THE SYLVA PROTEST AND THE PEOPLE'S MOOD
The unprecedented show of popular anger directed against Governor Timipre Sylva of Bayelsa State during the Presidential visit last week has signaled an impressive even though worrying rise of public disenchantment among the ordinary people of the state. Not surprisingly as soon as the incident occurred the apologists of the state government commenced a desperate search for people to blame. According to the Commissioner of Information Hon. Nathan Egba certain politicians in the state had sponsored the disruption but he seems to have overlooked the fact that the most interesting thing about the incident was its spontaneity.
Several eyewitnesses have reported that at the start of the reception the crowd seemed to be in a very festive mood and that the same crowd that later booed the Governor relentlessly had welcomed the President with raucous cheers. Even the colourful group of rented supporters calling themselves the Credible Sylva Movement was cheered for the well choreographed display that they mounted. It was only when Governor Timipre Sylva himself mounted the podium and began to speak that signs of disenchantment and disgust began to appear in the audience.
Our own informants have told us that if the Governor had read the mood of the crowd accurately the worst of the protest could have been avoided. Instead they say as he tried to override the growing chorus of boos the angry mood spread and soon even some people who had been openly posing as cheerleaders of the Government joined those who were demanding that he halt his speech. It has been said that a brave or foolhardy youth started the protest by taking off his shoe and throwing it at the Governor. We can only hope for his sake that he has not been identified by Sylva's loyalists because his fate in that event would be too gruesome to imagine. If this version of the story is true whoever he was he triggered off a spontaneous demonstration of dissent that actually represents the true mood of the people of Bayelsa State.
It seems clear to us, both from what we watched on national television and from what has been reported in the newspapers and elsewhere, that the claim of this being the result of some clandestine conspiracy misses the point. One has only to spend a few hours talking with ordinary Bayelsans in Yenagoa or anywhere else in the state to realise that the groundswell of disenchantment with the Sylva Government is all pervasive. The complaints range from long delays in the payment of salaries of some categories of public workers, through the unexplained halting of some contractual endeavours, to an inordinate downturn in viable developmental projects.
The governor has been accused of promoting some unrealistic and unnecessary projects that are set to become major drains on the economy without serving any realistic purpose in the immediate future. Other key complaints leveled against him include the apparent sectional bias in some appointments to public office, the installation of an economic programme that is mortgaging the future of the state to difficult to honour bank debts, and a frivolous lifestyle flaunted by him the face of people who are enduring distressing hardship. Whoever dares to simply repeat the allegations that are widely held in the public arena are soon stigmatised as 'saboteurs and fifth columnists' by the Governor's handlers and threatened with bodily harm and even death by those who claim to be the custodians of his legacy.
I can attest to this personally but even more disappointing is the fact that the Governor himself seems to be oblivious to the true mood of the people on whose behalf he is supposed to be administering the affairs of the state. The reports of last week's incident and the follow-up from the government indicate that his inability to accept the reality and discuss either the perceptions of the public or the failings of the government in a balanced and rational way has finally rendered him a pariah among the people of the state. There is no doubt that even within the PDP in the state disenchantment with the Sylva Government has generated a deeply divisive mood among its members. The challenges to the state executive that have dogged the party for more than two years are still creating problems even though the season for selection of candidates to contest the next elections is already here.
However the statement made by Ebikibina Miriki the young Chairman of the Bayelsa Chapter of the Action Congress Party of Nigeria (ACN) was probably the most incisive comment that anyone has made on the matter when he said that 'What we witnessed at the reception was the result of years of pain inflicted on the people of the state.' The state government's apologists' attempt to ignore this salient fact is not surprising but it is certainly misleading for them to try to give the impression that the outburst against the governor was an internal party matter. If that was the case the sincere welcome given to Dr. Goodluck Jonathan would have been much less enthusiastic than it was.
The popular view of Jonathan's emergence as President is naturally supportive. However many party members are bitter over the widespread but unconfirmed speculation that he has decided to endorse Sylva's desire for a second term without taking the opinion of the majority of the people of the state into consideration. Coming at a time when the President is pledging to allow proper internal democracy to hold sway in the party this would run counter to the trend of popular opinion in the state. The incident in Yenagoa did not look like the expression of a factional dispute.
It seemed to reflect the popular disenchantment of the general public and a spontaneous need to let the world know the distress that the state government has plunged them into. The fact that the protest against the governor suddenly swelled beyond any previously witnessed show of dissent in that state should in fact attract the attention of the President not because of what it might mean for the fortunes of his party in the state but rather for what it portrays of the feelings of all the people. As President his true constituency is the majority of people in the nation and the evidence of his true concern for the people must begin in his home state.
It is not unlikely that the people of Bayelsa State could go to the polls next year determined to throw out a Sylva led state government of the PDP while still voting for Goodluck Jonathan as President if he is the PDP's presidential flag-bearer. In Ghanaian politics this is known as 'skirt and blouse' voting and has actually been used in the Western Senatorial District in Bayelsa in the past when Senator Diffa from the AD was voted in but Chief Alamieyeseigha won the governorship poll for the PDP in the same constituency.
The show of disgust with the Governor in particular, which the state government spokesman has chosen to define as a disgusting show of factional disenchantment, could very well be a harbinger of things to come. After the event last week many visitors to the state became aware of the deep distrust that the average Bayelsan citizen harbours over utterances emanating from the state government. They also discovered that the Bayelsan public is tired of pretending to be compliant with the overwhelming evidence of incompetent governance that has been leveled against the Sylva Administration.
They have discovered that the Administration's critics have been more often right rather than biased in their assessment of its lack of performance. What the demonstrators did last week might be regarded as Bayelsa washing its dirty linen in public but it was arguably the only thing left for the people to do in order that the President and the rest of the nation could sympathise with them. Otherwise they are being asked to support a leader who cares nothing for their true feelings and whose continuation in office will not reflect their mood.