On Saturday, the 28th of May 2022, a group of ravenous gyps called party delegates, gathered at the expansive velodrome of Moshood Abiola stadium in the nation’s capital, Abuja. Dubbed a “PDP Dollarfest” by one commentator, it was an egregious show of shame where Nigeria’s future was traded and auctioned off to highest bidders.
It was showtime and many party men who came from all over the country, were seated and ready to cast their votes in order to select a candidate from the thirteen presidential aspirants. The aspirants were reported to have come loaded with bags of crisp dollars and competed in the splash of thousands on the delegates. Each of the 774 delegates was rumoured to have pocketed upto $50,000 in raw cash. Though in the end, former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar prevailed, Ezenwo Nyesome Wike, the Rivers state governor’s team was a site to behold.
Often described as zestful, bold, and controversial, Gov. Wike stormed the convention venue in an intimidating convoy of over 30 branded buses.
His boys were rambunctious and his election war chest was so heavy, many believed he was unstoppable. At last, he came to the shocking realisation that despite his unmatched spending power, the north would not let him buy his way to victory. The big question, however, is how Wike and these other men with no thriving business outside of politics, came up with the billions to compete in what Mohammed Hayatu-Deen, one of the aspirants that later dropped off prior to voting described as an “obscenely monetised” primary.
But while PDP is auctioning off Nigeria at the Abuja stadium, 640 Kilometers away in Wike’s Rivers, the mood was not as upbeat. In fact, it was a black Saturday as a stampede at a church charity event organised by the Kings Assembly Pentecostal church in Port Harcourt’s Polo Club left 31 people dead and seven injured. The dead included a pregnant woman and many children. One man was inconsolable and narrated amidst a river of tear, how his son was crushed beyond recognition while his daughter was also missing.
In 2014, Kings Assembly Pentecostal church in Rivers State started what it described as a benevolent and outreach programme called Shop-for-Free. The purpose of this charity programme was to share gifts provided by members of the church, friends and partners with the struggling and less privileged members of the society. Such events have become so commonplace in Nigeria where according to a World Bank data, 43 percent of the people (89 million people) live below the poverty line, while another 25 percent (53 million) are vulnerable.
Last Saturday’s charity programme was supposed to begin at nine that fateful morning but as early as five, thousands had already gathered at the club venue, way before security teams assigned for the event arrived. The goal of the early birds was to secure a vintage spot before the place gets filled up with people. But alas! The crowd swelled up quickly and somehow, the locked gate that led into the arena was breached and people started trooping in and pushing through which led to the stampede.
Following the incident, the distraught organisers of the event explained that the sheer magnitude of this year’s turnout was like no other, unprecedented and absolutely unanticipated. Of course, this has become an all too familiar story in Nigeria in recent years. Just last year, seven women were trampled to death during an aid agency food programme in Borno State. That said, one would have hoped, however, that Rivers’ famed oil wealth will spare her citizens of this extreme level of poverty that led to the preventable tragedy.
Port Harcourt is the main oil hub in Nigeria. Rivers alongside Lagos and Ogun states are the top three with the most Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) in the country. It also receives one of the highest federal allocations compared to other states in the federation. Paradoxically, the state also has one of the worst unemployment numbers of any other states in Nigeria. According to one data credited to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Rivers State unemployment rate is 43.7 percent, which means that almost one in every two citizens of the state is without a job. But you couldn’t tell that by the actions of those occupying the Brick House in Port Harcourt’s old GRA, over the past several years.
When early in 2021, Sokoto central market was gutted by fire, Gov. Wike quickly flew to Sokoto where he pledged 500 million naira in donation in what he said was River state government’s support to the market rebuilding efforts, as well as to provide assistance to affected traders. There is nothing wrong with helping victims of such tragedy but on whose back? This was a time when Wike’s government was allegedly owing many years of pension and gratuities to River pensioners but all of a sudden his excellency couldn’t stand the sight of suffering victims of the Sokoto fire.
Despite the Governor’s desired optics, many believed that Wike was tactically sowing political seeds he planned to harvest at the right time, using the resources of his state rather than engaging in one random act of kindness. The man, like most misguided politicians from the south, believed that his political fortune begins and ends with kowtowing to the interest of the Hausa-Fulani power structure, hoping that someday, he would cash out big time. Now he knows better.
Wike often brags about how in 2011, he was single-handedly responsible for the emergence of Aminu Tambuwal as Speaker of the Federal House and how he supported the latter heavily as a candidate in the October 2018 PDP presidential primary. But as events unfolded last weekend at the Moshood Abiola stadium, it was clear that those investments were wasted funds that neither favoured Wike nor the people of River State, many of whom continue to live in utter misery in the midst of plenty as played out at the Port Harcourt Polo club last Saturday. But Wike is not the only one.
In an interview recently, Gov. El Rufai talked about how in 2011, Congress for Progressive Change(CPC), one of the three political parties that later merged to form today’s ruling party, the All Progressive Congress(APC) didn’t have the money to host a convention. Rotimi Amaechi as a PDP governor of Rivers State at the time, picked up the tab, just like that. It’s also no secret that as the Director-General of the Buhari Presidential Campaign Committee in both the 2015 and 2019 elections, Mr.Amaechi was alleged to be one the highest donors to the campaigns. We all know that Amaechi is no Dangote.
And so, from Peter Odili to Rotimi Amaechi and now Nyesom Wike, every Governor of Rivers State since 1999 has been accused of wasting Rivers State funds, sponsoring wasteful presidential bids. It didn’t work for Peter Odili who despite all his largesse to PDP, Obasanjo bypassed him and to his greatest surprise, picked the duo of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Ebele Jonathan instead.
As the ruling party, the All Progresive Congress( APC) begins the process of selecting who will fly its flag in the 2023 presidential election tomorrow Amaechi will be in a position to re-evaluate his many years of political investment. But whatever the outcome, one thing is clear; among the many opportunity costs of this unbridled profligacy by the occupants of the brick house, are the lives lost while waiting on a food line at the Port Harcourt Polo club.
•Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]