Rivers State governorship candidate of the the All Progressives Congress, Tonye Cole, is self-effacing and daring at the same time. Calm but calculative, he exhibits leadership characteristics uncommon among the high-profile politicians and the nouveau riche in Nigeria, and thus, his approachability, has endeared him to the Rivers grassroots.
In this interview with THISDAY, Cole admits that the 2023 governorship election in Rivers is against a financial behemoth, but looks to the people to carry the day. Excerpts:
Going by INEC’s schedule of activities, the 2023 gubernatorial election campaign, has kicked off. How do you intend to win this time?
I did what was essentially unprecedented, at least, for Rivers State. What we all saw and at that time, what I was looking at was: how much has the government impacted and influenced the lives of people outside of Port Harcourt? Because you come in, you see Port Harcourt improving but when you leave there (I have been told that the party I was running against there was a very deeply entrenched grassroots party.) So, it was important that I saw it, and what I found out – the three things really hit me.The first aspect of it was that in the grassroots, the poverty was extremely high, and the feel of government within the grassroots outside of Port Harcourt was minimal. The second thing I found was that the people did not really matter in the dynamics of politics in Rivers State. This was the shocker. This one, for me, was the biggest shocker: the people, their opinion, what they thought and all of that did not matter.
The reason being that the votes did not really count. The politics was just about strongman: pick up the ballot box, smash it, get the results sheet, write it, and whoever can write, wins. The third thing that I then realise was that when it then came to the dichotomy of fairness and equity in the spread of projects, everything seemed back then to be concentrated within one geographic region of the state, which was Obio Akpor Port Harcourt, that whole Port Harcourt one side axis.These were the three things that I saw four years ago. Now, at this time, I decided in my mind that if we’re going to win, we needed to address these three things: poverty, people-oriented policies and diversifications of development across the board. So, if you ask me,that’s the winning formula. Address those things you and you’d win.
Some people have argued that you’ve been mostly absent in the scheme of things in Rivers, not very visible. They don’t think you exhibit the winning confidence. Why do you think people feel that way about your candidacy?
The first aspect of it is that a lot of people are what they hear and what they see. We have an opponent whose purse is huge, when it comes to media space; billboard space. The opponent can take three to four hours on Channels (TV) and just hold it down on live TV. Whether Channels, AIT, or anyone and just hold it down. Now when you’re competing against us, what you are seeing first and foremost is that for those who are the educated class who have TV, who have radio, who will drive around and see billboards, that is the message they get.Looking at this, it became very clear that what we needed to do was the flipside of it. Rather than compete in a space where you know you will be ousted, compete in a place where you know that the people’s decision matters. And so, I don’t make noise. I’m a result-driven person. We look for how we win, and winning today is the emotional connection to the people at the grassroots and that’s exactly what we got.
Have you built it?
We’ve built it. This one, I’m not even shaking on that, because what I have done as a politician in Rivers State is to go from village to village, from ward to ward, meeting people and seeing them, and this is what, for them, the mere fact, that there is somebody who wants to govern them, comes and sits with them and hears their needs. This is where the impact is.Well, I don’t know if this addresses sufficiently the perception that you’re not popular in the state and that even top politicians see you as an imposition on the party, being a technocrat. You came from nowhere and you got the ticket the last time even though things didn’t quite work out for you and your party. And then this time again, the same thing happened. You just came from Lagos and then got the ticket. So, there’s this perception that you are not popular in Rivers, and that you are imposed on the party, which made some people feel aggrieved and others had to leave the party. How will you address this particular point, because you have to go into the election with a united house?
First, let me start with the last bit about going into the battle with a united force. APC today in Rivers State is more united than it has ever been before. Let me repeat it: APC today is more united as a force in Rivers State than ever before. The reason is that everybody causing division within the party has left. Now, we’re a very compact, determined and focused group as to where we are going.This, for me, is the best thing that has happened to APC, because now we can stay focused and know where we’re going. I have no doubt about that. But that was a journey and we needed that journey to progress. On the issue of imposition and all of that, firstly, in any political party, the discussion and saying that anybody can be imposed is a political statement.
It’s okay for people, when they’re the one; it’s not an imposition. But as soon as it’s somebody else, they always find a reason. So, for me, it is how we can become conciliatory and how we can bring people together and how we can collaborate. I spent time going from place to place. This time around, it was competitive. The process that brought me out this time, no politician can say this one was an imposition, because this time around, it was competitive.
