By Ehi Braimah
Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State has been in the news lately for his exertions to contain the spread the spread of coronavirus in the state, and he has supporters on both sides of the aisle for his actions. Let me be clear: Wike, in my view, has good intentions for his people but his methods and style usually give him away as a hard man who is “angry, stubborn, bitter, wicked, confrontational and unfriendly.” This characterization could be wrong but one thing is certain: Wike has projected a riveting public image as a fighter and tough guy; he’s bold and courageous, and it is unkind to suggest he’s unhinged as he has been portrayed lately in the media by some commentators.
However, it will be nice to know why he is angry, that is if he’s truly angry. As the Nation newspaper asked in its Hardball comment on May 12, 2020, “What ails Wike?” Let me paraphrase that: “What ails Wike so badly as governor that he doesn’t give a damn about the consequences of his actions?” Why does he have a penchant for drawing attention to himself? This is not the time to talk about the politics of his party and how he hosted the party’s convention in Port Harcourt before the last Presidential elections although the political events were remarkable. Is his style a reflection of the character of politics in Rivers State or is it a deliberate face-off with Abuja? Is Wike’s behaviour a symptom of a deeper malaise as noted pointedly by Sam Omatseye, author, writer and Chairman, editorial board of the Nation newspaper, in his column recently? Whatever it is, as we search for answers to these questions, I will appeal to His Excellency to slow down and take it easy because there will be life after office as governor.
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One thing we cannot take way from Wike is that he was voted twice into office as governor of Rivers State – it means he has the popular support and mandate of his people; he has spent five years in office with three more years to go. I have close friends and associates in Port Harcourt and I have been visiting the Garden City since 1984 — 36 years ago. So, as you can imagine, I have an emotional attachment to the city; PH is like my second home.
We have laws in Nigeria but enforcement is a major challenge. While growing up, I enjoyed the joke that garri – the popularstaple food – will not obey the last order until it sees hot water. Translation: we need tough leaders to rein us in because we’re “difficult people” to manage. I support Wike from the perspective that laws must be enforced and obeyed because we practice and celebrate a culture of impunity in this country; we do not like obeying laws. Habitual law breaking is worse than the coronavirus disease. Once you know somebody somewhere who is influential, we believe it is a license to break the law. It shouldn’t be so. With laws that are not enforced, society breaks down and result in chaos and anarchy.
However, in spite of the executive order on COVID-19 in Rivers State, I disagree with Wike for ordering that two hotels should be demolished – my view is that the judgement was harsh and provocative. Although his earlier actions on the lockdown scenario in Rivers State were controversial, pulling down the hotels drew sharp criticisms even from his admirers – it was clearly an aberration and it amounted to killing a fly with a sledge hammer; the decision was high-handed.
Instead, the law should have provided for sealing the hotels and asking the owners to pay fines to the government in the event of a violation. Hotel demolition is an extreme decision; it is the equivalent of sending persons who flout the lockdown order to the gas chambers. A hotel, however the size and shape, is an asset and major investment; the business employs people and pays taxes to the authorities. Hotels form part of the hospitality and tourism industry and at a time oil revenue is drying up, why should we be shutting down sources of revenue from other sectors? Every economic activity contributes to our GDP.
Speaking on ‘The Morning’ Show of Arise News on the demolition of the hotels, human rights activist and legal luminary, Femi Falana, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), says the demolition of the hotels cannot be justified, adding that if any law was breached, the proprietors of the hotels should have been charged to court. According to him, Section 43 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to own a property. As far as Falana was concerned, due process was not followed and he advised the owners of the hotels to go to court.
As Wike’s stories trended, memes of him surfaced on the social media as a way of expressing disagreement with his harsh decisions. The cinema poster announcing an upcoming movie featuring Wike as the lead actor was particularly hilarious but the message was not lost – it was a rebuke and public ridicule of His Excellency as a “demolition man”.
First, it was the arrest of Caverton pilots and others who flew into Port Harcourt. After their arrests in April for allegedly violating the lockdown law, they were arraigned at a Magistrate court and remanded in prison until the following month. Caverton presented an official pass duly approved for the flight but Wike was not interested. Hadi Sirika, Minister of Aviation, hissed, grumbled and fumed in Abuja until normalcy returned. Shortly after, some security helmsmen in Rivers State were replaced based on directives from Abuja.
