It is still approximately two years to the next general elections, but the race for the governorship of Benue State is already as hot as if the elections are by the corner. Onah L. Iduh and Amos Aar take a bird’s-eye view of the current trends and impending dynamics.
BY this time 2023, in virtually every part of Benue State, particularly in rural and suburban areas, the dominant noise would be the rhythms of folk songs and jingles bellowing praises of frontline politicos pleading for votes of the predominantly indistinguishable mass of the people who though speak in different tongues but are united in their poverty and deprivation. For these ordinary lumpen elements, the next election is still a long way off, but to the dyed-in-the-wool politicians with ambition for public office and the honour and pecks that come with it, the elections are perpetually on their agenda and therefore every moment or occasion presents an opportunity to occupy the consciousness of the people.
While the race on who succeeds incumbent governor, Dr Samuel Ortom, has not been officially thrown open, it has practically commenced with heightened excitement within and amongst the state’s political gladiators and geopolitical zones who since 2020 began heightened contestations, laying claim to the Number One Seat come 2023.
Alongside the battle of the zones is the dense dust being raised by multiple governorship aspirants coming up to signify their intentions verbally, and symbolically through proxies, social media platforms, posters and signposts, and in some instances, through rowdy supporters at informal gatherings or social and religious functions.
Still a hugely crowded race, composed of both professional and serious contenders, the 2023 gubernatorial contest in Benue at the moment is being informally moderated along the state’s geo-political structures. In the frontline of this political dynamic are strong and loud voices from Idoma-speaking Zone C or Benue-South (made up of nine LGAs). Here, the contenders are united in the sanctimonious notion that the next governor of the state logically ought to emerge from the zone, which has historically never produced the state’s governor since 1976 when the state was created.
For proponents of the above argument, for an inclusive, fair, just and peaceful co-existence, the principle of rotation of the governorship of the state should be accommodated as a convenient methodology for a seamless management of the political economy, in order to assure for everyone a realistic sense of belonging. This school of thought is of the opinion that the demarcation of the state into three political zones along the federally delineated senatorial districts remains the most convenient pattern along which the state’s political interests could be resolved without grave antagonism and rancour.
Thus, there is Benue North-East Senatorial District, described as Zone A. It covers seven local government areas – Katsina-Ala, Konshisha, Kwande, Logo, Ukum, Ushongo and Vandeikya. The current representative of the Zone is Senator Gabriel Suswam (PDP), whom Ortom succeeded as governor. He is from Logo local government area.
Benue North-West Senatorial District, which is Zone B, and covers seven local government areas – Buruku, Gboko, Guma, Gwer and Gwer-West, Makurdi and Tarka. The current governor, Dr Samuel Ortom is from Guma local government, while the zone is represented at the senate by Senator Emmanuel Orke-Jev (PDP).
Benue South Senatorial District, known as Zone C, covers nine local government areas – Ado, Agatu, Apa, Obi, Ogbadibo, Ohimini, Oju, Okpokwu and Otukpo. Senator Abba Moro (PDP) is the current representative of Benue South at the Senate. It has, as stated earlier, never produced a governor.
While Idoma elements have for over two decades of the current democratic dispensation been clamouring to be given the opportunity to wear the governorship crown, they had always been restricted to playing the constitutionally inferior role of second-in-command.
No doubt, there had always been the understanding since 1999 that after serving two terms as deputy governor, the governorship would naturally revolve to Idoma land, but this has never been achieved. This is basically because at each point, there had always surfaced the argument or agitation from Tiv land to satisfy some internal political designs.
Whether the 2023 scenario will ultimately end in power shifting to Zone C on the basis of negotiation and elite consensus or still succumb to the inherent political structure that is solely driven on the complex structure of Tiv genealogy and sub-ethnic arrangement will remain fundamentally a hanging question in the months ahead. But between now and the point at which this crucial decision will be made, it will be an all-comers affair, an open arena in which those with governorship ambition will test their popularity, strength, political intelligence and the reliability or effectiveness of their political networks.
From Zone A are arrays of political heavyweights most of whose claims to the governorship centre essentially on the dynamics of the theory of Tiv dominance at the expense of especially Zone C. Zone A’s argument in relation to providing the next governor is based on the political arrangement that is strictly dependent on Tiv genealogy of sharing the cake. The zone has three major political clans – Sankera, Jechira, and Kwande. While Sankera is composed of three local governments, namely, Katsina-Ala, Logo and Ukum; Jechira is made up of Konshisha and Vandeikya. The Kwande group, made up of two local governments, Kwande and Ushongo, which again subdivides into two namely Matav and Barakuv.