Governor Nyesom Wike claimed to have destroyed the APCin Rivers. In his words,APC is finished. He mocked Amaechi, that he had taken all his men, all his foot soldiers and that there’s really no APC anymore. What do you think?Remember that we’re in a political season and people will say anything, and they will go after people, so that does not worry me. But when you look at Nigerian demography and politics, you will see one thing almost immediately, that you have a base that is always almost angry with the top. First of all, there is a disconnect between what you find – political elitism and the grassroots – a big disconnect.Remember, I said the best thing that I realised coming into politics was that the people did not matter. This was a big problem. So, now, the only projects that touched the base. To the credit of Rotimi Amaechi, the projects he did in the eight years that he was governor were projects that touched the base across the board.So, you will go to every local government – these ones at the grassroots, that is where we are focusing on; those are the people that will vote at the end of the day. BVAS has done a big thing for us and what it means is that they will come out and vote. Once you can get people to come out and vote, things will be different. This election will be different.
People close to you say you are a billionaire. Tonye is a successful private sector person, but you are not appreciated in politics, because you are not generous. And if you don’t spend, you cannot really build a connection with the people, and they have not seen that from you in the few years you joined politics. Why don’t you spend it?
There are two things here. What type of spend are you talking about? The spend that people are looking for in Nigeria this time are handouts that typically make you beg again. All my life, I have looked at it that if I weaponise poverty, keep you at the place, where all I’m doing is paying you so that you can do my bidding, then I’m not doing it well. The truth of the matter is that, it’s what our politics has become. It is very deliberate in Rivers State, believe me, very deliberate that the structures and there are the structures and institutions that should make anybody in Rivers State independently wealthy are removed.
Why? Because once someone can create a very poor environment, then, he can pay them so that they will do his bidding. So, why don’t I do it a bit differently? First of all, I worked extremely hard to ensure that the kind of funding we have and the money we have reaches the right place and does the right thing. If I’m not giving you money and distributing money, we’re using it so that we can win, and once we can make sure that the money does what it does for you to remove you from poverty, I’m okay. I think I’d rather use the word that we are prudent with our finances and we are targeted with where the money goes, because of politics.
How do you overcome this since Sim Fubara is from the same riverine community as you are, and also since the votes from that area will be split between the two of you, and with the very deep pocket of the Rivers government’s backing, do you stand a chance of getting the support of the riverine?
First and foremost, the word on the streets, I haven’t been able to verify, is that Fubara is just as Ikwere as he is Opobo. The second thing on the street, is that this is an extension of the current administration. The last word on the street, this third one: not only is it an extension; it is not his government. It’s not going to be the same government. It’s just a full-control government of the current governor.
So, when we talk about imposition, this is imposition at the highest level. When we talk of impunity, this is impunity at an even greater level. But human beings are not as foolish, and neither are they stupid as we tend to think that they are. The voter is extremely intelligent. He may not be educated, but he’s not foolish. I believe 100 per cent that the average Rivers voter is seeing through some of the shenanigans that politics has pushed before them.What do we have in the riverine area, when we come to the riverine area? We have the Kalabari, where I come from, the bigger aspect of the riverine. What was played out here was played out in such a way that you know what? We’re into zoning and all of that, so let us give riverine but put it in a part of riverine that is the smallest aspect. Once it comes out of the Kalabari region and Opobo gets it this time around, the circle of rotation and zoning that will come in will deny the Kalabari the vote.
Today, we’ve agitated for the last 24 years. So, there’s been an agitation that Amaechi’s CS has been at the forefront of this. Let it go to the riverine. They said no problem. So, let’s assume that it goes to the riverine and it goes to Kalabari or Opobo because we want to see how the Kalabari is denied, it goes to Opobo. Opobo wins eight years. When they finish, where should it go next? Ideally, the next place that should get this will be Ogoni. AssumingOgoni gets it for the next eight years, that’s 16 years.
At that time and it’s coming back (to) Kalabari, they say you have your choice; you let it go. So, it goes to another riverine community. There is Bonny. There is Andoni. It goes to those ones, and they get it. Then, it goes back again, now at 24 years, it goes back again upline. At what point is it coming back to Kalabari again?
I’m not worried about the Kalabari people at the end of the day sitting down and saying if we miss this thing, the minimum is 24 years. Let us gather around now within the Kalabari community. Various candidates come from Kalabari. There are two major ones, but at the appropriate time, we will all sit down and say which party and candidate have the potential to win, and I’m certain at that point that APC is that party and I’m the candidate the Kalabaris will gather around.
Your friend, Rotimi Amaechi, seems largely out of relevance right now, having opted out of President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet, when he contested APC’s presidential primary. He doesn’t have the influence he used to have while in office. How will this affect your election?
I think anybody, who reads a book by Malcolm Gladwell called ‘The Outliers’ would realise that influence is not based on position. It’s based on how much man-hours you have actually spent doing something. And you begin to make grievous mistakes, when you think that someone who has done 10,000 man-hours in a particular profession is no longer important.One of the things that politics should always teach you as you go in is that even the smallest person is important and can cause you a big problem. While Rotimi Amaechi is no longer a minister and all of that, I think 34 years of politics give him well over 10,000 man-hours. It also gives him relationships and knowledge and ideas that can come to play. He should not be taken for granted at all. So, I don’t take it for granted. It’s a very needed skill and so, it will come to play and that will be a positive.
