Date Published: 05/25/09
Exclusive Interview: I want them to stop killing innocent civilians - Princewill
…Why he resigned
For about three years now, Tonye Princewill, a Kalabari prince who muzzled his way into prominence in the highly heated politics of Rivers State have confounded people with his brand of politics mixed with activism. When his ambition to govern the state fizzled, he pitched his tent with Governor Rotimi Amaechi in a partnership that has been hailed as a model of constructive opposition. His dynamism was recognized by the Federal government when he was appointed into the Niger Delta Peace panel by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Critics see him as unprincipled opportunist while others adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Princewill shattered that myth last week with his principled resignation from the federal appointment in protest of the military expedition in Niger Delta that has reduced communities into rubbles and turned Nigerians to refugees in their own domain.
“I cannot be a part of this. I cannot honestly serve under these conditions when my people are being slaughtered.” He told us in an exclusive interview. Read on.
1. Why did you suddenly resign your appointment as Chairman of the Niger Delta subcommittee in the Vision 2020 committee?
Because it was no longer tenable to propose the way forward for the Niger Delta to people who quite clearly had no respect for the Niger Delta. I used the term pissing in the wind to accentuate the futility of the exercise. What I did was not done out of anger or rashly, it was cold and calculated. I came to the conclusion that Yar‘Adua and people who advocate communities in the Delta be bombed do not know any better. They see the criminality and they see us. They hear kidnapping and they think we approve of it. There are those that know better. They know the people of the Niger Delta are victims. Not just of the militants and the criminals but also of the JTF and the Oil companies. But they choose to hide behind the story that suits them. The one that paints us black all black. Nigerians are now expected to take sides. Either you are with the criminals or you are with the enforcers of law. Well I believe we have other options. I prefer to be with the 99% - the people. What about our mothers and sisters in the villages? What about the old men and children who have no idea what is going on and who see development as a foolish man’s dream? Who is with them? These are the true people, the people of the Niger Delta. They have no voice, they have no guns, they have no education and they have no health. They watched in amazement when this same government and this same party worked with the youths to destabilize the electoral process not once, not twice and then watched the youths grow into warlords. These same people overheard some ignorant Nigerians asking them to go and tell the youths that carrying guns was illegal and wondered whether city life and western education had bred new strains of madness in these ignorant Nigeria. You see we have to be careful of the extremists on both sides. One says kill, the other says kill. Both are the languages of death and no progressive mind wants either because we know it will never end. That suits them. There is a benefit in war for some people. Think about it. What we need now is a voice of reason. Sadly our generation is looking up to the generation before us to provide it. In the Presidency, in the cabinet, in the national assembly in the Governors forum, in our state assembly, among our elder statesmen, in the press, wherever.
2. Feeler reaching us says your members refused to accept your resignation. Why?
God bless them. Many of them were most upset at the development and equally worried about my resignation. I received a lot of support from them but I had to explain that I was only telling the Federal Government in my own way how much I disapproved of the military bombardment of innocent civilians. How would you feel if somebody walked into this room and killed all of us when they were only looking for one of us and said that the rest were collateral damage? What if the collateral damage was your mother or daughter? In this case 99% killed may have been innocent if not more. Their objective was Tom Polo and he apparently is still alive and well so what are we talking about? What happened to intelligence, what happened to surgical strikes, what happened to avoiding civilian casualties? Why is it that my mother and my sister are less than humans? They understood my points but insisted they will not appoint another Chairman. I thank them for their commitment to me. As with most of my assignments, I am one of the youngest in their midst so I have had to be both polite and courteous but if you look well you will know that it this attack was a well thought out and deliberate plan which has been earmarked to last a while. All indicators point to that. The only detail they missed out was the most important – the people. That is why it will not solve the problem. The root causes which produced it in the first place remain and it will become more unpopular. That means the Presidency will have the religious organisations, credible opposition, civil society organisations, organised labour, the international community, his own party and the people of Niger Delta to contend with. Not very wise.
3. Is attacking the government’s actions not a licence for militants to continue killing soldiers?
No. If you look at my history I have been categorical in my condemnation of the violence. I came into politics because of a lack of political will to address the issue in my state and I am grateful to the Eso panel’s inquiry into Rivers state which exposed some of what we had been crying out about. I have stood as an opposition leader and governorship candidate on an anti- PDP platform and so the violent youths and their guns have been pointed at me many a time. I have challenged Odili and his methodology since 2003 and now six years later, I remain consistent. I feel the pain of the soldiers who lost their lives. Many of them are my brothers from the North. Do not forget I grew up there. But we must be realistic. We must point these boys in the right direction and use diplomacy and action to direct them to a different way of life. They have no mentors, no one to look up to. Give them mentors. In Rivers state we have the Chief A.K Horsfall committee which is addressing the issue. Those who have given up the gun can find a new life. What do we have at the Federal level? I could have recruited the use of force in Rivers state to counter the Odili menace but I did not. Consequently no force was used against me and the judgment on Odili didn’t come from me. My conscience is clear. I have never asked for arms, purchased arms or proposed violence. Like I said in my press statement, violence begets violence. All I want is for both sides to reflect on this. Can they say the same? If not, they should repent now.
4. What is going wrong in the Niger Delta and how would you propose we move forward with this matter if you were given the opportunity to advise?
