If Nyesom Wike had read the character portrait of the Ijaw man as sketched by Dr. Percy Amoury Talbot, an early 20th century British historian and colonial administrator, he would most probably have thought twice before settling for Simnalaya Fubara as his third term placeholder. Wike was a two-term governor of Rivers State and today, Minister of the Federal Capital Territory. In his highly authoritative 1926 book, Peoples of Southern Nigeria: a Sketch of their History, Ethnology, and Languages, with an Abstract of the 1921 Census, Talbot reserved an unflattering description for the no-nonsense Ijaw race. Hear him at page 333, “Up the various creeks and branches, the waters are infested by a wild piratical set who live almost entirely in their canoes, and who subsist by plundering traders while on their way to the markets, often adding murder to their other crimes.”
Talbot was, aside his colonial brief, a British anthropologist and botanical collector. Born in 1877, he lived in the creeks for years to undertake his study and died in 1945. While in Nigeria, he was the Acting Resident of Benin Division in the 1920s. Aside the frightening sketch of the Ijaw above, Talbot went on to say this of the race, “this strange people, (were) a survival from the dim past beyond the dawn of history, whose language and customs are distinct from those of their neighbours and without trace of any tradition of time before they were driven southwards into these regions of somber mangroves,” and in another context, said of them: “their (Ijaws) origin is wrapped in mystery. The people inhabit practically the whole Coast, some 250 miles in length, stretching between the Ibibio and Yoruba. The Niger Delta therefore, is… occupied by this strange people.”
Many other scholars who studied this very unique race couldn’t understand its abstruse origin and piratical ancestry. While a school of thought claimed that Ijaws had a Judo-Christian origin, another contended that their ancestors originated from Palestine. They base this argument on the assumed similarity between Ijaw’s initial name, Ijo and one of the ancient cities in Palestine known as Ijon. In concluding on this similarity, the scholars drew a nexus between the cultural practices of the Ijaw which are noticeably, male circumcision, ritual laws and abstinence from sex during menstruation and Palestinians’ war mongering and maniacal tendencies. They said that both races draw strength and resilience from their identical link with Zionism. This assumed connect is based on Palestine’s adherence to Mosaic laws, similar to those of the Ijaw people’s self-styled creek freedom fighters. In the 1940s, an amateur historiography also linked the Ijaws with the Benin, Ife and Egypt and then to the mythological Oduduwa of the Yoruba peoples.
Ijaws were almost unconquerable to the British colonial government, especially the Western Ijaw, so much that British officers hardly visited Ijaw clans. This was as a result of the gruesome killing of the District Commissioner of Forcados in 1911 in the Ijaw communities of Benni and Adagbabiri. Even as late as 1926, there was a confession by British officers in Warri complaining about the ‘truculent Ijaws’ who they owned up they had not succeeded in conquering. Ijaw were also considered to be people of ‘bad-manners’ by the colonial administrators because they refused to turn up at the coast to welcome visiting administrators.
In the nineteenth century, pirates gained utmost notoriety by roaming the seas as sailors, attacking other ships and stealing property from them. Thus, living true to Talbot’s character profiling, in an act similar to pirates’, Fubara, the governor of Rivers State, last Wednesday pressed the nuclear button. He did this by attacking the hallowed rendering of democratic ethos when he pulled down the state’s legislative chamber, the Assembly complex. Before this demolition, the complex, comprising about six buildings and a main chamber, constructed by the government of Dr Peter Odili, was an insignia of democracy. The Fubara government’s alibi for the demolition, as provided by the Commissioner for Information and Communications, Joseph Johnson, was that the complex had become unsafe for human habitation as a result of the explosion and fire that rocked it in October.
Since the pulling down of the complex, it is instructive that Wike hasn’t said a word. He must have been very proud of his political son who took after his father. Wike’s eight-year administration of Rivers was pockmarked by similar governmental intransigence. In April, 2023, after losing his bid for the presidency, Wike ordered African Independent Television (AIT) out of its Port-Harcourt premises and demolished the sprawling building. His grouse was that owner of AIT, Raymond Dokpesi, took sides with ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar. In May this year too, he also demolished the Bayelsa State Government’s (BASG) property which was located in Akasa Street, Old Government Residential Area in Port Harcourt.
