A Lingering Crisis

•Policemen occupying the Obio,Akpor Council Secertariat

•Policemen occupying the Obio,Akpor Council Secertariat

The imbrogio occasioned by the suspension of a council’s executive committee is threatening peace in Rivers State

There were ominous signs that all was not well in Rivers State on Friday 3 May, when Otelemaba Amachree, the Speaker of the state House of Assembly raised an alarm accusing the Commissioner Of Police in the state, Mr. Mbu Joseph Mbu, of working in tandem with unnamed Abuja politicians to destabilise the state so that a state of emergency would be declared.

President Goodluck Jonathan and Gov Amaechi: Flexing muscles in Rivers State
President Goodluck Jonathan and Gov Amaechi: Flexing muscles in Rivers State

In the statement sent by the Speaker via e-mail, he accused the Commissioner of Police of ordering the Divisional Police Officer, Rumuokoro Police Station, to send a detachment of about 50 policemen to invade and seal off Obio/Akpor Local Government Council, whose Chairman, Prince Timothy Nsirim and the 17 councilors were sacked on the order of the state House of Assembly for alleged financial mismanagement and breach of security.

It was learnt that the 3 May sealing of Obio/Akpor Council Secretariat in Romuodomaya by policemen who claimed to have been ordered from above – presumably the Rivers Commissioner of Police and the Inspector-General – may have been sequel to Mrs. Patience Jonathan’s refusal to recognise Mr. Chikordi Dike,  the council’s Caretaker Committee chairman, who was among the public office holders at the airport to welcome her on arrival in the state earlier that day.

It was learnt that as dignitaries lined up to welcome her, when it got to Dike’s turn to shake the First Lady’s hand, she wanted to know whether he was the elected chairman who was on suspension but was told that he was the Caretaker Committee chairman.

According to a source, the First Lady expressed her disapproval of the suspension of Prince Timothy Nsirim, the elected chairman and the 17 councillors by the House of Assembly.

Shortly after the encounter with the First Lady at the airport, armed policemen led by the Rumuokoro Divisional Police Officer stormed the Council Secretariat at about 2 p.m. and ordered the caretaker chairman and his members “by orders from above” to vacate the council premises immediately.

Narrating the harrowing incident, Dike said: “When we refused to leave and then cried out that the police cannot sack a legally constituted Council Executive Committee without any legal instrument, the police quickly changed their story, (claiming) they barricaded the council secretariat and chased us out because they wanted to forestall a breakdown of law and order in the council secretariat.”

•Policemen occupying the Obio,Akpor Council Secertariat
•Policemen occupying the Obio,Akpor Council Secertariat

Dike raised an alarm, claiming that, “The same Abuja forces who orchestrated the barricading of our Council premises by the police are planning to storm the same Council offices on Monday, May 6, 2013 with different shades of hoodlums and miscreants and then unleash violence and mayhem on the good people of Obio-Akpor Local Government Area. Their plan is to start from outside the council secretariat.”

Dike alleged that the plot to cause mayhem was being championed by a former council chairman who is a known acolyte of the Abuja forces that have sworn to make Obio-Akpor, and by the extension, Rivers State, ungovernable as a prelude to the declaration of a state of emergency.

At the time of the siege, Governor Amaechi was in Canada with Vice-President Namadi Sambo, Bamanga Tukur, the National Chairman, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP; and other dignitaries for a business summit.

Dike was sworn in by the Secretary to the State Government, Mr. George Feyii, on behalf of the governor, replacing Timothy Nsirim and the 17 councillors loyal to Mr. Nyesom Wike, Minister of  State in the Ministry of Education. The suspension was based on allegations of financial impropriety and breach security leveled against them. The Committee on Local Government headed by Lucky Odili, in its interim report presented to the House of Assembly, had recommended the suspension pending when investigation of the allegations were concluded.

Amachree has said the invasion of the council and its eventual sealing off by police without any security breach or semblance of same, was the first stage of the preparation to cause chaos in the state and pave way for protests that would warrant a declaration of a state of emergency. “The clamp down on officers of the council at exactly 2.00 pm on Friday May 3, by the Commissioner of Police, Rivers State, Mr. Mbu Joseph Mbu through the instrumentality of the Divisional Police Officer, Rumuokoro Police Divisional Headquarters, while the workers were going about their lawful duties, is in total breach of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as Amended) and the Laws of Rivers State of Nigeria,” he said.

As at press time, the premises of the council were barricaded by heavily armed policemen, the workers ordered out of and the chairman and members of Caretaker Committee locked in, having refused to vacate the premises without any valid instrument of law.

The  Speaker condemned in strong terms the invasion of the council on the orders of the Commissioner of Police, who resumed barely two months ago, and called on the Inspector-General to quickly redeploy him because “before he plunges this peaceful state into a state of anarchy.”

Amachree called on Rivers people and Nigerians to be vigilant, alleging that series of protests have been planned by the unnamed Abuja-based Rivers politicians and their sponsors to destabilise the state so as to create a state of emergency in the state in their bid to achieve their inordinate political ambitions.

True to his assertion, placard-carrying youths under the aegis of Grassroots Development Initiative, on 6 May stormed the state House of Assembly complex demanding the immediate reversal of the suspension of Nsirim, his deputy and the 17 councilors sacked by the House.

The protesters, who took off from the council secretariat and later converged on the House of Assembly complex, said they supported the sealing off of the secretariat and called for the immediate resignation of the Speaker and Leader of the House, Chidi Lloyd, over the manner the elected officials were suspended by the House without following due process, adding that some of the lawmakers lied when they claimed that they acted on a petition before the House to suspend the officials.

