This is purely a postmortem. At the Rivers Governorship Debate 2019, issues around the insecurity that drives away investments and keeps Rivers people in the cities never to go home for fear of abduction took the upper hand in the debates. Even when any other matter was raised by the moderators, the candidates dragged it back to insecurity and need to tackle it. The other two issues that dominated the debate were the economy of the state that may have been drowned in the endless political crisis that has been ongoing since 2012. The other is the hunger in the state for open governance, where citizens say they do not get access to the annual budgets of the state government in the past four years, and access to policies that guide actions of the state government.
The unseen debate
While these broad topics dominated dialogue and debate at the ‘Rivers Debate’ organized by the Rivers Entrepreneurs and Investors Forum (REIF) led by an energetic entrepreneur, Ibifiri Bobmanuel, the issue of rotation and a chance for the riverine section of the state to produce a governor rather seemed to engage the citizens in private discussions and at rallies. The state government and the REIF want the people to know that what decides the fate of a people is how efficient the machinery of the government is made to run. The masses seem to believe that what guarantees the support of the citizens is if they feel accommodated in a polity ruled by justice and equity which can only be promoted by the assurance that every citizen has equal access to power.
The confluence of these two logics seems to decide the flow of political dialogue in such a multi-ethnic state, and the denial of this seems to subsume the passion of the people while floating other matters. This underlying emotional volcano was almost pricked open at the BBC Debate in the state where a citizen asked an Ikwerre-born candidate what he was doing in the governorship slot when Ikwerre people and the upland had governed the state since 1999. The candidate, Isaac Wornwu of Labor Party seemed to parry it by arguing that competence and capability were more important in these matters. The audience did not pursue that matter any further in the open debate but seemed to allow their minds to discuss it unheard.
REIF has strong partners and financial backers led by the Social Democratic Network (SDN) and Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). It also had strong media partners that ensured that the debate was dominant on air and in print.
The major drawback seemed to be getting who would face each other in the debate, an issue that ruined most other debates in Nigeria including the federal level. REIF had solved this in 2015 and Rivers’ was adjudged the best in Nigeria. This time around, international interests showed much interest they way they did in 2015, and were ready to come down to make the candidates sign a peace pledge. The wage in progress however was the judicial order to remove the All Progressives Congress (APC) on the ballot. The matter dragged endlessly in court, until the presidential election came and went.
Another party, Accord Party where one of APC chieftains ran to grab a ticket was knocked out again at the courts. Magnus Abe who organised his own primaries in the APC was equally knocked out in court. Thus, the three largest opposition forces in the state were knocked off the ballot.
More, most other candidates kept declaring en masse to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Governor Nyesom Wike. It looked like a one way contest without a viable opponent. It was thus difficult for REIF to pin down opponents to confront Wike at the podium let alone at the polls. The debate which cost tens of millions without government funding or anything from politically exposed persons, according to Bobmanuel, kept shifting.
Thus, those that eventually mounted the podiums were Wornwu of Labour Party, Victor Fingessi of Action Democratic Party (ADP) and Precious Elekima of Social Democratic Party (SDP). So, it was one Ikwerre, one Okrika and one Kalabari. Those looking for competence looked at three candidates, those looking at rotation saw only two (Okrika and Kalabari).
The factor that kept exciting the public was the expected clash between PDP (Wike) and APC (Tonye Cole, backed by Chibuike Amaechi). When this failed, many waited for a clash by others probably prodded by APC against Wike. Just as it happened at the BBC Debate, Gov Wike failed to show up. Many had expected him to come and deal final blows on the APC with robust policy enunciations and explanations but he did not show up. Many had expected to throw some questions bothering them on various areas even if APC was not there, but he failed to show up.
Insiders said he did not feel there was any serious person to face but of a truth, there were many serious issues to face, if it were to be an issue-based election. The Commissioner o Information, Emma Okah, however, told BDSUNDAY that the governor had other emergency engagements that came up on that same day. Considering that the date was always shifted for his convenience, the commissioner’s explanation may not totally satisfy the organisers and members of the public.
