By Willy Eya
COMMISSIONER of Information in Rivers State, Dr Austin Tam-George believes that the present administration led by President Muhammadu Buhari is not addressing the real issues in the fight against corruption. He argues that even though the Rivers State government is fully in support of the anti-graft war, it is worried that the Buhari-led government is yet to address what he described as the structural corruption in the country. In this interactive session with a select group of journalists in Lagos, he speaks on a wide range of issues.
Your state, Rivers is notorious for violence, during and after elections and members of all the parties in the state are culpable; what would the Nyesom Wike led government do to check this development?
This question strikes at the very heart of the kind of things that Governor Wike has done in Rivers State. I have attended every State Executive Council and at no time in the course of our formal and informal meetings has there been an appeal for violence. Governor Wike has always said even in close door meetings that this is a service to the people and that we cannot serve the people through resort to violence. He has made it very clear that anybody who resorts to violence does not represent the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), does not represent him the governor and the government of Rivers State. What we are calling for is a violence-free environment not just in Rivers State but across the country. This is because in the final analysis, my understanding of the political practice is that people seek political office in order to do on a massive scale what individuals alone cannot do. Once you get into office, it gives you sufficient official latitude to do on a massive scale what individuals cannot do. That is the very meaning and purpose of government. It is an oxymoron to think of going into public service while resorting to violence. You cannot be violent in order to serve the people. So, this absolutely has nothing to do with the current administration. I happen to know even in close door meetings that Governor Wike has dissociated himself publicly and privately from violence and I use this opportunity to appeal to all those who think that their interest is better served through violence to completely renounce violence. If you lose an election, so be it. If you win an election, do not get involved in unbridled triumphalism. I think the ultimate victory is when you actually deliver service in a way that is meaningful to the lives of the people. I agree that violence has been an unfortunate recurring decimal in the political practice in Nigeria since 1960 which is why there seems to be a tendency to see our politics in this country as warfare. Now, if politics is conceived as warfare, naturally by simple logical extension, masters of violence would dominate it, which is why since 1960 we see extremists, thugs, militants including both serving and ex-militants, and all kinds of people predisposed to violence dominate the political space. We are in a change era and that is why we want a clean break from this unfortunate tradition of perennial violence of people who want to serve.
After the Bayelsa election, many expected that President Buhari would congratulate Governor Seriake Dickson but he did not. What do you think is the implication of that to democracy in Nigeria?
I think that ultimately, democracy as a concept is too big for any single government or individual to crush. Democracy is a very resilient concept and it is even more resilient in practice. Concerning whether the president has congratulated Governor Dickson in Bayelsa, that is an open question. It is up to the president to decide whether he wants to congratulate him or not but because he occupies a very pivotal position in our democratic structure, I think that extending a congratulatory message would help to tone down the rhetoric in that place. We have fortunately, a tradition of a sitting president extending congratulations to those who emerge throughout the electoral processes. If the president has not done so, we have to leave it for the people to decide.
Now that Nyesom Wike has been declared by the Supreme Court as having won the 2015 governorship seat in Rivers State, is the state government under him contemplating any programme to reconcile the political elite in the state? I ask this question because there is no state in Nigeria today that is as politically volatile as Rivers.
Governor Wike made a statewide broadcast immediately after the announcement of the victory by the Supreme Court. He has made personal contacts with the opposition. In the Church service, he made it clear, ‘I invite you to join the government’. And initially, we got some very positive response from the leaders of the All Progressives Congress (APC) especially Dakuku Peterside. But days afterwards, we saw a ratcheting up of this kind of dangerous rhetoric. You cannot dance alone; this is a bilateral relationship that we are only trying to build. All other parties, 28 of them in all are already in the governance structure in the state that I mentioned; in the local governments, some of them are already being considered for the Board appointments. Governor Wike that I work with has that large heartedness not so much because he agrees with everything they say but he believes that this is not a personal race. He believes that this is ultimately a call to service of the state. This kind of accommodation strategy that you are talking about is something that we will not give up on. We would continue to urge the opposition to kind of put this zero sum politics aside and come to work with the government not because they often would agree with us. After all, they are members of another party. They may not always agree with us but that is why we are talking about a dialogue of ideas. Even those of us who are in government, we no longer see ourselves as PDP members. We see ourselves as a government of Rivers State providing services and protection to everyone including those who may belong to other political parties. So, this is the spirit and I think that no matter how difficult it is, this is something that we want to pursue.
