Thursday, May 25, 2020, was a historic day not only in the lives of the people of Abonnema Kingdom, in Akuku-Toru Local Government Area (AKULGA) of Rivers State, but indeed in the annals of our emerging democratic nation.
On that day, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Ezenwo Wike fulfilled the promise he had made to the good people of Abonnema on Wednesday, March 6, 2019, during a memorial service at St. Paul’s Nyemoni Church, in honour of Abonnema people who had been killed and had sustained injuries from the attacks of the Nigerian Army on the community during the presidential election of February 23, 2019.
Represented by the Secretary to the State Government, Dr. Tammy Wenike Danagogo, Governor Wike redeemed his pledge by releasing N 450 million to the victims of the 2019 presidential election violence in Abonnema.
While some other leaders in the opposition, in their justification of the Army invasion and killings in the community, had described Abonnema as a “hideout for criminals and militants,” Governor Wike, like a true leader, had promptly inaugurated a committee, headed by the the Deputy Governor, Dr. Ipalibo Harry Banigo, with the main responsibility of identifying the bereaved families and also damaged properties affected by the election crisis, so that the Rivers State government could offer the required assistance and support to the families and the community.
Governor Wike subsequently inaugurated two more committees on Thursday, March 28, 2019, a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the violence, killings and other related matters that occurred during the February 23 and March 9, 2019, elections in the state, headed by Justice Monima Danagogo, and a panel of inquiry into the violent invasion and attack on the Rivers State Judiciary and destruction of public properties, which occurred at the state judiciary complex in Port Harcourt on May 11, 2018, chaired by Justice Simeon Amadi.
Dr. Tammy Wenike Danagogo, speaking on behalf of Governor Wike during the brief ceremony to present the N450 million to the beneficiaries in Abonnema, told the select audience that no amount of money could adequately compensate the people for the harrowing experience they suffered at the hands of the Nigerian Army, even as he stressed the governor’s appreciation of the support and commitment of the people of Akuku Toru LGA before, during and after the elections, adding that the state government had insisted on seeking the consent of the Amanyanabo, the traditional institution and the community in order to establish and ensure the transparency of the ceremony and the presentation.
He also assured the people that the comprehensive documentation of the names of bereaved persons had been compiled by the Deputy Governor’s verification committee and that the administration of Governor Wike would continue to execute programmes that would positively impact on the lives of the people of the area, even as he confirmed that the second phase of the Abonnema ring road, which had been abandoned since 2006, was virtually completed and would be commissioned soon.
The Secretary to the State Government then reassured them that Governor Wike was ever reliable, courageous and caring. Adding that even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has continued to exhibit these enduring qualities and attributes and would stand by the people of Abonnema and Rivers State, through thick and thin, by taking practical steps not only to protect Rivers people but to also provide palliatives to bring succour to the vulnerable and less privileged, unlike the selfish politicians in other political parties who only visit the people to solicit votes during elections but do not have the interest of the people at heart.
The Amayanabo of Abonnema, King Disrael Gbobo Bobmanuel, in full regal splendour but visibly subdued in majestic mien by the solemnity of the moment, thanked Governor Wike for fulfilling his promise to Abonnema people and, while confirming that the governor has proven over the years that his word is his bond, described him as a man worthy of trust and support because he has fulfilled all his promises to the Abonnema people, and advised beneficiaries to make judicious use of the money the governor has graciously given them.
Chairman of Akuku-Toru LGA Hon. Roland Sekibo, said he was still traumatised by the events that took place during the presidential election in 2019 and expressed gratitude to Governor Wike for his kind gesture, stressing that the people of his LGA would continue to support the governor in his quest to improve the lives of Rivers people.
One of the beneficiaries, Mr. Minamiango Romeo, nursing a limp and trotting along with a trouser legs folded up to reveal darkened scars from gunshot injuries on the fateful day, expressed gratitude to Governor Wike for not abandoning them in their time of need and promised to continue to support his administration and the leaders of the LGA.
The ceremony in Abonnema to present the N450 million to the bereaved families was brief and precise, conducted in full compliance with the mandated social gathering guidelines and hallmarked by the new reality of wearing face masks even by royalty. The poignancy of the event was underscored by the fact that it was devoid of the usual publicity, razzmatazz and political mileage often associated with such events, mainly in recognition of the gravity of the occasion and also in silent acknowledgement of the pall of COVID-19 fatalities that hung ominously, with dark, sinister uncertainty in the air.
The grave and subdued nature of the event, captured by the memorial essence of a dark episode in the history of Abonnema kingdom, also attained historic significance on two levels.
Those who remembered, recall the gory and clinical military offensive in Abonnema on February 23, 2019, and likened it to the invasion of Abonnema on June 21, 1968, a date people of Nyemoni community in Abonnema, Akuku-Toru LGA of Rivers State have not forgotten and still serves as a day and memorial commemorated by the proud, cosmopolitan and culturally flamboyant people of the great and ancient Abonnema Kingdom.
The second was that for probably the first time in the history of our political trajectory as a democracy, this was arguably the first time a leader and politician, Governor Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, had exbited great courage, sincere empathy and a historic recognition and penitence to the existential and collateral damage that election violence has unleashed on our people, our communities, our psyche and indeed our evolution as a nation.
For so long and indeed in every democratic dispensation, nascent or otherwise, periodically enacted in the civil space of the country, political actors have not only embraced the unleashing of mayhem and procurement of violence as a sine qua non in the operational guidelines of electoral competition, but have glorified damage and destruction, disruptions and dislocations, abduction and hostage taking and most brazenly, the totting up of casualty headcounts as the ultimate yardsticks for measuring their victories.
But for arguably the very first time in the history of our political narrative, a man and political leader, Governor Wike has recognized and established the sacred fact that the lives of our people matter. Those who know Governor Wike will remember his clarion cry to the opposition in the heat of the elections when he asked them passionately: “If you kill everybody then who will you govern?”
By setting up a committee with the sole mandate of identifying the bereaved, the injured, the damaged and dislocated occasioned by election violence in a once-peaceful community, Governor Wike has not only put a name and face to the malevolent masquerade of electoral violence, he has also identified completely with the people and bravely called out political actors whose magnum opus is the deployment of violence and stockpiling of casualties as the ultimate end game in political contests.
Like the SSG, Dr. Tammy Danagogo said, echoing Governor Wike in very clear terms, the N450 million was but a mere token, which can never equate or sufficiently replace or compensate for the lives lost because of the quest of some power-mongers to seize power at all cost.
Sadly, however, those who inspired, sponsored and delivered the violence openly gloated in bizarre triumph when the final result that was declared showed a drastic drop in the votes cast during the presidential election considered against previous elections, where Rivers State used to account for one of the highest votes in Nigeria’s general election.
Governor Wike, by identifying with the people of Abonnema who lost their loved ones as a result of the presidential election violence of February 23, 2019, has also put political actors in Rivers State on notice that there is no place anymore for election violence in the state, under his watch.
The token to the people of Abonnema can never compensate or replace the lives lost or even wipe away the memorial scars of that gory day in February 2019. But Governor Wike, by his singular courageous act of great leadership responsibility, has shown the people that Rivers lives matter and he is ever ready to stand by them and with them always.
May the souls of the departed continue to rest in peace and may the Good Lord continue to protect the living from the evil machinations of those who seek political power at all cost in Rivers State.
•Paulinus Nsirim is the Commissioner for Information and Communications, Rivers State