Motorists of an older generation who drove the now decommissioned, rear-mounted engine, Wolkswagen Kombi bus (Danfo), may recall the popular tag of ‘kill driver save engine’ which the vehicle was often conferred with. This was because with its rear position, the vehicle’s engine had a better chance of survival in an accident than the driver, who would most likely suffer injuries or could even die. Not a few observers of affairs in and about the Rivers State remain disturbed over a coalescing degeneration of the fortunes of the state, courtesy of a fallout of a long running quarrel between agents of the federal government and the Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike, through an insidious agenda whose thrust manifests as ‘kill Wike, grab the state’. The most recent play out of this insidious tendency, was as prompted by the demolition of two hotels – Prodest in Eleme and Edemete in Onne, both in the Rivers State, last Sunday. Citing the violations of the Rivers State Government Executive order 6, which prescribed the do’s and don’ts for businesses in Rivers State during the mandatory period of restriction on social contacts courtesy of COVID-19, the state government had faulted them as violators of the law and scheduled their demolitions to serve as scape goats.
When the announcement of the intended demolition was made on Sunday May 10 2020, the impact on the public was expectedly sudden, as many ordinarily considered it an extreme measure. However when the same announcement featured the additional element of a bounty of N5 million for information about the owner of the hotel who was described as a PDP youth leader, the more intuitive minds, smelled a deeper mess than the mere demolition of a pair of hotels. Ordinarily, bounties are usually offered and deployed to secure outcomes, under desperate situations. In circumstances where criminality is implicated, bounties serve the purpose of facilitating the involvement of the general public in apprehending fleeing suspects of crime, or recovering missing valuables. Bounties are therefore incentives that facilitate attainment of public interest and safety.
However, the fuller import of the situation featuring the hallmark of suspected criminal activity, did not swerve an anti-Wike lobby who went to town with a seeming coordinated over-kill agenda for his jugular, featuring scurrilous expressions which if not for the safety in the Igala proverb that “plenty talk cannot fill a basket”, were enough to drown the gentleman. Ordinarily, the criminal import in the announcement of a bounty for a wanted person by the state government should have served as an alert, to prompt the follow-up response by the security agencies, especially the Rivers state Command of the Nigeria Police Force, being the main frame of the country’s security architecture. But such did not happen, or is yet to feature in the public domain.
In the loud absence of formal police intervention, what rather followed was an avalanche of sharp reactions from sections of the general public, many of which failed to hide their inclinations towards the political persuasion of their sponsors. In the process, the situation degenerated into an anti and pro Wike debate, which largely vitiated the more significant issue of security of lives and property of the citizens of the state; especially with a suspected, armed gunman on the loose. In the ordinary context, a bounty offer featuring a hefty sum of N5 million in a Nigeria in its state of endemic poverty, was enough to make people sell their relatives. What followed therefore was a misdirected anticlimax. The crime was ignored, while the politics was played up.
According to facts in the public domain, the affected hotels had violated the provisions of an extant executive order which directed all hotels in the state to shut down business during the lockdown, or in the alternative provide the government with a manifest of their guests while specific procedures for retaining such guests under subdued operational conditions, were to be carried out by individual hotels. Reportedly, these affected hotels violated the orders and were hosting guests with carnival ambience, unlawfully. As the story goes further, when the hotels were confronted by the designated Rivers State COVID-19 Task Force members, the latter were physically assaulted with at least one of them shot with a firearm. Acting on the spur of the report of assault on the members of task force, the Rivers State Government adopted the extreme measure of demolition option, as it tagged the hotels as dens of criminal activity. Meanwhile, last week the Rivers State government announced the death of one of the assaulted officers.
Against the backdrop of the furore generated by the cascade of developments associated with this issue, lies the challenge of driving the entire drama through the perspective of rectitude. In his 1938 classic – ‘The British Approach to Politics’, two-time British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart wrote that “Any government’s sovereignty will be a dead letter, unless it can secure obedience, and to this end many means have been deployed, which become apparent when the law is disobeyed”. In a more contemporary context, the Rivers State matter borders on which alternative approach should the government have adopted to corral a member of the public who defied the authority of the government and even engaged in inflicting bodily injuries on duly appointed officers of the state. The issue at stake was the enforcement of compliance with extant rules and regulations by members of the public. And that is where the capacity of a government to enforce its will, come into considerations, just as Michael Stewart had elegantly put it in his ageless book. Just to think aloud Police officers and soldiers do not carry firearms for fun.
While this column does not hold brief for either the Rivers State Government or the wanted owner of the demolished Prodest Hotel, the truth however remains that the colouration of the entire matter would have been significantly different if the Police and other components of the state’s security apparatus had been more proactive especially given that Eleme is the location of this development. There are several grounds for the contention out of which at least two will suffice. Firstly, is that there was a report by the government of the attack on the Task Force members, with the involvement of firearms – the possession of which still remains a criminal offence in the country. It is of grave public interest, if the Police have investigated the report. It is also of public interest that Eleme has been a notorious killing field in which recently, three youths – two men and a lady – all of whom were students of the University of Port Harcourt, were gruesomely murdered in cold blood, and in respect of which the Police are still investigating the arrested culprits.
Meanwhile the governor had complained of mistreatment by both the federal government and the police, whom he pointedly accused of frustrating him. Wike’s political party the PDP has also raised the alarm that the Police high command has withdrawn the police officers attached to the Rivers State COVID-19 Task Force thereby rendering the outfit as a lame duck and therefore ineffective under the ongoing war against the pandemic. Further missteps by the police especially on the criminal aspect of the Rivers hotels’ saga, will confirm that it may be serving the interests of remote traducers of Wike, as their whipping boy.