EDITORIAL: The toxic political environment in Rivers State

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For more than six months running, Rivers State has been turned into a minefield of intrigues and subterfuge.

Caution seems to have lost its meaning in that oil-rich state, especially as political scavengers mill around for the carcass.

When the unnecessary crisis rocking the state came into the open last year, most political analysts were ready to dismiss it as one of those involving a recalcitrant godson and his unforgiving godfather.

It led to a sharp division in the House of Assembly with two Speakers emerging and attempts were made to impeach the Governor, Siminalayi Fubara.

Regrettably, the political impasse shaking Rivers State does not appear like it will be ending soon.

What started as a mere brush over contending interests has degenerated into a full-blown political war.

Many pundits, stakeholders and Rivers people have been left wondering what could have gone wrong again despite attempts by President Bola Tinubu to broker peace between the two former allies, now turned political enemies, Governor Siminalayi Fubara and his predecessor and current Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nyesom Wike.

The lid blew open last year when suspected thugs burnt down the Rivers State House of Assembly Complex.

The crisis has since witnessed several dramatic scenarios, including moves to impeach Fubara, emergence of factional speakers, defection of lawmakers loyal to Wike from the People’s Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress, among others.

In December last year, on the strength of the peace deal brokered by President Tinubu, the two warring parties had signed an eight-point peace agreement.

But in spite of that, the attempt by Rivers elders to intervene in the matter, and Fubara’s open profession of commitment to the peace deal when he said he would sacrifice anything to ensure peace in the oil-rich state, the war rages endlessly.

On May 6, 2024, while receiving on courtesy visit the Bayelsa State delegation of political and traditional leaders, led by a former governor of the state, Senator Henry Seriake Dickson, at Government House in Port Harcourt, Governor Fubara slammed members of the Martin Amaewhule-led State House of Assembly, declaring that the 27 lawmakers do not exist anymore in the eyes of the law.

Following that statement, the Rivers State chapter of the APC called on members of the House of Assembly loyal to Wike to resume impeachment proceedings against Governor Fubara.

“When citizens witness their elected representatives engaging in political infighting rather than focusing on addressing the needs of the people, it breeds disillusionment and cynicism towards the democratic process.”

In a twist of events, however, the member representing Bonny State Constituency and one of the three assembly members loyal to Fubara, Victor Oko-Jumbo, emerged as the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly.

On May 10, a Rivers State High Court sitting in Port Harcourt issued an interim injunction restraining Amaewhule and 24 others from parading themselves as members of the House.

The court presided over by Justice Charles Wali also restrained the affected lawmakers from meeting or sitting at the auditorium of the House of Assembly Quarters located off Aba Road, Port Harcourt, or any other place whatsoever, to carry out or purport to carry out the legislative business of the Rivers State House of Assembly, as their legislative seats have been declared vacant pending the hearing and determination of the Motion on Notice.

Before now, some lawyers, including human rights activist, Femi Falana (SAN), have insisted that the House of Assembly members who decamped to the APC from the PDP have lost their positions in the lawmaking body.

Citing the case of Abegunde and the Labour Party, the human rights lawyer said “the Supreme Court made it clear that you cannot decamp and then remain a member of a legislative house in Nigeria unless you can show that there is a division in your party.”

On Wednesday, the political imbroglio saw a fresh wave of resignations from the Rivers State Government.

Five more commissioners loyal to Wike have so far resigned from the governor’s cabinet.

Those who resigned are Chinedu Mmom (Ministry of Education), Gift Worlu (Ministry of Housing) and Jacobson Nbina (Ministry of Transport).

Similarly, Inime Aguma resigned as the Commissioner for Social Welfare and Rehabilitation, saying “there is no room for progressional development in the workplace.”

Austin Ben-Chioma also resigned as the Commissioner for Environment “due to the political crisis befalling our dear Rivers State and other personal reasons.”

Mmom and Worlu cited a toxic working environment as the main reason for their exit, while Nbina cited “unresolved political crisis” in the state.
Three commissioners, Zacchaeus Adangor, Emeka Woke and Alabo George-Kelly, had earlier resigned from the Ministries of Justice, Special Projects and Works, respectively.

Governor Fubara seems to have found his warring tools when he said last week that he would set up a panel of inquiry to look into the affairs of governance in the state.

The political crisis in Rivers State no doubt has some implications for Nigeria’s democracy as it may set bad precedence for successive governments not just only in Rivers but also other states of the federation.

Firstly, it undermines the principles of checks and balances that are supposed to exist between the executive, legislative, and judicial arms of government.

When these branches are at odds with each other, it can lead to governance paralysis and hinder the effective functioning of democratic institutions.

Secondly, it erodes public trust in the political system. When citizens witness their elected representatives engaging in political infighting rather than focusing on addressing the needs of the people, it breeds disillusionment and cynicism towards the democratic process.

This can ultimately weaken the foundations of democracy and open the door to authoritarian tendencies.

Thirdly, political crises like this can exacerbate ethnic and regional tensions. In a diverse country like Nigeria, where identity politics often plays a significant role, conflicts at the state level can easily take on ethnic or regional dimensions, further polarizing society and making it harder to achieve national unity.

To safeguard Nigeria’s democracy, it is crucial for political actors at both the state and federal levels to prioritize dialogue, compromise, and respect for democratic norms and institutions.

Without these fundamental principles, the country risks sliding into further political instability and governance challenges.

All eyes are on Governor Fubara to deliver on his electoral promises.

The people of Rivers State must refuse to be fooled. The ongoing crisis is about power play and who decides on who gets the bigger share of the cake.

It is important to remind the scheming politicians that the people gave them a mandate, akin to a sacred trust. We urge them not to betray that mandate.