Three words aptly describe Nyesom Wike – zestful, bold, and controversial.
Whenever Mr Wike, the governor of Rivers State, Nigeria’s South-South, speaks on an issue that is sensitive to him, his listeners could easily feel the energy and passion, or even the anger in him.
He is one Nigerian governor who loves talking, who loves to stir controversies, even if such controversies could hurt him politically.
But does he even care? No, he does not, it appears.
Mr Wike has been in the spotlight for several days now over the allegation that he ordered the demolition of a mosque in Port Harcourt.
Although stories were twisted to paint Mr Wike as a hater of Muslims, what really exacerbated the mosque incident was the governor’s repeated claim in the past that Rivers is a “Christian state”.
Nigeria’s population is largely divided between Muslims and Christians. The nation’s Constitution forbids the federal and state governments from adopting any religion as a state religion.
“I repeat once again without apologies, Rivers State is a Christian State. That is why nobody can touch us. When it mattered most, the Christian community prayed and God heard your prayers,” Governor Wike had said in June, about three months before the mosque demolition controversy.
The governor was lambasted by some Nigerians for his comment.
A former commissioner for information in Rivers, who served under Mr Wike, Austin Tam-George, told PREMIUM TIMES, “This was an irresponsible declaration by the governor, who was obviously trying to stir up a dangerous and false religious debate in the State”.
Mr Tam-George said, “We’ve never had a religious crisis in Rivers State since its creation in 1967. We know who we are and we’ve lived peacefully with everyone who makes Rivers State home.
“Part of Rivers State’s founding creeds is depicted in the cosmopolitan character of our people. We welcome people of all faiths (including people with no faith at all). You can work and live happily here so long as you obey and respect the laws as everyone does.
“I was taught in high school by Indian Sikhs in the 1980s, in Port Harcourt. Today, there are thriving restaurants with Buddhist themes in the city. Muslims have always been a welcome part of the social fabric of Rivers State.
“This is a wonderful inheritance from our forebears and we will not let any politician desecrate those values of diversity and inclusiveness for which our State is known.”
Like Wike, Like Yerima
In fairness to Mr Wike, he is not the first Nigerian governor who has chosen this controversial path; the then governor of Zamfara State, Ahmad Yerima, in 1999, shocked Nigerians when he introduced strict Islamic laws in the state.
In 2011, a sharia court in Zamfara ruled that two young men, accused of stealing a bull, should have their wrists amputated in the public, the BBC had reported.
“Without sharia, Islamic faith is valueless,” another paper, the UK Independent, quoted the then governor, Mr Yerima, to have said, while appealing to other northern governors to also introduce sharia in their states.
Twelve, out of the 19 states in the north, were said to have later promulgated full sharia law.
Olusegun Obasanjo, who was Nigeria’s president at the time, dismissed Mr Yerima’s campaign for sharia as being “self-serving”.
Mr Obasanjo, a Christian, recounted in 2017, in a book he co-authored, how he averted a religious crisis in Nigeria through ‘proper’ management of the sharia controversy which he said later fizzled out because, according to him, it was not based on any genuine interest for Islam.
“A few months later, Yerima visited me in my official residence and, greeting my young female cousin, hugged her familiarly in my presence. I jokingly remarked to Yerima that this action was not sharia-compliant. Yerima retorted, ‘Didn’t you say sharia would fizzle out and has it not fizzled out?’” the former president wrote in the book, ‘Making Africa Work’.
Wike Attacks PDP
While Mr Wike’s mosque controversy was yet to fizzle out, the governor dropped another one – this time against his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
He said on Wednesday that a committee set up by the PDP was “the most corrupt committee…”
“The committee set up by the PDP on the illegal emergence of Ndudi Elumelu is the most corrupt committee ever set up by the party,” he said.
“We thank our worthy son, Austin Opara, for withdrawing from that committee, so that he is not entangled in the illegal activities of the tainted committee.”
The governor warned his party against “toying” with the interest of Rivers State.
“We are warning PDP to be careful not to toy with Rivers State.
“The state has all it takes to withstand the PDP and fight the party to a standstill. Rivers governor is not one of those governors that anyone can cajole. He is not one of those governors that will kowtow to illicit activities.”
Ironically, Mr Wike’s political ally, Uche Secondus, from Rivers State, is the PDP national chairman. Mr Secondus could not have clinched the position without Mr Wike’s support.
It is unclear what may have caused the governor’s outburst against his party. His media aide, Simeon Nwakaudu, declined comment on the matter when PREMIUM TIMES contacted him.
The chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees, Walid Jibrin, has, however, challenged Mr Wike to present evidence of the corruption he alleged.
Wike Attacks PDP Governors
Not done yet with the criticism against his party, the governor on Thursday attacked his fellow PDP governors.
“So many PDP governors go to see him (Buhari) in his house in the night,” the governor said while congratulating President Muhammadu Buhari over his victory against the PDP presidential candidate in the 2019 election, Atiku Abubakar, at the election petition tribunal.
“I have never gone and I will not go.”
Mr Wike said it was better to congratulate Mr Buhari publicly than to secretly visit the president at night, implying that his fellow PDP governors were living a double life.
The governor in September 2018, just before the conduct of the PDP presidential primary, had threatened to deal with the party over a “plot” to move its national convention from Rivers to another state.
“Nobody should dare Rivers State any longer. Enough is enough. PDP should know that we are not a punching bag. We are not people you can use and push. We are not harlots. Whenever you want, you come. When you finish, you push us aside,” Mr Wike had said.
The PDP national convention took place in Port Harcourt, as scheduled.
Also in 2018, some five months to the 2019 general elections, the governor made a weighty allegation that some of the PDP presidential candidates were planted in the party by President Buhari and the ruling APC.
He also accused Mr Buhari’s administration of plotting to kill him before the elections.
“I see myself that I may not be alive. It is obvious,” Mr Wike told PREMIUM TIMES in September 2018. “The government is determined, they have made up their mind, but we are ready to die.”
The elections have come and gone, Mr wike is still alive, and faring better politically.
In October 2016, Mr Wike physically prevented the operatives of the Nigerian secret police, the State Security Service (SSS), from arresting a federal high court judge in Port Harcourt. The governor accused the SSS operatives of manhandling and injuring him.
Even Before Becoming Governor
Mr Wike, 56, has experienced great political battles and has been victorious in many.
In the days of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency, he turned against his former political ally and boss, Rotimi Amaechi, when the latter defected from the PDP to the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Mr Wike, who was the minister of state for education then, turned Rivers to a battleground state, gave the then Governor Amaechi sleepless nights, and defeated Mr Amaechi’s man, Dakuku Peterside, to become the governor in 2015. But his party, unfortunately, lost that year’s presidential election, the first time an incumbent Nigerian president would lose re-election.
Mr defeated Mr Amaechi and the APC again in a bloody 2019 election to win a second term.
With more than three years remaining for Mr Wike to complete his second term, Nigerians are likely to have more controversies from the governor.
The question then is: will the governor be consumed or hurt by self-induced controversies? Not at all, most likely, going by his antecedents.
“I don’t stand up against the federal government; I stand up against injustice, I stand up against marginalisation. It has nothing to do with you as the federal government.
“If this government is not in place tomorrow and another government comes in and perpetuates injustice, I will stand up against them,” Mr Wike said of his frequent conflict with Mr Buhari’s administration.