Rivers State had been quaking since the disagreement between Wike and Fubara, his protégé, came into public glare. It became so messy to the point that four lawmakers, led by factional Speaker, Ehie Ogerenye Edison, who swore loyalty to Fubara, sacked 27 other members, led by factional Speaker, Martin Amaewhule, who had earlier defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC). It has gone even messier, with a number of resignations from commissioners believed to have been nominated by Wike and the dual sittings by the two factions of state legislators.
The Fubara-ordered demolition of the House of Assembly was blood-curdling. Never had this democratic governance witnessed such massive propitiation of a collective monument to the god of personal political survival. This act reminds people of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China. Also known by the sobriquet Qin Shihuangdi, he ordered the killing of Chinese scholars because he disagreed with their ideas. He was also renowned for ordering the burning of books he saw as critical to him. While he reigned, Qin ordered the construction of a great wall which perceived as prequel to the modern Great Wall of China, as well as an enormous mausoleum which had over 6,000 life-size terra-cotta soldier figures. He conscripted thousands of people who worked on the wall who eventually died in the process of building the Wall. He also ordered the killing of workers building the Chinese mausoleum for the preservation of the secrecy of the tomb. Whenever Qin captured foreign hostages, he ordered them castrated as a mark to delineate them as slaves. When the blood-curdling acts are considered, they seem like higher version of the destruction of legislative memory that the demolition of the Rivers House of Assembly appears to be. This is so when you bear in mind that all the documents, memories and codified acts of the Rivers legislature are today buried in ruins to keep Fubara in office and keep him at bay from the fangs and incisors of his Dracula nemesis, Wike.
In an earlier piece I did on the Wike-Fubara tango (Why was Wike admiring Adedibu’s bust? November 5, 2023), I sketched how Nigeria’s Fourth Republic had been replete with outgoing governors planting their puppets as successors and how this puppeteering had boomeranged colossally against them. It is only in Lagos and Bornu State (between Kashim Shettima and Babagana Umara Zulum are predecessor and successor) where a veneer of amity between godfather and godson is being maintained. In virtually all the states where this godfatherism is practiced, immediately the hands of these assumed puppets, in the words of a Yoruba aphorism, firmly clutch the handle of the sword, they get emboldened enough to stand up to their puppeteers and ask upsetting questions.
The last 23 years of godfather politics in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic have also been sustained by a clone of Niccolo Machiavelli’s political theory, which is in effect a theory of autocratic governance. Machiavelli, an Italian historian and political philosopher, is notorious for his treatise on governance and statescraft through his 1532 book, The Prince. The book advocated cunningness and craftiness as weapon of political power and legitimized deceptive means as ladder to climb to attain and retain power. Machiavelli taught that, to attain and sustain political leadership, irrationality and immorality are two major weapons to be deployed. Anything other than this for the ‘Prince’, says Machiavelli, is catastrophe.
The Wike-Fubara episode however promises to brim with weeping, wailing, mourning, blood and gnashing of the teeth. Since the advent of the Fourth Republic, Rivers has oscillated dangerously on the governorship curve, reflecting an uptick from the sublime to the outright deadly. Beginning with Odili, a medical doctor who is generally perceived to wear the visage of a gentleman, successful occupants of the governorship stool after him have mirrored the anti-feminist, patently patriarchal Yoruba saying that, rather than the woman perceived to be a witch being weaned of her witchcraft, she has kept giving birth to female children, who are potential witches as well. While Rotimi Amaechi appeared a deadly and no-nonsense politician, he was an apprentice when placed by the side of Wike, a pesky, authoritarian totalitarian who brooks no dissenting voice. Like all governors of Nigeria from 1999 who installed their puppets to prevent roaches in their cupboards from peering out for the world to see, Wike’s place-holding rulership of Rivers State, using his former Accountant General, Fubara has hit a deadly rock and violence is being deployed for its sustenance.
As said earlier, if Wike came to Fubara’s choice as the one to carry his piss-can simply on account of his pliable, gentlemanly demeanor, he must by now be reaping the fruits of his narrow-minded judgment. What Fubara lacks in not wearing a bellicose visage, he makes up for it in his piratical meanness, a reincarnation of sort of Qin. In Fubara is the first time the Ijaw are occupying the Brick House, apart from Alfred Papapreye Diete-Spiff, an Ijaw who was the was the first military governor of Rivers State after it was created from part of the old Eastern Region Eastern Region. Diete-Spiff held office from May 1967 to July 1975 in the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon.
