The First Lady of Nigeria, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, spent a reasonable period of time last month (June) in her home state, Rivers, doing good work, doing what she knows best, mobilisation for peace. Though she tagged it a private visit, she used the opportunity to rest, meet old relations, and also gave support to her husband’s friends. Above all, she tried to reconcile warring groups and individuals in her home state.
Though married to Bayelsa State, both states were one before 1996 and both Patience and Jonathan are regarded as Port Harcourt girl and boy respectively. Jonathan spent a reasonable part of his life in the Garden City and feels at home in Rivers State.
All over the world, wives of presidents or kings often add political capital to their husbands. They win back fleeing friends; conquer territories with warmth, affection, conviviality, geniality and amiability. That was exactly what Mrs. Jonathan tried to do with her private time in the garden city.
Apart from her private engagements, the first lady visited some politicians who had been at loggerheads for years. Take it or leave it, since after the days of Dr. Peter Odili as governor of Rivers State, there has not been any platform for resolution of personal conflicts or aggregation of interests.
Politicians only seek to position themselves for advantage and access to power. In doing this, even the best of friends may clash because while interest is permanent, there are no permanent friends. It is often the governor of a state that is in the best position to elevate his spot so eloquently high to attract enough respect and influence needed to rope others into order. It is not all about money.
In the absence of this, the sour blood that dripped into the space between Dr Odili and his erstwhile political son, now Governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, has remained un-cleaned because there is no platform for genuine reconciliation. Many do not expect the godfather to go cap-in-hand begging for love between father and son.
Rivers State began in 1999 to be united under one political family after the electoral hostilities of 1998. In fact, at a point, most of those commanding the highest offices and influence in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were rather men who fought against the governor, such as Membre Otaji, Glory Emeh, Isokriari Ebenezer, etc. Dr Odili, no matter what anybody may say, was a man keen on reconciliation, unity and unification of the Rivers front so as to face the national political fraternity with one objective.
Issues were often resolved at home and interests were often aggregated before stepping into the national arena.
In the absence of this platform anymore and in an era where the sitting governor sees every political opponent as an enemy, the injury between groups has grown rather very large. After the exit of Dr Odili, three rival political camps emerged from his former camp; the Amaechi group now in power, the Dr Abiye Sekibo camp, until recently known as the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the Sir Celestine Omehia camp, mainly in the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA).
Of a truth, the feuding in Rivers State today is nothing but a quarrel in Dr Odili’s former political camp, and the prince of this camp was Amaechi. He is the one that can account for what happened to his father’s political household. These are people who ate from same kitchen, the soup pot of Mrs. Mary Odili, now judge of the Supreme Court. Amaechi had the capacity to bring these camps together but has he done it?
Now, Mrs. Jonathan, apparently unhappy about the endless feuding in her home state, took time off to see what she can do, to speak directly with her brothers and sisters and find out how to create a common ground for peace and reconciliation.
In doing that anyway, she could not have convinced herself that she would get everybody’s nod or that she could please everyone, but it was worth a try. Also, she could bring together as many camps as possible. She would have nothing to gain by a fractious Rivers State.
Just as peace has returned to her husband home state, Bayelsa, and they now speak one voice and present a common front in Abuja in the quest for the national cake for the development and economic emancipation of their state, so could the First Lady be desiring to see her own home state stand in unity and take its proper place of pride in the comity of states instead of the present situation where a leading state such as Rivers would now be a pariah one.
Her Excellency therefore set about seeking reconciliation amongst those at loggerheads with Governor Amaechi. She visited Dr Peter Odili, former Governor, Rivers State, Sir Celestine Omehia, Chief Omunakwe Nsirim (a prominent Traditional Ruler, grassroots politician and businessman), Senator Lee Maeba (meticulous politician and former senator, now an entrepreneur), Chief Nyesom Wike (minister of state for education now the acting leader of the ruling party), Rt. Hon. Austin Opara (prominent Ikwerre son and former deputy speaker in the House of Reps), etc.
Everywhere she went; she preached peace and urged everyone to sheath the sword. The essence is to know everyone’s grievances and interests and see how these can be integrated and reconciled. This is leadership in action, or at least a semblance of it. What followed this were waves of apparently sponsored media attacks on a well-meaning first lady. What did the first lady do wrong? It is clear where it is coming from.
Any state that produced wife of a president, has that state not produced the better half of Mr. President? Others would enter the presidency through the door but you would enter through the kitchen. This is a proverb. Those who know this make good use of the double opportunity. If a governor is the chairman of Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), chief governor-in-law, and co-Port Harcourt boy and still has problems with Mr. President, which other governor should have better opportunities? Would he not be the one helping to reconcile other governors with his in-law President? Would he not be the de facto president? If this is not happening, if such a governor now needs others to intervene for him, whose fault could it possibly be?
Instead, people are seeing nothing but evil in the visit of the First Lady. They have even blamed traffic chaos in the city to her visit when traffic in the garden city became a grid-lock many years ago.
Rivers State now hosts many festivals and jamborees and inflict traffic standstill but these have not been singled out. Some even said Governor Amaechi was imprisoned by the first lady’s security aides, but can anyone imagine this governor truly being locked in without a national showdown?
The innocent appreciation of the voting of her governor in 2011 and suggestion that should the husband need them again, that they should please rally round their in-law again has been spinned out of context to mean that she declared her husband as a candidate in 2015, something the first family has carefully kept away from all this while.
Yet Lamido/Amaechi and Kwakwanso/Amaechi posters for 2015 have been on the streets of the north for over one year without an official rebuke. Everyone has accepted Amaechi disclaimers and denials on the matters but the same Amaechi camp would not accept the official statements of the first family over 2015.
The governor’s camp has been spinning the matter that took place between the first lady and the governor in Okrika in August 2010 when she visited too. They are bandying about a quote thus: “I want you to get me clear. I am from here (Okrika). I know the problems of my people. So, I know what I am talking. I do not want us to go into crisis. We are preaching peace and we must maintain peace at any time. But what I am telling you is that you always say you must demolish. That word ‘must’, you use is not good. It is by pleading. You appeal to the owners of the compound because they will not go into exile. Land is a serious issue (in Okrika)”.
Many would think this statement deserved an award for the caution and appeal for peace loaded therein. These are people of the same political party and if the woman is saying, let the party not antagonise the people, would that be spinned out of context to mean that she was asking for trouble.
In the context of demolishing houses in Okrika, who is courting trouble, the demolisher or the one making appeal? Now, has force succeeded in that place? That apart, when the matter happened, the government denied there was any such incident in Okrika between the first lady and the chief host. Now, where did the tape containing the quotes come from?
Truth is that there is huge suspicion between the Ikwerre and Okrika over land in Port Harcourt and how to co-own it. Each time an Okrika wants to come into power in the state as governor, alarm will go to the Ikwerre, and each time an Ikwerre is asking for gubernatorial power, the Okrika will begin rallying for battle. It has taken decades to calm this inter-ethnic suspicion and show that an Ikwerre man can rule Rivers State without exterminating the Okrika, or that an Okrika man could govern the state without driving the Ikwerre out of Rivers State.
Now that this is being achieved, it would be advisable to handle land matters or demolition of waterfronts with care. This is what the mother of the nation was saying. Would it not be better to listen to her and act with caution than start a war nobody would win?
Those who appreciate peace have recorded the First Lady’s visit as a huge success in the same that it has created a platform for most of the camps and factions in the Rivers polity to one common room to put their interests and grievances forward and resolve them. A household without a common-room usually settles disputes in the market square. Those who have ears let them hear.
-Okah, lawyer, is a former Commissioner for Information in Rivers State