There are so many people who have answers to this question. Let us save ourselves time. No one person has all the answers. As for being given the opportunity, I already took it when I joined the Niger Delta Technical committee. In that team were some of the best brains in the Niger Delta. We have already proposed the way forward. In that report which is now publicly available, you will see some of the most remarkable ideas which other regions can also benefit from. If the Federal Government wants peace in the Niger Delta the report if implemented will provide it. Even the recent events would have been avoided. Not all the youths can be or want to be reformed, some will have to face the consequences of their actions but many can be and should be reformed. Only an intelligent government can manoeuvre this process. It is easier to kill than rehabilitate just like it is easier to demolish than renovate especially when the property is not your own.
5. What is the state of affairs in Rivers state with you and Amaechi? Are you preparing the way for a smooth transition from him to you come the next election?
The state of affairs in Rivers state is very impressive. Many people will not believe that in less than two years we have achieved what we have achieved. The Governor has been very aggressive with turning around the state from the dark days of the past and has gone a long way to show that in any transformation or reform, the leader is the focal point. The buck stops with him and as Odili before him was judged harshly, Amaechi will not want anyone with his surname to be too embarrassed to mention it after he leaves. Unfortunately my standards are too high to be too happy about where we are as a state and so I want to see more improvements and more progress in the second half of this administration. As the opposition we are constantly assessing the performance of this administration and our second year anniversary assessment coming up in another few months will make very interesting reading. It will highlight the good the bad and the ugly and will probably once again solicit calls from the PDP in Rivers state to ban Princewill from Government House like they suggested to a “couldn’t care less” Amaechi same time last year. But all that could change. We are all focused on what is in front of us now. Talk of several years ahead is conceited. Anyone with personal ambition placed ahead of state, region or nation deserves to falter and fail. The time calls for selfless service. We are in a big mess at the moment. We need all selfless hands on deck.
6. Some people hailed your resignation as an original gesture and courageous yet some called it naive pointing out that not only would it make no difference, it would impact negatively on your perceived nomination as the MD of NDDC. What’s your take on this?
For those of you that have followed my career you know that I have my primary constituency - the voiceless. There are many voiceless who have things to do and go about their business everyday with no care for politicians or politics. Then you have the ones who are suffering and literally dying in silence without uttering a word. They, like the first group, are linked by the common thread called apathy. “What’s the point in politics anyway they don’t care about us, why bother Tonye they will rig the elections anyway or even if you get there, you will be like them and forget us my Prince.” It is these people that concern me. I want to show them that we can make a difference, that politics can make change and that in fact the only way you can get change is through participation in politics. Iwu has made my argument a lot harder, the Yar’Adua electoral reforms haven’t helped and Ekiti another example of the nightmare and challenge ahead. That is my focus. In the bible it says seek ye first the Kingdom of God then all other things will be added unto you. I am sticking with the people. I’d rather have the people than the position; the position without the people is not my style. For those that say the position will attract the people, I say God help you. Those are not the type of people I am looking to attract. As for the MD of NDDC position, I was amazed to see how they removed Timi so soon after his tragic loss and way before it was time for him to go so it was not me to start lobbying for the position. When I heard my name I was flattered that I had been recognised by someone as having what it takes and felt honoured just to be mentioned amidst heavyweights. But I didn’t think beyond that as I knew that the system would see me as a political opposition and we all know the system has always played politics with NDDC. What I did may impact on their decision but if it was to be me, it would have been me and if it wasn’t to be me, it never will be. No, I act based on conviction. We have to be able to stand for something. I sleep well at night and I want to keep it that way.
7. Nigeria has achieved 10 years of democracy. What is your take on the progress so far?
Little progress, long way to go. We are like a 10 year old that can’t read or write. The problem has been quite clearly defined. It is a leadership problem. Our parent’s generation have failed us. Once we get it right at the top the rest will fall into line. The top in the Presidency, the top in the States, the top in the Local Governments, the top in the various Agencies and the difference will become clear. How did Obama find his team? It wasn’t strictly a Democratic Party thing. He found the best and recruited them. Now 100 days later it is clear the team can deliver. We have to start to think as one and demonstrate it in our actions. My resignation was triggered by the Gbaramatu Kingdom. I have no personal relationship with them but I felt their pain. If it had been an Ogoni community or an Itsekiri community that it had happened to I would have done the same thing. Some think it is just because they are Ijaw. That doesn’t capture the full story. If Ijaw does wrong I will tell them. When I made the statement that Ijaw should leave Niger Delta Minister for others, many were shocked. Some said “Why? Are you not Ijaw?” I said so because it was the right thing to do. This is the Niger Delta struggle not the Ijaw struggle and it affects all Nigeria. We are in the same Niger Delta, the same Nigeria and unless we start feeling each other’s pain we will get nowhere. Now it is happening to Ijaw villages and settlements, let us see who else feels our pain. Those are the people with leadership qualities you can begin to bank on. The house of reps has let itself down as have certain sections of government. This will be on record. Everybody is going to develop a long memory this time. The time of tainted leadership is almost over. Only then can we see Nigeria progress in leaps and bounds. Yar’Adua has a choice. He can either be an agent of change or be referred to as one of our many failed leaders. We will get it right one way or the other. Non Ijaws, non Niger Deltans must shout the loudest. My generation will not tolerate failure. We are not monochromatic or ethnocentric in our colouration. Even though Ijaw blood from the Kalabari clan runs through my veins, I have seen the world, married an Ishan woman from Edo and grown up in the North. I am far too exposed for that. The more people start thinking like this and the more they get involved in their future the better for Nigeria.