“There are processes in checking and sanctioning erring officials. There are processes of using constitutional powers. My people, what is the sense in illegally pronouncing the suspension of an entire executive and legislators of the local government. What is the sense of illegally constituting a Caretaker Committee? Where did they derive their powers? See the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, fourth schedule and the Rivers state House of Assembly, House Rules (order 22, Rule 1 & 4)

“The Speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly, Otelemeba Amachree and the leader of the House, Chidi Lloyd, did not receive any petition against the Executive Chairman of Obio/Akpor local government and the 17 legislators, neither did they follow due process in the so-called suspension,” the protesters said.

The state government, however, dismissed the insinuation that there was any threat of impeachment of Governor Chibuike Ameachi by five opposing lawmakers in the House, asserting that Governor Amaechi was in charge and in full control of the situation in the state.

Making the clarification in a press briefing with journalists in Port Harcourt was Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, the Commissioner for Information and Communications. On the protest, she stated that the state government was aware that “A few hoodlums and rabble-rousers are trying to cause disaffection in the state and trying to pretend that there is chaos in Rivers state.

“However, we are certain that there is no chaos in Rivers State and that government is in full control of the situation and we are briefed as and when due.”

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She disclosed that as far back as about two weeks ago, the state government heard reports of a few miscreants making an attempt to foist something that is totally undemocratic on the people of the state.

“We are aware that people were imagining that it will be possible to attempt ‘a Dariye treatment’ in Rivers State, where they will take just five members of the Rivers House of Assembly out of 33 members and attempt an impeachment of the Governor of Rivers State.

“But, this is Rivers State, this is not Plateau State and Nigerians are a lot more aware now than they were at that time.”

She assured that the people of the state will defend every vote they cast for Governor Amaechi. “So, there is no way it is going to happen that a very tiny, insignificant minority in the Rivers Assembly will be able to oust Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi,” Semenitari stated.

She said the state government was aware that those who mobilised the protesters went as far as Khana, Etche and Emohua to try and get a group of boys to join them to come to protest the removal of Obio/Akpor council officers.

The House was to have reconvened on that day but the Speaker, in a statement to newsmen, said they had to postpone the sitting because the Police Commissioner, Mr. Mbu Joseph Mbu, withdrew the approval he had given to a request by the House for security.

The political battle in the state is being fought on various fronts, including the courts.

Timothy Nsirim and the 17 suspended councillors went to a state High Court in Port Harcourt on Tuesday 7 May, challenging their suspension and were granted leave by the court to serve court documents on the new caretaker committee by substituted means after they complained to the court through their counsel, Donald Demwigwe, a senior advocate, that the caretaker chairman had been evading service of court documents. The counsel had asked the court to declare as unconstitutional, aspects of the 2012 Rivers State Local Government Law which gives the state Assembly the power to dissolve elected executive councils.

After hearing the submission of the counsel, Justice S.O. Eragonima directed the suspended chairman and members of his executive to paste the court process on the wall of the council at Rumuodamaya before adjourning the matter the till 20 May, since they had been having difficulty serving court documents on ike.

On the same day, however, a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt summoned the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, to appear before it over the sealing of Obio/Akpor Council secretariat by the police.

The summon followed an exparte motion brought by Dike asking the court to order the police to remove the blockade and vacate the premises of the council secretariat.

Emenike Ebete, counsel to the Caretaker Committee chairman, asked the court to hold that the forceful invasion and blockade of the secretariat by the police was illegal, unconstitutional and undemocratic. He told the court that the sealing of the council had completely paralysed governance at that tier of government.

The presiding Justice H. A. Ngajiwa directed Dike to serve the Inspector-General of Police, the AIG in Calabar and the Attorney-General of the Federation the court processes before adjourning ruling on the exparte motion till 9 May.

The political situation in the state has not gone unnoticed by concerned citizens. Uche Okwukwu, a legal practitioner and former state Chairman of Action Congress Of Nigeria, ACN, in a interview with this magazine cautioned all parties in the dispute not to seek self-help but respect decisions of the court, citing the example of how Amaechi’s government has respected the court judgment that declared the Felix Obuah state executive of the party as the recognised one. Even while it faulted the judgment and had gone on appeal, the Chief Godspower Ake executive favoured by the state government vacated the party secretariat pending the determination of their appeal.

Okwukwu frowned at the siege to the Obio-Akpor Council secretariat by the police, describing it as illegal and capable of creating fear and siege mentality in minds of the people.

“We have passed this stage in our political life where democratic institutions are occupied by police for no just cause. The change in the leadership of the council has not warranted any threat to public peace and the police should not create one where there is none,” Okwukwu stated.

The Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition, NDCSC, in Rivers State has also joined in condemning the federal government for unconstitutionally using armed policemen to invade and occupy the council secretariat in a democracy.

The Coalition described the action as an attempt to criminalise political ambition, by truncating freedoms of movement, association, thought and freedom of expression, adding that it is misleading to say the President and Presidency is not fully interested and involved in the recent travails in Rivers State.

“Mr. President has a solemn obligation to the Constitution and to the Nigerian people to pursue the path of conflict resolution, peace building through dialogue, rather than escalating the abusive use of Federal might, which will not benefit his office, Rivers State, Niger Delta region and Nigeria at the end of the day,” it said.

NDCSC raised an alarm that what is playing out now had in the past led to slaughtering of unsuspecting innocent law abiding citizens and could degenerate now to take more lives and property like it did to the late Chief Marshall Harry and A.K. Dikibo, two prominent sons of the state who were slaughtered in uncivilised circumstances.

President Goodluck Jonathan, NDCSC cautioned, must heed the warnings of history, warning that impunity, arbitrary and abusive use of state power and resources have never left political leaders unscathed after the event and end of each political misadventure.

—Okafor Ofiebor/Port Harcourt

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