‘Port Harcourt No Be Abuja’ The Insurmountable Tasks Nyesom Wike Faces

Nyesom Wike’s appointment as minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu could be Wike’s biggest political task yet. As minister, he will have to govern a people who are majorly religiously and ethnically different from him while trying to retain power over his previous domain, Rivers State.

On 18 September 2023, less than a month after Nyesom Wike was sworn in as the minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, the government demolished a popular Kilishi market in Area 1 of Abuja for blocking the road and making commuting difficult. This move generated mixed reactions: while some observers praised the minister for quick efforts to improve the state of the country’s capital city, others criticized his seemingly rash actions. Wike, however, expressed steadfastness in his promise to sanitize Abuja, an agenda reminiscent of his eight-year term as governor of Rivers State, during which he earned the Distinguished Award in Infrastructure Delivery in 2022 from the then-president, Muhammadu Buhari.

Rivers State, Wike’s state of origin and Abuja, where Wike is the first Southerner to be appointed FCT minister in 47 years, are two different political arenas. While in Rivers he was the undisputed mayor with limitless, seemingly absolute, power, Abuja presents a different kind of challenge: for one, being a Christian, southern, leader of a Muslim-dominated northern city puts him in a precarious position. The first sign of the predictable ethno-religious push-back against his leadership has already emerged. During a sermon on 19 October 2023, Ahmad Gumi, a prominent Islamic cleric, asked President Tinubu to remove Wike as FCT minister describing him as a devilish man under whose leadership ‘Abuja will now become an extension of Tel Aviv and when they see anyone with a beard like us, they will say it is Bin Laden and we will be killed.’ On the same day, Wike had to make public clarification that he had no plan to demolish the Abuja national mosque in response to rumours. For the next three years, his leadership in Abuja is hinged on the proverbial gunpowder that could set off a chain of (un)expected explosions stoked by ethno-religious sentiments.

Close observation of Nigeria’s political landscape especially ahead of the 2023 general election showed that Wike’s stock had risen. If his plan from a year before had worked, Wike would have been in Abuja three months earlier, and sworn in on May 29 not as a minister but as the president of Nigeria. His loss to former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primary election stalled his ambition for the country’s highest political seat.

Wike’s journey to becoming the first southerner to be appointed FCT minister in 47 years is a testament to his being a ‘strong man’ in Nigerian political parlance (a role that has more often been occupied by northern Muslims such as Mohammed Musa Bello who served from 2015 to 2023 and Nasir El-Rufai who served in the same role from 2003 to 2007). Thus, it seems there may be extra scrutiny as Wike tries to navigate the role of the de facto governor of Abuja at a period when Nigeria is coming out of a bitter ethnically charged election. Wike, however, is not new to being in the eye of the storm—this we know from his eight-year term as governor of Rivers, during which he ruled the state with an iron fist; to his current political quagmire, where despite being a leading PDP member, he accepted to serve in—after having worked for the success of—his party’s main rival, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

How Wike performs in the next three years as minister of the FCT may go on to define not only his political survival but also the future leadership of Nigeria’s seat of power. To grasp how this future will be play out, you need to understand where Wike is coming from.


When Nigeria returned to democratic governance in 1999, a new crop of politicians joined the mix of the old ones, many of whom had participated in the failed 1993 transition. For example, Atiku was a presidential aspirant in 1993 before winning the Adamawa governorship election in 1998 but was chosen as vice president by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Tinubu was elected as a senator in 1992 before being elected governor in 1999. In Wike’s case, he was among the politicians whose political journey began in 1999 when he was elected executive chairman of Obio/Akpor Local Government Area, two years after he was called to bar. He was re-elected in 2003 spending another four years in office. His term as a local government chairman cemented his knowledge of the electorate and allowed him to grow his grassroots politics. When in 2007 he was appointed as chief of staff by Governor Rotimi Amaechi, Wike had transformed from a lowly political neophyte to a fledging leader. According to columnist, Chigachi Eke, in 2015: 

Wike had a good understanding of the power of money. In his capacity as chairman he controlled a staggering budget. Obio/Akpor is the second richest local government in Nigeria and Wike generated revenue in billions…when therefore, Amaechi’s mandate in 2007 was snatched by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in favour of Governor Celestine Omehia, none other than Wike stepped forward and financed Amaechi’s war with Omehia. In six months Amaechi reclaimed his mandate and Wike became the undisputed champion. 

