His Execellency, Ezenwo Nyesom Wike is the Executive Governor of Rivers State, the second richest state in the Federation after Lagos. Apart from derivations from oil, and monthly allocation from the centre, it has an Internally Generated Revenue close to 100 billion naira annually. For this and other reasons, it places whoever is the state governor at the centre of their party’s politics as a major financier; every governor supposedly being “leader” of the party at the state level. If there is any state that has the potential for becoming the proverbial shiny city on the hill in Nigeria, it would be Rivers State, with its cosmopolitan, sprawling urban population and its ever buzzing oil and gas industries. It is grandly described by its indigenes as the “Treasure Base of Nation”. Despite this, it remains a restless state, especially since 2015, run by a man who feels permanently under siege. Governor Wike is, at his best, a bellicose, dyed-in-the-wool modern-day Nigerian politician. He is a man apparently ready to defend his turf any day, by any means necessary. He often errs on the side of caution in his political moves so much that he assumes the worst of his political adversaries all the time. The problem for him and his fervent followers is that he is given to taking his assumptions for facts and acting on them, resulting in unintended consequences.
For instance, when confronted with a perception (the word is carefully chosen), of physical threat to his campaign, his spontaneous reaction is to proclaim himself the personification of evil capable of warding off any and all such threats from whence it comes. “Those who are coming to Rivers State to disrupt our campaign had better made their wills before coming” he once said with the bravura of a generalissimo holed up for an enemy attack deep inside the jungle. When confronted with a perception of an imminent violent protest against him, he immediately proclaims himself the real High Priest of violence anxious to strike at the slightest provocation, and when confronted with the prospect of fatality in his own yard, he promptly reveals his identity as the legitimate son of death himself.
His latest reaction to the debate about President Buhari’s refusal to sign the Electoral Bill into law, a few days ago, was to say that “His (President Buhari) refusal to sign the amended Electoral Act is a threat to the country’s existence as it will generate deadly political tension in 2019”. For a man trained and qualified in law, and whose spouse is in fact an accomplished Justice of the High Court, cultivating this persona of fire-for-fire, dirt-for-dirt, mud-for-mud, scorched earth political street fighter is nothing short of astounding; it is counterintuitive. What really lies beneath this façade one wonders? Is it cheap bravadocio; simply playing to the gallery? Or, is it (more worryingly) pathological; a morbid attraction to violent ends a la Abacha? The answer to these questions although lies beyond the scope of this column, charts the path to the rest of the analysis.
Wike’s meteoric rise to prominence and political power owes much to hard work, self-belief and good timing – an extremely important element that stands between success and failure in political life. He rose through the ranks of his party, the PDP, from the grassroots, becoming Chairman of his Obio/Akper Local Government Area upon the return to civilian order in Nigeria in 1999. Almost immediately upon achieving this feat, he set about climbing the greasy pole of political power, becoming deputy president and later president of Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), whose link to the Commonwealth Local Government Forum allowed Wike to gain wider exposure to the corridors of political influence beyond his beloved Rivers State. It was clear from this that he would aim for more; the governor’s seat in the state. He had, by now, constituted himself as the ‘go to man’ for the PDP hierarchy in the state. So, it was not too surprising, then, that he was made Chief of Staff under Governor Rotimi Amaechi between 2007 and 2011, and later the Director General of the governor’s re-election campaign to keep him in ‘the tent’ as it were. He worked assiduously for PDP’s electoral success in the state, but no one, including the then governor Amaechi suspected that he was a man on a quick fire mission as it later turned out. He used his role in the state government as an audition for his own run for governor later. By the time Amaechi and his ilk woke up to Wike’s grand plan for himself, they frantically tried to stop him, but it was too late. It became an all-out war between the Amaechi and Wike’s “factions” in the state. When Wike was made Minister of State for Education under President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013, he grabbed the chance with both hands, using the position to cultivate the party’s hierarchy at the centre, also building and “oiling” his grassroots political machine in the state, gearing them up for the big fight ahead; the election for governor of the state.
Wike is a man who deals with obstacles in his way by identifying the ‘bottom line’ pretty quickly and setting about dealing with it in one fell swoop; no nerve-wracking negotiations, no dilly-dallying. So it was, that when he was suddenly made the Supervising Minister for Education in 2013, in the thick of a nation-wide ASUU strike, he was not going to allow that to consume him. He knew the bottom line for the striking ASUU lecturers was money, which he promptly threw at them in the billions. In one fell swoop, the nation-wide unrest in the public universities was over. His rise to the governor’s house in the state two years later had become inevitable if not unstoppable. Nonetheless, since becoming governor in 2015, his restlessness has persisted rather than diminished. He has continued to conduct himself as if he is still the little provincial politician in a perennial quest for relevance. He is a man who wields enormous power, yet lacks real influence on the big picture; a man feared by friend and foe alike, but hardly ever respected or loved for his deeds. His presence in the state and the region is pervasive, but curiously, he continues to feel ignored when and where it matters. He tries to redress this not by reasoning with his political associates, but by issuing thinly veiled threats as a means for commanding attention. The PDP convention “must be held in Port Harcourt or else”. He said recently, before backing down on that.
Wike remains aggrieved by the choice of his party’s Presidential candidate, Abubakar Atiku, and he regularly talks up “plots” to destabilise his administration or even “assassinate” him. There is more of these to come from this atypical of a governor in power, but eminently lacking in political nous. Where others try to cajole their political opponents to sheath their sword, Wike dares them to come and face his own sharper sword. He talks with the confidence of a politician who relishes mud wrestling with his enemies first, before entering into a gun duel with them. No one quite knows what the warrior in him would do if thrown right inside the lion’s den one day.