Home Politics BATTLE FOR COUNCIL HEADQUARTERS IN RIVERS

BATTLE FOR COUNCIL HEADQUARTERS IN RIVERS

In line with his widely quoted statement that ‘jungle has matured’ for a full blown political war over control of the soul of Rivers State, Nigeria, Governor Siminalayi Fubara sweeps out loyalists of Nyesom Wike out of Council Headquarters in the 23 local Governments in the state.

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In line with his widely quoted statement that ‘jungle has matured’ for a full blown political war over control of the soul of Rivers State, Nigeria, Governor Siminalayi Fubara sweeps out loyalists of Nyesom Wike out of Council Headquarters in the 23 local Governments in the state.

IN THE BEGINNING: 

Some years back, Radio Rivers-99.1 FM, Port Harcourt used to run an advertisement in pigeon English that says: “sickness strong, sickness strong, na because im neva see medicine wey strong passam. If im see medicine wey strong passam, im go run.”  It is a kind of proverb which means in proper English that strong sicknesses bow when they see stronger medicine. It is a reference to the raging political battle in Rivers State between the incumbent governor, Siminalayi Fubara and his supporters and groups led by the immediate past governor of the state, Nyesom Wike.

The battle started subtly, some months after the governor was sworn in, May 29, 2023, with Wike and his group seemingly gaining upper hand, till when an agreement brokered by President Bola Tinubu was reached in Abuja. Governor Fubara was coerced to make a number of concessions, which created impression that he was the weaker side in the divide. He was blamed by many eminent personalities in River State who showed sympathy and support.

But the tide suddenly changed, as many more people openly expressed support for the Governor. In an event in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers state, Nigeria, Siminalayi Fubara, Governor of River State made a rhetoric statement in relation to threats against his hold on political power in the state. The statement which was widely understood to refer the governors readiness to fight back against perceived threats, especially from his political godfather, the immediate past governor of the state, Nyesom Wike. Fubara, while unveiling a new Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in the state, said among others, ‘’the jungle has matured’’.

 So much action has been taken by the Governor of the state to consolidate hold on power in Rivers state since he made the quotable quote. Fubara is not a push over as his political enemies may have taught.

Among show of power which the Governor has manifested in recent past is in the raging battle over who controls the local government areas in Rivers state. With the end of tenure of the local government chairmen in the state on June 17, 2024, troubled brewed when a divided house of assemble members in the state passed a law which provided for six months extension of the tenure of the council chairmen. The Governor opposed the law. seeing it as illegal and masterminded by his opponents who have been professing loyalty to former Governor Wike.

It started, when ahead  of the end of their tenure,  due to the faceoff between Wike and the State Governor, Fubara, the outgoing  Local Government Chairmen had  pitched tent with Wike and stopped deferring to the governor of the state. They were further emboldened by the assurances of Wike and the lawmakers in the Rivers State House of Assembly, led by Martins Amaewhule that their three-year tenure in office would be extended by six months. To make good their promise, the 27 member- lawmakers loyal to Wike enacted the law elongating the tenure of the LG chairmen by six months through Law No: 2 of 2024. Subsequently, they transmitted it to the governor for his assent.

Seeing that the governor was not ready to give assent to what they sent to him, Amaewhule in his capacity as the factional Speaker of the lawmakers who have defected from Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to All Peoples Congress (APC), gave assent to the bill and this gladdened the hearts of the then LG chairmen.By this they thought that June 17, 2024, their statutory exit date would not come. Even if it came, they were not vacating their seats which they had sat on for three years.

They were emboldened to hold on tightly to this belief because their godfather now rechristened “Jagaban of Rivers State” by some youths had assured them that he was still calling the shots in the state affairs and had the powers to make them stay put in office. Fubara who is taciturn in nature had at an event hinted them that their exit date would be June 17,2024 and thereafter he carried on peacefully with matters of the state. At an event in Port Harcourt in May, Fubara had also warned the LG chairmen not to do anything that would jeopardize the peace of the state by not vacating office once their tenure expires on June 17. The warning by the governor appeared to be like water poured on stone as they carried on without giving a damn.