To ease out Wike from Rivers where Wike’s political support was steadily growing due to his grassroots popularity, in 2011, Governor Amaechi presented Wike to President Goodluck Jonathan and Wike was appointed minister of state for education before being promoted to federal minister of education in September 2013. While Abuja has a way of alienating politicians from their base, weakening the ties they once had with the grassroots, Wike did not lose touch with Rivers. Instead, he returned to mount a political battle against Amaechi, a move that would change his political trajectory in Rivers State.

Ahead of the 2015 general election, Amaechi was one of seven PDP governors who had defected to APC and, despite being newly formed, APC looked set to wrestle power from PDP whose supporters had boasted would rule Nigeria for 60 years. While several governors and lawmakers were jumping ship to APC, Wike stayed put in PDP determined to slug it out with Amaechi for political control of the oil-rich state.

The elections in Rivers were among the most violent in 2015. While at the federal level, the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, was happy to concede defeat reiterating that his ambition was not worth the blood of Nigerians, in Rivers, it was a battle that claimed the lives of people. With 97 people reportedly killed in Rivers during the election period, the state recorded the most pre-election violence,. Ultimately, Wike was elected the governor, signaling the beginning of his political dynasty.

2015 ushered in the decline of PDP, which lost the presidential seat and was relegated to the opposition. After 2015, PDP also had fewer governors and lawmakers than APC. Amid this context, Wike found an opportunity to take charge of a struggling, sinking and polarized PDP that was not used to being in the opposition. In Wike’s case, he had come out victorious in an acrimonious political fight between him and Amaechi. Wike had won not only the election but also the respect of other politicians. Thus, he began almost immediately to spread his political tentacles beyond Rivers. Having lost out at the federal level, PDP was not in the financial position to sustain itself as a strong opposition and Wike, with the financial war chest of Rivers, became a sort of sole financier of the party. Thus, it came as no surprise that when the party converged for its 2017 national convention, Wike’s man, Uche Secondus, emerged as chairman of the party in an election critics within the party described as a charade.

Having won the first hurdle, Wike went to work ahead of PDP’s presidential primary election set for 2018. Wike insisted that PDP’s primary election should be held in Rivers and warned that he would teach any presidential aspirant who wanted the primary election held elsewhere a lesson. During a consultative visit by Ibrahim Dankwambo, one of the presidential aspirants, in Port Harcourt, Wike said: 

Nobody should dare Rivers State any longer. Enough is enough. PDP should know that we are not a punching bag. We are not people you can use and push. We are not harlots. Whenever you want, you come. When you finish, you push us aside. 

Although the primary election was ultimately held in Rivers, Wike’s anointed candidate, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State, lost the PDP presidential ticket to Atiku. For Wike, it was a temporary setback, akin to losing the battle but winning the war. He had gotten his way with the party leadership through the election of Secondus as chairman; more so, getting the convention done in his state further cemented his authority in the party.