Generally, Zone A has so far produced three governors – first in 1979, in the person of the late Apollos Aper Aku, arguably the most effective and imaginative of Benue’s governors, as the first civilian governor of Benue State. He hailed from Kwande local government (the Matav Clan). The second governor from the zone is the equally late Reverend Father Moses Orshio Adasu, the second civilian governor, who hailed from Konshisha local government – falling under the Jechira Clan. The third from the zone is Gabriel Suswam, who is from the Sankera clan, composed of Katsina-Ala, Logo and Ukum.
From Zone B, the two Tiv clans carved out of the seven local governments of the zone have each had their turns in leading the state. Upon return to democracy in 1999, the Jemgba Clan provided the state’s governor in the person of George Akume from Tarka local government, and who had represented the zone at the Senate and is now serving as minister. The Jemgba Clan is made up of three local governments – Buruku, Gboko and Tarka.
Now on the throne is Governor Ortom, a scion of the MINDA political clan, made up of four local governments – Guma, Gwer, Gwer-West and Makurdi. MINDA is an acronym carved from Masev, Ihyarev and Nongov Development Association.
Under normal political circumstances in which power revolves around the zones, it should now be the turn of Zone C to produce the next governor as the two zones (and all the five Tiv political clans or blocs) have effectively had their turns. However, there are strong indications that some Tiv political gladiators still intend to rather stick to the Tiv political blocs or clans, a significant pointer being the multiple aspirants already elbowing their way.
While the Kwande axis seems to be hatching a plot in which the rotation of the governorship among the Tiv blocs will begin right from Kwande where the power rotation began in 1979, the stand of Jechira bloc is that since Rev. Fr. Adasu’s tenure was truncated by the military in 1993, there is now the need to allow the bloc to complete what their own son was not allowed to finish.
The premise on which Zone C rests its agitation is on the sound logic that now is the right time for an Idoma person to pilot the affairs of the state as governor since the zone has exercised a great deal of patience and played secondary role to their Tiv kith and kin for the past twenty years.
Though ethnicity remains the crucial factor driving politics in Benue, other fundamental undercurrents likely to influence who or which zone produces the next governor may revolve around wealth and political intelligence or creative imagination channelled towards quality. While ideology or philosophy of governance is essential in driving a clear and coherent political campaign, it is not known to have a substantial impact in Benue politics, but of course that does not mean it cannot work. These features are therefore essentially mandatory considerations for Zone C politicos aspiring to make history in breaking the iron grip of the Tiv ruling elite on power in the state.
No doubt, the Tiv political elites, which have over time perfected the art of penetrating, manipulating and outwitting their Idoma counterparts in political chicanery, seem to be on the match again. The fact that they have obviously not openly conceded power to Zone C, beyond Chief Unongo who is a fading force, is indicative of an informal consensus to watch what plays out within the contending forces in the Idoma area before making any serious incursion.
In that context, Zone C’s political gladiators ought to quickly realise that apart from the ethnic undercurrent that is driving the quest for power lies the question of credibility and acceptance of those with dominant electoral value, credibility and acceptance within and beyond the shores of Zone C.
In Zone C as well as in Zones A and B, the race remains very crowded, spurting serious, not-so-serious, professional and proxy contenders.
Expectedly, Zone C, which is currently the hotbed of agitation for power shift, has an array of aspirants. Those in the front row include Engr. Benson Abounu, the current deputy governor; Sam Odeh, former Minister of State for Niger Delta; Chief Steven Lawani, the immediate past deputy governor, and Senator Abba Moro, representative of the zone at the Senate.
While there are many others in the race from the zone, it is believed that these four, for now, represent the core in terms of focus, experience, reach, acceptance or personality and resources (human and material) to prosecute a state-wide campaign.
As the incumbent Deputy Governor, Engr. Abounu remains a formidable force to succeed his boss, who, if willing, has the capacity to mobilise state machinery to serve the interest of his second-in-command. But buried in that positive is also an inherently sordid underbelly in the context of contemporary politics in which it is rare seeing a deputy governor to succeed the boss.
Chief Lawani, arguably the richest of the crop of aspirants, has nursed the ambition to be governor for over a decade. While he was picked as deputy to Governor Suswam throughout his two-term leadership from 2007 to 2015, Suswam was not, for whatever reasons, able to transmute power to Chief Lawani, irrespective of the fact that the two had gloriously operated the apparatus of state in a rare fluid and rancour-free relationship that was the talk of town in Makurdi political circles. A property guru, conscious, calculating and skilled in business and politics, Chief Lawani is well-heeled in the art of patience. With decades of experience in political negotiation, remains a formidable contender for Benue’s No 1 job.