The attitude of the other debaters also cast gloom of the huge costs spent and how this panned out. The one hour delay on air was a sign to all Nigeria that there is something wrong with Rivers State. Debaters anywhere in the world take it serious. Candidates jostle to take the platform to show their worth, to win minds, to shine even if they do not end up winning. In Rivers State, funds raised by others are allowed to waste.
Many interviewed in the hall said it was sign that the candidates had other things in mind than how to win the hearts of the people or they already knew how to win other than issues in the public domain.
If elections are not won or lost on issues, then primordial calculations such as zoning, vote-buying, use of thugs, military advantage, engagement of local warlords must be the real deals. So, where would that leave the business owners and elite minds?
Bobmanuel steps in
The president of REIF, Bobmanuel, seemed to read the minds of the audience and he tried to rub in the essence of the debate. He said most of the issues raised at the 2015 edition and put on a communiqué signed by all were taken seriously by the person who won. He named many of them such as roads to the seaports, roads in industrial areas (especially Trans-Amadi), reopening of courts, etc. He did not mention how insecurity has grown bigger and how access to government contract bidding or budgets have been an issue. Tax harmonisation was also an issue but the business community aggress that the present administration has always intervened but tax has not been harmonised after 15 years of trying.
Fingessi of ADP seemed to be most certain. He said he has been a security consultant for decades and he knows what the issues were. He said he would simply make calls and a meeting is held and all issues resolved within six months. He said he had been helping companies to achieve this. He said yes to Neighbourhood Watch system.
Wornwu said he would deal fairly with all groups and get insecurity. He said he would not accept the Neighbourhood Watch idea to fight insecurity because it is politicised.
Elekima of SDP said he would use money in the pockets to appease the youths because he would boost the economy at the community level and bring joy to all.
This seemed to biggest section of the debate. The question may of them tried to grapple with was how they would run the state which needs at least N600billion per year to meet basic and developmental goals in the face of about N300billion revenue for the state per year. Fingessi said he would use security to attract companies and IGR, Wornwu said he would diversity the economy, while Elekima said he would build 92 industries in the communities. He said he would give N5billion per month to each LGA to drive industries as well as 35 percent of all IGR plus 15 percent of it to LGAs. Many wondered how he would give N115billion plus N120billion for Recurrent needed to pay salaries and run the government, all making about N235billion per year. Where was he going to get funds to build his dream Ring Road that may cost over N200billion?
Wornwu floated his idea of a rice revolution and cassava and heavy returns to agriculture and agro business. None realised that Rivers is still an oil-based economy and its wealth in the short term would still be in oil and gas. They all said they would help the youths change from illegal refining to modular refineries but none said anything they did sine the FG has been asking the Niger Delta states to partner with them on modular refineries or bring equity for youths on this. There is $500million BoI/China fund to help those willing to go into modular. It seems unheard of by those eager to govern the state.
The three candidates seemed to tear in three definite directions. Whereas the Action Democratic Party (ADP)’s Victor Fingessi said convincing fleeing companies to return through a security architecture would do the trick, his Labour Party counterpart, Isaac Wonwu said diversification especially back to agriculture was better. Precious Elekima of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) however floated a radical departure, saying the solution is in creating a community based investment and management strategy.
Pelted by each of three moderators (Segun Owolabi of Rhythm, Florence Keyamba of Social Democratic Network (SDN), and Kofi Bartel of Nigeria Info, backed for follow ups by Ignatius Chukwu of BusinessDay, all in Port Harcourt), each of the three contestants tried to be realistic as well as win the hearts and votes of the Rivers people.
Times flying but the issue of lack of access to budgets and absence of budget breakdown, annual ministerial briefings, etc to help the citizens understand financials of the government and projects so far done was raised. The candidates all said they would run an open government, same way Wike had promised at the platform in 2015.
There was no enough time to tackle them on this and the governor that everybody wanted to take up on this was luckily absent.
The Rivers Debate series seems to be the best next thing that has happened to the state in recent years in the face of odious politics. As Wornwu said on behalf of the others, REIF has made a big impact by the huge costs it puts with its partners to allow the Rivers people engage each other in politics. He pleaded it be sustained. Others interviewed said the group should move further and organise debates on other teething issues in the state such as violence, rotation, youth behaviour on investments, jobs, wealth, etc. REIF organises business roundtables on business matters too.
Ignatius Chukwu & Innocent Eteng