December 17, (THEWILL) – Rivers State, located in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, has long grappled with political instability and conflict tied to the power dynamics of godfather-godson relationships. The current clash between former governor Nyesom Wike and his hand-picked successor, Governor Sim Fubara, is only the latest iteration of the state’s troubled political landscape.
To understand the ongoing tensions, it is essential to examine the historical role of political godfathers in Nigeria, as well as the specific background of Wike and Fubara’s complicated partnership turned bitter rivalry. Godfather-godson relationships, where a prominent political figure uses his clout and money to secure the election of his chosen candidate, have been an unfortunate mainstay of Nigerian democracy since its return to civilian rule in 1999.
In Rivers State itself, various godfathers have influenced elections and policies from behind the scenes. Without attempting an exhaustive dive into all the players in this godfatherism practice in the state, there are few notable mentions that lay out the issue. Marshal Harry, for instance, was a prominent politician and businessman who played a crucial role in the political career of Dr Peter Odili, who served as the Governor of Rivers State from 1999 to 2007.
Harry was Odili’s godfather and helped him rise to power. Odili himself can be considered a godfather in Rivers State politics. He rose to power on the structures of Harry, but later dismantled these structures in a political battle of supremacy between both. Odili established his own political structures during his tenure as governor before the emergence of Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi.
Amaechi, who served as the Governor of Rivers State from 2007 to 2015, can be regarded as another significant godfather in the state’s politics. He emerged as a prominent figure after a political battle with his predecessor, Odili. Amaechi likewise dismantled Odili’s political dynasty and established his own structures, a playbook that appears to be in vogue in the oil-rich state.
The practice reached new heights during Wike’s own eight years as governor. Wike managed to consolidate control and influence at both state and national levels. He emerged as a prominent power broker within the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), with some even speculating he had ambitions for the presidency, like his predecessors, a speculation that became fact in the lead up to this year’s general election.
Riding high after two terms as governor, Wike handpicked his former Accountant- General, Siminalayi Fubara, as his successor in a very crude manner, deploying brutal force against other aspirants in the party. Their relationship initially seemed strong, with Fubara promising to continue Wike’s programmes and policies that had won him praise for developing infrastructure and providing services.
However, trouble began brewing shortly after Fubara took office in May 2023. It was speculated that Wike wanted billions of naira from the state’s coffers monthly, but the former governor, now the Minister of the FCT, debunked it. I am however certain that their disagreement has to do with application of resources of the state. This obviously opened a rift between the two men that soon spiraled out of control.
The Rivers State House of Assembly splintered into pro and anti-Wike factions, paralysing governance. No less than 27 lawmakers even defected from the PDP to the All Progressives Congress (APC), hoping to weaken Fubara. But in a swift move, the seats of all 27 were declared vacant by the pro-Fubara court backed Assembly faction and elections are expected to fill their positions, further muddying the picture. I am told that two of the defectors have retraced their steps and returned to the PDP.
Amid the chaos and the burning of the House of Assembly complex by persons believed to be supporters of the former governor, Fubara managed to get a state court to recognise a member of the Assembly and a key supporter as Speaker of the Assembly, Edison Ehie, giving his camp, a group of about six members, the upper hand. The state government midweek demolished the complex on the premise of rebuilding it.
In my opinion, what Wike is orchestrating in Rivers State is unnecessary and wrong. You do not destabilise a state for personal gains. This is just silly and should not be encouraged and supported by anyone who is pro-good governance. I think Wike underestimated Fubara’s capacity because so far he is the one with the bloody nose. My issue is that this tussle distracts the government from working for the people of the state.
While the specifics may be unique to Rivers State, the broader issue exemplified by the Wike-Fubara fallout is all too common across Nigeria. Godfather figures use their outsized influence to manipulate the political process, prioritising their personal benefit over the people. In a country still struggling to strengthen its democratic institutions after decades of military rule, this patronage system threatens the legitimacy of representative government.
The seeds of godfather-godson relationships took root after Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. Lacking established parties with strong ideological positions, politics became a free-for-all for prominent figures to exert control and reap the spoils of office. Military-era levels of corruption and infrastructure deficits continued even with elected officials supposedly answerable to the people. Under President Obasanjo’s democratic rule, the manifestations of godfatherism in Nigerian history came to life. Some of the godfathers exhibited many of the features of mafianism, behaving like “Al Capone” in a criminal world, yet these godfathers continued their crime in an endearing political climate.
Observers of this practice in Nigeria will recall a plethora of examples from 1999 till date. Jim Nwobodo versus Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu State), Ifeanyi Ubah versus Chris Ngige (Anambra State), Olusola Saraki versus Mohammed Lawal (Kwara State), Godswill Akpabio versus Udom Emmanuel (Akwa Ibom), Adams Oshiomhole versus Godwin Obaseki (Edo) and Udom Emmanuel versus Umo Eno (Akwa Ibom), amongst several others, are some of the anomalies in our democracy.
Godfather figures thrive in opacity, directing outcomes to suit their interests rather than those of the masses. Without accountability and transparency, they hold inordinate sway from the shadows with few checks on their power.
Locally in Rivers State, reconciliation between Fubara and Wike looks unlikely. The institutions of government have been reduced to tools for the two men to attack one another as they vie for supremacy. Stability will remain elusive until both sides, particularly Wike, agree to de-escalate tensions. Even then, the people of Rivers deserve leaders who prioritise effective governance over politicking and preservation of influence even after leaving office.
As at Friday, some key commissioners (Finance, Works, Attorney General, Special Duties) which Wike nominated into Fubara’s cabinet have left office. More Wike appointees are expected to leave the state cabinet as Fubara consolidates his hold in political power in the state.
On the national stage, strengthening Nigeria’s democracy requires a multi-pronged approach. Anti-corruption initiatives can reduce the naked pursuit of power for personal gain. Campaign finance reform limiting godfather’s bottomless coffers bankrolling candidates would also help level the playing field.
Most importantly, voters are often asked to scrutinise candidates’ independence and commitment to delivering results for citizens rather than serving as pawns for prominent backers. Yet, when the courts decide who becomes the elected rather than who the electorate picked, voter apathy can only get worse.
My worry is just that the power tussle does not lead to the destabilisation of the state and region, deaths and destruction of businesses and properties as well as the disruption of crude oil production.
It is time for leaders in Rivers State to step up and defuse this political crisis before it snowballs into a full-scale street fight between the two warring factions.