Asoliye Douglas-West, a clergyman, is an Anglican priest and an oil magnet. The reverend gentleman is an aspirant for the 2023 governorship election in Rivers State. In this interview, he bears his mind to OBINNA EMELIKE on why he wants to rule the oil-rich state, how the Ijaw-speaking parts of the state have been sidelined in governance and need for change in 2023, the dominance of the West and East Senatorial zones of the state in power since 1999, among other issues.
What is your view on zoning in Rivers State, immediate past governor, Chibuike Amaechi and incumbent, Nyesom Wike are both from Rivers East Senatorial District, while Peter Odili is from the West. That means the South East has not had a shot, what do you think?
The Constitution governing our democracy does not recognise the sanctity of zoning of hierarchical political offices, but the zoning principle is an extra-constitutional mechanism, which evolved as an appropriate response to deal with moral conscience in enthroning equity and fairness in the distribution of political benefits to satisfy sentiments relating to our ethnic diversity. No matter how contiguous our geographical affinity might be, we cannot live in denial or be pretentious about the existence of ethnic diversities just as resource endowments are diverse. Since we have found a mechanism of pooling proceeds of economic resource exploitation into a commonwealth for redistribution among the entities, therefore it is a logical corollary that high ranking political offices should yield to a negotiated zoning formula. Perhaps, this was why the writers of our Constitution introduced the federal character concept as a means of invoking balance in representation and some semblance of fairness and equity in the allocation of resources among the constituent entities.
Rivers State is geographically dichotomized between an upland north and a littoral south with their peculiar physical features and topographies. Four prominent linguistic groups are recognisable within the ethnic diversities that make up Rivers State, which include; the Igboid tribe (Ikwerre, Etche and Oyigbo), the Ogonis (Khana, Gokhana, Tai and Eleme), the Ijaws (Kalabari, Okirika, Bonny/Opobo and Andoni/Nkoro) and the Beninoid stock (Ndoni, Ekpeye, Abua/Odual. The Igboid, Ogonis and Beninoid stocks are located in the upland north while only the Ijaw speaking ethnicities are located in the riverine south. The threesome of Celestine Omehia, Chibuike Amaechi and Nyesom Wike, all of whom are Ikwerre speaking, have ruled as governors for a consecutive totality of 16 years shared among them. Peter Odili representing the Beninoid was governor for eight years. A disregard for the zoning formula and the political expediency that enabled and enthroned Nyesom Wike as the third governor of Ikwerre speaking extraction, is apparently emboldening them to enact an agenda and act a script intended to perpetuate hegemony, which is unconscionable to good moral conscience, equity and fairness. If and when we recognise our diversity, the application of the zoning principle is a pragmatic way of guaranteeing inclusiveness and social justice.
How do you feel that all the governors since 1999 come from one particular area?
It is rather disinteresting, disquieting and disconcerting to witness a situation where one particular ethnic group had devised a stratagem of capturing and retaining power for 16 years without consideration for the political well-being of other constituent ethnicities. Using the advantage of incumbency, that same ethnic group is still unjustifiably wrangling and plotting to produce a candidate for the 2023 election. I am a strong proponent of a paradigm shift where compromises and negotiations would embrace themselves in favour of a candidate from the riverine south. I stand to be corrected; the riverine Ijaws have been very patient and understanding. It is the turn of the Ijaws to produce a credible candidate to be elected and serve as the next governor of Rivers State. It will be a demonstration of bad faith and insensitivity if our upland brothers should insist on satisfying their appetite for power by presenting another candidate for the governorship election in 2023. Their argument of possessing a higher voters’ population in Obio/Akpor is untenable and dubious.
What will be your agenda for the people of Rivers State if you become governor in 2023?
Oftentimes we give priority to the wrong things. I wonder why the incumbent governor finds it fashionable to expend so many resources on constructing flyover bridges in the Port Harcourt metropolis. This appears to me as heaps of concrete clutter. Things have to be done differently to fetch different results and change the narrative about governance. There is going to be a departure from the old ways of doing things. After nearly 24years of uninterrupted democracy we can hardly perceive or feel a meaningful impact of governance positively changing lives in Rivers State. Poverty is still very pervasive. We have to create a new message that emphasises value creation as the distinctive selling proposition with focus on investing in human capacity development, inventing new ideas to modernize the economy through knowledge and eco-tourism. Human beings are the most valuable resource any society can possess and developing the capacity of human resources should form the priority of any government. It is human beings that initiate and propel the knowledge-driven economy, build and work in factories, construct roads and bridges and cultivate farms. I have an unyielding conviction that the new direction to steer the state is investment in human capital with the capability to create ideas, invent innovation and reduce poverty. Therefore, our agenda will prioritize human capacity development and to build brand new cities that would redirect the movement of population away from a congested Port Harcourt. Research and development, supply chain logistics, tourism and agriculture are other critical sectors that would receive preferences in the agenda.
How do you intend to increase the IGR of the state when you become governor?
I may not be able to give comprehensive details of our strategy for increasing IGR but I know there is a foundation already established by successive governments. It would be appropriate to say that we will build upon that foundation by tweaking and introducing some reforms that would revolutionise how the public tax revenue management system can be deepened and expanded in line with global best practice. While seeking to plug leakages where they exist and reduce the cost of tax administration, we will strive to expand the tax net to include more taxable individuals and entities especially among the informal sector. The new economy we envisage would seek to create an enabling environment to ease doing business and attract new businesses. We would provide incentives to encourage start-ups
You are not decided on the political party platform on which you want to contest the election, how do you want to actualise your aspiration?