The 2019 election cycle went the same way as 2015’s. PDP lost the general election with Atiku losing to APC’s Buhari in the presidential election, while Wike won his re-election bid in Rivers. This time, Wike adopted a strong vocal opposition against APC while cementing his grassroots base and further showing who was in charge. He allegedly bought N3.4 billion worth of luxury cars for judges and politicians in Rivers in 2020, which drew criticism but the purchase helped him to continue to win support in the state. He lashed out at traditional rulers in Rivers, whom he accused of supporting oil bunkering and threatened to withdraw their staff of office. His ubiquitous music band followed him around singing his praise providing comic musical interludes whenever he spoke at functions. Wike was an entertainer, but he was tactful about it, using his humour to draw attention to himself as he became the main character in his party’s uninteresting movie. When he spoke, which was usually in pidgin English, the unofficial language of ordinary people, he was usually direct, so everyone knew who was his friend or foe at each given time. He called for a state of emergency to be declared in Benue State over insecurity as a dig at the then-governor, Samuel Ortom, in 2017. He described Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State as a serial betrayer who ‘was a tenant in the PDP’. According to the columnist, Dele Sobowale, ‘…[Wike] was the loudest antagonist of the Buhari government; he campaigned hardest against southern marginalization; he went to court on account of Value Added Tax.’  


In August 2021, Secondus was forced out of office as chairman of PDP with Wike, who had midwifed his ascension to the position, spearheading his exit. Wike did not hide his reason for plotting the exit of Secondus. Instead, Wike confirmed that since PDP was meant to zone the 2023 presidential ticket to the South, it would not be fair for the party’s chairman to also come from the same zone. Thus, Iyorchia Ayu who was from the North emerged as Secondus’s replacement. It became clear to any keen observer that Wike was setting the stage for his own emergence as the party’s presidential candidate ahead of 2023 ultimately with the goal of being Buhari’s successor.

For someone who had had his political way since 1999, getting PDP’s presidential ticket would prove to be Wike’s biggest test yet. By getting Secondus out of the way, Wike perhaps felt he had paved the way for his own emergence as the party’s flagbearer as he would only have to contend with aspirants from the south.  According to political analyst and editor-in-chief of Opera News, Bayo Olupohunda, Wike understood the mood of the country which would ordinarily have wanted power rotated to the South after eight years of Buhari’s presidency and saw for himself an opportunity to take the centre stage. According to Olupohunda, ‘it was a power game based on conviction and self-preservation which is typical of Nigerian politicians to place their interest above any other consideration.’

In March 2022, Wike officially declared his interest in running for the presidency on the platform of PDP, claiming that while others like Atiku and Bukola Saraki, the former senate president, had left PDP ahead of the 2015 elections, Wike had stayed behind to develop and sustain the party. Wike’s effort to force the party to zone the presidency to the South failed as, instead, PDP decided to throw open its presidential ticket. Wike’s chances of emerging as the party’s presidential candidate still seemed strong until the convention day when, in an unexpected turn, one of the aspirants, Tambuwal, dropped out of the race and endorsed Atiku for the presidential ticket. Ultimately, Atiku won the election with 371 votes while Wike came second with 237 votes.

With the presidency outside of his reach, Wike attempted to retake control of PDP by asking Ayu to step down as chairman of the party. Again, Wike insisted that both the presidential candidate and chairman of the party could not come from the same region. Ayu refused to step down while Atiku claimed Wike did not have the authority to remove Ayu from office. In response, Wike told PDP that without his influence, PDP would not win the presidential election in Rivers, emphasizing his and Rivers’ importance to the political success of the PDP. In a televised interview in September 2022, he said:  

You can do without me, I agree; but to say you will win without me in this state (Rivers), it will not be possible. Anybody advising Atiku that (to ignore Rivers’ votes) is a wicked man, and I know those who are doing it. They don’t have electoral value in their own units. Some of them are from Edo. Look at their calculation. 

Buhari didn’t win in Rivers State, but Buhari won in Lagos and Kano. Does Atiku have Lagos now? Does he have Kano? The only one he has always had is Rivers and you say you don’t want them. 

Seeing that he wasn’t in control of both PDP and its presidential candidate, Wike sought an alliance with some PDP governors. This alliance became known as the G5 and included along with Wike, governors Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, Samuel Ortom of Benue State, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State and Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State. All five held a series of meetings between 2022 and 2023 during which it became clear that the G5 not only did not endorse the Atiku’s candidacy but were actively working against Atiku’s political interests. The APC campaign council also claimed some members of the G5 group were working for Tinubu’s presidential victory.

