Alams in the eyes of the Ijaws

 

Before 1999, the Ijaw nation had no one whom they affectionately called Governor-General. Not because the Ijaws, Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group spread over a wide swathe of the coastal terrain, had a shortage of personages any one of whom could be hero-worshipped. There was Major Isaac Adaka Boro, who staged the 12-day Revolution for the establishment of the still-born Niger Delta Republic in 1967. There were many others, including Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye. At any rate, for more than 15 straight years before 1999, the country—together with the Ijaw nation—was beleaguered by different strains of retrogressive military regimes during which it was a sure-fire daring of the gallows for anyone to muster the kind of following that would have earned him the soubriquet of Governor-General.

But after 1999, with the advent of the Fourth Republic, the Ijaws found one in whom they were immensely pleased. That person was Chief Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha (Alams, for short), the democratically elected Governor of Bayelsa State from 1999 until 2005, when, midway into his second term, he was removed from office in a dramatic gun-boat legislative undertaking that advertised the reckless abuse of Federal might and politics of vendetta. Through a combination of genuine populism, empathetic appreciation of the deplorable status of the Ijaws in the national scheme of things, robust articulation of far-reaching measures to redress the age-long grievances of the Ijaws, coupled with the steps he took to begin opening up Bayelsa from its backwater  status, Alams won hearts and minds of the Ijaws.

Before long, Alams was no longer being addressed as Governor of Bayelsa State, but as Governor-General of the Ijaw nation, a somewhat anachronistic title dating to the colonial era. But, it was, nevertheless, an alias that reflected the gut feeling of the Ijaws, the largest population of whom are concentrated in Bayelsa. Alams was a leading voice in peaceful agitation for resource control, in particular, a constitutional amendment that would drive up derivation, as a factor in revenue allocation, from at least 13 per cent, as prescribed in the 1999 Constitution, to no less than 50 per cent. And given the nation’s manipulative and rapacious politics that thrives on parasitism, while tokenist reliefs are tossed to the deprived areas that produce the country’s oil wealth, it was only a matter of time before this new-found Ijaw hero would be brought back to earth by forces too powerful for him to combat.

Alams himself made the task easier for his adversaries. He failed to realise that when a favourite wife misbehaves, all she earns may be a frown, or a mild rebuke; but not so for a disfavoured wife who in similar circumstances might be visited with far harsher punishment for her transgression. Yet, it is easy, without necessarily justifying the conduct, to understand why Alams failed to appreciate that he was a high-valued target, and therefore needed to be above board in order not to give his traducers the much-needed pretext to nail him. Thus, when they began to hunt him, he was arrested in London for being in possession of foreign currency that could not be justified by any reasonable earnings. Taken to court, he jumped bail, and entered into the frying pan that had been prepared red-hot for him back home. To, as the saying goes, cut a long story short, he was impeached by the legislature in questionable circumstances, handcuffed and flown to Abuja. His became the first high-profile case that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission prosecuted against a former governor since the beginning of the Fourth Republic. Alams pleaded guilty, and was convicted with a prison sentence and forfeiture of a number of assets.

Nigerians are unlikely to forget in a hurry the snide remark of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, who described some of Alams’ colleagues as “Owambe Governors” that were partying all over the world. If these governors were having a ball, it cost money, and no one is fooled that it was small money—money that could not be justified from reasonable earnings. It wasn’t that these other governors were merely partying, there was also implied in President Obasanjo’s remark  a negative competitive spirit that had overtaken some of the governors, who then began to brag about “My Mercedes (or mansion) is bigger than yours!” But these other colleagues of Alams were not the target, hence the law could look the other way, while they had a lavish time.

Alams succumbed to the pervasive peer pressure of the time. Again, it is useful for us to remember the mood of the political class when democracy began anew in 1999. There were serious doubts about the survival of the system; fear was rife that sooner or later the military would strike again, and send everyone packing. The nation had been through various transition rigmarole since Gen. Ibrahim Babangida came up with the Political Bureau in 1986, which led to his deceptive transition politics that eventually ended in a fiasco with the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. Gen. Sani Abacha came with his five fingers of a leprous hand that sought to adopt him as sole candidate and leader-for-life, until he died suddenly.

Politicians had lost huge sums of money in earlier botched transition programmes; their hopes had equally evaporated. Thus, from 1999, there seemed to be a conscious determination by the political class not to be caught napping, if the Fourth Republic collapsed like others before it. Politicians generally, therefore, sought to minimize their losses. And, let’s face it, there was no legitimate way of doing this, other than recourse to funds under their custody. There was gross abuse of security votes, a situation which has merely decreased in intensity in recent years. Some governments took questionable loans that were guaranteed by irrevocable standing payment orders, such that their state monthly allocation from the Federation Account was mortgaged. If there was any saint of that era, let him/her come out and swear by juju, the Holy Bible or Holy Koran that he/she is squeaky clean.

Of course, if no one was caught, it became a game that they thought could go on forever. But, when democracy did not collapse after the first two/three years, politicians again descended on the till, to the detriment of the people and country no doubt, in order to raise funds for the next electoral battle—the badly flawed 2003 general elections— that was a do-or-die affair. By now, the political class had become the new monied class, able and willing to dispense financial favour that the people appropriately termed “empowerment”. Those politicians with definite term limits also began to think of funding the election of their successors.

Additionally, serving governors had seen the penurious state of some governors of old, and like serving civil servants who do not wish to die on the queue waiting for their miserable pension, and therefore help themselves through inflated contracts and outright stealing, politicians thought they could accumulate for the rainy day. Except that, there was no limit, and the recklessness was all over the polity—at Federal, State, Local government, in both the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

Alamieyesigha was a trophy to be won, and he made the game easier for his hunters. He tumbled from hero to villain, at least in the immediate circumstances of his humiliating impeachment, arraignment, plea and conviction. But can Alams, before and after the presidential pardon, walk the streets of Bayelsa freely? The answer to the question is a pointer to the man’s enduring heroism. Yes, of course, Alams has been walking the streets of Bayelsa neither molested nor taunted for his travails. It would be insulting to the people of Bayelsa, and to the Ijaw nation that they did not know the injury Alams meant to them by his conviction. The truth is that the people know the deeper undercurrent that sought to make Alams the quintessential villain, while his contemporaries, who behaved in the circumstances described above, have been given a slap on the wrist, or have a made a yo-yo of the legal system, such that nobody knows the precise status of their trial, for lack of diligent prosecution.

Alams has completed the cycle of heroism and villainy; and now, he is on the rebound. He has been deploying his influence to abate the scourge of oil theft and brazen militancy in the Niger Delta region, which by most accounts has yielded beneficial results as indicated by the quantum leap in crude oil production and export, with attendant resource flow for the entire country. What Alams has been achieving silently in his post-conviction years is not altogether new. The period of his rise as Governor-General of the Ijaw nation also coincided with a parallel development: the intensity of militancy that had been brewing since the years of military rule.

From genuine agitation for resource control and remediation of the Niger Delta environment that had been devastated by the reckless operations of the oil companies, criminal gangs emerged from all over and began a reign of ransom-kidnapping and plain oil theft. As Governor of Bayelsa, Alamieyeseigha interceded on numerous occasions to secure the release of expatriate oil workers who had been kidnapped. He braved rough seas on occasion to negotiate with the kidnappers to secure the freedom of the victims.  He may not now be hailed as Governor-General, but Alamieyeseigha has since been back in the warm embrace of his people, who should know that Alams is no villain, and the presidential pardon has formalised it by transforming him into a novus homo (a new man).

  • Azaiki is a former Secretary to the Bayelsa State Government