why some of us were tongue-tied last Tuesday, July 9, 2013, when a similar war broke out in the Rivers Assembly. It demonstrated our politicians’ intolerance of opposing views; how quickly they construct others, including their own colleagues, as enemies; and the extent they could go in their sycophantic relationship with the “Oga at the top”.

Examined critically, the war in the Rivers Assembly was an extended play of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum chairmanship election. It will be recalled that Amaechi won that election but the minority, which lost, claimed victory and set up a parallel secretariat. President Goodluck Jonathan and his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, supported, and still supports, the losing minority led by Governor Jonah Jang. Amaechi was promptly suspended from the PDP and his state’s parliament was split into two unequal halves of five versus 27. The minority five has since been looking for ways to impeach the Speaker en route to impeaching Amaechi. They thought they found the opportunity last Tuesday. But they lost the battle to a superior army.

Their mischief was aided by a cooperative police, which allowed miscreants to enter the parliament with weapons, despite an ostentatious weapons search at the entrance. This was possible because the state’s Commissioner of Police, Joseph Mbu, has been turned against Amaechi. He reportedly has infiltrated the Assembly and Amaechi’s cabinet, and prevented security meetings from holding. The security of the Government House also was reportedly compromised by the CP, who has called Amaechi all sorts of names, including “dictator”. What kind of CP, but a mischievous one, would allow and condone the firing of teargas canister at the Government House?

To cap the remote control of the Rivers’ parliamentary crisis, Evans Bipi of Ogu/Bolo Constituency, who led the assault on the majority and installed himself Speaker, is said to be close to Jonathan and his wife. The complicity of the police in Bipi’s actions and the behaviour of the CP since his deployment in Rivers State in February could only confirm that both actors had been taking orders from above. They all square with Amaechi’s travails since he won the NGF chairmanship election in May. He was suspended from the PDP, his security was compromised, and now there are threats of a probe as soon as he leaves office.

The irony of this latest threat is instructive: A former Rivers State Governor, Dr. Peter Odili, who obtained an unprecedented perpetual injunction against his own prosecution for graft, recently led a delegation to Jonathan, bad-mouthing Amaechi. It recalls the controversial pardon granted to former Bayelsa State governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a convicted fraudster, while another former state governor, Timipre Sylva, was being prosecuted for graft. These developments make you wonder: How far will Jonathan go with these glaring contradictions in his treatment of “friends” and constructed “foes”?

It will be naive to assume that Jonathan and the PDP are done with Amaechi or that their “errand boys” have reached the end of the road in their exploits. Amaechi must be prepared for more, depending on their next instruction. But he can overcome such local exploits if he continues to retain the loyalty of the House’s majority and his cabinet. Besides, he must be vigilant. He also should be careful about what he says and does that the almighty Presidency might misinterpret or twist. Above all, he should never put himself in harm’s way in the future, by going to the warfront.

Perhaps, what is most worrisome about all these developments is the damage to Nigeria’s image and the future of our democracy. Jonathan may feel that all is well abroad because he could strike trade deals with China or attract America’s investment in power supply. He must know that they are not doing anything for him, or because of him, but for their own governments and people. They are after our resources and don’t give a damn about Jonathan. He should be worried about what they say behind his back when they watch the videos of the NGF election and the Rivers State House of Assembly crisis and his reactions to them.

The implication of these developments for the 2015 elections is clear. It points to the possibility of rigging the PDP primary and the general elections in Jonathan’s favour. If that happens, Jonathan may get the “Egyptian” treatment, if he doesn’t get it before then as some civil society organisations have threatened. If Jonathan is confident about himself and the electoral reforms he has put in place, why not allow the voters in the primary and general elections to decide on who should be their candidate and President, respectively? Why continue with these shenanigans that are already turning off some voters? Why not let Amaechi off the hook, while he (Jonathan) continues to mend fences across the country and to work harder to ensure adequate security for the election?

Jonathan, the most educated President we ever had, should know that the construction of alternative voices within one’s political party as enemies is detrimental to democracy. The more our democracy grows, the less effective such construction becomes. And we have gone a long way since the days of Obasanjo, who made it an election weapon. Look at what has happened in the Magreb region and the Middle East since then. And look at what is unfolding in Egypt today.

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