US based Nigerian professor of Political Science, Pita Ogaba Agbese, is angry with the Benue State governor, Dr. Samuel Ortom over yesterday’s meeting of Tiv elite at the Government House, Makurdi. He says in a social media essay that the meeting amounts to turning over the Government House to just one out of many identities in the state, especially that the Deputy-Governor who is not Tiv was not at the meeting.
Governor Samuel Ortom called a meeting of Tiv elite May 18th, 2020 at which the attendees were understood to have been discussing security issues. But, in a state in which rhetoric of exclusion and domination has shot up recently, the meeting is capable of a million interpretations. While some people believe it was a Tiv show of force in response to rising Idoma assertiveness for the governorship position in 2023, others insist it was for the elite to assess the costs of disunity among Tiv while yet another set speak of a collective grumbling against two recent federal facilities cited in Idomaland. These are the federal university for Health Sciences at Otukpo and a College of Education at Odugbo in Apa LGA of the state. Many more interpretations of the meeting are sure to emerge in the next few days. But whichever interpretations emerge commonsensical, the idea of the meeting as a show of force is now the leading interpretation arising from the claim that Tiv was the only language at the said meeting.
Nigeria is not good at anticipating and resolving conflicts while it is ebbing and flowing up. Otherwise, claims of domination such as is persistently emanating from a number of states, (Kaduna, Kogi, Benue, amongst others) ought to have been framed and attended to within one of the models for managing the national question. No. That’s not Nigeria’s style. Nigeria’s style is to wait till it escalates and they deploy security men to enforce non-existent peace.
While it is true that a caucus within the Obasanjo first term in 1999 contemplated a formula, neither Obasanjo as a person nor as head of government returned to the issue in any systematic manner in the siege that circumscribed the regime towards its tail end. No other regime or leaders has done anything systematic thereafter.
As such, there is so much room left for mercenaries, false messiahs, charlatans and profiteers to generate unnecessary enemy images and unproductive conflict over an issue that leaders of substance can easily negotiate and come to consensus. Prof Agbese’s intervention is, therefore, welcome as it sets the issue above the reach of some players.
The professor’s essay entitled “A Meeting of Stakeholders of Tiv Extraction on Security in Tivland: Matters Arising” reads as follows:
By Pita Agbese
No one in Benue itself or going through Benue social media websites would have missed a meeting held among Tiv elites at Government House, Makurdi, yesterday. The Who is who among the Tiv elites was there. Purported foes forgot their quarrels and were hugging and high-fifing each other. The place was agog with men and women resplendently-dressed. Benue Television captioned the meeting as “A Meeting of Stakeholders of Tiv Extraction on Security in Tivland.” Bernard Orya Gbaa referred to it as a meeting “for new Benue.” Tombowua Agya Godwin captioned it as “Benue Security Meeting.” Ortom’s Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, issued a press release after the meeting. Akase did not give the gathering a name but the headline of his news release read as follows: “Benue to set up Security Committees at Kindred Level As Ortom, Akume, Suswam, Others Unite for Peace, Security.” For this short write- up, I will go with the Benue Television designation. The word. stakeholders, is a buzzword in Nigeria. It is quite popular in usage even though most often when it is used, its meanings are quite nebulous and cast in obscurity. In a democracy, every citizen is a stakeholder in public affairs. Therefore, in the context of democracy, the word, stakeholder, is a tautology. The word, extraction, used in reference to a person’s ethnic origin, is also quite popular in Nigeria, although I, myself, never use it. Often, when it is used, it is done pretentiously. If someone is Tiv, just say so. Don’t say she is of Tiv extraction. I know it is perfectly good English to say someone is of Tiv extraction but I think qualifying the ethnic origin with the word, extraction, is unnecessary. It is verbose as it does not add anything different or distinctive to the identified ethnic origin of the person in question. Adding extraction to the ethnicity of someone would make sense to me only if the person had done what someone of his or her ethnicity was not expected to have done.
At the outset, let me note that holding a meeting to douse the raging inferno of violence in Benue was a good thing. A meeting that brought together, supposed political foes of the caliber of Ortom, Suswam and Akume to explore how to end the numerous communal and intra-ethnic bloodshed has to be applauded. These three men have held Benue in the jugular in the last twenty-one years and the dynamics of politics in Benue have revolved around the ebbs and flows of the interpersonal relationships among these men. So, a gathering that involves them should be of more than a passing interest. Unfortunately for Benue, the state derives no benefits from their friendships or their enmities. For the Benue grasses, when these men make love, Benue grasses suffer and when they wage war amongst themselves, Benue grasses still suffer. So, heads or tails, when these elites quarrel or guffaw hysterically, the Benue masses lose. They are known to meet physically or in cyberspace to resolve their personal differences. Such rapprochement always occurs for their private benefits and at the cost of the state. If this one-day summit would be different occurring against the backdrop of the recent orgy of violence in Benue it would be a good thing. I am not betting my cameras on a positive outcome for Benue at large. Nonetheless, Ortom’s success in pulling off the meeting is a testament to the power of political power in Nigeria.
