Although this is not the first time Benue State would be experimenting with a Catholic priest as an elected governor, there is still novelty in the electoral emergence of Rev Fr Hyacinth Alia as the governor-elect of Nigeria’s Benue State. The fusion of the sacred and the profane in one individual is not a common or everyday experience around the world because of the insistence of Enlightenment philosophy in rigid separation of the two.
It is therefore of sociological importance that Benue State heads for a priest at every most distressful moment. Is it distrust of the ordinary politicians or the dynamics of intra-elite clashes? To date, the state holds the record of having a priest-governor, not to talk of having it the second time.
Makurdi, the Benue State capital erupted in carnival style show all of yesterday in celebration of the victory of the priest. The election of the man now simply called ‘Fada’ is being celebrated by resort to all manner of convivialism, roadshows and such expressiveness. One of the participants in the celebration told Intervention it is a two-in-one exercise. He meant the departure of Governor Samuel Ortom from power and the coming of Fada.
Ortom’s reign has been marked by conflictual entanglement, first with the man known as the leader, Senator eorge Akume who actually awarded him the governorship against someone else perceived to have done better; President Muhammadu Buhari whom he fought for allegedly being behind the routine invasion of ancestral lands in Benue areas and, lately, the national leadership of the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) on the ground that the candidacy of Atiku Abubakar meant the possibility of a Fulani to Fulani transition at the centre. He implied that, as the “defender of the Benue Valley”, he could not accept that.
His worst conflict is not paying salaries for months unend, thereby alienating himself from the workers, pensioners and teachers, the weakest links in the social chain in a state with little or no commercial or industrial activities. To mention the inability of the Ortom governorship, however, quickly draws the ire of the Benue State Government.
Intervention came under fire for writing what a party intellectual and an aide of the governor calls stuff promotional of the All People’s Congress, (APC) governorship candidate who has now won the election. The issue, said the official, is not that Ortom refused to pay but that the money from federal allocation is not enough to pay.
Whether the truth is the inadequacy of federal allocation to pay or not, the more crucial issue at the moment might be the phenomenon of priest-governor peculiar to Nigeria’s Benue State and to which the piece below is an insight to the first time and the first priest-governor in the early 1990s. It has been reproduced with minimal editing. The original title was:
30 Years After Reverend Adasu, Another Priest is Set to Emerge As Governor of Nigeria’s Benue State
By Adagbo ONOJA
As things stand today, all the indices point at the electoral ascendancy of the Buga-dancing Hyacinth Alia, the Catholic priest carrying the All Progressives Congress, (APC)’s flag in Benue State in the March 11th, 2023 Governorship/House of Assembly poll. The indices in question include the Christological bonding with a Catholic priest in an agrarian setting as Benue; the nightmare that the Samuel Ortom regime is rated to have been across the board, the ascendancy of the APC at the national level and, lastly, the outcome of the election into the Senate in the State. APC took two, leaving the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) with one.
No one can be sure what the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC) may do with the governorship poll. It seems, however, that Benue State is where INEC’s malaise may not affect the outcome. This is not to dismiss the emergency alliance the PDP is believed to be building against the reality of APC victory.
And so what if Fr. Alia wins? Well, it would remind everyone of the pioneer for that trajectory in the State – Rev Fr. Moses Adasu. Secondly, it will bring up the Ortom question in the politics of power.
In the early 1990s, Rev Fr. Moses Adasu was elected the governor of Benue State. It was a novelty in clerical populism. Some people swear that all that won him the governorship was that many voters remembered the priest who baptized them or their children over the years. Who better to trust by a peasant voter than the priest who was such an interlocutor between a Christian and his or her desire to make Heaven. It is an imperative to be born in Christ through Baptism. So, Adasu’s campaign managers had less work to do relative to his opponents.
In office, Adasu turned something else. One tale from the ground is that he could stop the convoy to the consternation of Body Guards just to greet either some worshipper he saw from his car or enact a similar scene. In other words, he was a demystifier of orthodoxy.
Adasu’s unorthodox approach to power and office caught media attention. The now defunct The Sunday Magazine, (TSM) sent this reporter to capture what was filtering into the newsroom as the Adasu phenomenon. The effort at getting the governor to talk so that the story package would have a box interview which allowed him to speak included hitching a ride on his convoy to Benin City where governors elected on the platform of the then Social Democratic Party, (SDP) were to have a meeting. In the course of the journey, the driver of the convoy car carrying this reporter and the late Rufa’i Ibrahim who was also pursuing the same story for the Daily Times was asked how the priest-governor now combined the two spaces. Somehow, the question trickled to the governor in a manner that made me look like a spy. That was exactly what the governor himself said when he sat with the two reporters the following morning. And for that reason, he wasn’t going to grant the questioner an interview. Rufai Ibrahim who knew me very well was aghast but I urged him to have his own interview. As at that time, I was already done with my story, interview or no interview with the governor.
Back in the newsroom in Lagos, the late Ely Obasi added his own editorial touch and the story made the magazine’s cover, with the caption: “Tougher than Balarabe”. And it brought out the other side of the late priest-governor. Adasu offered humbling apology, explaining how he was misinformed about me by his obviously ill-educated driver who just couldn’t situate my question beyond his own over-zealous radius. He said I was a good Benue man out to help his cause. And since then, we became friends. It is that friendship that saw me honouring his invitation to where he served what must be the cleansing process for priests who went into politics in Zaria in 1997. We went over a lot within the three hours we spent together that day. I wish I can still find my jottings from the session.