Machiavelli’s Prince and the cruelty of the theory have since been occupying Rivers’ Bricks House. For the rulers of Machiavelli’s theory, the governor is a ruler and he must act contrary to truth, charity and humanity. The religious exposition of meekness should have no place in his dictionary. To stay continually in power, so counsels Machiavelli, the ruler should act like ‘man’ or ‘animal’. When you look at the demolition of the Rivers Assembly complex last week, you can judge by yourself who out of Machiavelli’s man or beast had the audacity and temerity to do so. This is because, for the Prince to rule, it is even not enough to act like an ordinary animal. Marchiavelli recommends that he is to act like the beast, the fox and the lion, because he must imitate the ferocity of wild animals. There is nothing like rule of law but anti-people acts in Machiavelli’s leadership conjuration.
Nevertheless, as dangerous and unexampled as the Fubara meanness in destroying the House of Assembly complex appears to be, Fubara deserves to vanquish Wike as lesson to future gubernatorial godfathers that they can fool some people sometimes but cannot fool all the people all the time. The resignation galore from the Rivers State government by key commissioners in the cabinet has also revealed the palpable danger in and cruelty of gubernatorial godfathers. While Wike unabashedly told the world that he personally collected forms of expression of interests for all the state elected representatives, the resignations have confirmed the claim that he appointed the bulk of special advisers and commissioners in the Fubara government.
How Wike will wriggle out of this trap he entered into is a million dollar question. Already, his fight against Fubara has been weaponized as an ethnic war against the marginalized goose that lays the golden egg of Nigeria’s oil hub, the Ijaw. If the age-long creek prowess of the Ijaw, their unanimity in construing the Wike fight as war against the Ijaw people, will drill a huge hole in the barge of the fight. Arguably Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group who live in the coastal fringes, the Ijaw still maintain their pre-colonial kingdoms of Opobo, Kalabiri, Nembe, Brass and Bonny which is now elongated to the creeks of Ondo State.
In the pre-colonial time, Ijaws, said to have existed over 700 years ago, were reputed to have had early contacts with Europe and were by that very fact more prosperous than their hinterland neigbours. They were however marginalized in the states where they live. The exception is Bayelsa that is largely an Ijaw state. The activism of Ijaw youths who began their revolt against the Nigerian state in the 1990s showed their capacity to fight war of any hue. This fight yielded fruits when President Umaru Yar’Adua granted them amnesty. The revolting youths had earlier formed pan-ethnic youth organizations like the Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSIEN), the Movement for Reparations to Ogbia (MORETO) and the Ijaw Youth Council (IJW). They also had the Egbesu Boys of Africa and FNDIC. It will be recalled that the Egbesu Boys gained public notoriety when a military onslaught was launched against them during the Kaiama Declaration. It was there that the perception of invincibility of its members grew, with tales of the inability of bullets to penetrate the warring boys, all thanks to the Egbesu deity, Ijaw’s god of war. Ijaws have frightful but notable sons like High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, Mujahid Asari Dokubo, president of IYC who established the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, (NDPVF) and Government Oweizide Ekpemupolo, known more by his sobriquet Tompolo, ex-MEND militant commander and chief priest of Egbesu.
Unlike the choleric Wike who overtly advertises his anger, Fubara is calm, hiding his Ijaw ancestral prowess under the veneer of this calmness. He still projects his underdog stand in the fight while allowing Wike to bark out his bad temper and be seen by the whole world as an unpretentious totalitarian.
How long this fight will endure is difficult to determine. In spite of Fubara’s mean demolition of the State Assembly Complex, the general mood is tilted against Wike. Many are glad that he has finally met his comeuppance and the arrogant quills of his turtle dove have been lowered. Where the presidency’s sympathy lies in this whole fight, especially the political implication of government making enmity of the Ijaw, is also unclear. What is however clear is that, like the Yoruba say of one who has met their equal, the pigmy Wike has elected to buy his corn meal kept in a raffia palm-made basket that is far higher than him, where his hands and eyes could not select for him.