 ACTIVITIES OF THE LG CHAIRMEN:

Rivers State has 23 LGAs. The majority were in support of Wike in the raging battle.  But the Bonny and Opobo/Nkoro LG councils led by Dame Anengi Barasua Claude-Wilcox and Enyiada Cookey-Gam respectively did not join the rebellious LG chairmen. However, the assurances this pro-Wike men got from him (Wike) made them to literarily run riot in the state with some of them calling the governor names in public. The most notorious was Dr Samuel Nwanosike, the boss of Ikwerre LG council who is perceived to be the most beloved apostle of Wike. On several occasions he openly called the governor “foolish and naive.”

Despite this, Fubara never warned or threatened the pro-Wike group. Rather, he kept on reminding them that their tenure was going to end on June 17, 2024. Nwanosike was ably joined in his disrespectful act  by Dr Chidi Llyod of Emohua LGA , a former apostle of Rotimi Amaechi, a one-time governor of the state. Fubara being a man of few words took everything calmly and carried on with matters of the state as if these recalcitrant pro-Wike’s men never existed. 

As the nights broke into days and the long expected June 17 came,  which fell into national public holidays, the governor quickly announced to them that their time was up. He told them to hand over to the heads of local government administration in their respective councils with immediate effect. They demurred, thinking that the governor was just ranting. By the next day when the public holidays were over and offices were supposed to have started, these pro-Wike men wanted to access their respective offices.

What they met was too much for them to contend with. In all the various 21 local council offices in the state that their LG Bosses had boasted that they were not moving an inch, nobody told them to pick race.

It was like a bedlam when youths in the state swooped out in their numbers into their respective council areas to occupy the Secretariats. Attempts by some of the hitherto LG council chairmen, like Allwell Ihunda of Port Harcourt City Council, to access their offices were strongly resisted by the irate youths, who said that they would no longer kowtow to the shenanigans of Wike and his men.

 

HOW THEY RAN:  To give credence to the saying that strong sicknesses bow when they see stronger medicine, the once perceived invincible strong men of Wike, on seeing the ire of youths in their localities took to their heels. For example, Ihunda and his men, on sighting the surging mob, quickly entered their vehicle and vamoosed.

Nwanosike alias “Ishi” who was wearing a bullet proof jacket sat put at the gate of Ikwerre LG council and dared anybody to come close to him. On sighting a more superior powerful youths surging towards him and his men, they retreated.

In Eleme council, the out gone chairman, Obarilomate Ollor had earlier warned those eager to throw him out of office not to dare as they would be strongly resisted. It was said that as he saw the surging youths, he scurried away with his family. Same experience was said to have occurred in Emohua where Llyod held sway as he bowed out to save his life. In Ahoada East LG, the Chairman, Ben Eke who tried to force himself inside the council Secretariat was also resisted by youths.

A very curious incident took place in Obio/Akpor council secretariat, Wike’s home locality. The irate youths pulled down Wike’s effigy and smashed it on the street, as a proof of their rejection of him. Banners mounted there were also torn. A vehicle was also said to have been vandalized there and the once hench-man of Wike, in the person of George Ariolu who held sway as the LG Boss was nowhere to be seen there. In Omuma LG council, a Police Officer and a vigilante man were said to have been mowed down in the melee.

The council chairmen of the three Kalabari speaking LGAs in the state made up of Asari Toru, Akuku Toru and Degema councils also mellowed down saying they did not want any blood to be shed in their localities. They explained that they were stepping aside to await the court verdict on the elongation of their tenure.

LEGAL FIRE WORKS:

 Just before Fubara directed the council chairmen to leave office, Amaewhule, at a news briefing warned the governor against setting up a caretaker committee to man the 23 LGs of the state. He announced that the lawmakers would not accept such a decision.

It should also be recalled that the Rivers State High Court sitting in Port Harcourt last month voided the tenure extension for local government chairmen in the state. The court also declared invalid the Local Government Law No. 2 of 2024, which extended the tenure of local government chairmen by six months after expiration of their tenure. The court held that the new law was inconsistent with the 1999 constitution and section 9(1) of Rivers State Law No. 5 of 2018, which fixed 3 years for local government chairmen and councilors.

