By The Staff
It is a major conundrum in Nigerian politics that the key actors in politics in the First Republic are still the reference points in terms of substance, standards, bearing. Very few would contest a claim that the Ziks, Sardaunas, Awos, Balewas are still far more organised and balanced in judgment than most of those that came after them. For this to be the case even in spite of the advantages of better formal educational exposure, technological developments and wider political opportunities available to their offspring deepens the conundrum. It compels reflection on some of those standard bearers in the First Republic, partly out of nostalgia but also in a genuine search for answers to problems which they were able to overcome in their own time but which we are not able to in our own time.
One such problem is what Bishop Mathew Kukah has conceptualised as “Need not apply”, a situation across diverse spheres in Nigeria. He used the phrase to capture the situation in Kaduna State where one section endlessly provides the governorship of the state. However, he was speaking to a definitive reality not only in his state but also many other states in the federation as well as numerous other domains in the federal power set up. But this was a problem the earlier elite responded to, directly and indirectly, many years ago when politics was more meaningful. One such spectacular response must be Joseph Tarka’s in 1961.
Joseph Tarka died in 1980 as a senator under the National Party of Nigeria, (NPN). In the First Republic, he was an opposition leader in the north, the leader of the United Middle Belt Congress, (UMBC). He was, therefore, of the progressive tendency on account of being in opposition to the establishment party in the region, the Northern People’s Congress, (NPC). It could be said that what he did was informed by the dynamics of opposition politics but even at that, what he did is today an exemplar for many states in the country today, the Middle Belt, northern Nigeria and Nigeria. It is the story of that exemplarity we seek to tell here.
In northern Nigeria in the First Republic, opposition to the hegemonic NPC took different spatial and ideological expressions. There was the Parapo led by people like Joseph Olawoyin around present day Kwara State. There was the Northern Elements Progressive Union, (NEPU) around the present Kano area and led by the late Aminu Kano. There was the Borno Youth Movement in present day north east and there was the UMBC around what is today the Middle Belt. Each of these parties had its entry point into the fray but an overarching opposition to the NPC united them, even as they did not form a single block to fight. Each had a catchment area but none was essentially a local phenomenon.
Intervention was told by an elderly politician who does not want his name in print that the comradeship between and among the leaders of these parties was so great. The ideological brotherhood and togetherness was tremendous, he said. His must be a truthful testimony or what we see next would not have been possible. That was Joseph Tarka’s invitation to Ibrahim Imam. Iman was a leader of the Borno Youth Movement, meaning that Borno Province was his operational base and Islam his religion.
That was the man Tarka invited to Gboko in the then Benue Province, gave him a constituency and ensued his victory in the subsequent election. By that, Ibrahim Imam turned up in the northern House of Assembly at Lugard Hall in Kaduna to the consternation of the NPC. NPC was organized in such a way that Ibrahim Imam could not have contested election in Borno, even as an opposition candidate. NEPU politicians who tried to do so in Kano area still remember what they went through.
It is intriguing that what Tarka did in 1961 cannot be repeated now, be it in what was Tarka’s own province then or what is now the Middle Belt or what was northern Nigeria because politics has become a ‘do or die’ investment. The acrimony and fragmentation is unspeakable. But whoever did what he did at a time when the exposure was much, more limited must have a message for Benue State, the Middle Belt, northern Nigeria and Nigeria as a whole. What might then be that message?
In search of an idea of the message and other questions, Intervention sought out Professor Mvendaga Jibo, a Professor of Political Science with the Benue State University, Makurdi. Jibo is a natural candidate for such an interview. Apart from intimate connection with the Benue State Government’s burial arrangement for Tarka in 1980 or the attempt at memorialising him, he has written a Master’s Degree thesis at the University of Birmingham in the UK that was substantially on J. S. Tarka. As a journalist in the now half dead/half alive New Nigerian, he had a baptism of fire from which he came up with the phrase, Kaduna Mafia. In the end, the interview was a bigger bargain that went beyond the Tarka political personality message to contemporary Nigeria. It is published virtually unedited.
