Nigeria 2023: Can Amaechi make the leap from campaign manager to candidate?

By Akin Irede

Posted on Monday, 31 January 2022 15:58
Former Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi speaks during the senate screening of new ministers in Abuja
Former Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi speaks during the senate screening of new ministers in Abuja, Nigeria October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Nigeria’s minister of transportation, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, is on the verge of joining the presidential race ahead of 2023. However, the political troubles he is facing in Rivers State risk killing his nascent ambition.

Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi has held many positions since joining partisan politics. He was Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly for two terms, governor for two terms and is now serving his second term as minister. Having held key offices in government for the last 23 years, his supporters now believe it is time for him to run for the highest office in Nigeria – the presidency.

Already, his posters litter several streets in the nation’s capital, while adverts sponsored by his supporters can be seen on the cover pages of major newspapers in Nigeria. Next week, the former governor is expected to be conferred with a traditional title in the head of state’s hometown, Daura, as part of his campaign for the presidency.

The title from the Emir of Daura may give Amaechi a stamp of approval. Nevertheless, the road ahead may not be smooth for the minister.

The Rivers problem

Amaechi’s strained relationship with his people in Rivers State could be traced back to 2013 when he dumped the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which he had been a member of for 14 years. As governor of Rivers State in 2007, he had appointed his bosom friend, Nyesom Wike, as his chief of staff and even nominated Wike’s wife, Suzette, as a judge. In 2011, he lobbied President Goodluck Jonathan to appoint Wike as a minister, of which Jonathan obliged. However, Amaechi was involved in a feud with President Jonathan’s wife, Patience, who happened to be from Rivers State as well. Amid this feud, Wike took sides with the first lady, thereby deepening the crisis.

President Jonathan looked the other way as Wike and Patience battled with Amaechi over the control of the political structure in the state. In the end, Amaechi defected to the APC, automatically making Wike the leader of the PDP in the state. As an APC governor, Amaechi was given the task of ensuring that Jonathan did not win re-election in 2015, but this was in conflict with the wishes of the people of Rivers State, who saw Jonathan as their son even though he is from neighbouring Bayelsa State.

I knew I was going to be in trouble, [I was ready to do] anything that would cause that change not to take place, I was ready to make that sacrifice…

The South-South zone, where Rivers and Bayelsa states are located, had been marginalised politically for decades, and somehow, Jonathan had risen to become vice-president and then president after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua. Amaechi was now tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that Jonathan did not return and that power was returned to the north, a region which had produced most of Nigeria’s leaders.

The governor began lobbying intensely to become the vice-presidential candidate of the APC and schemed to ensure that APC chieftain, Bola Tinubu, didn’t emerge as Buhari’s running mate.

However, after Buhari emerged as the presidential candidate of the APC, a little known Prof. Yemi Osinbajo was eventually picked. Amaechi was not daunted by this as he was appointed the campaign director-general, mobilising funds and support for Buhari, especially in the South-South region, which is a PDP stronghold.

He put his heart into it, knowing that failure could be costly. At the launch of his book in 2015, Amaechi revealed that Jonathan’s administration had placed him on a watch list and asked the Nigerian Immigration Service not to allow him to leave the country once Jonathan won.

“I knew I was going to be in trouble, [I was ready to do] anything that would cause that change not to take place, I was ready to make that sacrifice. The Federal Government had sent out a signal that if they won, nobody should let me leave Nigeria from any airport,” he says. Failure was therefore not an option.

However, Amaechi’s assignment was seen as treacherous. Even his deputy, at the time, Tele Ikuru, defected to the PDP on the week of the elections, saying he could not betray the people of the South-South and support Buhari’s campaign.

In a press statement, Ikuru said: “My dear people of Rivers State, we of this generation will not in good conscience expect forgiveness and compassion from our for[e]bearers, posterity, and the spirit of our unborn generations if it is recorded in the annals of history that after 48 years of Rivers people supporting leaders from all other parts of this country with our votes and resources, we were the same that witch-hunted (sic) and hounded the very first ever president from this region, granted us by providence. I wash my hands off this treachery.”

