By Kanayo Esinulo
This is certainly not the best of times for Rivers State and its people. The escalated violence and uncertainties that were witnessed during last week’s re-run elections in the state have thrown up ironies and contradictions that need to be quickly resolved in favour of peace and development in a state where some of us grew up, had our secondary school education and, which appropriately is referred to as the ‘Treasure Base of the Nation’. The news coming out of Rivers State is disturbing, scaring and approximates, in my view, a near anarchy. Tension is high and in the air, while a good number of theories are beginning to seize and dominate discussions in sensitive political and intellectual constituencies around the country.
One such theory, disturbing as it is, conveys the possibility of President Muhammadu Buhari to declare emergency rule- dissolve existing political structures in the state and appoint a sole administrator. These may well fall within the constitutional powers of Mr. President, but has it reached that critical point? Has law and order broken down in Rivers State?
Has what started as a big quarrel between two erstwhile political allies and personal friends degenerated so much that a whole state has to be politically shut down because one of two politicians in the state are trying to capture the soul of Rivers State by whatever means possible. Amazingly, those who should have brought these two estranged friends and brothers together have refused or are reluctant to do the needful or, at least, speak up? These are just some of the questions that some informed citizens are beginning to ask. Is the declaration of a state of emergency a credible option that should be put on the table?
If you ask me, it is a really dangerous option for the President to take, not because he doesn’t have the powers to do so, but because of its consequences, both in the short and long terms. When a state of emergency was declared in Western Nigeria by the government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in 1962, it was easy to justify the decision because there was obviously a serious breakdown of law and order. The people of the region wanted to be treated fairly in a country they contributed to liberate from colonialism, and their sons languishing in several prisons across the country released or be given fair trial. The present arguments and avoidable killings in Abalama town in Asari-Toru LGA to Ogoni in Rivers State in recent days, painful as they really are, do not add up to a situation that may justify the declaration of a state of emergency.
Could the advocates of a declaration of a state of emergency in Rivers State be setting up a booby trap for Mr. President and his administration? Could it be one simple way of expanding the frontiers of war zones for this administration, since we have not been able to fully liquidate or substantially reduce the fighting power of the jihadist Boko Haram? Where are the faces of those who are surreptitiously trying to push the President to open up new war fronts, this time in the creeks of the Niger Delta, where the militants are super masters of the terrain, where stockpiles of weapons could still be available to militants? Can we cope with new war fronts at the extreme end of the Atlantic Ocean where the river goddess respond only to the prayers of those they consider their subjects? Questions and questions, but with one reasonable answer: the temptation to declare must be resisted because it will serve no useful purpose.
I really need to emphasize this: the opening of another war front beyond the north-eastern region would provide a veritable platform for the restive youths in the Nigeria Delta area of our country to unleash their frustration and bottled-up anger against everyone – the Federal Government, oil companies and other big businesses. Once they start, their excesses easily run out of control and the music of ‘resource control’ would begin to sound louder and more belligerent. And the neighbouring regions to the Niger Delta may catch the fever. The Nigerian economy is not doing well now: job losses have increased so astronomically, no new ones are being created to the best of my knowledge, the increasing havoc inflicted on farmlands by Fulani herdsmen, the firing power of their AK47 assault rifles that have left many citizens in Delta, Benue and Enugu states dead, have helped to heighten tension and provoke a number of better-forgotten issues in recent times. If our President listens to those belligerent voices calling for the constitutional order in Rivers State to be destabilised, he could be pushed into taking a patently unpatriotic decision whose consequences may not be immediately visible.
Curiously, I remind myself of similar suggestions and clamour that we witnessed during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, after the massacre of several police and DSS officers by a dangerous cult group in Nassarawa State in 2013. The idle demand was largely ignored by that administration because, I suspect, of the possible ripple effects on the polity, and their immediate consequences on a democracy that is still recovering from the ravages of decades of military rule. There have been many instances in history when a patriotic leader, faced with options that may diminish his achievements or distort the legacy programmes preferred to be on the right side of history.
What options are left on the table for us, if the political temperature in Rivers State is to be brought down considerably to create space for peace, tolerance, lowering of tension, fair political competition and respect for life and popular political choice? While there may be the need to retain considerable security presence in the state, the point must be made that their brief should be properly defined: escort sensitive electoral materials to their proper destinations, thereafter allow enough space for voters to exercise their rights, while they keep vigilance from a reasonable distance. From film clips and photographs in the media, the intimidating population of security personnel appeared to be competing with the number of voters.
There is something wrong with that kind of situation. Arguments are allowed and are expected between and among party representatives and officials at polling stations, but physical exchanges and any kind of violence, even if verbal, must be stopped by security personnel trained in the art of policing voting environment – definitely not soldiers whose response to situations is simply to shoot, main or humiliate. Soldiers, in my view, are differently trained. Rivers State has always had considerable presence of soldiers known as Joint Task Force, anyway.
•Esinulo is a Lagos-based Journalist.