After what happened on the March 19, what a responsible state government should have done is to declare one week of mourning and apologise to citizens about its inability to offer them the much needed protection. The federal government should now step in by conducting a comprehensive probe into what happened the last time and punishing those who participated overtly or covertly in this.
I had to hurry out of Rivers State late last Sunday. I made my short stay deliberately a low profile one, spent mostly indoors as the electoral war lasted. My reason was that I had not written my will and do not wish to write one very soon. I have a young family and considered it too risky to continue to stay in the state with news of killing and reprisal killings coming through every other minute. Though I survived it, I was severely pained and diminished by the killings. I render my heartfelt condolences to families which lost loved ones, including the soldiers and youth corps member, who were gruesomely murdered by ‘unknown’ assailants. It is very clear that Rivers State is on a swift transition to a state of anarchy, with life being nasty, brutish and short – as described by the philosopher Hobbes.
I decided to wait a while before making any public comment on the whole saga. First was that I needed some time to recover from the rude shock I suffered. I also needed to comb through the videos, and pictures that were circulating, as well as the numerous media releases to see if I could make sense out of some of them. There were many misleading versions of every story. I remember coming across a website that was devotedly churning out falsehood to confuse distant observers as the events unfolded. I imagine how many people would have been misled by their regular updates of misinformation. Above all, one needed some rest to regain psychological balance. I almost lost it. It was like a bad Nollywood movie. I had to help myself get through the nightmare resulting from the horrifying pictures of decapitated human beings and mutilated bodies emanating from some of areas like Omoku, Gokana and Abonnema that were severely attacked.
What happened in Rivers State on March 19 goes beyond the fatalities on both sides. It goes beyond the demonstrated incompetence of the Independent National Electoral Commission to conduct what can stand as a free and fair election. It also goes beyond the helplessness and sometimes collusion of law enforcement agencies. For me it was a strong demonstration of inexplicable weakness of vital organs of the state to offer protection to citizens. I say this because what happened in Rivers State did not come to any of us as a surprise. During the 2015 elections, the death toll in the state was three times higher than elsewhere. This time around all the signs were there weeks before the scheduled date of the election. Those with sympathy for violence did not hide their intentions. Indeed, they boasted about it on national television.
As if they were now overwhelmed by these non-state actors, the organs of the state failed to respond promptly and appropriately to the situation. At the time of writing this piece, there was still no credible information that those who masterminded the violence in Rivers State in the past weeks have been held to account by the authorities. How can a person with an allegation of murder hanging on his neck still be allowed to enjoy the services of police escorts? For me that is injustice to law-abiding people and an incentive for lawlessness. That is the most dangerous signal, and the best way to bring back the Rivers State of yesteryears, where people walked on the streets with their hands raised up!
Rivers people are now relying on the federal government – their last hope – to demonstrate to them that they are still part of Nigeria. President Buhari must rise and resolve the political and security stalemate in Rivers State. For now, he is the only person that can be trusted to do that.
While it is necessary to indicate that the public posture and corrosive commentary of prominent political actors in the state contributed to the violence, I must still say that what happened in Rivers State is a clear instance of institutional failure. You may even describe it as resulting from undue politicisation of security institutions. My suggested approach will be that we target its root causes. As soon as we eliminate these causes, the consequences will disappear. Many of the issues are already in the public domain. Available evidence shows that the violence ways on both sides of the political divide. Some prominent persons were arrested but were hurriedly released. What does that say about our security agencies?
Until a comprehensive, neutral investigation is carried out, the atmosphere would continue to be tension soaked. No one knows who will fall next. This a case where citizens can no longer trust the ability of security agencies to protect them from attackers, hence they would resort to self-help at some point. That is why I will continue to suggest an urgent need for more drastic measures to be taken in the area of security in line with the Constitution. There is no need to emphasise that unless and until security is restored in Rivers State, no one should expect anything less than what happened on March 19 any time an election is scheduled. One thing is certain, if the perpetrators of violence in the state – regardless of their political affiliation – realise that any form of lawlessness will lead to consequences, they will naturally backtrack. Simple. Now, with the state government seemingly belonging to one side of the divide, the responsibility to enforce the needed security inevitably falls on the doorstep of the federal government.
I have always been confident that the federal government is capable of handling this. The president has demonstrated that he cannot tolerate a state within a state. However, there is a stream of powerful minority voices who insist that what happened in Rivers State was avoidable and could not have been allowed to happen in some parts of Nigeria, say Kaduna or even Katsina – the home state of the President. They suggest that it is a subtle demonstration of political neglect of places where many people did not vote for the ruling party during the last Presidential elections. I consider such permutations as premature and a little hasty. The Niger Delta, and Rivers State in particular, is too strategic to the federation to be allowed to fall within such a divisive political narrative.
Now, I learnt that some people are already rolling out drums celebrating their victory last weekend. That is bizarre, unbelievable and a most preposterous development. I consider that action one of the most irresponsible one any responsible state government could contemplate. There are bloodstains on the street of Port Harcourt – literally speaking. Gang violence is back again and citizens are in panic. Lately, the rate of armed robberies, kidnappings and assassinations have quadrupled. After what happened on the March 19, what a responsible state government should have done is to declare one week of mourning and apologise to citizens about its inability to offer them the much needed protection. The federal government should now step in by conducting a comprehensive probe into what happened the last time and punishing those who participated overtly or covertly in this. Those soldiers and youth corps members who were murdered were on national assignment, and they should not be seen to have died in vain. Furthermore, Rivers people are now relying on the federal government – their last hope – to demonstrate to them that they are still part of Nigeria. President Buhari must rise and resolve the political and security stalemate in Rivers State. For now, he is the only person that can be trusted to do that.
Uche Igwe is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex, UK.