Has the political end come for Rotimi Amaechi?
Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, Nigeria's transport minister and recent campaign chief to President Muhammadu Buhari, suffered a heavy loss this week that may force him into early political retirement after losing an election in which neither he nor his party contested.
Earlier this week, Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) secured his re-election by triumphing over his closest challenger, Biokpomabo Awara of the African Action Congress (AAC).
- The election was a proxy war between Wike and Amaechi, leader of the the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, which had supported the AAC after both the courts and the electoral commission restricted it from fielding candidates at all levels in the polls.
- Amaechi, in his recurring role as godfather for the APC, has watched his anointed political godsons fall in back-to-back elections against Wike. Dakuku Peterside lost in both the main 2015 governorship elections and the court-ordered rerun. This year, Tonye Cole, a political rookie and oil and gas businessman was slated to fly the APC’s flag but was barred by both the courts and the election commission. As a contingency plan, the APC backed the AAC.
A cat with nine lives
Throughout his political trajectory Amaechi – whose nickname is “The Lion of Ubima” (his hometown) – has shown a remarkable willingness to go against the powers that be and a ruthlessness against even his allies and family, prevailing against everyone but Wike.
- As speaker of the State House of Assembly he was engulfed in a rift with his erstwhile political godfather and governor at the time, Peter Odili. He also had to flee to Ghana for a few months of self-exile because of a fractured relationship with former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
- In 2007, Amaechi – then a member of the PDP – secured the governorship after a Supreme Court ruling that sacked Celestine Omehia, his blood cousin. The PDP had substituted Omehia after Amaechi won the primaries.
- As chair of the influential governors’ forum, Amaechi and current Senate president Bukola Saraki went against then president Goodluck Jonathan, leading five other governors away from the PDP in 2013. Coincidentally, Saraki looks to be heading for early retirement, too, after losing his Senate seat and failing to foist another protégé on his home state of Kwara. However, Saraki still has a solid footing in the PDP.
- Jonathan and his wife clashed repeatedly with Amaechi over a lot of issues, including oil wells reassigned from Rivers to Bayelsa State. The presidency – unwittingly or not – enabled the embarrassment of the governor by various security personnel.
- As a first-term governor, Amaechi was appreciated by many sections of the population and was a high performer, with education as a special policy focus. During his second term (2011-2015), he fell out with a lot of his associates, including Wike, who was his former chief of staff but returned to torment him as a federal minister in a yet-to-end feud.
The end of the road?
With Buhari’s first tenure set to end and Wike fully in control of oil-rich Rivers State, it may now be the end of the road for Amaechi. After serving a colourful term as transport minister, he was again appointed as chief of Buhari’s re-election campaign in 2018. But all good things eventually come to an end.
- Days before the resumption of results collation in Rivers, APC chair Adams Oshiomhole disowned the APC’s backing of the AAC, saying he was unaware of any such arrangements.
- With the APC shut out of government in the four main oil-producing states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers, and the new strongman of politics in Amaechi’s own state still flexing his muscles effectively, the sum total of the minister’s current electoral value to the APC is zero.
- Back home in the Niger Delta, his good will has been sorely depleted after having masterminded violent episodes in the state. Knowing that Buhari’s re-election was not a shoo-in, Amaechi desperately fought to get the governorship of the state by his many proxies and unleashed federal might through the army in an onslaught that left dozens of people dead in a number of communities across the state. Ojukaye Flag-Amachree, one of his allies and the factional state chairman of the party, is still in court as principal suspect in a beheading case during the 2015 elections. The case has been adjourned at least 25 times.
- There is also the small matter of a leaked audio recording of Amaechi appearing to criticise Buhari. It has since been discredited and denied by government aides, but it was damaging nonetheless. “The President is not listening to anybody,” Amaechi was heard saying in the audio file, leaked in early January. “He doesn’t care. You can write anything you want. The President doesn’t care. Does he read?”
- Without any immunity or federal protection for Amaechi, Wike could now move in for the kill. Wike could seek the prosecution of his friend-turned-foe, who was indicted by a state judicial commission of inquiry. It is looking into Amaechi’s time in office and indicted him for misappropriation of state funds and assets in 2015.
What to watch out for:
It remains to be seen if Amaechi will make the cut when Buhari announces a new cabinet and other federal appointments after he is inaugurated this June. For a man whose career has careened through highs and lows, it may yet be early days for a swan song, but the writing on the wall is that the Lion of Ubima’s time roaming the jungle as a fierce beast is up.