Opinion

Rivers State: The rise of politics and fall of reason

In a constitutional democracy, politics is the only legitimate route to governance. And the primary role of government is to provide security, the legal and social framework for economic enterprise, public goods and services, social welfare and the maintenance of law and order.

Politics is synonymous with competition. And the competitors deploy all manner of strategies to outwit each other. Despite the altruistic disposition of many elected politicians, the fact is that a good number seek political office for its accoutrements. Patriots in elected positions strive to serve their constituents through different means. It could be through political parties with different ideologies.

In Nigeria, the leading political parties are not about ideology, and some of our politicians move from one political party to another like the barber’s chair. The overriding interest is to use whatever political party the politician finds himself as a vehicle to secure power and pursue whatever interests he may have.

There have been debates on the role of politics in development and the impact of politicking on economic growth, and there are different schools of thought in relation to these. However, there is a paucity of studies on politics, the flight of reason and economic development. Maybe because of the common assumption that the overall good and not politicking should ordinarily guide the quest for economic growth by leaders and the citizens.

Development should be devoid of partisan considerations, as this is the only way to ensure sustained development that could result in growth.

Development programmes should not be tools for retaining power for those who already have it, nor should they be manipulated for gaining power. When development plans are given political colourations, politics is taken too far, and the populace is usually the victims.

Two recent developments present two models emerging from South-South states on the relationship between politics and politicking on the one hand, and development on the other.

The first is the obvious cooperation between the government of Bayelsa State and Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources, as exemplified in the recently completed Nigerian Content Development Monitoring Board (NCDMB) building. This is even when the heads of the two government institutions belong to different political parties.

You could see and feel enlightened politics that makes a distinction between justifiable self-interest of and personal differences among the political class; and the larger good of the citizenry. This contrasts with the scenario in nearby Rivers State, a theatre of sorts in political competition among gladiators.

A recent dramatic development in Rivers State regarding the Port Harcourt–Maiduguri Narrow Gauge Railway project and the Bonny Deep Seaport project may be an example of how partisan politics and parochial interests are fighting to deprive Nigerians of a much-needed developmental boost.

The Port Harcourt–Maiduguri rail project entails the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the existing 1,443-kilometre Nigerian Eastern Railway Line from Port Harcourt in Rivers State to Maiduguri, Borno State, and traversing sixty-five (65) local government areas in twelve States.

So, what do Rivers people need? Do they need more short overhead bridges that may not make much meaningful impact on their lives? What has Rivers State got to lose from a project that will cost it virtually nothing but would be a boost to the economy and immense benefit to the people and the entire country?

The project, which is to be co-financed by a loan from a syndicate of Chinese financiers, with a Federal Government contribution of 15 per cent project cost, is being developed through direct investment by the conglomerate led by Messrs CCECC Nigeria Limited, with a total investment portfolio of US$3.2 billion. Upon completion, it will add to the country’s emerging rail network.

Ancillary to the project is the construction of the Port Harcourt Railway Industrial Park. The park, essentially an industrial hub, will have the necessary infrastructure (power, water, waste disposal, ICT, gas distribution) and transportation, logistics centres, and auxiliary infrastructure.

Then there is the Bonny Deep Seaport project, which entails constructing a deep seaport with a capacity of 100,000 DMT container vessel and 50,000 DWT bulk vessel on a total land take of 275.22 hectares in Bonny Island of Rivers State. The Bonny Deep Seaport would have a container terminal of 500,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent unit) per annum capacity and 100,000 DWT (Deadweight Tonnage) berth.

It is unarguable that these projects would be of immense benefit to the South-South and South-East geopolitical regions, alongside the entire country when completed. Let us take the rail project as an example. As envisaged by the Federal Government, the rail project serves as transportation and supply chain network for domestic needs, and export and support imports into the country’s hinterland through the new deep seaport in Bonny Island.

The government is also optimistic that the improved port would lead to a regional and international transportation hub. In line with global trends, the Railway Industrial Park will have the capability to process exports of raw materials, with value addition and the export of locally made goods.

The country has been paying a colossal price for the lack of a functional rail transport infrastructure. All over the world, rail transportation has become one of the most important, commonly used, and very cost-effective modes of commuting and goods haulage over short and long distances. This system runs on metal (usually steel) rails and wheels, it has an inherent benefit of lesser frictional resistance, which helps attach more load in wagons or carriages.