I am not a card-carrying member of any political party yet. I realised that the mechanism for selecting candidates for election in the existing political structure in the dominant parties is flawed. The so-called dominant political parties have cultivated and entrenched a certain culture and habit that could be likened to the laws of the Medes and Persia that changeth not. A game changer would probably be located in one’s ability to create a vision and an alternative message that can resonate a rhythm that would connect with the hearts and minds of the people. All things being equal, upsets caused by dark horses are not improbable in the race.
Why should the Rivers people vote for you against other candidates in other parties?
Athletes who compete in the 100metres race usually set their focus on the finishing line with little regard for other opponents. My personality is braced with impeccable and well-balanced credentials containing physical, educational, corporate and spiritual attributes in a total package. We have experienced democracy for more than two decades and the system has been structured in a particular way that seems to breed and throw up a retinue of predictable candidates whose world view is content and consistent with satisfying and maintaining the status quo. Rivers State is known to be resource-rich but conversely performance-poor. Run-of-the-mill candidates cannot give any performance beyond their substandard capacity. The time is ripe to look outside the political box so things can be done differently and achieve smart results. I am convinced that I fit into the species of political outsiders with a forward-leaning and cosmopolitan mindset and without affiliation to preexisting power blocs and appendages that usually constitute encumbrances to good governance. This is the era of the emergence of a new kid on the block.
Considering the role of money in Nigerian politics, do you have the financial muscle to scale through the campaign processes and election proper?
If we consider the volume of money injected into politics and electioneering in Nigeria, one may be overwhelmed and discouraged to venture into the political enterprise. The significance and influence of money on politics and electioneering cannot be underestimated. The significance of money is intended to achieve the right purpose but the influence of money does the contrary. I would rather focus on the significance of money than on its influence. Money is a flow variable like current in water, which is not stagnant. It flows in the direction where the gradient is not flat. If the message we have can connect with the people and the value proposition we are bringing can resonate the proper rhythm then we are confident that one can become marketable to attract patronage from crowd investors and passive stakeholders without overriding interests. Holders of campaign funds who are discerning are usually persuaded to direct their funds to support the candidate with higher prospects of election marketability. I am confident that the charisma, character and content about my candidature should give me some edge in this regard.
What is your grassroots standing, how do you intend to endear yourself to the people?
Elections are not won by grassroots per se. Elections are won by the largest number of voters drawn from different demographic constituents through effective mass mobilization. The same crowd of grassroots can appear at different political campaign events organized by different political parties. As vulnerable as they might appear to be, the grassroots do not mortgage their loyalty and dedicate their patronage to one politician. As long as the pendulum in the clock swings, the loyalty of the grassroots can be shifted at a right price. The structure of our electioneering has been designed in such a way that huge investment of capital is often required to achieve mass mobilization at the base of the voter pyramid and the capital here refers to credibility, social net-worth, political goodwill and war-chest. The most important among these variables is the war-chest, which has the capability to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. What this means is that beyond one’s reputation and socio-political capital, how heavy your war-chest is could swing the pendulum to command the widest spread of grassroots’ loyalty and patronage in your favour.
Some governors have disagreements with their predecessors. When you become governor of Rivers State in 2023, will such be applicable to you?
Both in the past and currently, I have not and I have never categorically said at any time in any public forum neither have I acted in a manner that would suggest that I nurse an ambition to become a governor of Rivers State so the issue of having a tendency for disagreement would not arise. Be that as it may, that is not also to say that I am not qualified to occupy that office when it becomes vacant. I am Kalabari, well-groomed with sound educational qualification and wide corporate experience and deep spiritual background. So, if the question was framed differently to mean if I were to become the governor of Rivers State … then one would respond by saying that without any premeditation or prejudice if there are sufficient grounds to review the past and infractions of significant material nature are identified then that should form a basis to bring people to account through the instrumentality of the legal process.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing Rivers State and how do you intend to overcome this challenge?
One of the greatest challenges facing Rivers State is widespread poverty fuelled by a local economy that has refused to expand and deepen. The over-concentration of the Rivers economy and infrastructures in Port Harcourt is its own source of affliction. Rivers State is a one-city state and it has annoyingly remained so since 1912. Population density statistics for Port Harcourt are high and unacceptable. Port Harcourt is aging and decaying. We need to redirect the movement and flow of population patterns into Port Harcourt by building brand new towns and cities. There is no plausible reason four public universities and two polytechnics should be located in Port Harcourt. Despite the fact that baseline studies reveal that communities and their outlying terrains are laden with enormous resources in the mangrove swamps, some of the towns serving as local government headquarters have not proved viability to attract bank branches. We have to identify competencies and resource endowments peculiar to specific localities and create smart ideas and invent innovations in the making of a new economy. The building of new cities would entail massive physical and infrastructural development that would create multiple layers of thousands of jobs and linkages in town planning, architecture, engineering designs, construction, supply chain logistics, building materials, environment, safety, water and sewage management, food vendoring and other artisanal vocations and enterprises.
What is your relationship with the church, which is a critical factor in winning election in Rivers State?
Admittedly, the church is a critical factor in electioneering but arguably we cannot overestimate the influence of the church in deciding the possible winner in an election. We all need divine validation and prayers from the spiritual fathers and church elders in support of our quest for political power. Nevertheless, I am a product of the church. My roots are in the church. I am an ordained minister in the Anglican Communion. That does not confer any special advantage on me and therefore nothing can be taken for granted. Voting behaviour of many Christians and church goers are often more influenced by ethnicity and other sentiments more rather than persuaded by faith-based consideration. Rivers State is a predominantly Christian religious entity therefore it is highly probable that most of the candidates would be of Christian background but of different denominations. Ethnicity holds the tendency to play a stronger determinant than religious faith.