The Rivers State imbroglio just revealed one of the ailments of the Nigerian mind: a compulsive amnesia. We sometimes act as though the past is either too heavy with sorrow or casts us in bad light, so we forget. Or it is so light we lose sense of how to make it into a weight of glory.
The media, just like our political elite, are culprits of the mnemonic sin. The media reports and comments suffered from a scant well of historical backgrounding. Our politicians ape the trend. In the end, we act as a people without a past. Socrates knew this and so devised a system of recall that is now called the Socratic Method in philosophical studies. Socrates says our senses deceive us and that we know more than we think we know.
The bloodshed and intimidation a week ago rekindle the need to study history. The media have simply reported it as an Amaechi-Wike standoff, as though the story began either last year or in the run-up to the last elections into the local and national legislatures.
A brief history may help rejig our anaemic memory. After the Obasanjo years, the militants soaked the diaries of the region in blood and near anarchy. The new governors of the region as well as the late President Umaru Yar’adua set out to tackle the enveloping nightmare. Governor Timipre Sylva initiated the amnesty programme that led to the dropping of arms, especially in Bayelsa and Delta states. The Rivers State dimension was different.
Before Amaechi became governor, Rivers State, especially the capital Port Harcourt, crawled with fear and blood. Amaechi disdained amnesty and would not reconcile with them. He confronted them. He basked in the support of the centre.
Just as Yar’adua backed the amnesty deal, he put the nation’s military resources behind Amaechi. Port Harcourt hummed with hoodlums. Sudden bursts of gunfire, melee on the main arteries, yelps for help, bodies lying on roadsides became part of the narrative of the once-lauded Garden City.
Innocents walked the streets and commuted with doubtful hope of a peaceful journey. I visited the city a few times then in 2007 and was amazed to see citizens trek with grave brows and upraised hands. I asked why, and I was told it was to show they had no arms. Two bare hands, raised up, protested innocence.
One of the ghoulish familiars of the times was a place ominously called “the evil forest.” It was the lair of the militants. There they built and stored armoury, hatched plots of unrest, also lived in unspeakable opulence. They farted violence and fattened on it. Foreigners fled the city from the commonplaces of harassment and abduction and the rapine of their businesses.
Commerce stagnated, jobs depleted, governance was stultified and gangsters reigned. Eventually, the lords of the murderous rings were flushed out of reckoning. The evil forest became a historical relic. It was a triumph of federal-state cooperation. For about six years, Rivers State grew steadily back to its halcyon past. Rotimi Amaechi was a PDP chieftain and even became the head of the Governors Forum without controversy.
Things fell apart between Amaechi and Goodluck Jonathan. The reasons were in the public space. Mama Peace, in her lack of grace, foregrounded a drama about a hovel of crime and bandits that Amaechi levelled. It was in Okrika. I propounded a question in Jonathan’s meeting with editors in Lagos. He responded cavalierly. In his usual dodgy style, he spoke as though he knew and didn’t know of the incident.
But since then, the President and the Rivers State Governor did not enjoy any cordiality. Amaechi claimed later that it was because of pecuniary pressures from Mama Peace, the first primitive first lady in our history. We saw the fight in other incarnations. Over oil wells with Bayelsa State, the neglect of Rivers State projects from the centre, etc. Some have accused Amaechi of lack of tact. He had a confrontational style.
But the problem lay in the conventional wisdom that because Amaechi hails from the President’s region, he should bow to his will, willy-nilly. He also had a face-off with the judiciary. NJC, in a nepotistic way, bent its rules to favour the party and government of the centre.
Amaechi would not remain in the party with the President. He joined the APC after the New PDP morphed and grew out of the PDP. That, historians will note, as the beginning of Jonathan’s fall. Some of Amaechi’s kinsmen would not forgive him for humiliating their son. He might have sinned. He might have been inept. He might have been sly and vicious. He was their son. You have to serve your sentiment even if it is inscrutably stupid. That was how the violence of Rivers State moved from rhetoric and emotional fracture to blood and death. His victory over the Governors Forum machinations by Jonathan and his PDP kingpins scarred the landscape further.
The first sign that the matter was bound to violence was with the appointment of Mbu Mbu as police commissioner. In a recent interview, the former CP said he had not met Jonathan or first lady and Amaechi prejudged him and that led to strains in relations. He must think he was speaking to fools. If he did not know them, did that account for his wanton acts of irresponsibility, his contempt for the rule of law? We were all witnesses to these. If Amaechi prejudged him, was that excuse to prove Amaechi right? President Obama, in response to not bombing Syria after a threat, has said, “bombing because you promised to bomb is not a good reason to bomb.” Decency reveals character.
Not long after, the hoodlums paraded the streets of Port Harcourt in an extravagant display of brawn, arms and intimidation. They were backed by the federal might. The army and police with which Amaechi flushed them out had new masters. Amaechi was now bait. Since then violence gradually took over the city and state. It festooned in the 2015 elections where brawn took over law. The Supreme Court gave judicial armoury to bloodletting by privileging technicality over realism in law in Wike verdict. Go thou now; kill and maim and destroy, implied the verdict. It was fulfilled in the recent polls.
The Buhari administration did not learn from this history. The Bayelsa poll was a signal. Violence determined who won. The President also said he was not going to be involved. No one wants the President to be partisan. But if violence succeeded in crippling and determining the outcome of the proceedings, the blame lies with the commander-in-chief. We know that some soldiers and police see elections in cynical terms to compromise peace in lieu of filthy bribes. The same discipline that has made the Boko Haram fight succeed should apply to elections. Bad security eggs, bad elections.
It is damnable enough that Amaechi and Wike have to see it as their fights for supremacy. It is more damnable that the security infrastructure made this possible. If the centre was able to paralyse any privatisation of security infrastructure, Amaechi and Wike would have looked on as the citizens cast their votes without fear. The signs leading to the polls were clear. Soldiers killed, APC chairman beheaded. Violence begets violence. The umpire – part INEC, part Federal Government – failed and gave in to anarchy. If Amaechi brought peace because of federal-state cooperation, peace failed this time because of lack of it.
This shows that we do not understand the value of history. We have become a historical society. Our students no longer study history at every level. Our media and political leaders don’t either. A novel, A History of Violence by Paul Wagner, also adapted into film, tells how ignorance of the past wrecked a family. What is even worse is the absence of what philosophers like Hegel and Nietzsche have called “historical consciousness.”
Apart from history as discipline, some United States universities now study historical consciousness as a course. It interrogates how societies interpret major events and incidents to shape attitudes to similar contemporary affairs. In Nigeria, for instance, our interpretation of Biafran uproar today will be probed by such a study.
We are not there yet. Hence the Rivers imbroglio seems intractable.