The All Progressives Congress, (APC) in Benue State in central Nigeria appears set to remove ethnicity from the exercise of power in the state. It is not clear if that objective is what Benue APC elders and mandarins took into consideration in deciding the governorship/deputy-governorship candidates of the party earlier this month. Whether that is what they did or not, nobody can deny them credit for creativity in the combination which has the potential of removing ethnicity completely from Benue politics.
The idea can be traced to or is similar to experimenting with the standpoint of Aper Aku, the late anti-corruption crusader and first democratically elected governor of the state on the National Question in Nigeria. Shortly before the military sent the Shehu Shagari Presidency packing in late December 1983, Aku had stormed a National Conference on the First Four Years of the Presidential System in Nigeria held at Kongo Conference Hotel, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria to declare that the National Question in Nigeria is not class but ethnic and that his “strong conviction that the national question is the ethnic issue is further encouraged by the character of political convulsion we lived through between 1966 and 1971 and the kind of defense mechanisms we have since devised to cope. Ethic fears, rather than economics maladjustment made the acceptance of the 1964 general election results difficult, they encouraged the pattern of military intervention in politics thereafter and they can be seen in the tragic confrontation of the civil war”.
Continuing, Aku located what he saw as the problem in terms of no group of people accepting what he termed permanent servitude. “Political frustration on the part of the group that may not lead and pride on the part of the group that must lead can bring about national paralysis”. For him, therefore, the answer is: seek ye first the political solution to our ethnic problem and all else will be bestowed”
Obviously anticipating counter-polemics from the Marxists he feared would dominate the conference, the late governor went on to declare as follows: I know that some of us here may wish to disagree with my view that our national question today is the ethnic one. I know that on our university campuses, in particular, there is fascinating intellectual romance with economic determinism. And I am aware that roughly three quarters of mankind lives under governments which profess economic democracy. But I know equally well that if you scratch the skin of even the ‘gurus’ among our Marxists, you will discover their ethnic origin before you stumble upon their economic consciousness. And if you paused to ask why there is crisis even within and among socialist countries such as Poland, China and the Soviet Union, you will identify national chauvinism as its source“.
It remains one of the most thorough- going intervention from the right wing spectrum of the contestation over the subject matter of the National Question in Nigeria. None of them have responded to the perception but it used to be the belief that the speech must have been drafted for the governor by either Mvendaga Jibo, now a professor of Political Science at the Benue State University, Makurdi who was then about the most solid intellectual of the defunct National Party of Nigeria, (NPN) in Benue State or Dr Yima Sen, now a Mass Communication scholar at Baze University in Abuja but who was a think tanker with The Presidency at the time and well connected to the Aper Aku/Joseph Tarka stream of consciousness in Benue politics. There is still no evidence to link any of them to the speech beyond the speculation.
35 years after Aku’s speech, the APC appears to be borrowing from it by its interesting combination of gubernatorial stuff in a way that is somehow saying, let’s destroy ethnicity in Benue State because, as Aku would say, “Political frustration on the part of the group that may not lead and pride on the part of the group that must lead can bring about national paralysis”. Whether APC leaders were aware of Aku’s formulation or not, they have brought up a leadership pairing that remove frustration on the part of excluded groups or pride on the part of hegemons. This is how that will happen: Barrister Emmanuel Jime, the governorship candidate of the party is Tiv by ethnic identity but he is married to a woman of Idoma ethnic identity. Dr Sam Odeh, the deputy-governor is Idoma in ethnic terms but of Tiv mother.
What this could translate to is that, should the APC win the governorship election, neither the governor nor the deputy would want to nor be able to harm Idoma or Tiv interests, respectively. For the governor, doing so would amount to hurting his wife and/or children while doing so on the part of the deputy-governor would amount to hurting his mother’s people. Therein lies the creativity of the pairing in the APC ticket in Benue State, something that has not been seen elsewhere in Nigerian politics yet and at a time identity has become such a complicated issue in politics across the world. It is no longer right wing politics but conflict management sensitivity to ensure ethnic inclusivity or balancing. By implication, the APC is suggesting the possibility of throwing out ethnicity from the exercise of power in the Benue context.
Pairing Dr. Odeh with Barrister Jime has been a controversial exercise for the APC because some of its big guys argued the need to diversify from Otukpo LGA in doing so. However, as things are now, there is no way the party will not make a big issue of its decision when the campaigns bloom in January 2019. No one might deny them the credit for that, theirs being the third of the options for solving a problem peculiar to about six states in Nigeria: Adamawa, Benue, Borno, Kaduna, Kogi and one of the ‘O’ states in Southwestern Nigeria. In these states, the ethnic composition allows one dominant ethnic group to continue to predominate, especially in terms of the governorship. The only exceptions are Cross Rivers and Katsina states where the elite have more creatively managed the situation.
The first option which was being contemplated by some elements around former president Olusegun Obasanjo around 1999 – 2003 was the push for an unwritten arrangement whereby all such states would be given a concession in constituting the Federal cabinet. The concession is for them to get two cabinet positions or equivalent. If the governor has been taken by the hegemonic ethnic group, then the other side(s) will be given the two ministerial slots. If, at any time, the hegemonic ethnic group prefers the two ministerial slots to governorship of the state in question, then it swaps with the minority ethnic group. As told to Intervention by a presidential aide to Obasanjo at the time, this was the reason why all ambassadorial slots went to elements of Idoma origin in the case of Benue State in 1999 because then Vice-President Atiku Abubakar made the case, obviously as part of that concession strategy. Unfortunately, the strategy was never articulated as a presidential doctrine for managing multiple minority problematique in Nigeria as Lenin did in the defunct USSR. Neither was it practised in any systematic manner as for its strengths and weaknesses to have been known.
The second option is the idea of amending the 1999 Constitution so that the principle of rotation of power would guide inclusivity at the state and local government levels throughout the country. It was the popular assumption that this is what someone such as David Mark would spearhead, seeing as he comes from one of the six affected states. Instead of that option, he was promising to create Apa State for his Idoma people. In the end, it turned a wild goose chase.
The question now is what are the potential merits and drawbacks of what APC has discovered and might rightly soon be posing as its original contribution to Nigerian politics?