Sam Ode, as he is always addressed, is a smooth and politically intelligent operator who has quietly risen along the ranks in politics reaching national limelight as Minister of State for Niger Delta. Before his odyssey into national politics, he was a powerful force in the Suswam leadership, even though he operated under the title of Special Adviser on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs. With this rich profile, Sam Ode is seen as a win-win candidate against the backdrop of his being described as a full-blooded Benue man. This is because, while he is paternally of Idoma land, he is also maternally rooted in Tiv land, a situation which some analysts believe may render him as the most credible candidate to market as a consensus candidate across the sensitive ethnic divide in Benue.
Senator Abba Moro in 2015 came very close to breaking the Idoma governorship jinx in the hotly contested governorship primaries in the state, for it was believed that if he had won the primaries, it would have been a smooth ride to Government House. Having been Minister of Interior and now Senator of the Federal Republic, Moro still remains one of the most popular aspirants with a wide network of associates and strong political machinery across the state to orchestrate a campaign that will clinch the number one seat in Benue.
From the Zone A’s Jechira political clan, there are many aspirants but one of the frontline aspirants is Engr. Barnabas Gemade, former Managing Director of Benue Cement Company (BCC) Ltd, former PDP chairman, former Minister of Works and Housing, a two-term senator and a wealthy politician believed to have a hefty wallet to prosecute his ambition. It is believed that the defeat of Gemade in the zone’s Senatorial contest will not affect his future political fortunes as he may have learnt profound lessons therefrom.
Hon. Iorwase Hembe is another front-liner from Zone A. A three-term member of the House of Representatives, he recently decamped to APC to compete for the party’s ticket with his Gaav elder brother, Engr. Gemade. Hembe’s decision to move to the same political party as Gemade is considered a mistake given that the latter has greater political reach and visibility, although there is a school of thought which believe that Hembe has an edge in terms of age over Gemade who many deemed is now too old to handle the tasking job of a governor.
Prof. Dennis Ityavyar, who hails from Vandeikya, is currently the Commissioner for Education. He has held public positions and believed to have done very well. He is also believed to be wealth and currently politically better placed compared to many other governorship aspirants from Jechira axis. In some political circles in Makurdi, it is speculated that Governor Ortom has already anointed Prof Ityavyar. A singular indicator, according to speculation, is Ortom’s decision to retain only Prof. Ityavyar when he sacked his first term cabinet.
Hon. Titus Uba, the current speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly, has grown fast politically. His secret and strength, it is assumed, remains his avowed humility which is said to have endeared him to the governor. It is believed that this singular attribute may give the state’s number three citizen an upper hand in the 2023 guber primaries over his opponents.
From Kwande axis of Zone A comes Chief Michael Kaase Aondoakaa, another heavy weight. A former Attorney General and Minister of Justice (under the Yar’Adua Presidency) and currently the CEO of Miva Rice Company Ltd, Makurdi; he is believed to be rich and well-connected within the state to be able to create an upset even if he lacks backing of the state apparatus.
Also on the roll call of aspirants now is Dr Paul Ubwa, an industrialist who is at the moment making waves, as he is said to have a lot of cash to spray. Many believe with his money, he is at pole position to not only register his presence but stand the chance of upsetting the political status quo.
For now, Zone B, from which the incumbent Governor Ortom hails, is calm with little or no major agitation, though a number of aspirants from the Gwer axis of the zone are said to be warming up on the assumption that MINDA is merely an Association. The emerging contention is that there are two blocs in MINDA, namely Gwer and Lobi. The argument is that Lobi bloc, which comprises Makurdi and Guma, has produced a governor who is currently on seat and now it is Gwer’s turn to wear the crown.
Unfortunately for the zone, Governor Ortom has distanced himself from the agitation. His reason is that MINDA doesn’t have two intermediate areas, thus dismissing Gwer as a bloc in Tiv political heritage. However, those in support of the move are saying that Ortom cannot decide for Gwer and the entire MINDA people.
As time ticks towards 2023, more guber aspirants are bound to emerge and drop out of the race just as the combination of ethnic and financial dynamics will continue to crucially moderate the tempo of the contestation. But with the complex and diverse nature of interests and personalities in contrast with prevailing tension and socio-economic realities, nothing is preordained yet, at least, it morning yet on creation day.