DAKULU Peterside and Nyesom Wike, the two main candidates running for governor of Nigeria’s Rivers state, signed a peace accord this week in the local capital Port Harcourt.
That an agreement was needed in the first place is a measure of the high stakes in Saturday’s election in the oil-rich southern delta region.
“We are all brothers. Let us be able to shake hands after this election. Let us participate in this election without bitterness,” State police commissioner Hosea Karma, who brokered the deal, told the two men.
Fear and anxiety have gripped Rivers after an upsurge in violent attacks in the run-up to the vote.
Peterside’s All Progressives Congress (APC), which controls the state, has claimed 55 of its supporters have been killed by thugs from Wike’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has dominated national politics for the last 16 years until last month’s defeat in the presidential polls.
During the presidential elections on March 28, the APC complained of mass vote-rigging by the PDP. Thousands laid siege to the local offices of the electoral commission and a curfew was imposed.
But political rivalry is just one factor fuelling the tensions. As elsewhere in Nigeria, there is also power, money and a backdrop of ethnic identity.
Rivers is a key battleground for both parties in the gubernatorial polls, which are taking place in 29 out of Nigeria’s 36 states to cement local power for the next four years.
The PDP has won easy majorities in Rivers since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, giving them access to huge revenues from the oil and gas sector based in the state and off its shores.
Nearly 95% of state voters in the presidential election backed outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP, who hails from next door Bayelsa state.
But this time the governorship election may not be so clear cut, with personal ties strained between Governor Rotimi Amaechi, Jonathan and his wife, Patience.
Amaechi was one of several PDP governors who defected to the APC in 2013, going on to become a harsh government critic and heading the campaign for winning presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari.
There was more bad blood when Rivers lost lucrative oil wells to Bayelsa.
Upland v riverine
Rivers has been governed for the last 16 years by “upland” politicians north of Port Harcourt, including Amaechi, who is from the Ikwerre ethnic group.
But he believes that should now change as he steps down after serving the maximum two four-year terms.
“Governor Amaechi believes it is fair and proper that somebody from the riverine area be governor in 2015,” Rivers information commissioner Ibim Semenitari told AFP.
“This has not gone down well with Jonathan, his wife and the PDP.”
The 49-year-old governor supports Peterside, who comes from Opobo, near the Atlantic coast southeast of Port Harcourt.
Wike is said to have been personally chosen by Patience Jonathan, whose home town is Okrika, just outside the state capital.
Voters could be persuaded to follow their governor by electing Peterside as his successor.
Environmental activist Annkio Briggs—a Jonathan loyalist from his Ijaw ethnic group—agreed Amaechi was right.
“Come Saturday, I will vote for Peterside. Since 1999, Rivers has been ruled by people from the upland. It’s just fair that those of us from the other side should be given a chance,” she said.
‘A PDP state’
Driver George Ani prefers to concentrate on Amaechi’s record in power to determine his vote, reflecting a governor’s personal appeal in swaying voters.
“Amaechi has done well in terms of job creation, road construction, good schools and hospitals. His performance is a plus for Peterside,” he added.
Buhari’s victory may also sway the votes towards the APC, he said, as “everybody wants to join a moving train”.
The PDP, however, thinks otherwise.
“Nothing will stop us from winning on Saturday because Rivers is a PDP state,” said party spokesman Emman Okah, countering APC claims of PDP violence with the same accusation.
“They will fail as the people have decided to vote out the APC and their sponsors.”