The Prince of the Niger Delta has been a voice not only in Rivers State but across the country. Known for his blunt positions and his habit of speaking truth to power, Prince Tonye T.J.T. Princewill in this interview tackles the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, and other burning national issues. Excerpts:
The name Tonye Princewill sprung up in the early months of 2006 during the build up to the 2007 general elections. Who was Tonye Princewill and what were you doing before then?
I was a petroleum engineering graduate of University of Port Harcourt who went on to become an Imperial College graduate of Mineral Resources Engineering. I then went on to obtain first class qualifications in Project Management and Information technology. I was in the UK when my father was made King and it was to be by his side that I started to return more frequently to help him build his Kingdom. I used to think then that politicians were broke and honest as they are over in the UK until I came up close and personal with the Nigerian politician during the infamous Buguma crises in 2003. To cut a long story short, I quickly realized that politics was too important to be left to politicians and decided that the survival of the Kingdom rested on the survival of our politics. Governors called the shots. So I decided to run for Governor.
Shortly after your entry into the political scene you surprisingly became the flag bearer of the then Action Congress and became the major opposition in the state at that time. How was this possible considering the fact that you were a new entrant to a field and party which had experienced politicians like Chief Sergeant Awuse?
It had to be the grace of God. I was driven. I had my why for doing it so I overcame all the hows. I carefully selected the vehicle to use. At the time there was the AC and the All Nigeria Peoples Party. AC had (Vice President) Atiku (Abubakar) who was being harassed by (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo. I liked him for that reason, plus to get the ticket, I had to face Sergeant Awuse, the bulldozer of Rivers politics. That was all the motivation that I needed. I can be stubborn like that. ANPP looked too easy. I had a few meetings with their heavyweights but the test in AC gave me a reason to choose it. They were stronger. I wanted to be a Governor. Not a candidate. After that it was God’s grace in full effect. Asiwaju (Bola Ahmed Tinubu) took a liking to me. So did Atiku. Nobody wanted to face Awuse. I on the other hand was looking forward to it. My people saw my courage, followed me and the rest they say is history. If you want more detail, go and buy my book (he laughs). The intrigues of 2007 can keep us here all day.
After the 2007 general elections, many saw you as a threat to the Peoples Democratic Party as your case in the tribunal was steadily gaining momentum and it seemed like you had a clear shot at the brick house. But shortly after former Governor Rotimi Amaechi got his Supreme Court victory, you withdrew your case and threw your support behind Amaechi. What prompted this and did you have the mandate of the opposition to tow that path?
I have spoken severally on this but let me try and summarize what happened. Due to the cases in the courts and tribunal after the 2007 elections, somebody in Amaechi’s camp who was very close to me bumped into me in Abuja. There and then we agreed that if I win, they would support me, but if they won, I would support them. To be honest, I couldn’t see how they would win. I saw the most likely outcome as a rerun. But I agreed. To my surprise Amaechi won in the Supreme Court and was declared Governor. Since my word is my bond, I supported him. But only after talking to Atiku, Asiwaju and my zonal/state party leaders. Both Atiku and Asiwaju later denied it. But they all gave the green light. What I failed to do was talk to Rivers people. I didn’t realize the support I had out there. My support for Amaechi was unconditional, but some people interpreted it as selling out. Not me. The sell out would have been if I collected the N1.5 billion that was offered me to keep my case in the court by the PDP. They wanted me to throw Amaechi out. They even offered me evidence to show how the election was rigged against me. I refused. I couldn’t stand them. So yes, I got the support of key people before I made the move.
In 2014 you accused Governor Amaechi and the then Rivers State Government of selling State Government assets to fund the presidential campaign of then Candidate Muhammadu Buhari. What happened to that assumption? Today you are one of Amaechi’s number one allies, does that mean you are in support of the sales of those assets?
We were in opposing camps and the information was brought to my attention. It appeared credible. Was I to stay mute? No. I went public. But if the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria saw nothing and (Governor Nyesom) Wike himself set up a panel and couldn’t indict Amaechi, who am I? Forget the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and the ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission), people will say they are biased. What about the other two bodies? I have since marked out my source as unreliable and tendered Amaechi an unreserved apology. He also said a few things about me. But we have since buried the hatchet. Our division is what Wike and all those who can’t see the big picture will want to exploit. It can’t work. For the sake of Wike’s removal and the progress of our state, we are a team.
Between 2006, when you actively joined politics and now, you have moved from the Action Congress to the PDP then to the Labour Party, and now you are currently in the All Progressives Congress, even when you were quoted to have said the Labour Party would be your last bus stop. Is this your style of politics and why should people take you serious?
