Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike during the demolition of hotels in Onne, Eleme Council Area for flouting lockdown directives
The demolition of two hotels in Eleme for allegedly flouting Rivers State Governor’s executive orders on Covid-19 has triggered uproar between government and main opposition actors, questioning the rationale behind the action.
As the photos of bulldozers descending on the buildings and reducing them to rubbles went viral penultimate Sunday, numerous persons within and outside Rivers State began to express divergent opinions. Those incensed over the demolition have described it as callous, while, others with contrary view, think the action, which tend to be devoid of political vendetta, would send a clear message to defaulters.
The flattening of the hotels took place barely 24 hours after the State government declared the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP’s) youth leader in Eleme, Mr. Princewill Osaroejiji, wanted and announced that both Prudent and Etemeteh hotels would be demolished for flouting government’s directive on the closure of hotels.
It would be recalled that immediately Rivers State recorded its first index case in March, and as the number of persons infected with COVID-19 began to surge, Governor Nyesom Wike, began to sign series of Executive Orders, which were hinged on the Quarantine (Coronavirus [COVID-19] and Other Infectious Diseases) Regulations 2020. These orders empowered the governor to shut down schools, religious places of worship, markets, bars, cinemas, nightclubs and restricted movement in and out of the State.
In cognisance of Rivers position as the hub of the oil and gas industry with lots of expatriates, two seaports and an international airport, Governor Wike had been worried that the state was at risk of a possible spread of the coronavirus. And when the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control began to diagnose several positive cases of COVID-19 infection, including some oil workers flown into the state, the governor decided to put in place some more stringent measures to curb the spread.
Precisely on Friday May 1 2020, by virtue of Executive Order No. RVSG 06 2020, Wike imposed additional measures to reinforce the ongoing efforts toward the spread of COVID-19 in the state. The order required all residents to wear face masks mandatorily before stepping out of their homes to the public space; while all hotels, guest houses and related outfits in the state must remain closed.
The governor warned that the state would confiscate and auction any hotel and guesthouses operating in defiance of the ban. He further stressed that no government worth its name would tolerate intransigence in the face of the extreme danger posed to general public by coronavirus.
In the wake of the demolition of the Eleme hotels, a member of the COVID19 task force, Friday Osaro Oloka, had claimed himself and eight others had received intelligence report that some persons were holding a party at Prudent hotel despite the order to close hotels.
Based on this, he explained that they drove down to the premises and approached the hotel manager and requested to check the manifest of guest. While they were checking the list, the manager was alleged to have sought permission to call his proprietor, Mr. Promise Gogorodari, who resides in Lagos.
Suddenly, the now wanted PDP youth leader appeared with some others boys, and questioned who gave the task force team the audacity to come to a hotel where he was lodging. As tension mounted, altercation ensued and a free for all erupted leaving severe injuries on both sides. The government claimed one later died in the hospital.
According to State House sources, when Governor Wike was notified of the incident at Eleme, he was infuriated and in line with his word not to tolerate any intransigence and to send a clear message to other hoteliers, the government declared it was going to demolish the two hotels operating in Eleme for flouting Executive Order 6. And by Sunday, bulldozers flattened the hotels under the supervision of the governor.
Wike said: “We acted against the hoteliers because, apart from using the facility to jeopardize the lives of our citizens in violation of the extant law, the owner audaciously unleashed thugs lead by the Eleme Local Government Youth Leader of the Peoples Democratic Party and inflicted severe injuries on our task force members who went to enforce the law against the continued operation of the hotel”
“As we speak, nobody knows the fate of the lives of most of the victims of that brazen and deadly attack given the severity of the head injuries they sustained. And so, we’ve done no wrong as all our actions were taken in good faith and justified by, under and within the purview of the Executive Orders, which have neither been challenged nor set aside by any competent court of law.”
The lawmaker representing Eleme constituency in the Rivers State House of Assembly, Igwe Aforji, who though empathised with the owners of the properties, said there was credible intelligence at the disposal of the chief security officer in Eleme, the council chairman, the hotel was open for business despite government’s directives.
“Eleme is around the Oil and Gas Free Zone, there is a boarder, there is a sea port and people come in from the sea every day. Eleme is key and we are prone to this covid-19 and will not want to lose any life,” he said.
Former PDP spokesperson cum Ikwerre council chairman, Mr. Samuel Nwanosike, explained that the governor took decision to announce the shutdown of all hotels following intelligence report that people already infected with COVID-19 were migrating from others states into Rivers.
“We have intelligence that people are trying to compromise our boarders, and they will come in. They don’t have homes when they come and because they don’t have homes when they come, the places they will go to are hotels. If we lock down hotels in Port Harcourt and Obio-Akpor, they will chose hotels in smaller local governments including my local government, Ikwerre LGA and the governor said don’t allow hotels, bars, restaurant to be open”
He asserted that the thugs who attacked the covid 19 marshals inadvertently attacked the governor because in law once the governor swears in someone into office, the governor had delegated his powers to that person.