What was Tarka’s background?
Tarka was a well brought up person. His father was a local chief. He schooled across the land, from Wanune around Gboko to Katsina Ala and Bauchi Province. Then he was posted to schools in Tivland where he interacted widely, including with the British. He related across the lines and also being a very generous person, it was easy for him to be accepted across those lines. His teaching career exposed him to people across what is Nasarawa State today. He was very cosmopolitan.
What might one regard as the dominant consciousness which drove his politics?
Tarka was motivated by his deep seated desire to liberate the Middle Belt from what he perceived as mistreatment in the hands of the people in authority – the NPC. He wanted the minority elements as a group to be given a fair chance, to protect their way of life, to be given equal treatment in appointments
What were the clearest manifestations of mistreatment at that time to have driven his politics?
One of it was paucity of industries and amenities. No town in Tiv land had electricity. There was electricity in Otukpo but not in Gboko because Idoma was in cabinet, the Tivs were not. Same with Igala and Igbirra. It was the same for appointment into the echelon of the public service. It was most unfortunate that Idomas, Igalas and Igbirras abandoned the struggle for the little they were getting.
So, what did Tarka do?
What he did was to mobilise. He worked tirelessly. Happily, his ideas came to fruition in 1967. His ideas were the backbone of some of what Gowon did. He built the structure Gowon later used to create states. He gave Middle Belt a voice and the benefits and the amenities.
Was Gowon’s move a conscious response to the demands Tarka was making?
Yes. Gowon plucked into it. The time came for it, it was implemented and the nation benefitted.
The nation benefitted?
Yes because without creation of states, the war could have gone differently. It was a strong factor. Gowon himself had Middle Belt consciousness.
Did he? Was he not a typical Barewa College product?
No, he was Barewa College with Middle Belt consciousness. The father was a missionary in Wusasa, Zaria. That background was there. The Christian definition was part of Middle Belt consciousness. It was not for nothing that the British described him as an avuncular Christian.
Was this what took Tarka to Awo?
Awo was the only leader of a national party supporting creation of states. The NPC did not support creation of states. The Igbos too didn’t want creation of states. So, it was natural for Tarka to gravitate towards Awo once his purpose in politics was the creation of more states.
Why were Igbos opposed to state creation?
They dominated their region. They were enjoying the benefits of dominance. That was why people like Murphy, (from present Cross Rivers State) were together with Tarka from that region. They wanted freedom from Igbo domination.
Was that the same reason for Tarka’s fraternity with Ibrahim Imam from Borno?
In 1961, Ibrahim Imam was a persona non grata in his area. Tarka persuaded someone to step down for him in Gboko area and at the end of the election, he was the parliamentarian with the highest vote in the northern House of Assembly. The logic of that action lies in a broader, cosmopolitan agenda that Tarka. Tarka saw Nigeria in larger terms. For him, it would simply be nice to have Imam in the northern House of Assembly as far as intergroup relations and the cohesion of opposition were concerned.
So, why are those who came after Tarka not been able to do this anymore?
Tarka could bring whoever he wanted from anywhere and ensure his victory because he had sufficient control over Tiv voters. But, subsequently, the political parties became what the military wanted. They were formed by the military. No single person can do what Tarka did today. The military is a strong explanation for that. The military completely destroyed interaction and social cohesion of any other groups. You have to practice politics to develop politics. The military abolished politics and reduced it to bureaucracy. You must be screened to contest this or that office. So, politics became like activities of parastatals. In that, the inter-party co-operation disappeared. In its place came the present level of distrust especially as the inthttps://intervention.ng/wp-admin/admin.php?page=layersliderer group thing is more diffused now. Even the Tiv man cannot win an election in Otukpo, not to talk of Jos or anywhere in the Middle Belt. And look at what is happening in Ijaw land – the satisfaction from looking at group happiness at the expense of the nation.
Are we talking of a conscious thing on the part of the military or a product of their commander professional mentality?