Oil resource seems to be at the centre of the problem in Rivers State; with the APC out of power in the state, do you foresee peace in Rivers? Secondly, Governor Wike has been part of the elite which many accuse of causing violence in the state. Is he calling for truce now because he is the governor?
If you follow his political history, Governor Wike’s politics has never been characterized as violent politics. To the best of my knowledge, I know this because I am in government and I sit with him in private and public; I attend State Executive Council meetings, one of the things he keeps saying even at project sites, rallies is do not be violent. If you are violent, you are not part of this government; if you are violent, you are not part of the agenda of this government and you are not part of this party. He has made it very clear. He has constantly denounced violence. Now, concerning the pivotal role that oil has to play in all of these political schisms, we are very worried about this because the National Chairman of the APC, Chief John Odigie- Oyegun made it very clear that we could not possibly be losing oil-rich states to the opposition party. In this kind of dark rhetoric, what seems to matter to him is not the people and the free choices that they make as much as the resources that seem to be on the table as a price for the political practice. We feel that this kind of rhetoric that emphasizes resources over people is a very dangerous way of looking at things. This is because then, you want to see this as mere regions to be conquered. It ratchets up the rhetoric of politicians to say these are specific states that they want to capture. We cannot condemn enough this way of looking at a people. Chief Oyegun seems to have lost his own sense of irony. He is from Edo State; how can a man from Edo State be speaking so disparagingly of his own people. It is a sad day for the people of the region and for democracy generally.
Since winning the general elections in May 2015, the APC has been acting less as a political party, and more as an extremist group.
In its obsession to vanquish the PDP even after the general elections, the APC leaders are deploying a dark, totalizing rhetoric strikingly similar to that of Boko Haram.
Like Boko Haram, APC’s territorial hunger seems to be to loom in every sitting room and street corner as it seeks to impose its brand of political caliphate on Nigeria.
I want to use this question of oil to quickly elaborate my comments on the ongoing fight against corruption by the president. We in Rivers State support any fight at any level against corruption in the country but we are worried about the kind of selectivity that characterize the process so far. We are also worried about what appears to be a very limited understanding of how corruption works. So far, we seem to be seeing a disproportionate attention paid to financial crimes, people simply diverting money meant for public purse for private use. That appears to be a very limited definition of corruption that we are seeing. It shows a very limited scope of the fight itself. We believe that the president is presiding over a structurally corrupt economy. For instance, we are running a federal state and one of the principles of true federalism is that communities and states would have control over the resources found in their areas. To sit in Abuja and allocate oil wells as far as Gbaramatu or Bonny in the Niger Delta, we think it is a form of structural theft. It is a form of structural corruption. We believe that the very economy on which this country is based is a fraudulent one that needs to be integrated into this so called fight against corruption. I lived for over a decade in South Africa which is also a federal state like ours. If you want to mine for platinum in South Africa, you do not go to Pretoria to get mining leases from the president. You go to an area called the North West. They call them the platinum belt. You go to the king who gives leases and he in turn pays resource tax to Pretoria. If you go to the United States and you want to exploit oil, you do not need to go to Washington DC to meet Barak Obama; you go to the communities. It is the same in other federal states. The kind of system we have here, where somebody who is from Daura, Yobe, Kaduna or Abuja would be allocated oil wells in locations that he has never been to is the ultimate form of corruption and we are scandalized that the present administration is not addressing what appears to be structural corruption.
Many believe that Rivers under the past governor, Rotimi Amaechi recorded a lot of abandoned projects. What are you going to do about it?
The standard attitude of the Wike administration is that we would depoliticize development. A great deal of projects already implemented by Wike are not projects he started. A lot of the projects are projects he met on ground with contracts already awarded but jobs not executed.