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Comrade Kokori, Okowa and the herders

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To most Nigerians familiar with the June 12, 1993 elections and the aftermath, Comrade Frank Ovie Kokori needs no introduction. He was one of the determined campaigners for the revalidation of the results of that election that were wanted — dead or alive — by late Gen Sani Abacha. Kokori had helped to bring the nation to a standstill through the nationwide strike of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Employees (NUPENG).

The union, led by Kokori from his hideout, had insisted on the completion of June 12, 1993, electoral processes and declaration of late Chief Moshood Abiola as the winner. The strike enjoyed widespread support within and outside Nigeria, making it the longest and severest of its kind. But Abacha’s intrigues, desperation and deployment of raw military power paid off. Kokori was arrested and detained in 1994 and spent the next four years in gaol until June 1998 when he was released by the Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar government.

Not unexpectedly, Kokori is remembered more for his role as NUPENG Secretary-General in 1993 than anything else he has done or been since then. Quite often, the press refers to him as former General Secretary of NUPENG and statesman.

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Given his age at 75 and antecedents as an erudite scholar, unionist, administrator and author, he has paid his dues and may rightly be addressed as a statesman. In more recent years, he has been identified as a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress party (APC), on which platform he was nominated as the Board Chairman of the Nigerian Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSTIF) but lost out in controversial circumstances. He was reassigned to preside over an admittedly less significant body.

Governor Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, on the other hand, is the current governor of Delta State. The physician-turned politician was a senator prior to his election as governor in 2015 and had, before then, been Secretary to the State Government and Commissioner for Health among other positions at various times. He is currently serving his second term having won re-election in 2019. In this capacity, he is like the other 35 state governors, the Chief Security Officer of Delta State. Okowa is a committed member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has held sway in the state since the return to democratic rule in 1999. Comrade Kokori is an APC stalwart in the Ethiope East Local Government Area of Delta State where he hails from. In the reality of party politics in Nigeria, Kokori’s primary allegiance is or should be, to the APC-led Federal Government while he is considered an opposition politician back home in Delta State.

This scenario is commonplace in many states and the politicians are fast learning to manage their differences for the good of their people. Okowa has in particular been calm and cool-headed, preferring to serve all Deltans equally without indulging in intense inter-party controversies. It is against this background of mutual understanding and accommodation that Kokori’s recent charge to Okowa on the menace of herdsmen should be assessed. Noting that the current spate of attacks had made Delta State the epicenter of herdsmen’s attacks, Kokori charged Okowa to live up to expectation by ensuring that the lives of all Deltans count.

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He said, “This is a siege on Delta State and I am calling on the governor and his people, executive, to tackle the matter seriously because the people are starting to lose confidence in the ability of the government to protect them which is one of the cardinal objectives of a government.” Kokori is right on the frequency and intensity of attacks by herdsmen in recent times in the three senatorial districts of the state. The situation got so bad in parts of the Delta South and Delta Central senatorial districts women had to pay tolls to herdsmen before being allowed to proceed to their farms. Some less fortunate victims were raped and killed while others were kept as baits to extract ransoms from their families or employers.

In one of the reported cases, victims’ families had to plead with the herdsmen for the release of their dead bodies for proper burial. The situation in the Delta North Senatorial District is not any better. Many cases of kidnapping, rapes and killings by herdsmen are frequently reported in many parts of the district including Okpanam and Ibusa, the neighbouring towns to the state capital of Asaba and Issele-Azagba which is only about 15 minutes away as well as some other communities. The herdsmen’s modus operandi is not much different from what they do in other parts of the country but there are indications that more of them may have moved eastwards to the South-South following the launch of the Amotekun security outfit in the South West.

They raid farms, communities and recently a church caught their fancy. They then abduct victims at gun point and disappear into the bush from where they negotiate ransoms. Delays and outright failures to pay ransoms have led to the death of some of their captives. Particularly characteristic of them are their impunity and audacity. They carry on as if there were no laws in the land. And in a sense, they may be right. There are hardly any arrests and prosecutions. The police are extremely reluctant to confront them or investigate reports from the communities. The problems of the police are legion. Inadequate manpower, lack of operational vehicles, insufficient funds and inferior weapons when compared to the ones wielded by the herdsmen.

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They are simply overwhelmed and intimidated by the murderous herders. Back to the correctness or otherwise of Kokori’s charge to Okowa to act and assure the safety of a people who are fast losing confidence in the government. He is politically correct in seeking to localize the fight against the herdsmen. But beyond his political correctness and sense of expediency, he is fatally wrong. When he called on the government “to tackle the (herdsmen) matter seriously because the people are starting to lose confidence in the ability of the government to protect them,” he obviously meant the state government without any sense of vicarious responsibility or partnership with the Federal Government. He was also right when he said the protection of citizens’ lives “is one of the cardinal objectives of a government,” but again he impliedly absorbed the government at the centre of any responsibility. He sounded as though the security of the state were the exclusive responsibility of the governor.

The designation of state governors as chief security officers of their domains is one of the paradoxes of Nigeria’s peculiar unitary structure masquerading as federalism. With the centralized structure of the police, military and para-military forces, the supposed state chief security officers are like commanders without troops. State police commissioners report to their central command directed from Abuja and do not take directives from state governors.

Commissioners who are deemed “over-friendly” with governors by the police high command are frequently redeployed. Delta and some other states in the South-South region have witnessed a high turnover of senior police officers. Only recently, 62 officers of the rank of Superintendent and above were redeployed from Delta State in one fell swoop, raising questions about the true intentions of the police high command. Kokori is right to be gravely concerned about the heightened activities of herdsmen in Delta State in recent times. But he should go beyond his passive and inconsequential admonition to Governor Okowa. He knows very well that the herdsmen issue is a national crisis requiring political will at the apex governmental level to resolve. He should canvass a national solution using the platform of the ruling party of which he is a leader.

At the ripe age of 75, Kokori should be rightly concerned about his legacy not just as a party man but a statesman bequeathing positive and enduring positive changes to his immediate constituents and future generations of Nigerians at large. Blaming a governor burdened with the responsibility of chief security officer without the wherewithal to secure his people is hardly the right legacy for a man of Kokori’s antecedents.

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