Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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I spent the last Sallah holiday in Michika, Adamawa state. Soon after, I was in Port Harcourt for the All Nigeria Editors Conference, ANEC.
I have some special attachment to Port Harcourt and Rivers State because my mother’s younger sister (Auntie Tersaa) is married there. I still remember the first culture shock I experienced at the Wokoma Compound in Buguma when I visited there in the early days of her marriage in the mid 70’s.
I was walked into the room of her husband’s mother in the early morning and she welcomed me cheerfully: “this one fine like woman,” she announced in admiration of my boyish face and reached out for her container of ogogoro, pouring out a tall shot for me. Given my strict rural Christian upbringing, I rejected it outright.
As the years rolled by, I soon lost my innocence and became a proper ‘Port Harcourt boy’ in the ‘garden city’. I indulged in the fun and sin that the town and state offered in abundance. There were entertainment spots all over town and the girls were lovely, willing and available.
Port Harcourt is today is a different town and Rivers a different state from what I knew in the 70’s. From the friendly, easy going people I knew, I now encounter hostile menacing people everywhere. A few years back, I was in Buguma to give out the hand of Belema Wokoma, my first cousin in marriage and the new hostility of the people shocked me.
Our car was thoroughly smeared with mud as we drove from up north to the swampy coastal town. It needed a wash in the morning but nobody could help us out, not even the idle young men loafing around our hotel could help even when we were ready to pay whatever was charged us.
Early last year when I visited Port Harcourt, I did it on one condition: my host had to provide twenty four hours protection with armed soldiers. It was no longer fun; I could not go out to night clubs with armed soldiers. I remained holed up in a hotel room after a few necessary visits to iron out what took me to Port Harcourt. With my armed guards and their weapons outside, I was virtually a prisoner in my hotel room.
A few days before my visit last year, Donu Kobura, the popular Vanguard columnist was violently seized from her home and taken to some obscure locale where she was held prisoner until a handsome ransom was paid on her head.
Even the armed soldiers that stood guard at my hotel in down town Port Harcourt were no guarantee for safety. There were more guns in the town than human beings. A few days before my visit, some soldiers including a Major were gunned down. My visit was to be on the 18th March 2016, a day before the rerun legislative elections were to take place on the 19th. But given the fiery rhetoric that preceded the elections, I knew there was going to be bloodshed. That was why I persuaded my host to postpone my coming until the elections were over since my coming had nothing to do with politics.
As predicted, there was war in place of the ‘election like’ event that took place in Rivers State on the 19th March 2016. Many unfortunate people in the state were brutally murdered, some beheaded in the desperate attempt by politicians to cling to power.
It was a typical Rivers show, the type we have become used to since the return of politics in 1999. We saw the invention of this brand of politics when Governor Odili wanted to be re-elected for a second term and there was a credible challenge to his ambition. Sadly, this moving train could not be called to order by even his own party as many of his party members were hunted down. President Obasanjo who visited Rivers more than any other state – commissioning many suspicious projects – during the time appeared to have approved and benefited politically from this new Odili invention. In the 2003 elections, Odili promised him one hundred per cent votes from Rivers; he did not quite get that percentage but he almost made it.
From a historical point of view, this was when the bullet replaced the ballot in the politics of Rivers State. Criminals, plain criminals under the pretext of fighting for the rights of the Niger Delta graduated into rights militants.
By the time the 2007 elections came, these gangsters had developed into fighting brigades, capable of taking on the Nigerian state. They unleashed a state of anarchy with assassinations, kidnappings, sea piracy etc. It is a reflection of the violent politics of the state at the time that Rotimi Amechi who was validly returned as the PDP gubernatorial candidate at the time was rejected by the powers that be and thrown into political wilderness until the Supreme Court gave him succour.
As governor of Rivers, Amechi set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission. This provided us an opportunity to get the inside story of what happened in Rivers. With the militancy in the Niger Delta developing into a full scale war, President Yar adua had very little option but to go to a round table conference with the warlords to fashion out what has become known as the amnesty programme.
Today, the amnesty programme is the most outstanding achievement of the President who later died in office. Sadly, the situation in Rivers today is on full reverse gear to what we had in the pre amnesty days.
By hosting editors in Rivers State in 2016 and 2017, an enterprise that digs a big hole in the bank accounts of the state government, Governor Wike is doing his best to make sure the state is presented to the world as a place to live and do business peacefully. But he certainly needs to do more than splash millions of naira on editors.
A few days before we went down to Rivers, the News Agency of Nigeria reported that some members of the Indigenous People of Biafra had attacked the Hausa community in Oyibo Local Government Area of the state leaving many dead and injured.
The report sent shivers down the spine of all of us from the north attending the conference. On our tour to round up the conference, we were taken to Buguma where I went a few years back to give out the hand of my cousin Belema in marriage. I did not quite get to her father’s place, the Wokoma Compound in Buguma because after an inspection of a hospital there we drove from there straight to Degema.
In Degema I was spotted by Mohamed Bello, Gbenga Onoyiga and Amosu and some other top FRCN management staff – who in an uncommon demonstration of solidarity with Mike Yawe, my kid brother and a director of FRCN – witnessed the burial of my mother last year. I will ever remain grateful to them. They were shocked to hear that my auntie – Tersaa – who caused sensation with her arrival at my rather remote village in the north, having flown all the way from the USA to join them at the burial is married in Buguma.
We bandied together in Degema and took a historic group photograph. For me, a dan Arewa, everywhere in Nigeria – including a hostile Port Harcourt – is home.