As salutary as the parley among the elites might have been, it raised a number of key issues for me as a citizen and as a public commentator. First, Ortom is Tiv by ethnicity but he is holding the office of the governor for all of Benue, not just for the Tiv. Ortom is not governor of Tiv. He is governor of Benue. He must separate his ethnicity from his office. Ortom cannot use the office of the governor to achieve an ethnic agenda, no matter how noble that ethnic agenda is. If a meeting of Tiv elites is called, as a Tiv man and possibly the most important Tiv man other than the Tor Tiv, Ortom can legitimately attend such a meeting but it is wrong to hold an ethnic meeting at Government House. Doing so is using a resource that belongs to everyone in Benue for the exclusive interests of a particular part of Benue. According to Terver Akase, the meeting resolved to set up security committees at the kindred level. A meeting of Tiv elites has no constitutional grounding and it cannot make laws or policies for the governance of Benue. Even if it can be argued that the purpose of the meeting was simply to discuss security issues in Tivland, the meeting can still be faulted. It is not just Tiv people who live in Tivland. Insecurity in Tivland affects both Tiv and non-Tiv alike and holding a meeting on security in Tivland in which participation was reserved exclusively for Tiv men and women was an indefensible act. Before the Tiv ethnic jingoists foam at the mouth in attempts to condemn my stand on this issue, let me remind them that they would be the first in arms in total condemnation of President M. Buhari if he was to summon a meeting of just Fulani people at Aso Rock. Accusations that Buhari was demonstrating Fulani ethnic favoritism would rent the air. What is bad if Buhari does it should not be good simply because it is Ortom who does it.
Engineer Benson Abounu is Benue’s deputy governor. As far as I could tell, he was not at the meeting. The session was conducted in the Tiv language. I don’t know his Tiv language proficiency and if he does not speak Tiv, his presence at the meeting would not have been very useful to him. Being a deputy governor means that he can serve as an acting governor if Ortom is indisposed or travels outside Nigeria. Abounu would have to implement a decision arrived at an exclusive gathering of Tiv elites. A gathering unknown to our laws. That is wrong. No deputy governor should be placed in such an awkward position. Even if Ortom brings the resolution of the gathering to the State Executive Council for ratification, it is still wrong. Those who do not see anything wrong in the gathering should remember that Akase informed us that the meeting resolved to suspend five traditional rulers accused of fueling the bloodshed. What legal authority does a meeting of Tiv elites have to suspend traditional rulers from office? An undemocratic body should not be allowed to make laws or enact policies in a democratic system.
It would be a mistake to view this meeting, in hindsight, as simply an error in judgment or a panicky reaction to the current wave of violence. It was neither. It flows from the logic of the fetishization of Tiv ethnic majoritarianism. The numerical majority of Tiv people in Benue has created a mindset that Tiv is Benue and Benue is Tiv. Not so. Tiv elites’ interests are not necessarily the interests of the Tiv masses and certainly cannot be equated with the interests of Benue at-large. Unfortunately, excessive devotion to Tiv numerical majority rubs Benue of ecumenical and creative solutions to Benue’s many thorny issues. Calling an exclusive meeting of Tiv elites at Government House using our commonwealth was wrong. As it is, it even rings hollow for Ortom to present himself as a Tiv patriot. The record of his leadership over these past five years in which Tiv masses, like their non-Tiv counterparts, have suffered immensely and unnecessarily gives a lie to an attempt to robe Ortom in the garb of a Tiv ethnic champion. In the end, the meeting might not achieve anything concrete other than giving Ortom a chance to pretend to be concerned about the safety and the well-being of Tiv people. We all know what concrete steps Ortom can take to show genuine concern about the plights of Benue people and the constant threats they face from within and without. An exclusive meeting of Tiv elites is not one of those concrete steps that Ortom can take to bridge the chasm between him and the Benue public. Even if Ortom once again, wines with Akume and Suswam, he cannot solve the problem that he is rightly viewed as the worst governor Benue has ever had, and possibly, would ever have. We have seen his dancer with his friends too many times and we refuse to be fooled this time. His new friends can replace the Satan that he has driven from Government House and keep him company there but we know that what benefits Ortom does not benefit Benue.