Although the G5 never disclosed whom they were supporting for the presidency, Tinubu’s electoral victory in Rivers, where APC had never won—an outcome that helped him win the presidential election—further raised speculation that Tinubu got Wike’s backing. The subsequent appointment of Wike as minister of the FCT and the arrival of G5 members at Aso Rock to meet with Tinubu ten days after Tinubu was sworn in as president removed all doubt about where the G5 pitched their tents despite still being members of PDP. Wike also attended the tribunal and Supreme Court sittings where Tinubu’s presidency was confirmed after being challenged by Atiku and the Labour Party (LP) presidential frontrunner, Peter Obi. 


Wike’s political permutation which earned him a ministerial position in an opposition party’s regime testifies to his political sagacity. While PDP attempted to mend their differences with Wike before the presidential election, APC and LP also sought Wike’s support likely because of the importance of Rivers. Pitching his tent with Tinubu meant that while PDP again lost at the centre in 2023, Wike secured a position for himself at the federal level while still delivering the Rivers governorship position to his anointed candidate, Siminalayi Fubara. Wike remains one of the few politicians who have been in public office since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999.

However, the ministerial responsibilities ahead of Wike are more complex than anything he has faced in the past 24 years. Despite his two-term governorship experience in Rivers, Abuja presents a new kind of challenge as he will be expected to manage the affairs of a people of different ethnicities with half of them Muslims. In just three months as a minister, Wike had to contend with accusations of supporting Israel against Palestine and putting the lives of Nigerian Muslim clerics at risk, accusations he denies. The management board of the national mosque in Abuja also had to come to the defence of the minister after rumours of planned demolition of the mosque surfaced. Perhaps to address the growing negative sentiment and draw the grassroots to him, Wike turned to his tested and trusted playbook by gifting ten cars to traditional rulers in Abuja. According to Abuja-based public policy analyst and journalist, Jerrywright Ukwu, such politicking is going to be a huge problem for Wike as his primary role, which is to be the administrator of Abuja, will be relegated. Ukwu told me: 

Wike spends more time politicking instead of administrating which will make it difficult for him to deliver. Since Nasir El-Rufai left as minister of the FCT, Abuja has suffered a setback and has regressed in terms of planning and sanity. We have had ministers who have been more of politicians than professionals since then. Sadly, I do not think Wike is the man to restore the lost glory of Nigeria’s capital. 

Wike has also found it difficult to balance managing Abuja with holding on to control of Rivers from a distance. Like all former governors turned godfathers who have installed their cronies as successors, there comes a period when the two battle for control of the state. In Wike’s case, this happened roughly three months after he became minister. Wike accused his successor, Fubara, of destroying the political structure that made Fubara governor. This came after reports of the governor sacking Wike’s ‘men’ from political office in Rivers State which led to an attempt to impeach Fubara by the state assembly allegedly orchestrated by Wike. This political battle for the control of Rivers State, according to Ukwu, will further make Wike’s work as FCT minister difficult.

It seems Wike is attempting to ‘govern’ both Rivers and Abuja at the same time; territories that can define his political trajectory. As a grassroots politician, Wike suggests that controlling Rivers could be of further importance to his political career. According to Olupohunda, Wike’s fight for control of Rivers exemplifies godfatherist politics and how Wike seeks to continue to deploy Rivers as a political trump card for his future political aspirations. ‘Another reason is the control of Rivers huge financial resources, which will sustain such ambition,’ Olupohunda said. Having witnessed how politicians have lost political relevance in their home state due to assignment at the federal level, Wike seems keen to avoid the same fate. However, Abuja presents him with a tough assignment that could go on to define his political resilience just as much as his demise

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