You talk about being prudent, have you considered the humongous money available to the incumbent governor and his party’s candidate you’re going head-to-head against in the 2023 governorship election?
There are certain things. I’ve seen this thing over and over again. I saw it in business. Now,I’m seeing it in politics. If money were the only tool for winning or losing elections, we would have Dangote as president today. We would have Wike himself ruling the country. Money is not it. While people see this, life has shown me that money is just one part. When you take the money away, I’ve competed in life since from the age of about eleven.
What’s the difference? Certain things are clear. My opponent has lots of money. It is already a failure for me to decide that the way I will compete with him is to compete with money. Then, I decided to fail. So, money is not even the issue for me. It’s the issue of competition. Where do I compete with my opponent, that he cannot even begin to have deeper relationships with? My relationship scope is further than he can ever believe. Those relationships are not bought with money. You can pay some. You can sway a few people to move away. But believe me, there are relationships that money cannot buy.Those relationships will come to play. There’s a character issue as well when we are going into an election like this, where people are saying this time around that, you know what? It’s not about the party. Let’s not take it for granted. It plays a huge part. So, we take that, raise money, raise work ethics. If it was only money, I might as well not run.
Putting it straight, why do you really want to be governor?
I learnt over time that politics affects everything that we do. In my work as a philanthropist, throughout life, we’ve seen that using business and using personal resources to impact lives can only do so much. Former President Obasanjo once said to me when I was having a conversation on impact and trying to make a difference. He said to me, how many people can you impact through social investment in your business? I felt maybe three million to four million people.But he said one policy can change all of that. He said, what are four million people in a country of 200 million? He said if you want to make a difference, go into politics and make sure you have people-oriented policies. I’m taking that very seriously. If you want to change Nigeria for me, why have I chosen politics now as a career? It’s that it is the fastest route to impacting people, changing their lives and positioning them for a better future so we can enjoy it now.
What are your thoughts about the electoral act?First, I have to give kudos to INEC and the president for signing that electoral act. People say that maybe as politicians, they didn’t know what they were signing. I don’t think so.Regardless of whether they knew what they were signing. I suspect that one of the things we have seen in Nigeria is that there’s been an improvement in how elections are conducted. We needed an electoral act that would give more confidence to the people.
Do you have concerns about INEC’s ability to deliver?
I believe INEC has done very well. If we look at what’s happened in Anambra, what happened in Osun, and what happened in Ekiti, the trend is moving in the right direction. I’m not too concerned about INEC’s ability to deliver. I think they will deliver. What really concerns me more is that people’s expectations are so high now that both work out. If for any reason, people suspect there has been foul play, it will be devastating.
The Rivers government made statements against you and Amaechi over money concerning some power project. Suddenly, without any notice, the government withdrew its litigation. Can you throw some light on these allegations that the governor had harped on and then suddenly withdrew the charges?I wish that the same amount of fanfare with which the charges were made, were used to explain the withdrawal. What I would say is right from the beginning, my position has been very clear on three fronts. One, it was very political, and nothing was missing anywhere. Two, the Freedom of Information Act allows every investigative journalist or person to go to a sales bank, the ministry of power or any government organisation to get the data because the information was there all along.
There was really no case to answer. Thirdly, and most important, was that I think there was an abuse of process. There was a white paper, no investigations, and you just went into court. I suspect the case lacked merits, and it became clear to the government at some point. It wasn’t going to succeed. Rather than being defeated in court, it was withdrawn. Furthermore, it was not only withdrawn. It was struck out and dismissed. That’s the end of that matter.
List two things the Rotimi Amaechi’s administration did that you believe had declined under Wike?
Education and Social welfare are two very important things. Everything that I am today is based on the education that I got in the same country of ours. One of the things that have been a pain is the willful destruction of the educational fabric in Rivers, particularly, because it points to weaponising poverty.Keep people uneducated, very poorly educated, and they won’t get good jobs; that way, you can control them politically. It needs to end. For me, education is critical. But with education also comes the issue of security. There are two types of security, and if you use security or force – police, military, army and all of that – it has been shown repeatedly across the world that, that is not sustainable.
Neither is it something that can work. You have to add security that the people themselves understand that they are the first line of security by being their brother’s keeper. So, for us, for this social community, it’s letting people understand that by creating security themselves, creating investments and allowing people to come in. We need to get back to that. So, those two things are critical, and we must do it.
Will you probe the Wike administration if elected governor?