Most developed nations are known for having an efficient and effective rail transport system, which has emerged as one of the most dependable modes of transportation in terms of safety. Compared to other transport mechanisms, trains are fast and the least affected by usual weather turbulences like rain or fog.

In most countries, rail transport is better organised than any other transport medium, with fixed routes and schedules. Its services are more specific, uniform and regular, in comparison to other modes of transportation.

In the United Kingdom, rail transport is an enabler of economic progress, used by the British to mobilise goods and people. The country’s rail adaptations that include passenger railways, the underground, urban metro railways and goods carriages play a vital role in the country, directly contributing £870 million annually to the economy.

It also supports an output of £5.9 billion, over six times its natural turnover. Rail freight in the U.K. transports goods worth around £30 billion annually.

In addition to these, rail transport can be cost-effective as shippers who convert long-haul freight from road to rail can save 10-40 per cent in costs. Experts affirm that rail has lower fuel costs than road transport, especially when hauling a high volume of freight. Rail also has fewer costs associated with drivers and the capability to handle large volumes of freight as one double-stacked train can hold approximately the same amount of goods as 280 trucks.

Governor Wike, like some of his colleagues who have chosen politics over development, is faced with at least four consequences: (a) With the governor’s mindset focused on politics and politicking, it is obvious there will be no significant engagement on issues of socio-economic development in the State for the rest of his tenure…

The rails are more environmentally friendly than road transportation, and due to specialised routes and the advent of fast trains, they can be quicker than road transportation in a lot of cases.

With all these immense benefits, what could be an acceptable reason for Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State’s decision to play unnecessary politics with the Port Harcourt–Maiduguri Railway project that directly impacts twelve states?

Governor Wike’s attack on the need or desire of Rivers people for the Bonny Deep seaport/PH-Maiduguri rail line is suspending reason and taking “street politics” and politicking to essential matters of national development.

His main arguments are five-fold: First, that Bonny Deep seaport is not what Rivers people need now (as if the port is purposely designed to serve Rivers people only). Second, the PH-Maiduguri rail line and the Railway Industrial Park are not urgently needed. Third, the projects are politically motivated and a case of “politics of 2023” taken too far. Fourth, the projects are deliberately designed not to take off before 2023 and therefore planned as deceit. Fifth, it is disingenuous for the Federal Government to commence a narrow gauge rail line from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri at a time the rest of the world is building standard gauge railways.

Fortunately, both narrow and standard gauge rail lines have their advantages and disadvantages. The choice is always a product of studies and the recommendation of experts on which one is most suited for a particular terrain.

So, what do Rivers people need? Do they need more short overhead bridges that may not make much meaningful impact on their lives? What has Rivers State got to lose from a project that will cost it virtually nothing but would be a boost to the economy and immense benefit to the people and the entire country?

Understandably, the governor may be hostile to the project because of the perception that it is spearheaded by his predecessor. This should not lead to a flight of reason and a compromise of the long-term development interests of the people whom Wike swore to protect.

Governors enjoy undue influence in setting development agenda in their areas of jurisdiction. Still, when a governor does not understand the concept of development or his understanding is warped, society suffers the dire consequences of underdevelopment. Poor leadership is one of the prices to pay for having the head of a mob lead a decent society.

Governor Wike, like some of his colleagues who have chosen politics over development, is faced with at least four consequences: (a) With the governor’s mindset focused on politics and politicking, it is obvious there will be no significant engagement on issues of socio-economic development in the State for the rest of his tenure; (b) he will try to confront, rather than engage, the centre, which may deny his State the much needed federal support in a structure that is more unitary than federal – as the complementarity between the federal and component states is key to the pursuit of development. (c) Greed and an insatiable appetite for political advantage would displace the desire for the genuine socio-economic development of the State; (d) the governor, due to a poor understanding of the components of development, cannot create the enabling environment for the private sector to operate and bring in investment, thereby denying the people of employment opportunities.

This last point is particularly important as government cannot, of its own accord, create all the jobs for all its citizens. The world over, most governments are doing everything humanly possible to put in place world-class infrastructure to attract investment and grow their economies. Rivers State and the likes of Wike cannot be doing the opposite.

The Rivers State people should not be victims of naked, primordial politics by a governor who is more of an absolute monarch than a facilitator of development. Their interests should be of utmost importance to their leaders. The game of politics should not be taken too far – to the extent that it begins to undermine development.

Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.

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