Two incidents best epitomise the personality of Diepreye Solomon Peter Alameyesieigha, the former governor of Bayelsa State, Nigeria who is being laid to rest this month.
In 2003, he faced a grueling fight for the gubernatorial ticket of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party. So intense was the fight that he was the last sitting PDP governor to be handed a ticket by the party. His opponent was Ndutimi Alaibe, a young professional banker. To contest for the ticket with him, Alaibe had to resign from his post as the executive director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
Alaibe did not get the ticket and needed to go back to his post. There was a snag: He could only get the post back if the governor of his home state (Alameyeseigha) recommends him to the president. Alameyeseigha asked that the letter be prepared. Before appending his signature, he called his closest political aides. Every man in the room, still smarting from a near loss to the young ambitious Alaibe, advised him not to sign the recommendation. Alameyeseigha with his characteristic sage mien asked: ‘Who would we send there that would serve the interest of this state like him? This is not about me, it is about the Ijaw nation. I am signing it.’ With that, he appended his long flowing signature to the document. Alaibe not only returned to NDDC, he later became the managing director of the intervention agency.
In 2005, he was arrested in London on his way back from surgery in the Germany. The case against him was charged to court and he could not return to work in Nigeria. Because he did not expect to be away, he did not send a letter to the state House of Assembly to make his deputy, a certain Goodluck Jonathan, the acting governor pending his return. The House of Assembly could pass a resolution to that effect but there was a snag. Some members of his camp were not too sure of the loyalty of the deputy. They suspected (rightly or wrongly) that he was undermining their resolute support for the governor. They came up with a smart idea: to impeach the deputy governor so the speaker could take over as acting governor and hold forte till Alameyeseigha returns. They called him in London to intimate him of the plans. Alameyeseigha said no.
In his words, ‘it would deepen the political crisis in the state. Bayelsa is bigger than me’. The Assembly had no option but to appoint Jonathan the acting governor. Jonathan went on to become the governor of Bayelsa State, the vice president of Nigeria and for more than five years, the president of Nigeria, the first person from the minority groups in Nigeria to hold such a position.
These incidents paint the picture of a man who saw his mission in life as that of service to his people. The personal interest of Alameyeseigha did not matter. What counted was the interest of the Ijaw nation and by extension, the people of the Niger Delta. This is not surprising given his early experience. He was a teenager when Isaac Adaka Boro, the Ijaw freedom fighter, joined the Nigerian Army to fight against the Biafran secessionists. His closeness to him influenced his passion and willingness to die for his people’s freedom.
His foray into politics was defined and driven by that passion. Immediately he won the governorship, he set about creating a political construct of a pan Ijaw nation stretching from the Obolos of Akwa Ibom State, taking in the Okirikas and Kalabaris of Rivers, the Ijaws of Bayelsa, Delta and Edo States to the Arogbos of Ondo State. By so doing, he built a political entity and force that could fight for the rights of the mangrove swamp dwellers of the Niger Delta. That common identity, more than any other development, saw to the rest of Nigeria taking note of the Ijaws to the point that one of them became the president of the country. Perhaps, apart from Obafemi Awolowo, the late legendary political leader of the Yorubas, no leader in Nigeria’s history has done so much for his people.
At the time Alameyeseigha took over as the first civilian governor of Bayelsa State in 1999, he met a state high on expectation but short on development. There was only one road, a single lane 20 kilometre stretch linking Yenagoa, the state capital, with the East West road in neighbouring Rivers State. It had no hospital, hotel or water supply service. At the same time, the people were full of expectations of accelerated development following the creation of the state, barely three years before then. In a way, Alameyeseigha’s lot was like that of the Pilgrim Fathers. He and his team faced the task of developing what was more or less a virgin territory. He went to work and by the time he finished his first term in 2003, there was a dual carriageway, many streets, offices for government officials, a modern water transport system and state owned enterprises to attest to his hardwork.
Alameyeseigha was not done. He contested for a second term. A grateful population did not hesitate in returning him to office for he was more than a politician. He was a leader, development agent and freedom fighter rolled into one. He charted a new political assertiveness for his people leading to the Ijaws producing a vice president and later president in a less than a decade. He raised a new generation of political leaders in Ijaw land by appointing the young and the brightest into government.
In politics, he demonstrated enormous courage. He was never afraid to speak his mind or stand up for the rights of his people. He was one of the known apostles of resource control (the political fight for more economic rights for the oil producing Niger Delta). His fight for more rights for the oil producing Niger Delta, earned him the wrath of the powers that be in Abuja. That wrath saw him removed from office in an orchestrated plot where he was arrested in London on charges of corruption despite his diplomatic immunity. On return to Nigeria, he was later forced out of office through an induced impeachment. He was to spend three years in detention before pleading guilty to charges of corruption. The then government of Musa Yar’Adua released him from detention as part of the deal for him to plead guilty.
Despite his travails, Alamieyeseigha bore no ill will against his foes or the Nigerian state. When he was released from prison, he risked his life to tour the then violent creeks of the Niger Delta to convince the militants to lay down their arms and accept the amnesty offered by the Federal Government. As a result of his services to his fatherland, he was granted state pardon in 2013.
As a politician, he built bridges across Nigeria’s diverse groups. He was honoured by many communities throughout Nigeria. One of such honours was the title of Ginuwa of Katsina in the northern part of Nigeria.
Alamieyeseigha was also a gifted intellectual. Despite the demands of his office, he found time to write at least three books. This did not surprise anyone. He was the best graduating student in management at the Rivers state University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in management. He later obtained an MBA from the same institution.
Born November 16, 1952, in Amassoma, Bayelsa State, Alamieyesigha entered the Nigerian Defence Academy, Nigeria’s military officers training school in 1974. He joined the Nigerian Air Force on graduation, holding various command positions in supply and logistics. He excelled in the military and was decorated with the Forces Service Star, the general Service Medal and the National Service Medal. He retired from the Air Force in 1992 as Squadron Leader.
He joined the corporate world and held various positions at management and board levels. With the onset of democracy in 1999, he joined politics and won election to the office of governor.
. The writer, Ekoriko is a publisher and public affairs commentator