As part of the Golden Jubilee celebration of Rivers State, a Senior Lecturer with the University of Port Harcourt, Dr Sofiri Joab-Peterside was a guest to The Tide Roundtable, a special interview session of the Editorial Board of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, where he bared his mind on several issues concerning the State. Excerpts.
May we have an insight into your bio-data?
I attended St John’s State School at Bishop Johnson’s Street. I left there in 1975 and went to Community Secondary, Opobo Town.
I did my HSC at College of Arts and Science, Aba. I moved later to University of Port Harcourt. All my degrees are gotten from the University of Port Harcourt, my first Degree is in Sociology, second degree (Masters) in Sociology and I also took a PhD in the Department of Sociology, specialising in Development Studies. After that, I moved on to Centre for Advanced Social Science, first as a research fellow, from where I moved to University of California in 2015 as a visiting scholar and taught Political Economy of Oil in Africa.
Then on my return to Nigeria, I now moved to University of Port Harcourt as a lecturer and I am still there as a senior lecturer. The Centre for Advanced Social Science is in partnership with the University of Port Harcourt because that centre was founded by Prof. Claude Ake who was our foundation Dean at the University of Port Harcourt.
Presently, you have Claude Ake School of Government as an outcome of that collaboration and I am the Assistant Director for the Centre for Advanced Social Science.
These past 50 years, do we have a reason to celebrate as a people?
Even though I know that the times are very tough economy wise, I also think that there is a lot to celebrate about Rivers at 50 years. I think there is need for the celebration, at least for paying tribute to the struggle of our founding fathers. You can recall that the people of this state, actually through the Rivers Chiefs and People’s Assembly, through Harold Dappa Biriye, made a submission to the Willinks Commission which was actually set up to address the fears of the minorities.
When it was very clear that Nigeria was almost on the path of independence, the ethnic minorities in this part of the country, expressed their fears that the gigantic state called Nigeria would not address issues that concern them and so the colonial government set up the commission to actually address that.
Now, that commission, rather than assuage the feelings and aspirations of the people of the minority areas for creation of state along a holistic line, opted to include a long list of fundamental human rights in the constitution as a means of actually addressing the fears expressed by the minorities in this country. But in this area, it is worthy of note that the same commission also recommended the creation and establishment of a special development board called the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) to also address the issues of development in this area given the difficult topographic terrain of the area.
And so, eventually that dream came to fruition in 1967 by a decree by the military government. And so Rivers State came to existence and I think that it is something worth celebrating because though our founding fathers were agitating for a separate state, even though, under a democratically elected government, it wasn’t possible. The military regime made it possible and so today we have a state and so I think it is worthy to celebrate.
We can look back and say we are grateful and one thing that I know is that we have made some progress. One thing I know is permanent in life is change and I think we are progressing even though there are still some hitches. We may not have made progress in the dimension envisaged, but I think fundamental development has taken place. I believe we have made tremendous progress. And I think it is worthy of celebration.
What are some of the challenges facing Rivers State as a people since its inception?
Yes, if you say challenges there are, but there are also somethings we can also look back and say it is well. Like I said, I schooled here as a small boy and this used to be the Liberation Stadium and today you can see that after that stadium we now have a civic centre. If you look at Port Harcourt, there is a lot of development in terms of expansion, but you see also, urbanisation has its own challenges also. Port Harcourt is the only city in the state, so it has also experienced some level of population explosion and with this emerged waterfront settlement, which were not very common in the early ‘70s.
You see, now you have Marine Base water side, which used to be known as IDA where as young people we liked riding bicycle in that area because of the slope going down and when coming up you have to walk carrying that bicycle. But today, you see that that area has also expanded. We have had slums as part of the challenges of these 50 years. When you look at the cult groups, most of them sprang up from these areas. These are part of the challenges one had globally and you have that when Britain was also developing. Liverpool became the hub of the industrial development of that area and so it has its own urbanization challenges.
Also the increase in crime rate which is also connected with the state of the economy. We have made some progress, but each of this progress has its own challenges, population explosion and of course very serious pressure on our own facilities. For instance, I can’t see public pumps. When I was growing up, we had public pumps where you can go carry a bucket of water, but today we don’t have that. I also grew up in a place where sanitary inspectors came in to check to ensure you kept your environment clean. But today, we cannot see such happening again. These are part of the challenges we have.
