As it was with Nigeria, so it was with Rivers State. In the run up to the attainment of political independence, the nationalist leaders forged a common front against the colonialists. Then, it didn’t matter what differences they had in language, tribe, religion, etc. To an overwhelming degree, they engaged the occupationist authorities with unity of purpose in asking for self-determination and political emancipation.
However, not very long after the attainment of statehood, they got enmeshed in a fierce political struggle, employing every strategy and arsenal, including ethnic/religious sentiments and propaganda. In a twist of circumstance, nationalist heroes swiftly transformed into ethnic champions. The result of that twist of fate is what is left of the country today, a state still adrift in search of nationhood.
The story of the making of Rivers State is not much different as primordial cleavages did not constitute a weakness as the founding fathers pulled their resources together and galvanised themselves into a formidable unit against the forces of oppression, suppression and subjugation. Yet, akin to the case at the federal level, it was only a matter of time before the unfortunate issue of riverine/upland dichotomy was introduced into the political lexicon of the state.
While the vexed issue of ethnic/religious origin of the leader of the country has led to the suggestion of a rotational presidency at the centre, the issue of upland/riverine dichotomy has continued to rear its ugly head in the choice of governor of Rivers State even long after the excise of Bayelsa State from the old Rivers State.
On whether this state of affairs is the best for the country and Rivers State in particular, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Administration Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Dr Emmanuel Wonah, said it is a democratic aberration for anyone to be denied opportunity of access to power at any time merely on the basis of where he/she comes from within an administrative political constituency.
Speaking with The Tide in his office, Dr Wonah said “Ideally, democracy requires that the best person emerges as the leader of the people based on popular vote. When that happens, you will realise that the mandate of the people given will reflect the popular choice of the people”.
According to the university teacher, “that can fall on anybody from any part of the country (or state) and what matters most is that the person should be able to rule with the interest of the people at heart, no matter where he comes from”.
He emphasised that “it will be more proper if that person who emerges as the leader sees every other group as his own constituency, not minding where he comes from”, adding that “what is important is that the state which is being exemplified by those who occupy the institutions of the state should be able to harmonise the various interests and carry everybody along”.
Dr Wonah said it was regrettable that the absence of this ideal condition has led to an increasing cry of marginalisation and agitation for separation in recent times especially at the federal level.
“I think that in every situation where you have different people coming from different backgrounds, there should be need for them to be properly accommodated”, he said, adding that “if somebody comes from the riverine and sees everybody, whether from upland or riverine, as people from his own constituency and delivers the dividends of democracy, there is nothing wrong with that. But it becomes very erroneous when that person uses the state resources to favour his own people. That becomes something that will not be acceptable to the other groups”.
To finally obliterate the ethnic divisions in the state, the academic called on “leaders who are in possession of state resources to ensure that the resources are distributed evenly to all parts of the state (and) to ensure that the different groups that make up the state are carried along”.
“If I am elected governor of this state, I should see myself distributing state resources to every part, whether upland or riverine, and I think that the people will be happy. And even if I am from Ikwerre, I can (should be able to) see the riverine people championing my cause to come back because of what I’ve been able to do, using state resources fairly and equitably for all,” he said, reiterating that “political leaders should see their positions as a means of ensuring that the different ethnic groups, no matter where they come from, are given a sense of belonging”.
According to the Rivers State Director of the National Orientation Agency, NOA, Mr Oliver Wolugbom, those who are still propagating the riverine/upland sentiment are not only dwelling in the past but are also unfair to the state.
Speaking with The Tide in Port Harcourt, Mr Wolugbom described such persons as selfish opportunists who do not mean well for the state and its people, insisting that part of what had limited the progress and development of the state was this issue that pitched Rivers people against themselves and did not engender unity and collective action towards advancement.
He said Rivers State entered a new dispensation from the inception of democratic rule in 1999 and urged all well-meaning citizens to completely lay to rest all vestiges of the past that did not foster harmonious coexistence and growth.
“I know that from time to time, a few individuals throw up this card for personal reasons and to advance a cause”, he said, adding that “any person who is still dwelling on upland/riverine is being unfair to the state and unfair to the communities that make up the state”.
He accused politicians, especially those who have not been favoured by the people, for tending to sentiments to gain the people’s sympathy instead of addressing themselves to critical issues that will help turn around the fortunes of the state and its people economically, socially and otherwise.
“In 1999, the paramount consideration in the search for a leader was who can lead us”, he said, adding that, “after that, it became clear to us that all these years, we were looking at the divide and not making progress. And if not that we were looking at the divide, by now, I do not see why we should not drive from anywhere and get to any local government, whether riverine or upland. Those things distracted us”.
Mr Wolugbom expressed the view that those who hope to gain electoral advantage in the forthcoming 2019 elections by playing the ethnic card may not succeed because Rivers people are likely to settle for those who have shown capacity and greater commitment to their well-being.
“For me, an Ikwerre man, an Okrika man, a Kalabari man, an Ogba man, an Ogoni man, etc, are the same people. Those who win elections are given employment for four years and it is for the benefit of the state, not for you, not for your family, not for your ethnic group.
“That I come from Buguma, I should affect the life of somebody from Jointkrama; that I come from Ogoni, I should affect the life of somebody who comes from Abua; I come from Ikwerre, I should affect the life of somebody who comes from Ogoni. These are the type of things that we should be looking at”, he emphasised.
According to the chief orientation officer in the state, “what we should be looking at is having the right people to lead us and when we get them, politics should take back seat”, he said reiterating that “we need purpose driven men and women and an administration that will bring peace and happiness to everybody”.
Harry Awolayeofori McMorrison says the present administration led by Governor Nyesom Wike perfectly fits the bill of the regime that has met the yearnings of Rivers people across all divides.
Speaking with The Tide in Port Harcourt, the frontline politician in Asari Toru Local Government Area commended Governor Wike for finally laying to rest the upland/riverine question by not only winning the confidence of all and sundry, but also deepening that confidence by the quality of performance that has erased the dividing lines.
“Prior to the election, there was the strong debate about the upland and riverine issue. But at the end of the day, it was people from the riverine area that bought his nomination form”, he said.
According to McMorrison, there could be no stronger evidence of the advent of a new era in Rivers politics than the overwhelming acceptance and support given to the governor from the length and breadth of the state irrespective of the fact that he was not just from the same upland region with his predecessor, Rt Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, but was indeed from Amaechi’s own ethnic stalk.
“And since he assumed office, he has been working hard to remove that dichotomy. His projects are spread all around. It is not particularly to the riverine or the upland. His appointments are evenly spread as well”, McMorrison said, adding that,“he has taken everybody along and the people are happier for it because what it used to be is not what it is”.
He gave examples of Governor Wike’s signature projects in Kalabari to include the reconstructed Degema General Hospital, it’s corresponding facility in Buguma and the Abonnema Ring Road.
The Special Adviser to the Governor on Political Matters and Strategy, Chief Emeh Glory Emeh, put it succinctly when he told The Tide that “He (Wike) has bridged the riverine/upland dichotomy psychologically, emotionally and physically; so people have forgotten the age-long dichotomy which used to be issue of political campaigns by politicians.”