Amaechi stayed loyal to Buhari, campaigning in Rivers and other parts of the country for him. Jonathan went on to garner 1.48 million votes in Rivers State, while Buhari polled 69, 238 votes in Rivers State. Wike also went on to win the governorship election in Rivers State, thereby denting Amaechi’s ‘home credibility’. However, Buhari eventually won the presidential election and the people of Rivers State would never forgive Amaechi for this. Such actions could be suicidal in a country where tribe, ethnicity and religion play a major role, but Buhari rewarded Amaechi with a juicy appointment – minister of transportation.

The rail minister

As minister, Amaechi implemented the president’s policy of reviving the rail sector. He did this by encouraging the president to obtain controversial but low-interest loans from China worth about $3bn. Several rail projects were launched in different parts of the country, while those started by Jonathan’s administration were completed. He also ensured that a transport university was built in Buhari’s hometown, a move critics say was done by Amaechi to ingratiate himself to the president. Currently, he is also supervising the construction of a railway from Nigeria into Niger Republic, a move which the president has commended on several occasions. However, his failure to inaugurate any major project in Rivers State has only worsened his relationship with his people.

Amaechi was chairman of the governors’ forum, chairman of the conference of speakers and is currently the best performing minister in President Buhari’s cabinet, so we are mobilising and asking him to contest.

As minister, Amaechi took firm control of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) by orchestrating the indefinite suspension of the managing director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman, an ally of Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State. He subsequently appointed his former account officer as the acting MD of the NPA, which is one of Nigeria’s highest revenue generating agencies. His ability to kick out Bala-Usman was evidence that he had the president’s support.

Amaechi is also among the few ministers who have direct access to the president. He showed this on many occasions when he got the president to sign off on contracts that had been flagged for being in breach of the country’s procurement law. A local newspaper, Premium Times, published documents on how Amaechi easily got presidential waivers on lucrative contracts.

The Wike factor

Wike has remained Amaechi’s nemesis and has done everything to rubbish Amaechi’s name in the state, including levelling allegations of corruption against him at every slight opportunity. Even so, attempts by Wike to prosecute Amaechi for alleged corruption proved abortive as federal authorities continued to shield the minister, describing Wike’s probes as a witch-hunt. When Buhari was to run a second-term campaign, he called on Amaechi to help him out one more time. However, while the minister’s reputation continued to grow nationally, it got worse in Rivers State where Wike has been able to consolidate his hold, effectively becoming the most powerful PDP governor in the country.

While Amaechi has not been able to attract projects to Rivers State, Wike has inaugurated many, earning the local title ‘Mr Project’. In the 2019 elections, Amaechi’s proclivity for imposing his preferred candidates on the APC in the state backfired, as a faction led by his former protégé, Senator Magus Abe, challenged his authority. The crisis degenerated to the extent that the Supreme Court ruled that the APC could not participate in the 2019 general elections, effectively handing over every elective position in the state to the PDP.

Currently, there are two factions of the APC in Rivers State engaged in a supremacy battle, a development Wike has continued to exploit. With the lack of a strong base in his home state, how can Amaechi win a presidential election if he decides to declare soon?

Amaechi’s challenge is further compounded by the fact that the south-south region where he comes from is not a strong APC base and this has given the southwest – which boasts of popular politicians like Bola Tinubu and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo – the impetus to demand that the next president should be from their zone. So how can Amaechi overcome these obstacles?

A socio-political group, Media Vanguard for Change, which has the sole aim of ensuring that Amaechi succeeds Buhari next year, believes the minister has what it takes to lead Nigeria, having held key positions in government for the last 22 years

The director general of the group, Ordinance Emeji, pleaded with the APC to zone its presidential ticket to the south-south so that Amaechi would easily emerge as the party’s candidate.

“Amaechi was chairman of the governors’ forum, chairman of the conference of speakers and is currently the best performing minister in President Buhari’s cabinet, so we are mobilising and asking him to contest. We want the APC to zone its ticket to the south-south,” says Emeji.

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