By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Since the death of the visionary, pragmatic and inspiring political leader of Benue people, Joseph Tarka, it has been pretty difficult for any politician in the state to step into the shoes he left behind. Tarka was such phenomenally urbane and profoundly fecund that he mobilised with ease the entire middle belt under the umbrella of his United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC), which was a fusion, in 1957, of Middle Zone League (MZL) and the Middle Belt Peoples Party (MBPP). He was elected on MBPP platform to represent Jemgba constituency in the then Federal House of Representatives in 1954.
Restless Tarka emerged as the president of UMBC, which later formed an alliance with Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group and was nominated in 1957 as a member of the Nigerian Constitutional Conference. He also represented the Middle Belt zone in the Willinks Commission of 1958, the year he was appointed as a shadow minister of commerce.
In the 1959 pre-independence election, Tarka was re-elected on the platform of his predominantly Christian UMBC and also contested the 1963 election against the candidate of the mainly Moslem Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC). Both elections reportedly led to violence in the Middle Belt, which contributed to the bloody military takeover masterminded and executed by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and co. on January 15, 1966.
Tarka was before then, in 1962, reportedly arrested on charges of treasonable felony along with other Action Group leaders, but was acquitted for lack of evidence. But for his utilitarian political influence and values, he was appointed Federal Commissioner of Transport and thereafter of Communications by General Yakubu Gowon when he stepped in the saddle in August 1966.
He resigned in 1974, without much ado, after mere allegations of corruption against him by a fellow-Tiv man, the late controversial politician, Chief Godwin Daboh, were published, unlike now that the accused would do everything possible to remain in office. But Tarka was irrepressible as in 1979, he strategically teamed up with northern politicians to form the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) on which platform he unsuccessfully contested in the presidential primary. He was, however, elected Senator for Benue East in 1979, and appointed chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriation. He died while in the Senate on 30 March 1980 at such a young age of 48.
However, before his death, he had succeeded in taking the Benue people into mainstream politics in the absence of a trusted successor to whom he could handover the political leadership of the Benue people. Since then, Benue state has been playing the politics of correctness by aligning with the mainstream political parties.
In the Second Republic, the people converged on NPN on which platform the late Aper Aku became governor. In the Ill-fated Third Republic, they aligned with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) on which platform the late Reverend Father Moses Adasu became governor. From 1999 to 2015, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) produced George Akume and Gabriel Suswam while the ruling APC produced the incumbent, Samuel Ortom.
Ortom is at the moment embattled due to the episodic genocides unleashed on Tiv populations by marauding Fulani herdsmen. Although, he had initially wanted to be whimsical about the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government’s disposition to the issue; when he saw his people’s rage, he quickly turned round to ensure the expeditious passage of the anti-open grazing law to check the excesses of the Fulani herders. The courageous people of Benue ensured it happened and not because the ruling elite wanted it.
Recall that the governor had earlier on openly proclaimed a second term for Buhari. He has perished that thought forever. He is not even sure of keeping his seat in 2019. The writing on the wall is clear. Unfortunately for Benue, other prominent leaders who have held critical positions in government both at the state and national levels such as George Akume, Barnabas Gemade, Gabriel Suswam, Iyorcha Ayu, David Mark and Audu Ogbeh have either lost their voices or done little or nothing to tackle the federal government’s unreliability in averting the genocide by the Fulani herdsmen from Agatu in Idoma land to Guma and Logo in Tiv land. It is more regrettable that Ogbeh, as Agriculture minister, is even driving the agenda of pastoral colonies to be carved out by states for cattle grazing.
As for Ortom, his position as governor has compelled him to act. If not for the vociferous position of Benue people, his timidity would have been a disaster back-to-back. This was a man who vacillated and did little or nothing when similar and more daring attacks by the herdsmen took place in 2016 in Agatu area of the state, in which several communities were burnt down and hundreds killed.
From all indications, the Benue people have resolved to abandon the All Progressive Congress (APC). The influence of the leadership of the Catholic Church that dominates religious and communal interactions, which historically, at a similar intersection in 1991, produced a reverend father Adasu in cassock as governor in the ill-fated Third Republic, has been reactivated. The Church, the entire body of Christ in the state, has, according to credible grape vine, decided against supporting APC in 2019.
Where does this leave the old political leadership? It leaves them apparently in the cold if the people can follow up with good actions to support a new political leadership which is conscious and proactive in driving conversations along credible management of the state’s economy that will unite the people, bring out their best, transform Benue into a technologically-driven food hub and build basic infrastructure evenly across the three zones of the state. This will inevitably produce a tsunami that will sweep away the old, lethargic and compromising leadership guard.
Not even Ortom will survive the tsunami. The attention that he is enjoying presently because of the Fulani herdsmen attacks and the passage of the anti-open grazing law is momentary; otherwise, he has been a monumental failure. He has not been able to pay salary as and when due; build physical infrastructure and expand the productive base of the state. And aside the statutory monthly allocations, the state has benefited from Paris club refund and bailout funds. Unfortunately, its debt burden is on the rise.
Moving forward, there should be a conscious effort by the people in organised groups to identify new leaders, younger entities who can provide a fresh vista in purposeful and disciplined leadership. In 2019, the people should be looking at other parties like the PDP and the Action Democratic Party (ADP), etc. Someone like the sharply-focused former Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dr Paul Orhii, can be tapped in the PDP; while in the ADP, Alex Adum, a brilliant and politically sagacious lawyer, is a potential for leadership in Benue. The state is in dire need of a new set of courageous and fearless leaders.
I am very sure there are many others in the mould of Tarka that the people can rally support for. The time is now for Benue people to take their destiny in their hands, break away from the mainstream to secure, most importantly, their local interests before any national considerations. Even Tarka would turn in his grave in support of the strategic backward movement from mainstream to peripheral or marginal politics to effectively secure the home base now that ethnic politics is being promoted by entities at the centre.
Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, writes via firstname.lastname@example.org