Story by Igoche Onyilo
The recent purchase of a PDP presidential nomination form by former Senate President, David Mark, has put paid to the intense speculation on whether the Benue South Senatorial seat in the upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly is vacant at last. The position which has been held five times consecutively by Senator Mark in a period that has spanned almost twenty years seems set to be contested for, the first time in twenty years without the overhang of Sen. Mark. Naturally, so to speak, many hands are up in indication of interest for the seat.
It is an unusual seat. Being about the only such seat that coincides with a nationality makes the occupant at any one time the modern legislator, the chaperon of the nationality and the symbol of its soul in a country of ethnic banalities. The seat enables the Idoma nationality to absorb the shock of its perceived exclusion back home in Benue. For, as has been remarked many times before, while the population factor does not favour Idoma in Benue State in terms of local power, it does not stop them from becoming number Three citizen at the national level. It is debatable if Idoma-ness had any contributions to his emergence as Senate President but the day after, it was the card. Is it not then interesting that there has been no strong voice for restructuring from Idomaland? In Idomaland, it would seem that, as the big boys of the federation, the Igbos, Hausa/Fulani and Yorubas can afford to quarrel over the current arrangement. But not the Idoma nation which feels it would totally sink if not for the contradictions of the existing federalism, especially those that favour it.
While David Mark held sway over the senatorial district, he bestrode the space like a colossus. His influence was so great especially in the PDP that in 2015, he was given the ticket of the party unopposed. It took the challenge of a virtually unknown former student unionist to rupture Mark’s seeming towering control of the space. Daniel Onjeh, the then unknown player was the candidate of the APC in the 2015 general elections, ruffling the feathers of the former Senate President. Although David Mark ended up winning the rerun of the election ordered by the court of appeal sitting in Jos, the upstart had succeeded to a great extent in decentering the Mark tower. Some people argue that things have never been the same thereafter. How far that perception goes now that Mark is climbing to seeking higher power is a different question.
So, looking for a successor for the seat David Mark colonised for two decades can be an uphill task. Not that Mark was blameless. He was too much of a soldier to bring everyone on board his political ship, mistaking politics for the battlefield in which all actors are either enemies or friends. The soldier imaginary in his politics must explain his lack of a legacy of phenomenal leadership relative to the enormous power he wielded. History is not written in one day and the jury could still be out there whether he was a phenomenal leader or not. What is at issue now is those who want to ease themselves into that symbolic seat in the National Assembly. Who are they? What do they stand for and how might the race go?
The Minister for the Interior under the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan regime, Comrade Abba Moro has advanced to be recognised for the race. There is also a former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, Chief Mike Okibe Onoja and a two time member of the Benue State House of Assembly, Mr. Joseph Ojobo. All of these gentlemen are vying under the ticket of the PDP. In the APC fold, the game seems to have been reserved for a senior citizen, Chief Steven Lawani who served as Deputy Governor of the state from 2007 to 2015. Chief Lawani could be said to have a claim to the seat, having won it before during General Sani Abacha’s transition programme in the mid 1990s. It is not clear how and why he yielded ground to Senator Mark upon the latter’s return from exile in 1999. It was either the consensus of the Idoma bourgeoisie or Lawani had set his minds on other things then.
In the fold of the APC, Chief Steven Lawani seems set to get the nomination. That does not seem to be a problem. What might be a problem is how APC might fare in the 2019 elections against a re-aligning and resurgent PDP, especially given the return to the PDP by many bigwigs from the zone who left the PDP for the APC earlier. Although David Mark will not be contesting for the senatorial seat, his influence in the forth coming elections might still be there. There is no information as to relationship between David Mark and Chief Lawani who is not usually associated with politics as a cloak and dagger game. Chief Lawani who until 2014 was a member of the PDP defected to the APC in the aftermath of the 2015 elections. He has remained there since. Absolutely well known in the state, some analysts say that his problem in politics is that people do not know the real Lawani. In other words, he is not communicating his real self at the popular level. If being consummate is the criterion for winning the election, it would have been a done deal or a safe bet that Lawani would win it. Without that, he would have to slug it out with others. It is a processwhich can be complicated and the outcome of which no one can bet, although Chief Lawani is not a neophyte. In fact, his supporters say it could be said of him as someone who has seen it all, from deputy National Chairman of the National Republican Convention, (NRC) in the Babangida days to the present. He could, therefore, shock his opponents with a wide margin.
Of these opponents who have raised their hands, the front runners in the PDP are the former Minister of the Interior, Comrade Abba Moro and Chief Mike Onoja. Comrade Moro who served as two time chairman of Okpokwu Local Government Area from 1999-2007 and also served as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, before becoming a minister of the Federal Republic in 2011 is seen as a grassroots politician. He has the advantage of having presided over recruitment into parastatals of the ministry, a process many from the area benefitted. He has that legacy which he shares with David Mark who made him minister. Comrade Moro who also served as DG of David Mark’s campaign organisation in 2011 and during the rerun election was before now, posed in whispers as the successor to David Mark whenever it pleased Mark to withdraw from the scene. Now, that Mark has withdrawn to a higher space, it would seem natural for Moro to claim the seat. But that is if the Idoma bourgeoisie is reading the text that way. And that is also if the voters are thinking in that direction. No one may also afford to be categorical what Mark himself is thinking on the contest and Moro’s aspirations. So, Moro could be as near the jewel and yet damned far away from it.
In any case, he has to beat someone such as Chief Mike Onoja in PDP first. Chief Mike Onoja had contested for the senatorial seat against David Mark in 2010 but lost. He had intended to contest the seat in 2015 before he was persuaded by Abuja against unsettling the status quo. In 2007, Mike Onoja ran for governor and came second in the contest behind Gabriel Suswam. In the run up to the 2015 elections, Chief Onoja defected to the ruling APC. In a recent defection ceremony where he announced his defection back to the PDP and his intention to vie for the senatorial ticket of the party, he surprisingly paid tribute to Senator David Mark for holding sway in the PDP in the senatorial district in recent times and declared that the APC was dead in the senatorial zone. Chief Onoja is seen as a money bag, experienced but perhaps too much of a systems person.
Hon. Joseph Ojobo who is serving his second term in the Benue State House of Assembly is not too well known outside of his Ogbadibo constituency and is seen as the outsider in this high stakes race. Certainly, he doesn’t compare in name recognition and in wealth with any of Moro or Onoja and even worse with Chief Steven Lawani, the inscrutable but easy-going APC kingpin. In the present configuration, Daniel Onjeh does not appear to be a factor yet. He might still be oiling his political guns, playing chess with permutations but Benue State has not heard that loudly from him yet.
The real tragedy is that 2019 is not 1999. In 1999, the late Chief Andrew Agom was reported to have yielded ground to David Mark who cried about Idoma plight on arrival back in Nigeria. Intervention was not born yet but it was authoritatively learnt that the late Chief Agom told his fellow Idoma elders that David Mark should take the job because he was stronger headed than he, Agom and that, under Mark, the Idoma would do well. Today, there does not appear to be such nobility in politics. It is money and raw power that are speaking in Otukpo, Makurdi and Abuja while the Idoma peasants have very little or nothing to write home about relative to the powers that politicians who trace their blood to Idoma nationality have amassed and squandered since 1999 – Head of Service of the Federation, National Chairman of the ruling party, ministers, military leadership at various levels, Vice-chancellors, etc. Some pundits believe very strongly that the problem of the governorship of Benue State that has eluded Idoma nationality in Benue State is traceable to the Idoma elite rather than Tiv insensitivity. What a national minority!