In suit number PHC/1320/CS/2024, in a case that was instituted by Hon. Enyiada Cookey-Gam, then chairman of Opobo/Nkoro LGA & 6 Ors vs. the Governor of Rivers State & Ors, the court ruled that the recent extension of local government chairmen’s tenures was invalid. In his judgment, Hon. Justice D.G. Kio declared that Local Government Law No. 2 of 2024, which sought to extend the Chairmen’s terms by six months, conflicts with the 1999 Constitution and Section 9(1) of Rivers State Local Government Law No. 5 of 2018. The court affirmed that the lawful tenure for local government chairmen and councilors remained three years, as stipulated by the 2018 law, stressing that any attempt to extend the tenure was not only unlawful but also violated the officials’ oath of office.

 In addition, the Court of Appeal sitting in Port Harcourt, on June 19, 2024 reserved its judgement in the case between Hon. Martin Amaewhule and 24 others against Rt. Hon. Victor Oko-Jumbo, the new Speaker of the House of Assembly and others. The Court reserved to deliver its judgement on a later date following the completion of defenses by counsel to the parties in the matter. The three-man panel comprising Justice Jimi Olukayode Bada, Justice Hama Akawu Barka and Justice Balkisu Bello Aliyu, made the decision during its sitting on appeal number CA/PHC/198/2024, monitored virtually.

SWEARING IN OF CTC CHAIRMEN: While swearing in the 23 Care -Taker Committee (CTC) Chairmen on June 19, 2024 after getting a nod from the Speaker, Hon. Victor Oko-Jumbo, the Governor stated that plot by some of the out-gone LG Chairmen to remain in office after the expiration of their tenure is an affront on democracy. He warned that the action will not be permitted because tenure elongation is completely alien to the Nigerian constitution.

Governor explained that what he did was in defense of democracy, arguing that allowing tenure elongation to succeed in Rivers State will also make it a norm in the entire country. In his words:

 “Let me also say it, what is happening here is in defense of our democracy. We will not allow a wrong precedent to be created in this country. It is not about Rivers State or me, but if in any way this attempt of tenure elongation succeeds in Rivers State, it will become a norm in Nigeria.

“So, we have taken it up on ourselves that not within our own watch will such a thing happen. It is completely alien to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

Continuing, Fubara emphasised that it is unthinkable for those whose tenure expired to continue to hold on to office under the guise that election has not been conducted, pointing out that over 85% of the States in Nigeria run their local government areas on caretaker. He said: “Ours is different, you had your tenure and completed it, it is proper you also leave. Life does not allow for vacuum.  People must take over, manage the affairs and elections conducted.”

 Fubara also stated that the tenure of the caretaker chairmen may not be long as efforts are on to commence the process to conduct elections for the local government administration. He charged the caretaker chairmen to avoid confrontation and ensure that they maintain peace and order in their various local government areas, stressing that crisis is not his style.

“So, let us not give them the opportunity to continue to make our state look bad. When you go back to your LGAs, if there is any situation, I want you to be law abiding, no confrontation. You can operate from anywhere; the most important thing is that you have the control of the LGAs today,” he said,

He further appealed to the Chairmen to ensure they pay the salaries and entitlements of the out gone chairmen, vice-chairmen and councillors in their various LGAs not minding what happened. Additionally, he directed the Auditor-General for Local Government as a matter of responsibility to urgently commence the audit of activities of the 23 Local Government Areas in the past three years and make the reports available in the next one month.

“It is important so that we know what has happened and how our funds were used in those 23 LGAs. It is also important to serve as a check for those who are coming in,” he stated While congratulating the CTC chairmen for emerging amongst several other citizens to manage the affairs of the LGAs in the State, he also asked them to see it as an opportunity to protect the interest of their people and make the state proud at this critical time.

REACTIONS FROM THE POLICE: As if Fubara knew how the Police was going to react to the decision he has taken, while swearing in the CTC chairmen, he advised that they could operate from anywhere. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kayode Egbetokun at an event in Abuja declared that he had directed the Police in Rivers state to seal off all the council secretariats in the state until the court passes judgement on the local government matter.

Even before the directive of the IGP was made public, the Police in the state had taken strategic positions around some of the very volatile councils under the guise of maintaining peace.