There is somebody called OBJ. He has done so much disservice to this country. He claims to know more than he does. All he did in 1978 and 1979 transition and still came back to do in 1999 are part of it. This culture of banning people or getting people to be screened to contest for a political office is all his ideas. What is the logic of banning anyone? The voters know whom they want and they will screen them at the polls. Here, the military want politicians to be screened. But the people doing the screening, looking for credible people are themselves not credible. And so, a certain kind of people found their way into power. It is like other ideas that Obasanjo have about power, politics and government. He brought in his personal idiosyncrasies and could not do anything to build the nation. Up till today, our democracy has no room for independent candidacy. How could that be in the 21st century? Take this idea of making tax payment a qualification for election. And that is Obasanjo’s idea since 1978. See what that is causing in Abia today. Is payment of tax superior to the will of the people? Do people pay tax just because they might stand for election? No civilised country in the late 20th and 21st centuries uses such a criterion to disqualify people. Consider what the country would have lost if Aminu Kano and Zik were successfully embarrassed out of the 1979 transition on ground of non payment of tax. These were the same things Obasanjo came to do in 1999 such as using EFFC to pursue his enemies.
He brought this one they call Ngozi Iweala whom he met in New York, who doesn’t know the Nigerian terrain and, together, they took $18b to go and pay debts. Take that amount to go and pay debt. It is a lot of money. Meanwhile, no single Nigerian village can boast of clean water. People are still using canoes to cross rivers all over Nigeria. From that money, you can bridge every river that has no bridge in Nigeria. It can update all our universities to world standard.
But Obasanjo still poses as a leader, thumping his chest, going places and giving lectures. He is still teaching Buhari how to run this country. And he is a person who must win all battles. A true leader doesn’t do that. The fact is that he doesn’t know those things he claims to know. OBJ represents nothing. He didn’t bring ideas, he didn’t develop infrastructure and he did not fight corruption. How can an ignorant and narrow minded person like that lead a country and the country will get political development?
We need to return to Tarka. You tend to depict him as Tiv leader and not as national hero.
No. But through him Tiv stayed in d struggle. Idoma, Igala and the others sold out. Tiv are committed to the welfare of the Middle Belt. You can see that in 1992 when Gov Moses Adasu wanted Idoma in Apa State but Idoma chose to remain with Tiv where they are minority and can never be governor because rather than building bridges, they hate and insult Tiv. Idoma, unlike Tiv, are narrow minded. They all follow David Mark but Mark does not love them or he would have given them Apa State which he was in a position to create.
Idoma is narrow minded. They need to build bridges to realize their political ambition in Benue State. In democracy, majority has the vote. With seven local government against fourteen of Tiv and two of Igede, Idoma is minority and Tiv, the majority has the vote. Tiv with the vote lives in the villages. They have no contact with Idoma. They do not need Idoma to farm. Many of them will never have any contact with Idoma unless Idoma change their disposition and thinking about Tiv and build political bridges that will sell them to the Tiv voters. There are more Tiv in Nasarawa state than there are Idoma in Benue State. But the Tiv in Nasarawa are not in the House of Assembly or Government House. They are on the farm. They are farmers, that’s all. But in Benue, Idoma wants to be governor and also want to be Vice Chancellor of Benue State University when they are already Vice Chancellor of the University of Abuja. The former governor, Gabriel Suswam, gave Idoma SSG otherwise something will happen. Today, Governor Samuel Ortom took SSG away from Idoma and nothing happened. Politics is dynamic. Things have changed and Idoma should realize this. Even today, Igede prefer Tiv to Idoma. Igede would rather stay with Tiv in Benue State than follow Idoma to Apa State. Obviously, Idoma prefer Benue to Apa. For this reason they rebuffed the late Governor Moses Adasu when out of love he tried to help Idoma have their own state in 1993. Idoma turned against Adasu for trying to help them. Meaning that Idoma wants to remain under Tiv majority rule. Those who created the local governments and gave fourteen to Tiv were outsiders, not Tiv. Idoma is narrow minded. Tiv are broadminded. That was why Idoma sold out during the struggle for the emancipation of the Middle Belt. Igala also sold out. Jukun, Berom, Igbirra, they all sold out. The narrow mindedness of Idoma was also evident in their support for David Mark. He was in a position to create Apa State but he deceived Idoma.