It was the turn of oil workers — also on essential duty — next. The story was that security agencies in Rivers State arrested 22 staff of Exxon Mobil who entered the state from Akwa Ibom in violation of the State’s executive order. The national body of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) responded to the arrest in a press statement and accused Wike of “hostage taking, intimidation and harassment”.
Our dear governor is a lawyer and he is familiar with responsibilities on the exclusive legislative list. “The law must take its course,” Wike announced at one of his briefings. “Nobody is above the law; we arrested Exxon Mobil workers because we could not ascertain their health status (reference to COVID-19),” he added. The oil workers were later released after PENGASSAN threatened a nationwide strike action but before this time, Wike had boasted that they would be charged to court.
Then in a passionate open letter, one Charles Isichie, who is based in Port Harcourt and familiar with operations in the maritime sector, wrote to Wike, in a non-combative tone, to complain about how some of his decisions have affected the sector. For example, dock workers were arrested on their way to work by the Task Force on COVID-19 but were later released. “They should not have been arrested in the first place because they were on essential duty to the nation,” Isichie lamented in his letter. By releasing the workers, an industrial action by the Maritime Workers’ Union of Nigeria was averted at a time of global economic crisis. Isichie appealed to Wike to withdraw all the charges against the workers. Before this arrest, the Task Force had also arrested workers of the Nigerian Ports Authority, terminal operators, labourers and cleaning agents in spite of Presidential directives that port operations should continue during the lockdown.
All ports in Nigeria are currently open, berthing and dispatching vessels with the exception of those in Rivers State, Isichie wrote in his letter. With the spate arrests and intimidation going on in the state, operators of the Port Harcourt and Onne Ports are afraid to go to work. When vessels are unable to discharge their contents, the importer of the goods pays demurrage and economic activities arising therefrom become grounded. In closing his letter, Isichie wrote: “Your Excellency, moments like this are not when politics should dictate state policy or action. These are trying times when the welfare and well-being of citizens should be paramount in the minds of leaders.”
Governor Wike, you do not need any imperial authority to throw your weight around and inflict pain on your people as you have been doing lately. What you need is humility; it is a mark of great leaders. “Leaders don’t inflict pain, they share pain,” wrote American businessman and writer, Max De Pree (1924 – 2017). Every punishment meted out to Rivers people should be commensurate to the offence committed.
You’re the chief executive of Rivers State and by the special grace of God, your tenure will end well. From my interaction with the good people of your state, there’s sufficient evidence to show that they love you. “Wike is a purposeful, energetic and
courageous governor; his political family is well and alive,” a Port Harcourt resident and academic confided in me in a moving tribute. “Majority of Rivers people are happy with him. He defends their interests and provides the public good for the generality of the people. I agree absolutely with his lockdown strategy and, more importantly, our governor embarked on massive infrastructural development and he has built confidence in Rivers people,” the anonymous Prof added.
What other endorsement can Wike possibly ask for? Rivers people see him as an action governor who is restoring the pride of the state. Most of them defend his actions and they are fully persuaded he will not let them down. But these are indeed extraordinary times because of the devastating effects of the global pandemic — what we need right now are empathy, encouragement and hope for a better tomorrow; not pulling down hotels or auctioning anything and everything in sight.
Your Excellency, I cannot speak in your Ikwerre dialect, but when I say, “biko nu; whe ri wan yo,” I’m sure you understand what I mean. From all indications, you are aggressive and combative but please temper justice with mercy because quarantine will not last forever. May God bless you for heeding my plea. As I was planning this piece, it was reported that one of your media aides, Simeon Nwakaudu, had passed on after a brief illness. May his soul rest in peace.
Postscript: In my tribute to Chief Dele Momodu on his 60th birthday, I erroneously stated that Chief Momodu is from Uzebba in Edo State. That was incorrect. Chief Momodu hails from Ihievbe in Owan East local government area of Edo State. The error is regretted.
*Braimah is a public relations consultant and marketing strategist based in Lagos ([email protected])