By Joseph Ode
The Lord is so kind and merciful to Benue state. After many years of socio-economic stagnation resulting from mostly self-inflicted factors, He has placed the state on a new pedestal from which to launch itself into a new era of peace, good governance as well as rapid political and socio-economic development.
That pedestal was provided in form of the outcomes and fallouts of the recent 2023 general elections. The first: after many years of being in opposition, Benue state has been reconnected with the mainstream national politics, with both the state Governor and the President belonging to the same ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). From a position of an all-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Senators and 10 out of 11 PDP House of Representatives members in an APC controlled National Assembly before the 2023 elections, the state now has two APC Senators out of the three from the state and 10 out of 11 House of Reps members in the National Assembly that is still controlled by APC.
The second positive fallout of the 2023 general elections for Benue state was the election of Rev. Fr. Dr. Hyacinth Alia, a Catholic Priest, popular for his spiritual healing and deliverance of the sick, as the Governor of the state. Right from the primary to the general elections, Rev. Fr Alia was the clear preference of Benue people for several reasons. He was (and is) a man of God who can be trusted to be an upright leader who would be guided by the virtues of truth, empathy, fairness, equity and GENUINE fear of God. He was (and is) seen as a man who could not be corrupted by the powers and state resources usually available to a state Governor, having already sworn to the oaths of celibacy and chastity as a Catholic priest. As one coming from outside, he was (and is) perceived to be untainted by the country’s political system that is generally believed to be corrupt.
The third and most significant fallout of the 2023 elections for Benue state was the appointment of Senator (Dr.) George Akume, APC Leader in Benue State, as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). With Benue state’s federal legislators belonging to the majority party in the Federal legislature, and Senator Akume, one of contemporary Nigeria’s most experienced and influencial politicians, heading the Office of the SGF, to be complemented by other federal political appointees from the state, including a minister, the state can be said to be fairly represented at the federal level. Now, when that favourable representation at the Federal level complements an incorruptible, trustworthy, focused, progressive-minded, development-oriented Governor at the state level, what more does the state need to move forward? Nothing. It is time for Benue state to rise and shine.
If Benue state fails to seize this golden opportunity to move to the next level, the world will not only see them as an unserious people, they will be mocked and laughed at. And, if and when they fail to benefit maximally from this moment, they will only have themselves to blame; in future, they will look back in regret.
And what does it take for the state to reap bountifully from this God-given pedestal? Not much, really. It only requires the political leaders in the state to streamline their roles and interests at official and personal levels in a way that they complement each other. They need to develop mutual respect for each other’s positions, offices and the roles they have played and are capable of playing in bringing about and benefiting from this golden opportunity that the state is blessed with. The political leaders need to put their personal egos aside and, where interests conflict, as is bound to happen in politics, subsume personal interests under that of the common good.
There is immense strengh in complementarity between Senator Akume and Governor Alia. Benue people have absolute confidence in the ability and capacity of Rev. Fr. Alia to become the Governor they have ever yearned for. They voted for him as Governor in spite of his deficit in political and governmental experience, not only because he is a man of God who is considered untainted by the country’s corrupt political system, but more importantly because he was backed by Senator Akume. For the Governor to be availed of Senator Akume’s experience as a career civil servant from entry point to Permanent Secretary, coupled with his 25-year unbroken sojourn and political experience as two-term state Governor, three-term Senator, Senate Minority leader, four-year minister, state party leader and as a sitting SGF more than compensates for any lack of public service experience by the Governor.
Added to Akume’s offering is that of his Deputy, Barrister (Dr.) Sam Ode who has brought to the table diversified political experience at all the three tiers of government as Local Government Chairman, Special Adviser and member of the State Executive Council and minister of the Federal Republic. The Governor can hardly go wrong if he taps into the combined experiences of these distinguished politicians and other leaders in his decision-making and administration of the state. In fact, the Governor cannot escape blame should he take any wrong political or administrative decisions in the midst of this pool of experience.
However, the offering and acceptable of the benefit of experience must be conducted with utmost responsibility on both sides. While the Governor is expected to deploy Senator Akume, his Deputy, Dr. Sam Ode, and other party/political leaders as his political compass and barometre, they, in turn must realize that as far as the governance of the state is concerned, Governor Alia is the holder of the people’s mandate at the moment. The buck stops at his table and it is he who must take the blame for any wrong decision or action and credit for the positives that come out of his administration. He should, therefore, be accorded the right to take the final decision in the event of any disagreement or conflict of interest, opinion, choice or perspective. After all, he is a complete Governor like any other Governor before him in the state or elsewhere in the country with full powers and authority.