How it is the case that Tarka is not of much currency in Nigerian politics today. It contradicts the image of him as a great politician.
It doesn’t. In the whole of the country, are they talking of Michael Okpara or even Zik? Yes, Awo and the Sardauna have survived in popular memories but that’s all. In the case of Tarka, his successors in Benue State, they lack a sense of it. They could have done more such as naming the University of Agriculture or Benue State University after him. I was the Commissioner for Education then, we started the Tarka Institute of Political Studies but then politics evolve and many people who did a lot for their people could be forgotten. It doesn’t contradict that they did great things. There is the problem of passage of time, the reality of contemporary challenges and the emergence of stronger issues. Each of these can determine whether the memory of a particular past leader remains strong in the people or not.
How did he become entangled with corruption?
In fact, my Masters Degree thesis was on the media’s reaction to corruption in Nigeria and substantial portion of it was on that issue. That was 1976 at the University of Birmingham in the UK. What I would tell you is that as the nation prepared for return to civilian rule in the mid 1970s, Tarka was a possible national leader. Some people thought he should be eliminated from the race. They found a willing tool in the late Godwin Dabo who had penetrated Tarka’s political life. Dabo made many allegations. This was intensely discussed in the media. Gowon was running a very civilised government. If allegations were levelled against you, you had to resign. And so Tarka had to resign but since the allegations were not in court, it was difficult to know which ones were serious or valid or just simply frivolous and unfounded.
What then came to be decisive were neither the allegations nor their proof but the media framing of it as corruption rather than allegations. The Lagos press had their own entry point which is understandable. Tarka had been defending the north on the controversy after the census in 1973. That had infuriated the Daily Times. On the other hand, that pleased The New Nigerian. So, each of them took different positions on the Tarka case. The Nigerian press generally has an inconsistent response to the notion of corruption. Awo was a victim of the same sorts of allegations. The Coker Commission indicted Awo but there was no reference to it as long as Awo was a presidential aspirant. This contrasts with the repulsive manner that Tarka’s own was pursued in the press. In the end, the allegations did harm to him. There is no doubt about that.
So, why did Tarka join the NPN in 1978?
His motives for being in UMBC had been achieved because states had been created. His old enemies became new friends. In politics, it is interests that are permanent, not associates.
What then happened to his relationship with Awo?
Awo was sponsoring the UMBC and the relationship was cordial. Tarka hosted Awo in Gboko. What divided them was the ambition. In 1978, each wanted to be the president. They both wanted the same thing. That was what divided them. To get what he wanted, Tarka went to the NPN and Awo formed the UPN. So, they now stood as opponents. The game had changed.
What do we pin down as Tarka’s legacy after all said and done?
The idea that each group must get the benefits of nationhood is Tarka’s legacy. He was a key person in the articulation of this value. With it is the idea of Nigeria as one county. It is not good for groups to think they can hold the country to ransom, be it Niger Delta or any other groups. Yes, they have a point – they have suffered exclusion and they have paid a price for natural resources effects on their environment. These are problems they can discuss with the government and with fellow Nigerians rather than create tension.
Have these ideas legatees in the Middle Belt today?
Many or most of the Middle Belt elite are too rich to worry about some of these questions. They behave like God. Some of them would answer you as if doing a favour while others are too ahistorical and self-centred to be aware.
So, no hopes?
It depends. With this Ijaw challenge, we are waking up the consciousness of groups. Every group will have to rethink its position on whether to strongly support Nigeria or look for an alternative. Some consciousness would arise and that would decide who and how leaders emerge, both in the country and in the Middle Belt.