But these narratives have been disputed, however, by Mr. Gogorodari, who is of the view that the authorities were utilising the rhetoric of fighting covid-19 to justify the demolition of his hotels, which had drawn widespread attention and caused public outrage.
Gogorodari explained that following the governor’s directive, he had instructed the manager of the hotel to shut the place for business to avoid incurring the wrath of the State. He acknowledged that he was briefed that the PDP youth leader, whom he does not know, and some persons had fracas outside his hotel premises for inexplicable reasons. And traumatised by the experience of the demolition, he insisted that what the government ought to have done was to take time to investigate the matter or at least avail him the opportunity to visit the state for the resolution of the issues at stake.
“I told them to lock down the hotel and the hotel was under lock and key. I call like every day to enforce that that is being done. I will not flout Rivers State government law. I am ardent supporter of Wike. I know the little contribution I did when he was contesting. Some people from my side can tell you. I am based in Lagos but I call home everyday” he said.
But following the outrage after the demolition spree, some opposition leaders have argued that the fight against covid-19 calls for more imaginative approach and time was ripe for a rethink of the strategy.
Meanwhile, the wanted PDP Youth leader in Eleme, Mr. Princewill Osarojiji, has alleged that Governor Wike demolished Prodest hotel based on false information.
Osarojiji claimed he was framed up by some bigwigs in PDP who lied to the governor that he not only owned the hotel, but that he flagrantly allowed it to operate in disregard of the COVID-19 lockdown directives.
“What happened was that, some persons were in front of the hotel and when the COVID-19 taskforce members saw them, they went there and demanded N100, 000 from the management, alleging that they were operating. And because of that, the hotel manager called me and when I arrived at the hotel, the gate of the hotel was closed and fortunately I know all the task force people making such demands because I gave them the job”
“So, I asked them why they will be denting the image of the state government by demanding money from citizens. I ordered them to leave the hotel,” he said.
Osarojiji, who denied that he was a cultist, expressed his readiness to submit himself to the security agencies or to the governor on the condition that he would be granted fair hearing. He has meanwhile challenged the government to disclose the name of the task force member that died as a result of the fight at Prodest hotel.
“ I appeal to the Governor to withdraw his decisions and properly investigate the whole saga, he was only misinformed and he acted in anger. Governor Wike is my Governor, I will not disobey him, I have always been committed to the fight against COVID-19, he should calm down and listen to my part of story,” he added.
The All Progressives Congress governorship aspirant and former senator, Magnus Abe, said the demolition and auction of private property, the closure of all sources of survival for citizens of Rivers State without due consideration for their means of sustenance in the name of the battle against COVID 19, are draconian measures that would prove counter productive in the long run.
“The Rivers state war against COVID 19 at this rate runs the risk of dividing the state into two distinct camps, those who support the Governor and will justify, glorify and applaud any action taken by the Rivers State government no matter how callous and ill advised, and those who oppose the governor and will oppose every action of the state government no matter how well thought out or well intentioned the action may be.”
Another APC chieftain and the immediate past Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dr. Dakuku Peterside, has described the demolition of the hotels as wicked, insensitive, irresponsible and unlawful.
Peterside, who lost to Wike in the 2015 governorship election, recalled the governor had made two broadcasts last week, where Rivers people had expected him to articulate plans of how to ensure mass testing following the inauguration of molecular laboratories in University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital and Rivers State University Teaching Hospital with achievable timelines, while also strengthening other areas.
“For good measure, the governor rounded up by saying he would demolish buildings or hotels found wanting in implementing his orders without recourse to the due process of law and natural justice that confers the right of fair hearing on the accused. Governor Wike’s utterances do not suggest that he is fighting the coronavirus pandemic alone,” he said.
The Chief of Staff to the governor, Emeka Woke, has accused Abe and Peterside of hypocrisy. He pointed out that while, Abe was Secretary to the State government and Peterside was commissioner of works, several properties were demolished and thousands rendered homeless under the guise of implementing one government policy or another.
Former President of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, Onueze Okocha (SAN), said the action of the Governor in demolishing the two hotels was justifiable given the several warnings to hoteliers not to operate within the period.
“I do not blame the governor for his action because am aware that the regulation was put in place over two weeks ago for hoteliers and those operating drinking parlours and entertainment centres to close down at least temporarily until we get grip on how to deal this coronavirus pandemic.
“What did they expect the Governor to do? Fold his hands and watch people openly and brazenly flout what we know are regulations put in place in accordance with law and order. So, the Governor I think was justified in wielding the big stick on the hoteliers and anybody who feels that he has any reason to dispute should approach the appropriate quarters and let us see how far that approach will get him.”
A member of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Austin Kabari, observed that, “The demolition of the hotel at Eleme was avoidable if government orders on Covid-19 which in fact are in the best interest of citizens were obeyed. We should be alive to do business. The fact that the owner of the hotel is a prominent member of the ruling party in the state far removes the obvious political coloration that would have been given if it were otherwise. I wish that investment didn’t just go down the drain the way it did as it is indeed a set back.”