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Ijaw National Congress: Mending shredded fence

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Edwin Kiagbodo Clark

Rival factions of Ijaw National Congress (INC), led by Boma Obuoforibo and Charles Harry met in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State on Tuesday October 17, under the auspices of Governor Seriake Dickson and Conference of Ijaw traditional rulers and elders to resolve the crisis in the pan-Ijaw group.

Attempts to hold a fence-mending meeting with the two INC factions has been an uphill task. It is however, believed that the reconciliatory move initiated by Dickson and Ijaw leaders will help enhance the political clout of the Ijaw ethnic nationality ahead of the proposed constitutional amendment and 2019 polls.

The INC had been plunged into crisis, following impeachment of Obuoforibo as president of Congress for gross misconduct on November 10, 2015 at the INC Secretariat in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

It would be recalled that following the impeachment of Prof Atuboyedia Obianime in November 2011, Senator Tari Sekibo was elected to succeed him in March 2013. But unfortunately, he died after about a year in office. Hence, fresh election was conducted and Obuoforibo, a lawyer, was elected as INC president on January 15, 2015.

But shortly after Obuoforibo’s emergence, he was suspended from office for acts of misconduct and the act was passed to INC’s legislative body, National Representative Council, which then set up a seven-man committee to investigate all the allegations. On November 10, 2015, his impeachment was announced.

To fill the vacuum created, the then INC vice president, Charles Ambaiowei, was appointed as the acting president until August 6, 2016, when Charles Harry was elected the new president.

However, prominent Ijaw leaders, including Governor Dickson and the chairman, INC board of trustee, Chief Edwin Clark, refused to endorse the purported impeachment of Obuoforibo, or recognise Ambaiowei as the acting president. As far as these critical stakeholders were concerned, Obuoforibo impeachment never occurred.

The factional acting National Secretary of INC, Williams Mkpah, described the suspension and subsequent impeachment of Obuoforibo as illegal, null and void.

He claimed that INC National Executive Council members were uncomfortable with Obuoforibo’s insistence on accountability and transparency, as articles of faith in running the congress affairs, hence, the decision to truncate his tenure.

Mkpah argued that INC constitution 2009, as amended, provides that meetings of all national organs of congress shall be summoned by the National Secretary on the directive of the congress president.

He explained that the constitution further provides that, if the president refuses to summon NEC meetings for two months, two-thirds of NEC members can cause a meeting to be held. He stressed that the NEC meeting, where Obuoforibo was purportedly suspended was neither on the president’s directive nor summoned at the instance of two-thirds of NEC members, as provided by INC constitution.

Interestingly on July 30, 2016, Ijaw leaders, led by Chief Clark, Governor Dickson, former Rivers State deputy governor, Sir Gabriel Toby, former minister of Aviation, Alabo Graham Douglas, Chief Sara Igbe, and others at the end of a meeting in Warri to deliberate on the brewing unrest in the Niger Delta, unanimously agreed that Obuoforibo remained the authentic president general of INC.

A few days afterwards, the Harry faction lampooned Ijaw leaders for the endorsement of Obuoforibo. According to the group, Obuoforibo’s presence at the Warri meeting cast doubt and an unfortunate slur on whatever good intentions the conveners of that meeting might have had.

The Harry INC faction argued that Obuoforibo had been impeached by the Congress for acts of gross misconduct and his being a political lackey and handyman of Governor Dickson does not justify his continued projection as president of INC. Furthermore, they emphasised that Governor Dickson cannot dictate to the INC, which is umbrella body of all Ijaws at home and in the Diaspora.

Worried that the division of INC into two factions for almost two years was threatening to undermine Ijaw unity, chairmen of the congress’ four chapters in Nigeria, namely, Mr. Ebizimoh Okolo (Abuja), Dr. Bibowei Braie (Benin), Otunba Patrick Keku (Lagos) and Mr. Iwabo (Akure), recently declared that the tenure of the executive council, which began on March 28, 2013, under the leadership of the late Senator had expired.

This had spurred the pioneer INC National Secretary, Mr. Power
Aginighan, to urge the Conference of traditional rulers and Elders of Ijaw to set up an electoral committee to conduct fresh elections and end the lingering crisis.

Concerned that the INC had become fragmented and without recognisable leadership identity, Governor Dickson commissioned the Conference of Ijaw tradition rulers and elders, led by former military governor of old Rivers State, cum Amanyanabo of Twon-Brass, Alfred Diete-Spiff, to establish a sound mechanism to resolve the crisis and possibly prevent any future crisis and conflict within the INC.

On October 6, Diete-Spiff team submitted its recommendations to Governor Dickson. It was suggested that since the tenure of both factions had expired, Ijaw leaders should wade in to navigate INC back into a leading position as a dominant Niger Delta regional voice in the nation’s affairs.

Thus, Governor Dickson and other Ijaw leaders held a rare meeting with Obuoforibo and Harry’s faction in Yenagoa, where he read the recommendations of Diete-Spiff’s committee.

At the event, both factions were advised to bury their hatchet in the interest of Ijaw nation and stop laying claims to INC leadership.

Dickson’s apparent readiness to adopt a constructive role in resolving the lingering INC conflict may now help to stem some of the negative repercussions it had spawned. While the INC leadership rivalry continued, Ijaws have expressed divergent views on key national issues.

The governor warned that no self-seeking interest would be allowed to destroy INC’s founding fathers’ legacies.

He stated that the meeting was to seek the way forward for the Ijaw nation and demanded that the feuding factions sheathe their swords and work together with other patriotic forces to advance the Ijaw cause.

He also emphasised the need for Ijaws to speak with one voice against oppression and other challenges confronting them. He noted that INC remains a critical organisation of the Ijaw nation, which interest supersedes any individual ambition.

He also warned against politicisation of the body, emphasising that the future of Ijaw nation could be better protected, if members worked with unity of purpose and oneness.

He said: “Even when we disagree, we must do so in the overall interest of our people. Whether we agree or disagree, it should be in such a way as would advance our common good. The Ijaw nation is bigger than anyone of us. We will, therefore, not allow anybody’s parochial ego to destroy an organisation our forefathers put together over the years.”

Asked what lessons the two factions can learn from the unpleasant episodes of the past, a former INC national publicity secretary told The Guardian that practical measures must be established to avoid further schism, and all concerned must move beyond the crisis to better the present and future of Ijaw nation.

“In INC, we have agreed to bury the hatchet. For us, we have handed over. We hope there will be peace and unity. We hope that the people they brought will speak for Ijaw nation better than we have done. We are hoping that election will hold before December,” said
Burubo.

An Ijaw activist, who pleaded anonymity, told The Guardian that it was regrettable that the visibility, increased prestige and clout INC achieved under the leadership of Professor Kimse Okoko, has suddenly diminished due to political interference in the affairs of the body.

He pointed out that absence of pragmatic and influential Okoko from the meeting signals his growing discontent with the Dickson administration’s interference in INC’s affairs.

He said: “Let’s be frank, mending fences requires political will and determination on the part of all stakeholders to adopt confidence-building measures. Nobody should be alienated. I feel the decision of both factional leaders to honour Governor Dickson’s invitation to end the crisis is a pointer that they want peace to reign and raises optimism that Ijaws can dialogue with the rest of the country as a coherent group. Political leaders should resist the temptation to meddle in INC internal affairs.”



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