Rivers State governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Tonye Cole, speaks to FATTEH HAMID about the general election and issues surrounding the Rivers State governorship poll
How will you rate the conduct of the general election across the country?
I will say that there are areas of concern for the presidential election, areas where the technology that was promised failed and as a result of that, the integrity of the election was put to question, especially where you have mutilated votes. Obviously, they were tampered with. Therein lies a challenge to the integrity of the election. There was a massive failure as there was hijacking of results, ballot boxes, BVAS and electoral officers, especially in Rivers State where they hijacked an entire polling unit. If a polling unit was taken and it was reported that such a polling unit was no longer available, those results should not be uploaded; they should be cancelled. Unfortunately, we saw that the results were uploaded after the unit had been hijacked and accepted at the collation centre even when there were protests saying that these results were not the results of the election that was held. We had cases where agent’s copies were obviously different from the copies that were being presented, but INEC still accepted the mutilated results at the collation centre. It left integrity questions on the election.
To what extent did these anomalies affect the outcome of the election?
Yes, it did. In the first place, three things affected the outcome of the election; the first aspect of it was the intimidation of voters. A week before the governorship election, their thugs came out warning and intimidating voters that if they voted for anyone except the Peoples Democratic Party, they should prepare their graves, they would be killed, they would be maimed and they would be whipped. So, we had massive intimidation of voters and that first put fears in voters. This was responsible for the low voter turnout. The second aspect of what affected it was the ones who actually defied all the threats to come and vote; violence was meted out on them, they were caned, they were shot at, they were cut with cutlasses, and in some cases, unfortunately, they were shot at. The third thing was vote-buying; there was aggressive vote-buying by the PDP, where people were induced to vote in a particular way. These all accounted for the things that affected the election’s outcome.
Where exactly did you think INEC went wrong?
I think the interface between technology and the human element; the time the BVAS finished its work and when the human element comes in. That was badly and poorly handled; that’s where all the problems lie today. INEC has to revisit the issue of electronic voting. My suggestion is that moving forward, we shouldn’t just stop at accreditation and then do manual voting, and then come back to electronic transmission of results. That interface didn’t work and that is where INEC failed to manage it well. It’s a human part of the process and that part of the process failed. We need to address that.
The police also promised to guard against vote-buying, violence and intimidation. Do you think that they measured up expectation?
In Rivers State, some sections of the police were complicit in the hijacking of votes, they accompanied seven members of the state executive in hijacking ballot boxes, and they supervised using their vehicles to provide cover for carrying electoral officers away from polling units to unknown destinations. They were there when people were intimidated voters, and they were there when votes were being bought. I will say that the police have a lot of work to do because they are complicit in this case in Rivers State.
Since you said the police were complicit, will that be part of your evidence to the tribunal?
I don’t know; that will be the lawyers’ concern. I don’t know how they will put it. I’m sure there’s enough evidence of using police vehicles, policemen in uniform and all of that. The lawyers will have to take a look at that and decide.
In the area of vote-buying, some analyst said the ruling and some opposition parties were involved. How true is this?
I don’t know, but we didn’t do vote-buying in the APC. I don’t know if any other political party did, but I’m sure the PDP did, I don’t know of others.
At a point after the presidential election, a faction of the APC in Rivers State thanked Governor Nyesom Wike for supporting the candidate of their party to win in the state. Are you regretting what was regarded as a political arrangement before the presidential election?
There are some people that purport to be APC, but I know definitely that they are not APC. We also know that they are sponsored by Governor Wike. I understand that they are there to act as spoilers to APC in Rivers State, to keep the impression that we are divided and do not have one voice. We do not know them here in Rivers APC. They are not in our register that we submitted to the party at the national level. They claim to be APC members, but they are not loyal to us.
Are you saying you’re not a party to such an arrangement where the APC was supported during the presidential election?
No, I’m not a party to that.
Since the governorship candidate of the PDP, Sim Fubara, has been declared the winner of the election, do you and your party intend going to the tribunal?
Yes, we’ll go to the tribunal. We’re querying the conduct of the elections and we’re querying the results that were announced.
Governor Wike said the people of Rivers State should not vote for you because you were alleged to be involved in the illegal sale of Rivers property. How will you react to that?
That’s just a political talk; he (Wike) is always finding something to say. If there was something to that case, they would have done something about it eight years ago. Wike knows very well that there was nothing criminal about the transaction; it was a very clean transaction. So, I’m never worried about that. He brought it out at this time to create political capital, So, I’ve never worried about it. Like I said, it was a clean, straightforward transaction.
Some were of the view that you didn’t give more time to your governorship ambition due to your business and pastoral duties. Do you disagree with such claim?
I don’t know about that (laughs). I have stepped away from my business entirely. This is what I do; my main work and most of my time are given to my political career which is my governorship ambition. This is my main duty now. I’m not going anywhere; this is where I am.
As a businessman, a politician and a pastor, how do you strike a balance in handling these tasks that are time-consuming?
Today, I’m a politician through and through. I have given 20 years of my life to this aspect of it and my pastoral work as well. The main thing that I do now is politics which takes most of my time.