On his part, Rev. Fr. Alia must always remember where he came from and how he became Governor as well as how he wants to remake Benue state and where he wants to take it to. He must give honour and respect to whom honour and respect are due. He must not always dismiss with a wave of the hand the legitimate demands, interests, opinions and advice of the state’s critical political stakeholders merely to prove that he is in charge.
This discourse has become necessary against the background of Nigeria’s contemporary political history in which the relationship between Governors and those who sponsor them into office is marred by irreconcilable differences. One of the extreme cases was that of Chief Chris Uba (godfather) and Dr. Chris Ngige of Anambra State in 2003. The godfather got his godson to swear to ritual oaths of allegiance at the popular Okija shrine as precondition for sponsoring his election to the office of state Governor. Upon victory and assumption of office, Governor Ngige found allegiance to his godfather and to the state incompatible and unbearable and called the bluff of his godfather. Incensed, Uba had the Governor kidnapped and forced to sign his letter of resignation from office. Ngige was rescued by the soothing arms of the law, although he was sacked eventually by the Supreme Court judgment in a petition filed by Mr. Peter Obi. The protracted crises did not permit him to execute the lofty plans, projects and programmes he had pencilled down for Anambra state. It was a case of the grass suffering when two elephants fight.
Across the country and since this sensational episode, there have been various degrees of misunderstanding between some state Governors and those who sponsored or mentored them into office. Benue state has had its own share of this history. It is on record that Senator George Akume has been instrumental to the emergence of all his three successors as Benue state Governors so far since 2007. He shares this record with his erstwhile Lagos state Governor-colleague, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who is now Nigeria’s President and Akume’s boss. Just like Tinubu is credited with annointing Babatunde Fashola, Akinwumi Ambode and Babajide Sanwo-Olu as Lagos state Governors, so also does Akume take credit for making Senator Gabriel Suswam, Samuel Ortom and Hyacinth Alia Governors of Benue state. In the case of Lagos state, Ambode was known to have had serious issues with his mentor resulting in his being denied the party ticket to run for a second term.
In Benue state, things fell apart between Senator Akume and Governor Suswam, forcing the godfather to quit the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), now APC. A similar misunderstanding also forced Ortom to defect back to PDP from where Akume had picked and made him Governor in 2015. Till today, nobody has been able to tell what exacly the specific causes of those misunderstandings were.
With Governor Alia still putting his new government together, it is still too early to say in which direction the relationship between him and his mentor would go. Safe for the usual speculations and grapevine talks, there are no reports yet of dirct open altercations between the two. Yet, this word of caution has become expedient because the emerging political set-up in Benue state is too good to be sacrificed on the alter of any ego-induced power tussle. Benue state is too much in a hurry to regain lost development time and trajectory to waste any more of it on a needless power tussle.
Between Senator Akume as SGF in Abuja and Father Alia as Governor in Makurdi, there is enough room to play politics or serve the people without one crossing the path of the other. Whenever the Governor has need to fight for the interests of Benue state at the Federal level, he should be accorded the privilege to walk to the Office of the SGF in Abuja, the clearing house of Federal Government activities, where Senator Akume holds sway, confident of accomplishing his mission with minimum delay. Similarly, whenever Senator Akume needs to rally the support of state governments for the Federal Government, he should be guaranteed the luxury of taking for granted the automatic loyalty of Father Alia, his Tiv brother and Governor of his home state. That is how it should be.
Political jobbers and loyalists of these two distinguished sons of Benue state should steer clear. It is people like them that normally fan the embers of discord between leaders for selfish reasons. Benue people need and trust Senator Akume and Governor Alia to team up, leverage the positive fallouts of the 2023 elections to take the state to the next level.
So far, Benue people are happy with the preliminary steps taken by Governor Alia ahead of the formation of his cabinet. Some of them include commencement of salary and pensions payment; nullification of last-minute and irregular recruitments and promotions in the state civil service by his predecessor; setting up of assets recovery committees; dissolution and probe of Local Government Councils; setting up of Peace and Reconciliation Committee; and prompt response to incidents and areas of conflict; amongst others.
It is expected that by the time the cabinet comes on stream and the administration works in synergy with other political leaders and party structures in Benue and Abuja, things will begin to look up again for the state.
*Ode, international award-winning journalist and former editor with defunct Newswatch magazine, writes from Makurdi.