Rivers Politics – Lest We Forget [column] (allAfrica.com)

Long before the snake gave birth, everybody knew the baby snake will be a long creature. That is why not many are surprised about the grudge fight in Rivers State, five months after the elections. And the target of the battle is how the instrumentality of the Rivers State government can be used to deface and defame former Governor Rotimi Amaechi. Politics is a terrible calling, especially the type played in Nigeria.

Not up to six months after leaving office, it seems what the Amaechi administration was known for is already being erased calculatedly and gradually. But before we forget, I recall that once upon a time, Port Harcourt was like a city under siege. The brigands were in charge.

The citizens, often times, were asked to raise both hands up, sometimes with their shoes in their hands, to cross certain places in the Port Harcourt city.

The waterfronts were dens of barefaced criminals. It was not only the hapless citizenry that were browbeaten. Even the government was subservient to the whims and caprices of the “waterfront boys” They took control of even the structures of government.

I am aware that whenever the then Governor Peter Odili was going to visit any community, Government House had to clear from the “boys”. Depending on the signal they gave, Odili would either proceed or reschedule his visit. Clearing from the boys also included paying what they termed “landing fee”.

And whenever Odili got to such places, the boys took over the security structure until he left. That was the norm.

Then a certain young man, called Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi got into Government House as governor and declared a force majeure. He vowed to end the brigandage. That was the first war he had to fight, to change the narrative of the Rivers people. With the help of the police and other security agencies, the hoodlums were chased out of town. And for nearly eight years they were out of business and reckoning. But now they are back.

I recall how some Israeli security experts came to Rivers and with the special permission of the Police authorities at the time, they trained a Special Police Squad in the state on how to combat crime decisively.

With facilities like the hi-tech C4i which had a large screen, somewhere in the state secretariat, through which the whole of Port Harcourt could literally be viewed and tracked, fighting crime in the state was made easy. Crooks and criminal were routed. Police patrol vans combed every nook and cranny with vicious niche. Port Harcourt people could then sleep with both eyes closed. And they heaved a sigh of relief.

But when the fight between Amaechi and Jonathan began, not only was the police used against him, even the Special combat squad trained by the Israelis, all got transferred out of Rivers, all aimed at collapsing the security network put in place by Amaechi. And crime began to creep back.

While this happened, the Amaechi administration was revving up a revolution in the education sector. He was knocking down old schools and building ultra modern ones whose standards were simply beyond reproach. In droves, parents were withdrawing their children from the private schools they had flocked to, and returning to the reloaded public schools. The facilities and personnel in the said schools measured clearly with global standards. A total of 13,201 teachers were not only hired but trained to fit. Five Hundred primary schools were being constructed with 212 completed and 172 fully functional. 24 Model schools (one per LGA plus an extra) was undertaken, with five completed and one fully functional, the education sector was truly going through a rebirth.

What’s more, 309 students of Rivers State were sent on scholarship to Malaysia, 95 to Russia, 2 to Brazil, 15 to Germany and 28 others sent to Germany to acquire technical and vocational skills.

Surely, it was not for nothing that the state was named the UNESCO World Book Capital in 2014. It was a major feat that put Port Harcourt in the global map of prized cities in the world, having beaten other cities like Oxford (UK), Lyon (France) Moscow (Russia) etc. It was first in Sub Sahara Africa. And the first in Africa through public bid. Alexandria (Egypt) had won it in 2002 but not through public bid like that of Port Harcourt.

The Director General of UNESCO, Mrs. Irina Bokova, had said at the investiture ceremony that, “Port Harcourt in Nigeria has been named as the 2014 World Book Capital on account of the quality of its programme, in particular its focus on youth and the impact it will have on improving Nigeria’s culture of books, reading, writing and publishing to improve literacy rates”. How can we forget all these?

Many roads were either reconstructed, built afresh or dualised with modern drains and fittings. The roads are still there, including even federal roads like the Port Harcourt-Owerri road, which the Amaechi government built. That does not mean all of Port Harcourt’s roads were worked on. Villages and communities were lit up.

I cannot forget the 12 long bridges that took a road, for the first time, to towns like Opobo, Andoni etc. They were huge projects. What is more, the ambitious project of Greater Port Harcourt which sought to recreate another city, fitted with modern facilities and services. Yes, the city is not fully realized yet, but it is true that substantial work had been done. Although I am not a fan of the mono-rail project, because it couldn’t have been a priority to an emerging economy, yet the fact remains that it is a noble project on which huge sums have been sunk.

Indeed, many people, including this reporter, had believed Amaechi was undertaking too many projects at the time. His project plates were perpetually full, as he governed with the passion of an activist like driving to go inspect projects at unholy hours like 2 a.m. What about the health sector. Primary Health Care centres nearly approximated the status of General Hospitals in all the local government areas. The hospitals were simply amazing with many of the doctors being products of the state scholarship scheme under the Amaechi administration.

It is ironic that it is in this same sector that there is standing issue of abandoned Karibi Whyte hospital project. Not many people will not be enthralled by the vastness of the Songhai Farms in Tai, Ogoni, which also employed so many Rivers people and which must be producing plantain in tons by now.

The mechanized fish farms in Buguma had in no small way also boosted the state’s overall economy. The above are some of the undeniable landmark achievements of the Amaechi administration. And he was poised to continuing the streak when the fight between him and the former president, Goodluck Jonathan broke out with all the concomitant consequences. Many people yet believe that there was more to the bitter disagreement between the duo than mere political differences. The latter had unleashed federal might against Amaechi including even the controversial swap of ownership of the Soku oil wells said to belong to Rivers State, to Bayelsa State.