What advice will you give to the president-elect, Bola Tinubu, on how to speedily improve the economy and put Nigeria on the right track of development?
I think where we need to start first of all is that most people know that it is about having the right people in the cabinet. We’ve always had an issue of having the wrong people. Nigeria cannot afford that; we’ve had an issue of legitimacy and acceptability in terms of how the election came about. So, people now want to see if we can actually come to do the right thing in the area of appointment. I think the appointment into the transition council will go a long way; who are those appointed to handle key sectors in the council? That will be a good indicator. So, I’ll suggest that we put very good hands there and then the cabinet. Once the cabinet is announced, it has to be across board and people will know immediately that this isn’t business as usual.
Do you think the president-elect can put together a strong team that will change the story of Nigeria?
He has the capacity to do so. It’s the political interest that has to be managed, but he has the capacity to put together a strong team.
How will you react to the claim that you are not a grassroots politician and that you are not well-known in your hometown?
Apparently, they are talking a lot of rubbish. In the last four years, one of the things we have done extensively and more than any politician in the state is to go to every local government, every ward, and every unit. I think I’m probably one of the most known politicians today in Rivers State. Those things are things of yesterday. They could use that argument four years ago, but definitely cannot be an argument today.
Are you still optimistic that you’ll be the Governor of Rivers State in the next political dispensation?
There are two parts to that; the first answer is yes, I am, but that also depends on whether the tribunal and the judiciary will live up to the expectations. Unfortunately, we cannot in Nigeria today give a 100 per cent pass mark to the judiciary. We have seen incredible judgements that don’t follow evidence or reason. But if they follow the evidence, if they follow what we have, take a look at what we present and open their hearts to deliver justice, yes, I’m optimistic.
Since you and the Rivers State governor-elect are from the same riverine area, have you ever thought of reconsidering going to court in the spirit of brotherhood?
I don’t think it’s about whether one is riverine or not. This particular time, it is about mandates that were stolen. I’ve always said that if it is about a government that has done well and a government that is popular, then you don’t need to intimidate people, you don’t need to beat people, cane them, kill them, shoot at them, and then steal their votes. All you need to do is to come out and ask people to vote for you and they would. If the PDP had done well in Rivers State, we wouldn’t have had to resort to all of this. Sim (Fubara) didn’t run an election, Wike ran the election, Sim didn’t campaign in this election, Wike campaigned. This was Wike’s election and not Sim’s election. As far as we are concerned, it’s not a riverine anything.
Can you throw more light on your statement that the PDP governorship candidate in Rivers State, Siminalayi Fubara, didn’t campaign nor run this election and Wike did all of that?
No, it’s clear. Just look at all the evidence out there, all the clips of campaign; this was Wike’s campaign, Wike ran the election, Wike campaigned, Wike did everything. Okay, post-election, Sim was declared winner, Wike is still the one talking and he’s still the one doing everything. Sim has still not come out to speak to Rivers people. So, what can we say? This is Wike; we’ve always warned against this. People were against the government and that was why they were coming out to vote and the PDP knew that if they allowed votes to count, they would lose. So, they had to resort to violence and intimidation for them to emerge.
You said Wike knew that if they allowed votes to count and people to vote without intimidation, the PDP would lose but there’s this belief in some quarters that Rivers is naturally a PDP state. How will you react to this?
Rivers have always been a PDP state because it has always rigged, it has always written results. The PDP has never allowed election results to stand. As a journalist, just go back to every election you have seen in Rivers State and you’ll see that almost every election result has always been written, has always been rigged. There have always been complaints at the end of the day. So, we have PDP machinery in Rivers State that is an expert, very good at rigging results, very good at what they do and what they do is what exactly they have done. This was exactly the modulus operandi in 2019, it’s exactly the same thing that happened in 2015; nothing else has changed. It’s the same mode, the same operation and all of that with the same players, same characters. So, yes, we should say Rivers is a PDP state that has been secure through violence, rigging and all of that. Of course, if we want to know if Rivers State belongs to any political party, let them allow a free and fair election; let votes count and then we’ll know where the people stand.
In all your efforts in becoming the governor, what role did the former governor, Rotimi Amaechi, play in supporting your ambition?
I think most people saw that he stepped back in this election. He didn’t come out; he didn’t speak, he didn’t take issues with anybody. People began to complain that how come he’s not there and how come he’s not talking. However, in the last week before both presidential and governorship elections, he came out and went to a couple of places, but that is a week compared to six months of campaigning. So, he allowed us to move in a way that we have moved.
Don’t you think coming out a week to the election was too late?
I don’t know; it’s one of those things people will always try to push forward. If you’re there all the time, people will say it’s about you and not about the person, and that you’re the one in control. But if you’re not there, they will say that you should have been there. Either way, people will complain and I think what we did essentially was that we ran our own campaign, we met people that we should meet, we spoke to the populace as we should speak to them, we won their hearts, we won their votes and they were ready to bring a change because they see that we have their best interest at heart. So, that was good for us.