The position of the Police did not deter the CTC chairmen from assuming duties. They operated from offices outside their council secretariats. The only exception was Bonny and Opobo/Nkoro chairmen, Claude-Wilcox and Cookey-Gam, respectively, who were reappointed by Fubara because of their unalloyed loyalty to the state government throughout their stay in office.

LABOUR UNIONS: The labour unions in the state, like the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), in reaction to the locking out of their staff, said that they were going to stage protest against on June 24, 2024. But the Nigeria Labour Congress as well as the Trade Union Congress in the state said that they were not going to be part of that protest as they would not want to be seen as agents of disruption of peace in the state. The new leadership of ALGON in the state also followed suit, saying that they would not support that.

POLICE: Police in the state followed suit, advising NULGE to suspend the planned protest. Reason being that they had “credible information that the protest might be hijacked by hoodlums seeking to cause mayhem in the state.”

The Police statement which was signed by Grace Iringe-Koko, the  Police Public Relations Officer added that the Police Command had deployed  Police Officers to the Secretariats of the councils in that state. “These officers will remain in their respective locations until the threat of disruption of peace is deemed to have ceased.”

However, it was gathered that the aggrieved out-gone chairmen and their supporters staged protest march in some localities on June 24, 2024. It was authoritatively gathered that on that day the out-gone chair of Asari-Toru LGA, Hon. Onengiyeofori George and his supporters defied Police order by marching through the streets of Buguma, the local government capital gyrating and singing songs of solidarity for Wike.

They waved placards with inscriptions asking the Police to continue occupying the council headquarters. Some of the inscriptions also read: “Sim Fubara can’t continue to act as he likes” and “There is no vacancy in Asari-Toru.” Piqued by this, Asari Dokubu’s men known as “Amana Soldiers” tried to attack the protesters. It was then that the Police swiftly restrained them and the protesters succeeded in presenting their letter to the Police.

The next day, Police looked the other side while the supporters of Wike in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area led by Amaewhule and Kingsley Chinda as well as Ariolu staged a protest march in the locality demanding that the Police should continue to occupy the local council secretariat.

OUT-GONE CHAIRMEN: Expectedly, the swearing in of these CTC chairmen has elicited reactions from the aggrieved out-gone chairmen. Addressing reporters in Port Harcourt after the inauguration of the CTC chairmen, the former LGA Bosses castigated Fubara for not following the rule of law in ousting them from office.

Lloyd and Ihunda who spoke on behalf of their colleagues said that Fubara is just learning work because he does not know governance. They also pointed out that extension of the office of LG chairmen is not new in the country, citing examples with the situation in Zamfara and Akwa Ibom states. They further expressed hope that they would get justice from the law court.

OBSERVERS: Looking at what has happened in Ikwerre LGA and the utterances of Nwanosike, the former Boss of the council, the new Chairman, Dr Darlington Orji derisively said that he was offering the job of “Special Adviser on Protest” to him (Nwanosike).

Orji also reminded Nwanosike that he came into office as CTC chairman. He held that office for nine months before election was conducted and he was later elected to serve for six years of two tenures. Despite this, Orji concluded that “it is unfortunate that he has ended up as his Special Adviser on Protest.”

A Public Affairs Analyst, Mr Jeremiah Brown told Verbatim Magazine that what is happening in the state is history repeating itself. Brown recalled that Wike did a similar thing of sacking duly elected LG council Chairmen shortly after coming into office in 2015. Fubara’s style, he said is “even better and more tolerable because he allowed them to serve out their tenure. Did Wike do that?” He merely got the court to approve of the sacking of the elected local government chairmen who were barely three months in office then. Brown concluded by saying that “if heavens did not fall then when Wike did his own cleansing, it will not also fall now that Fubara has done a similar thing by even allowing them to complete their tenure.”

CONCLUSION: While the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission under the Chairmanship of Justice Adolphus Enebeli has hinted that the commission was getting ready to conduct local government election in the state in a few months from now, the CTC chair was busy carrying out their duties in the respective localities despite being shut out from the council secretariat.

To many observers in the state, Fubara has proved that he has the magic wand to tame the once strong man of Rivers politics, Wike and his men. Curiously, Wike has maintained silence since his men were kicked out of office at the local government level.     

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