The Idoma Minority Question and the Imminent Constitutional Crisis in Benue

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Governor Ortom during Thursday's press conference.

By Alleh Okpeh Alleh

IN 1976, during one of the state creation exercises of the then military regime, Benue State was created along with others. By then, there were three major ethnic nationalities – Idoma, Tiv and Igala – with others such as Jukun, Etulo, Hausa in the Tiv territory, and Idoma sub-ethnic groups such as Akweya or Akpa, Igede, Ufia or Utonkon and Igbo. Then there is the Bassa in the Igala area.

Subsequently, in furtherance of creating and readjusting state boundaries, the Igala which was then the second most populous ethnic group in the state, was excised and re-located to what is now Kogi State. The Tiv, in particular, celebrated the Igala exit for ‘their liberation’ from the hands of the Igala whom they dread so much for their (Igala) African spiritual prowess.

Thereafter, they became overbearingly dominant, lording over the Idoma and other ethnic minorities left behind in the state. When this became intolerable, with cries of marginalisation rising, the then military regime, again attempted to solve the problem by further adjusting the boundaries in order to bring to the state historically and linguistically related Idoma brothers – the Iyala in Cross River State and the Alago in Nasarawa State – to merge them with their brothers in Benue so as to boost Idoma’s numerical strength in Benue. However, the Iyala and Alago protested their relocation and wore black clothes for a whole month until they were restored to their original states leaving the Idoma at the mercy of Tiv dominance.

Benue State, which has 23 local government areas, is made up of 9 in the Idoma area known as Zone C inclusive of the two in the Igede area and 14 Tiv area. As a result of this, the Tiv has continued to lord it over all others in the political economy of the state for the past forty-seven years. The Tiv had ensured that every elected governor of the state has been from them since the creation of the state.

At the exit of the Igala from the state, the Tiv had a comfortable two-third local government majority, the constitutional strength required to run any major policy within a state in Nigeria. In using this strength, Tiv-speaking legislators during the civilian administration under General Ibrahim Babangida voted in the House of Assembly to excise the Idoma ethnic nationality from the state by moving and passing a motion to that effect.

This primitive animosity angered the IBB military regime at the federal level which, in exercising its powers, created more local councils for the Idoma area to ensure that the Tiv do not have two-third majority to bully the Idoma any longer. But still, this did not end the travails of the Idoma. The Tiv then court a political friendship with the Igede sub-ethnic group which has two local councils thereby depleting the effective number needed by the Idoma for political check on the Tiv in the state. Most Igedes feel that Idomas do not accord them the required respect and that they are not Idoma despite their son, Ajene Okpabi, haven served as the longest Och’Idoma, the paramount ruler in Idoma, for over three decades.

Benue State, which has 23 local government areas, is made up of 9 in the Idoma area known as Zone C inclusive of the two in the Igede area and 14 Tiv area. As a result of this, the Tiv has continued to lord it over all others in the political economy of the state for the past forty-seven years. The Tiv had ensured that every elected governor of the state has been from them since the creation of the state.

Along with this, the following positions had been the preserve of the Tiv: speakers of the House of Assembly, chief judges, vice chancellors of both the federal and state universities in the state, as well as other sensitive officials of the state, not the object of this discussion. To facilitate this friendship with the Igede, the first Deputy Governor in this present dispensation was given to the son of the late Och’Idoma, Ogiri Ajene. Since this democratic dispensation, the position of Secretary to the State Government was allocated to the Idoma but this has been seized by the Ortom leadership and given to the Tiv.

At the onset of preparations for the 2023 general elections, the Idoma began the usual minority dirge and wailing of her dilemma in the state and the need to make them part of the state. Groups were formed to lobby, educate, enlighten and push for an Idoma to be made the governor of the state, this time by adopting a rotational arrangement that will ensure all parties nominate an Idoma candidate for the election.

While Governor Ortom heads the PDP consensus committee at the national level, he has categorically told the Idoma that they cannot produce a governor in the state as he asserted that democracy is a game of numbers.

The response to the narrative above is what necessitates the focus of this article. The question is: to what extent can the Idoma checkmate the perpetual election of Tiv as the Governor of Benue State?

By the provisions of the constitution of Nigeria, the relevant portions of Section 177 is paraphrased in this discourse as the needed requirements for a candidate to be deemed elected as a governor. The person shall be citizen of Nigeria by birth, at least 35 years of age, a member and sponsored by a political party, educated up to at least school certificate or its equivalent (whatever that means).

Section 179 (1) of the constitution further provides that for a person to have been deemed elected into the office of the governor of a state, if he is the only candidate, he/she shall have majority of YES votes over NO votes cast at the election, has not less than ¼ (25%) of votes cast at the election in each of at least two-third of all the local government areas of the state. Where the provision of this single candidature fails to produce a governor, a new nomination will be called.