It was Martin Luther who is often famously quoted about being judged by the content of your character, not the colour of your skin. Add to that the colour of your party. Too many Nigerians equate party with content, when actually the content rests within the man, not his party. Refusing to be blackmailed into silence has been my crime and if I’m punished for it. I will gladly serve my time. I left AC because I refused to be blackmailed into bringing money from Amaechi who was in the PDP at the time. AC leaders could not accept how I was working with Amaechi, yet not bringing money. Attempts to explain to them that I wasn’t that type of politician fell on deaf ears. Even after I arranged a one on one meeting with them and Amaechi, the cash demands kept coming. They said if I didn’t comply, they would hand over the party to Abiye Sekibo and Sergeant Awuse. When I got fed up with them, I used the cover of Atiku moving to PDP to do same and left the party for them. As we now know, it did them no good. Their performance in 2011 was far worse than mine in 2007. I moved to the PDP, but never attended any of their meetings. My move was just a protest. The next move was in 2015 when Wike and the Jonathans treated other aspirants in PDP like dirt. Telling us to our face that we can damn the consequences. Wike will be the imposed PDP candidate wether we like it or not. Some took the view that no matter the humiliation they will stay with the party. Not me. I am a team player, but you have to respect me and my people or I will not be a part of that team. That is why I moved to the Labour Party, secured the ticket for Governor and showed Nigerians what governance could have been. Again no apologies there. Go and watch the debates. It’s online. I made my point. After the sham elections, I decided to lay low and focus on other things instead of spewing hate and bitterness. It was God’s will. I was not happy with Amaechi and APC for where we had landed as a state, neither was I comfortable with Wike’s path to the Brick House. But I decide to leave everything in His hands. Two years then passed and it soon became very clear that this Wike’s government as presently constituted was not only dangerous to our very survival as a state, it was leading us unchallenged to a big precipice. APC members were being killed and the official opposition to Wike was asleep. It was then I asked myself, get involved or do nothing. Which one? I decided to get involved. The Labour Party had by then been thoroughly compromised by Wike and the idea of using that platform proved unappealing. I decided to swallow my pride and return to Amaechi to help with the rebuilding of the APC and make it fit for purpose. Amaechi had been in touch all the while and it was he who made the transition easy. The point I am making is every decision I took, was deliberate, well thought out and was made in consultation with my local supporters. That’s why since 2006, my original team have been with me. What I have done now is to put my personal ambition to one side, so as to help APC win. I don’t want it to appear that I must be Governor. If I was desperate to be one, I would not have sacrificed my ambition for Amaechi in 2007. It has never been about me.
Thank you for making this clear. At a point in your political career you were a close ally of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. What happened to that relationship? Now that Abubakar and President Buhari have both declared to contest for the seat of the president in 2019 on the platform of the PDP and your party, the APC, respectively, where will your loyalty lie?
Atiku is someone who I have enormous respect for and as politicians go, he has taught me a lot. He is very intelligent. But the company he is keeping does not sit well with me and anywhere you find Wike, look well, you are not likely to find Tonye Princewill. I know the analog politicians when I see them. His PDP entrenched the corruption that we see today. We have a duty not to support them. If they give him the ticket, they will tie Atiku’s hands. A President is only as effective as his team. Buhari on the other hand means well and is best suited to rid the political space of the traditional cabal that has brought us where we are. I will be supporting him. Apart from herdsmen and restructuring, he has done well and he still has enough time to address those issues. If he does not, we may not win. No matter what is being done, it is clearly not enough. People like me know that Buhari can not encourage that which will loose him an election. But people who don’t like him believe that he is directly or indirectly responsible. He has a duty to prove them wrong. Never mind the hypocrisy many of them exhibit by turning a blind eye to the killings that went on before or still go on today in other lands. He should do it for the neutrals and his conscience and let God be the judge.
President Buhari just signed the Not Too Young To Run Bill. What value do you think this will add to the politics of Nigeria?
It’s symbolic. But symbolism matters.
Why do you say that?
Because the young were never too young to run. I ran for Governor at 38. And just as I prefer to be judged by my content, we should not be judged by our age. Having said that, not signing it would have been wrong. Let leaders be supportive of the youth. If that is what they want, give it to them. My constituency is the youths.
Interesting. That brings me to a burning question on the minds of many: Will you contest for the Rivers State governorship seat or any elective position in 2019?
I have said it times without number that I am not here to contest for Governor. I am just joining the APC and it would be greed to arrive and start looking for a position even before I settle in. My objective is the removal of Wike. So far, so good. We have restructured our party in the state. Next is to choose credible candidates. One step at a time. I am one of those who will be in the judges panel. Let me not be both the judge and the jury in my own trial. It is ambition that drove me and my friend Amaechi apart in the past. I pride myself in learning from my mistakes. Let him lead, let me follow. I can’t be more clear than that.
You are a known vocal critic of the Wike administration. What are your reservations about his style of governance? Is there no good thing to say about his government?
There are a few good things to say about him. Whenever I remember them, I will let you know. But his negatives far outweigh his positives to the point that the positives are easy to miss. Take for example his generosity. It’s with our money. He shares it as if it belongs to him. And it goes only where it will bring him benefits. Security agencies, judges, the media. Too many of his PDP people are dying of hunger. But he’s generous. I give him credit too for reopening the judiciary. That was a major issue leading up to 2015. But as he was opening the judiciary, he was also opening his pocket and he promptly put them in there. Now they are secretly praying for his defeat. From frying pan, they have now entered the fire. Their redemption is coming.
What are your predictions for the 2019 general elections?
It will be a hard fought one. But I expect APC to do better than they did before in the South and I tip them again to win in the North. The turnout will be high. In the end, APC will win. I thank God, we have time to perfect the work in front of us. A Buhari second term is four years. Another Hausa Fulani man opens the door to eight years. I believe power should rotate. It is possible to move Nigeria forward and respect our power rotation principle if we can support PMB. But the President can not and will not take anything for granted. We still have plenty of work to do.
Is there any advice you have for Governor WIke and President Buhari?
For me all politics is local. Unlike many Nigerians who believe that all politics is national. So I will save my advice on this platform for Wike. I know how to reach Mr. President. Wike, you attained Governor through violence, deceit and wickedness and you have maintained it so far by doing same. It’s no longer an option. I promise you, that the mouth you used to insult the Amanyanabo of Kalabari is the same mouth you will use to apologize to him. Power has gone to your head, but it will consume you. You may have forgotten that power is transient. We will soon be reminding you. Some of us have decided to drop our pride and work with people we refused to work with, prior to now just for you. Your ability to unite us will be your Achilles heal. All politics is local.