• Friday, March 01, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

From war room to peace table: How Rivers crisis ended

The caretaker committee chairman of the Rivers State chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Tony Okocha, was present when the agreement was signed.

In this exclusive interview with IGNATIUS CHUKWU in Port Harcourt, the man who once served both Nyesom Wike and Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi in empathetic capacities and is now Wike’s loyalist gives an account of what transpired in Aso Rock.

He says Gov Sim Fubara, contrary to the outcry, is the greatest beneficiary of the Proclamation because the President ordered that he should not be impeached, whereas impeachment is constitutional.

Sir, there have been disputes over the agreement in Aso Rock that was expected to bring peace in Rivers State. What happened in Aso Rock?

The much I know about the history of war is that all wars, whether cold war, hot war, or warm war, all end on the negotiation table. On the peace table, you drop some demands, you win some to get the middle ground.

That is what happened in the meeting I attended in Aso Rock. Before that meeting, there were calls from all quarters urging the President to intervene in Rivers State because it was getting to boiling point.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu thus scheduled the meeting and people came from both camps and from other quarters. The atmosphere was convivial. Nobody was harassed or intimidated.

We were all there to listen to Mr President. Issues were stated and decisions were taken.

When we took those decisions conscientiously, there was no intimidation.

I have been listening to the account of the meeting especially from a man I respect so much, David Briggs (former commissioner in Amaechi administration) and I was shocked when he said the Governor accented to the proclamation under duress. I was shocked that he could say that kind of thing to the Rivers people. That is not true.

The governor signed it willy-nilly. Nobody was forced. There were no security men, no pressmen, no aides, nobody. The president felt it was a family affair. I never expected anybody to say otherwise. I am shocked.

I was invited as the leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), showing that the meeting was bi-partisan. The person that presided was Mr President, a member of my political party.

How was the invitation done?

The president asked that the disputants be brought before him. Some other persons that were not part of the dispute were then added.

Did the aggrieved parties air their grievances?

Grievances existed before the meeting with Mr President. After the meeting, all of us in attendance acquiesced. Gov Sim Fubara spoke in appreciation. Former Gov Peter Odili spoke on behalf of all of us. Ex-Gov Nyesom Wike concurred with Odili.

For such divergent comments and opinions to emerge from people that were there, does it not show that all is not well, and was not well right from there?

Those comments that are contrary to what actually happened are intended to deceive the people of Rivers State. I can tell you where it is coming from; from a particular group. The political issues in Rivers State has been ethnicised and people are beginning to play to ethnic sides. You now see ethnic jingoists. I am shocked. Every television house you go to, you see them there. That is not how to go about it.

I am worried that a man Nigerians respect, an elder statesman and leader of the Niger Delta, Edwin Clark, is doing this. He is from Delta State, but the matter is in Rivers State. I saw the professor, Benjamin Okagba of the Federal University Otuoke on television talking about Rivers politics. They do not even know the facts. What is their ground? Oh, that the governor is Ijaw. But when the man was picked from a whole lot, he was never a politician and one of the issues in court was that he did not resign properly. This shows he was a fulltime civil servant. When he was handpicked, it was clear that if it was thrown open, he would not have emerged. It was picked for him. When that was done, was it because he was Ijaw? So, where were these people now fighting for Ijaw? If the condition was that the then outgoing governor was to hand over to an Ijaw person, was anybody sure it was to go to Fubara? There would have been many Ijaw people asking for it. We have many other Ijaw sections especially Kalabari. Everybody knows that Kalabari is outstanding. Opobo (where Fubara comes from) is at the fringe. The decision was about who was considered the best at that point.

So, why are they making it an issue of ethnicity? It does not add up. It’s just to incite people. Was it only the Ijaws that voted for him?

Some quarters are raising issues; the PDP says the accord is shambolic, that the lawmakers have lost their seats; and Clark says it is undemocratic and totally unacceptable. Why is the accord throwing people apart instead of closer?

I just want Nigerians and Rivers people to know that the President’s intervention has yielded positive results. At least in the past few days, protests have stopped. It means peace has returned.

If you asked me, the principal beneficiary of that peace accord is Gov Sim Fubara. Yes! The President said the constitution does not allow caretaker in LGA, it is constitutional matter. That the Assembly should be allowed to be and their funds allowed; it is constitutional. The only one that is not constitutional is the order that the Governor should not be impeached. The other one is that all the commissioners that resigned due to this crisis should be rescreened and be called back. I expected the Governor to go back to the president on that aspect.

The president directed that they should table the Budget back to a united Rivers State House of Assembly (RSHA). The budget was tabled before only four lawmakers. The other 27 are not dead. So, four is not even a quorum. In other words, the House never met. The processes of electing a speaker require majority. Have you seen where it was said that four met and elected a speaker.

What happened was that somebody went to a court and obtained a judgment. I call that ‘Jankara Market’ judgment. They purchased jankara market orders to do these things. The beneficiary of the agreement is the Governor because the Assembly have now sat and withdraw the impeachment notice.

Doctrine of necessity is applied when the law has no provision on the matter; can that doctrine be applied in matter that has constitutional provisions?

I made reference to it as one political solution to a lacuna. In other words, Mr President chose political solutions to resolve the political imbroglio in Rivers State.

You said the Assembly met yesterday (December 20, 2023) the first time after the agreement; did the other group led by Edison Ehie sit with them?