But I think that the most challenging development is this question of insecurity. So, in the thick of this celebration, most people are still asking” “ is there really any need for the celebration when the security of lives and properties are not guaranteed when most parts of the city are in darkness, no light even when NEPA has been unbundled, hoping that the privatization would actually address the whole question of access to light.
We also have the civil service that has also expanded and the challenge of government actually is being able to make sure that this vital sector of the state is actually being looked after.
For instance, you can see that even this institution has gone through some challenges. This used to be an institution I met as a young person. I was in secondary school and I loved to read The Tide. But at a time this institution went through its own challenges of being able to look after those who are the engine room. The politicians have their own priorities which was not there. Things have also started changing. Look at where we are today. I believe that every state, communities, human beings, country and nation have this challenge of growth and I thing the only key is stand up to these challenges.
In addressing your mind to the indigenous Governors from 1999 to date, in your own assessment, how would you score them?
If we take from when we returned to democracy, the first person was Ada-George. That administration was short lived. For those who come from the riverine area, that seems to be a moment of glory that somebody from that area, after long years of military rule, had actually occupied the position compared to what is happening today.
If electioneering and political contestation is on the basis of registration of voters, you will also see that that would become history for those who come from riverine areas. That government was not a very long one, but at least it created hope in the minds of people that people can lead and govern themselves.
The next administration was that of Peter Odili which had an uninterrupted 8 years. What Odili administration is remembered for was the building of that new Government House that was a land mark achievement and today, what we are able to see is a remodelling of the old edifice because part of the problem of Africans is actually not trying to keep ancient structures.
When people travel across the world, what you see are ancient relics, even those who are Christians that travel to Israel, what you go to see are ancient relics, but you see as Africans we destroy these things.
But of course, that same administration cannot be totally devoid of blames. The challenges of insecurity which we have in our state today, I have written and I stand to be challenged, studies I have conducted have shown that that was the time when this whole question of militarisation of the political process became very very prominent. Remember the SDP, NRC days, there were this kind of challenges but, of course, not in the dimension which we have them today. Where politics is those who have power perpetually want to hang unto it and distribute the perks of office and those who do not have are struggling and prepared to do anything just to get power. And so there is a very high premium on political power. Rather than power being deployed to bring happiness to majority of citizens, what we see as Ake would call it is democratization of disempowerment, rather than, politics empowering the people, what we see is a political confrontation process which has actually disempowered the people.
I think that this is a very serious challenge of the democratisation process in our state and what every citizen needs to take as very serious concern and it still subsists in the present time. As a result, any person not in power, to him everything done by the administration in power is useless. You cannot clap for your enemies, it has tenure whereby when the four years tenure expires, you leave and as Shakespeare says, the world is a stage, we are all actors. We have our entry and our exit, but you see, when you don’t want to play politics according to the rule, then it is a problem.
That government was very flamboyant but paid high respect to traditional governance institutions. That administration made certain young persons who are relevant in the society today, otherwise from what I observe, politics in this state was just for the elderly. That administration made sure that those who are between the age brackets of 30-40 years played active role in government and today they have become the voice of the people.
Part of the problem derived from the fact that after long years of military transition, people never believed that government was actually sincere and so the people who ought to be the voice of this state lost interest. When the good men thought that the military were not sincere, these were the people who made themselves available and they are holding on to it. And so you and I who could have a voice and say what could happen, we have lost out. No person has respect for you because of perquisites of office and how that benefit of office is being distributed. That is part of the challenge we have in our state that we are not relevant educationally. The pen is mightier than the sword. But those in power, don’t even have respect for the pen. If you use the pen, they consider it inimical because you are saying the truth; you have to face the music, either you lose your job or you are under very serious threat and that does not encourage people to speak out, particularly the third arm and I think as Rivers people when we are celebrating, we keep that in view. If you ask me, if actually we are going to get to where we are going, we will definitely get to it.
Based on your comments on successive governors, how would you assess each of them?
If I begin to assess them, I will score Peter Odili administration 50 per cent. For Rotimi Amaechi’s first term in office I would score him 60 per cent. Why I am doing so is that we did a study we were commissioned by the Rivers State Economic Advisory Council to assess the good governance in Rivers State. The governor, when he heard that I was leading the team, he expressed his doubt that we are critical of government, but the facts that emanated from the field scored them high. First we found that when he came to office, there were series of conferences supposedly to generate issues that would form policies and I participated in one where we had disagreement. He collected the microphone from me and all that, but what we found is that people scored him high.
To be contd.