Section 179(2) makes provisions for multiple candidates as follows: Where there are two or more candidates, a candidate will be deemed elected if he/she has the highest number of votes cast at the election, and he/she has not less than ¼ (25%) of all the votes cast in each of at least two-third of all the local government areas in the state.

179(3) states that where the above provision fails to produce a governor, there shall be a second election between two of the candidates that meet the following criteria: The candidate who scored the highest number of votes cast at the election, and one among the remaining candidates’ who scored a majority of votes in the highest number of local government areas of the state. In order words, the candidate among them with the next highest number of votes cast at the election shall be the second candidate.

(179)(4) states that if the second scenario above again fails to produce the governor, an election will be called between the two candidates and a winner will emerge if he/she has a majority of the votes cast at the election, and he has not less than ¼ (25%) of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two-third of all the local government areas in the state.

179(5), where the stage above still fails to produce a governor, another election will be called between the two candidates involved above wherein the candidate who scores the highest number of votes cast at the election will be deemed elected as governor of the state. At this stage, it becomes the power of simple majority which will likely go the way of the Tiv candidate without prejudice to miracles of protest votes, non-indigenes votes, votes of the sub-ethnic minorities in the state and conscience of liberal Tivs.

Again, assuming that the Igedes decide to go with the Tivs, they will have to deliver their two local councils or at least one to add up to the 14 needed by a Tiv candidate to get 15. The foregone discourse is, if all the seven Idoma local councils vote for the Idoma and if they are able to come behind a single candidate as a consensus for the purpose of this protest. Whether this will be possible is a tough question to answer.

Thus, technically, in the first instance, with the twenty three local councils in Benue, the Tiv man needs to garner majority votes cast in the election as YES over NO and score at least ¼ (25%) of votes cast in at least 15 local councils. This is not likely to play out because definitely, there will be multiple candidates considering the number of parties and political interests.

Therefore, falling on the second call, the Tiv candidate will in the second instance need to have majority votes cast in the election and have at least ¼ (25%) of votes cast in at least two-third of the total number of local government areas of the state which will be fifteen (15), one local government more than the fourteen of the Tivs, assuming he/she meets all the criteria in all the Tiv local councils. Thus, the candidate will have to satisfy this provision in all the fourteen local councils in the Tiv area (which is not possible) because there will be political differences and interests (which may also be an obstacle in the Idoma mission as well, in addition to the challenge of multiple Tiv candidates, non-indigenes, Etulo, and liberal Tiv voters who will vote differently. Protest votes coming from the Tivs for a variety of reasons are not also totally ruled out because a lot of the Tivs have stated that their stock relying on the privilege of majority has over time bastardized leadership in the state and therefore needed a change of guard to the minority and even for equity and good conscience.

Again, assuming that the Igedes decide to go with the Tivs, they will have to deliver their two local councils or at least one to add up to the 14 needed by a Tiv candidate to get 15. The foregone discourse is, if all the seven Idoma local councils vote for the Idoma and if they are able to come behind a single candidate as a consensus for the purpose of this protest. Whether this will be possible is a tough question to answer.

However, beyond this agitation that the Idoma should be allowed to rule is not really about ruling per se, but a product of ethnic identity and inclusion. This is because leadership in Nigeria is not about who is in power because the leadership across every tribe has been an abysmal failure. The experience in Benue is like the North ruling Nigeria most of the period after independence, but yet the least developed.

In the third scenario, the candidates must have been trimmed down to one, probably one each of Idoma and Tiv. In this case, the winner will have to win majority votes cast in the election and also have at least ¼ (25%) votes in at least two-third (15%) number of the entire local councils in the state. Here the burden of fifteen local governments may still hang on the neck of the Tiv candidate, which he may likely get at this time.

By the time this last option is explored for a Tiv candidate to win, the Idoma surely must have entered the Guinness book of records. These political propositions may be utopian because, in the Nigerian political exploration, where your stomach is, is where your interest lies but this Idoma insult that is known across the nation as one anathema in the comity of people and modern civilisation must have to be fought in an unusual manner.

However, beyond this agitation that the Idoma should be allowed to rule is not really about ruling per se, but a product of ethnic identity and inclusion. This is because leadership in Nigeria is not about who is in power because the leadership across every tribe has been an abysmal failure. The experience in Benue is like the North ruling Nigeria most of the period after independence, but yet the least developed.

Like the Idoma adage would say, ‘the rain that beat the prison warden is equally the same rain that beats the prisoner in the field’. It must be understood that this agitation is a mere creation of elite manipulation because the destiny of the ordinary Tiv in Benue State is not better than that of the ordinary Idoma and other ethnic nationalities – they are all battered by poverty and hunger, disease and general hardship and deprivation. So also are the livelihoods of the political elites the same as they gambol, enjoy and feed fat on the loot from public till irrespective of their ethnic roots.

It will only make a meaning or difference if any Idoma privileged to be picked will demonstrate that beyond ethnic and elite interests, Benue’s political economy also has hidden leadership talents in the Idoma nationality.

Dr Alleh Esq. writes from Abuja.

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