I am not a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly but I am sure the Assembly would have extended invitation to those who are members. We know that the Assembly had suspended those four members at the beginning of the crisis. What the President is saying is, return to status quo, forget about suspensions, etc. They have their internal process to communicate everybody.

The question here is, if they have been to Abuja but 27 still meet without the other side, is it not a problem?

I cannot speak for them but we believe the Speaker would have followed their process to convey the notice of meeting. It is only those who made themselves available that would sit. So, if you are a member of the Assembly and for whatever reason you did not attend, those who came are qualified to sit.

The grey areas they treated; withdraw the impeachment notice. They did. My job here is that despite this, the Commissioner of Information has come out to say the Governor did not ascent to the document under duress. I am sure you saw my signature there.

The President called the Rivers APC chairman in that meeting and said, come and sign. So, the meeting was not partisan. The former governor of Rivers State, Dr Peter Odili, read the proclamation, not the President.

After the President spoke to all, he told the Governor clearly, and I am sure Rivers people will like to hear it, that he assaulted Democracy. He said you assaulted Democracy and that he will do everything humanly possible to defend and protect this Democracy. E said he prayed and asked God to make him President, which I he now is. He said he danced, he played drums, to get there. He said a lot of people called him names. He said; Now that I am here, I will not allow anybody to destroy the gains derivable from Democracy.

He also said; As President, I have the carrot and the stick, but I will not use the stick. So, I will come with a proclamation.

And when he did, as a father, he came beautifully. You could see the President was looking tired, and he told us he had attended over 10 meetings, but that this one was very crucial. He was almost looking frail.

When he brought the ‘proclamation paper’, Odili sat on his immediate left. He handed the paper over to him. He and Odili were colleagues: Odili was governor of Rivers State, Tinubu was governor of Lagos State. They have always exchanged pleasantries with it. It was Odili who read it.

At the end of every item of the resolutions, the President would ask, do you all agree? All of us would shout yes, ooh. He called on the Governor (Fubara) to address us at the end of the eight points. And the young man I always told to run away from crisis merchants who want to perch and feed and milk the system stepped out. I have told him that these people who egg you on will make your head bigger than your pillow. When that happens, you will be making mistakes. I have told him so. These same people come around and compose your own funeral songs.

So, with a very peaceful tone, the Governor thanked Mr President and commended him for finding time out of his very busy schedule for the love of the Rivers people to bring peace. He commended the manner in which he did it. He did not shout at anybody. He told Mr President that he had met him three times and promised to obey and not disobey him. In all he has said, that all he has said, he will do. He then thanked Mr President.

The President coordinated the meeting; it’s not like there was any moderator (MC) or security aides, or press. He gave the microphone to Dr Odili. Odili thanked Mr President, too, and said we have reached a point where we will have peace in Rivers State. Dr Odili was very happy.

The President called on the FCT Minister to speak, but he said, my Boss, former governor of Rivers State, Dr Odili, has spoken, and he said he spoke on behalf of Rivers people. What do I have to say again? He has spoken. Wike, however, spoke along the same lines. It was after he has spoken that the microphone went to Martins Amaewhule (speaker), who gave what looked like a ‘Vote of Thanks’.

While that was on, the only thing that looked like not a dissenting voice but like an addendum came from Adokiye Amasiemaka. I revere him a lot from his football days. He said Mr President, you have spoken well, but there is one area you may not have addressed your mind to. During this, 27 Assembly members defected to the APC, so let them come back. The President laughed and said, my new babies? This matter is like Moses having crossed the Red Sea, and you want him to return to Egypt. Don’t forget Mr President is a member of the APC and the defection is a plus for him and for the APC. The other woman who spoke, Boma Goodhead, said Mr President, well, another thing, people should not be coming to Rivers State to create problems. She was almost hooted at. At the end of the commotion, the President intervened and said, look, we have resolved all of these things and he didn’t think anybody would come to do any of these things.

After all that, the president asked, have we all agreed? We all said yes. As a matter of courtesy, he called on the Governor to come and sign. The governor went and signed. He called the deputy governor, and she went and signed. He called me Chief Tony Okocha, the chairman of APC Rivers State. I went there, and in his presence, I put my signature. He called the chairman of PDP, and he, too, went and signed. He called the Minister of FCT (Wike) and said he was not part of the matter, but the President said, no, you must sign. He did. The president called Ribadu, the National Security Adviser (NSA), he was seated there. He went and signed. The president said they should prepare sheets of paper for the 26 other (lawmakers seated there) to sign. They did, and they all signed.

The President was seated there; he did not leave. He did a final vote of thanks, and everybody signed everything. He said he would hand it over to the press.

Then, the President said something. He said this proclamation would carry consequences should anybody disobey it after we all have signed.

At the beginning of this crisis, the President had asked parties to return to the status quo, but none did; can we say if they disobeyed then, they won’t disobey now?

They are obeying it now. The Assembly, led by Speaker Martins Amaewhule, yesterday withdrew the impeachment notice served on the Governor. It is consistent with one of the articles of the Proclamation.

During a live programme in Port Harcourt, the Hon. Commissioner of Information had assured that he would be reeling out measures to convey the Governor’s acceptance.

The presidency once endorsed 16 over 19 in the Nigerian Governors’ Forum election and also endorsed five over 27 in the Rivers State House of Assembly crisis in 2014. Is this not a bad precedent already set?

Yeah. That is what President Tinubu, a known Democrat, vowed not to condone.