I don’t know. I have no idea what they (Wike’s administration) have done. But one of the things I have truly found is that you spend all your time on chasing the past and never move forward. I think our priority is to correct the wrongs and start building all these things moving forward. If there are blatant things seen along the way that borders on total abuse of the people’s rights and things like that, you have no choice but to look into those things. To sit down and just probe, you will spend all your time, and before you know what’s happening, your first tenure is gone.
So, first and foremost, as a party person for everyone, we must focus on ensuring that our party wins up and down. That’s the normal thing. However, Rivers State also has a very uncanny stubbornness to be able to end up, and I don’t know how we do it. I believe that regardless of which way we go as a party, If APC wins the first ballot, then with ease, we will move forward and win the second one. But If PDP wins the first ballot, because Rivers State has the ability to look at it, they just decided that this is the way we are going for the governorship. I believe that we will still win.
As a prominent businessman, you recently received an award. How will you use your business strength to move Rivers forward?
The first thing is that you must be able to give investors confidence. Nothing gives an investor confidence than knowing that the person on the other side of the table understands where they are coming from. Many years ago, when we were leaving university, two places you wanted to go, if given a choice for where you want to go: Lagos or Port Harcourt.There is no other destination. You either go to Lagos or Port Harcourt. And the reason was that each place had a business environment that could absorb this recovery. There was a future that they saw. They have been going hand-in-hand in the last 20 years. This story is totally reversed. Everybody wants to come to Lagos. Lagos is the place, where you see the skyline has changed. Skyscrapers are going up.
You know everything has changed. Nightlife, social life, all. Rivers State has gone down, so for me, an economy driven by the private sector, a knowledge-based economy, is critical for Rivers State. We have to attract businesses back. My first line as a business person is to look for the businesses that left Rivers for Lagos, Abuja and give them the confidence that they can come back.Some left for America. Let us bring these back first. I believe that I understand business and I understand the business environment. I know what they want to see done, not just what they want to hear. But what they want to see physically. I intend to put that in place, so that they have the confidence to come back.
Why are you not really pushing yourself and your agenda?
One of the things we learnt from 2019 was that let us not take anything for granted. Campaigns had not started until a couple of days ago. We couldn’t have started campaigning,because we have an enemy with plenty of money and looking for anything. Next, we need to carry everything, take all our statements, put all of them, take it to court and go and say that we have been campaigning and all of that and remove us from the ballots. I’m not taking chances.We have decided that we will be on the ballot regardless of what they try. What we have decided is that we’re going to follow the rules later. And that’s why our primaries, you know, INEC said they came to Rivers State on the mandate that if they had as much as one slap at the primary election of APC, they should cancel it. We put our primaries on channels. We put it live. We put every box, every local government, 23 local governments separate –everybody, come and vote in your local government – line up, behave ourselves, no provocation.
Somebody tried to provoke us in the stadium and all the rest. Everybody sat down at it. They just sat like this and did the primaries. It was one of the primaries INEC did not complain about, because it went smoothly. We know that the opposition is looking for every reason.Even with that primary that went smoothly, we went to court. They took us to court, they said they must take us out. But from now on, they will hear plenty. That is when all the credentials will come out. That is when they will hear what I’m about to do. That’s when they will see all our activities between October and December. It’s a long time.
You are bidding to succeed the current governor. What do you think his failures have been as a governor?
Well, let me put it this way, I think the shortcomings are clear. He hasn’t developed the state beyond it being one city-state. Even within a single city, all of the development has been within a particular local government; it’s received almost 80 per cent of the investment by government, and it’s received the major part of the investment that has gone to the state: Obi AKpor, and even within the Obi Akpor, it is the Obi part that has received even more.
When it comes to human capital development within the state and all of that: rather than seeing the development of human capital, we’ve seen an increase in poverty, unemployment, and a decrease in social status, which means that we have to begin to address restoring dignity to the people of Rivers State, which is very important. We’ve seen businesses flee Rivers just fold up and leave. You cannot create an environment or sustain a state, where people leave. Rather, it should be an attraction for businesses.
Stemming an outflow of business becomes important. We’ve also seen an environment that allows for entrepreneurial activities and innovation, where the youth are best suited for food, entertainment, sports, and all of those things, including technology, all lacking—those things to put in place. But I think the one that really gets me is the impunity of law and order.
As a business person, if I feel that you can crush my business, bring down my infrastructure, or kill it at will, I have no reason to go to courts because the courts are in your pocket, and you can do as you want. Law and order are fundamental for any business and economy to grow. We need to address all of that. These, for me, are shortcomings that must be addressed.
What will you say is the cornerstone of your agenda if elected Rivers governor come 2023?Law and order are one. Good governance is two, accountability and maintaining law and order. If you don’t address those things, you are not getting anywhere. Of course, you have other things like security and social welfare. But, my brother, if you cannot address law and order, you cannot address transparency within the government.