Nobody would deny that Amaechi got distracted in a way. Who wouldn’t be anyway? The emergence of Nyesom Wike as the governor of the state in the last election is a fall out of the disagreement between Amaechi and the Jonathans. That explains why the opposition and criticism of all that Amaechi did has been fierce and vitriolic. It is even worse that Amaechi’s past is now being dressed with robes of fraud and infamy, apparently to mortify his political essence. No denial.

And suddenly the narrative of “an action governor” is being confused with the folk tales of fraud.

I believe that Amaechi can be probed by a succeeding government, provided the intent is altruistic. Unfortunately, the utterances and declarations of Governor Wike are hardly mistaken. On too many occasions, he had declared Amaechi guilty of the many accusations even before the probes were set up. What that means is that given his obvious bias, the panels are likely to work from the answer to the question, in such a way as to arrive at the conclusions reached by Wike even before the inquests began.

The Rivers polity is sharply divided. Many of those who even applauded Amaechi’s achievements turned against him because of the support to President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC). Many saw it as a betrayal of his ‘brother’. But those who so argue forget that Amaechi it was who gave Jonathan the highest vote of 2 million in 2011. Even before the fight broke out, what good did Jonathan do to Rivers State? Was there any federal presence in the state as a reward for the 2011 support, even if the factor of kindred connection is discounted? Those who castigate Amaechi for supporting Buhari forget that that same brother of his had oppressed him openly by supporting somebody ( Jonah Jang, a northerner) who scored 16 votes as against Amaechi who scored 19 votes in the contest to become the Chairman of Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF). Does one good turn not deserve another? They say it is politics. But I think it has a shade of evil.

As it is always, darkness cannot comprehend light.

90 Minutes in an American Church

We had arrived the Arlignton neighbourhood one bright evening and settled down to rest after a ten-hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia. Two days after, my wife and I took a walk down one of the many boulevards, just to check out the character of the community. We soon saw a church on our way back. We reasoned that we could worship in the church, the following Sunday, not wanting to travel a long distance in search of where to worship. But I had some reservation: the name of the church-Wilson Boulevard Christian Church, Arlington, Virgnia. Could there have been a Muslim or Pagan Church, I wondered.

The signboard had stated that church service starts at 11am. At 10.50 am on the Sunday following , we all, including my children, left the hotel for the church, just within a shouting distance.

The building was set on a little hill. We climbed the many steps that lead into the church. But for the very clean pews and the sonorous melody from the organist, I would have thought we were in a wrong place. It was about three minutes to the set time. The 103-year-old church was virtually empty. Just a grain of some noisy children seating three pews away from us.

The five of us (my family) deliberately sat on a pew towards the back, so we can have a fair view of all that will happen. The organist had a microphone fitted on a stand at the same level with his mouth. As he played the keys, he sang or hummed some song, which my three-year old daughter had described as “lie-lie song”.

A young man, in a casual red T’shirt sauntered in with two children-under five years, and headed for the band stand. He began to beat the band, in rhythm with the tunes the organist was playing.

At 11.10 am, the church had just swelled to 11 persons-4 adults, seven children. I was wondering what the matter was. When will they start, I asked my wife, as if she knew. Only two white men were yet seated. All others were blacks, Black Americans.

At 11.20am, a smartly dressed lady walked in from an inner vestry. Dr Carol L. Green, a Black American, is the senior pastor of the church. She had poise, confidence, elan and panache. With familiar ecclesiastical gait, she welcomed everyone to church and that marked the commencement of the service, whose liturgy had a blend of orthodoxy and a little of Pentecostalism. They had no choir. Just an organist.

The number of worshippers was yet very scant. I kept wondering why the very many pews were verily empty. It was strange only to us, it seemed.

From the call to worship through to announcement, hymn singing to offering, not more than 15 minutes was spent. They may have noticed us during the singing of the hymn- Great is thy Faithfulness, which we sang with verve and passion. The message (sermon) -“Faith and Prayer” was preached with a strong impact by Dr Green.

It was soon time for Holy Communion. With unusual casualness, devoid of the elaborate and spiritual weight associated with such act in Nigerian churches, a small plastic cone (containing the wine) with cover on which a flat parched wafer bread was gummed, was served. And after a very brief prayer, everybody, on their seats, including even sucklings, drank the wine and munched the bread. That is the Holy Communion! Church was soon over and everybody, including us were invited to an underground large room for refreshment. All kinds of food was on parade, even beans. The children feasted on ice creams and cakes, amidst several sweet coloured drinks. I asked one of the ladies beside me at the lunch table why the church was so scant and if it has always been so. “They just wont come”, she said almost without any feeling. Many of them do not see the need to go to church as their government is almost equal to their God. The members were warm and enthralled with the Africanness of our outfits. We enjoyed the lunch and left, wondering the wide difference between this church and the one we attended the Sunday before–World Changers Church owned by Pastor Creflo Dollar, in College Park, Atlanta, which literally bubbled with worshippers-largely Black Americans. The Dome which is the auditorium was filled to capacity with all the splash of American effect. Yet it is even worse in Europe and parts of the UK where many church buildings have been bought up by night club operators. What a world!