It is quite some time now and memories of his short-lived rule have faded. But, just within two years that he was in power, he established the Benue State University. And the university was structured in a manner that it could assert itself in the Nigerian Law School against those from Nigeria’s first generation universities. Before the ride to Benin from Makurdi on that fateful journey, I had a short session with Sabastian Agbinda who was the equivalent of what we know as Chief of Staff today to the late Adasu. I recall him mentioning the plan of the Adasu government to re-invent all the absolutely relevant industries the late Aper Aku government put in place but which the military governors from 1983 to 1990 misgoverned. If the elected governors under IBB in 1991 had stayed, it is most likely Adasu would have brought back all those industries. There is no strategy of development superior to Aku’s industrialisation strategy in Benue State in the Second Republic up to this moment.
What’s point in all this? It is that it could be hope rising if the first priest-governor was a study in unorthodox ways and developmental too, the second could even be transformative. There was no Buga then and Adasu did not dance Buga. Could Alia dancing Buga signify that he is surely improving on Adasu? Only time will tell.
Now, to the Ortom question in the politics of power. The governor of Benue State for the past eight years has lost the Senate seat he sought in the February 25th Presidential and National Assembly Election. His tenure expires in May 2023. His party, the PDP did not win the presidential election. Even if it did, Ortom is already estranged from the party. Peter Obi whom he supported did not win the presidential election either. After a bitter fight with George Akume, Benue APC leader, it is unlikely that he can find his way into APC by following Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, (assuming that is Wike’s plan). In any case, Buhari, Ortom’s mortal enemy, will remain APC elder for quite some time. So, how might things have come this way for the defender of the Benue Valley who can neither go back to the people whose salaries he never paid?
In particular, how did it happen that someone who, by his own testimony, started life as a motor park operative could not offer the downtrodden anything concrete for eight years? Wouldn’t this be the most mind boggling puzzle in Nigerian politics today? What is it that makes it impossible for an Ortom to perform where an Aper Aku or an Adasu set a record within four and two years, respectively?
Lastly, what is about Benue State that no rich person ever rules the state? It is always either a teacher or some activist, (Aku) or a civil servant, (Akume) or someone from the masses, (Ortom) or priests. Barrister Gabriel Suswam who seems to be the exception in that he got into Benue governorship from the National Assembly is not of the bourgeoisie at the end of the day. Something to ponder upon!
The Benue State PDP protested the above story which it said was slanted. The claims in the protest warrants republishing it because meaning is never immediately present:
In the piece under attack now, an Intervention editor who reported the Fr. Moses Adasu regime in Nigeria’s Benue State some 30 years ago projected the possibility of another Catholic priest adding value to Adasu’s records then.
Neither would Fr. Alia win the election nor would he be as developmental as Adasu comes a “rejoinder” to Intervention from a PDP elder who requested anonymity on the ground that he is not really ready to join in what he calls their misdirected euphoria but only reacting to ‘educate’ Intervention against joining the Abuja crowd.
The caller who obviously thought that Adagbo Onoja, Intervention’s reporter who wrote the story in question is still based in Abuja and might have been influenced by Senator George Akume’s circle directed much of his bile at Senator Akume. Fortunately or unfortunately, Onoja no longer lives in Abuja and has never met Senator George Akume in person. But the elder insists that there is a Senator Akume circle out there going after Governor Samuel Ortom but mostly from the position of deliberate ignorance as well as mischief about Ortom not paying salaries of civil servants and pensioners. The problem, he argues, is that Benue State neither receives enough monthly allocation nor generates enough revenue internally to cope with its wage bill. This is the problem any other governor of Benue State will contend with, including Fr Hyacinth Alia if he were to win the governorship, adds the caller.
But Alia, he says, will not win the governorship. Although the caller agreed with all Intervention’s points about the late Adasu, conceding that Adasu brought ordinariness to governance and demystified orthodoxy, he insists on a distinction between Adasu and Fr. Alia, asserting that Adasu was a product of what Chinua Achebe would have called ‘solid personal achievements’. Adasu, he further told Intervention was a Dean at the College of Education in Katsina Ala, won election into one of the Constituent Assembly sessions and rose to be the second most powerful official of the then Makurdi Diocese which has now grown into Makurdi, Gboko, Katsina Ala, Lafia and Otukpo dioceses. Continuing, he credited Adasu with assembling brilliant and independent minded young chaps such as Dr. Gabriel Moti, Sabastian Agbinda, the late Bave Dzeremo and co who took charge of policy.
Alia on the other hand, as far as he is concerned, is only a product of Senator George Akume who he claims cannot do without being in control of the Government of Benue State. But Alia will not, in his analysis, win the governorship. One, consultations are going on between the PDP and other parties. And as he put it, it should not be forgotten that all Labour Party’s votes in Benue State in the Presidential election were actually PDP votes. Two, the APC ticket of Alia and Sam Ode is not popular in Idomaland where he claimed that people see it as a Tiv-Tiv ticket because, Sam Ode who is Alia’s deputy is of Tiv mother. As far as he is concerned, the election of the governor in the state would only have been complicated if the APC had picked someone as Prof Terhemba Shija, the Nasarawa State Literature scholar whom he credits with having nuance and pedigree.
Reminded of observed massive trooping back ‘home’ by voters determined to vote out the PDP across the state as well as PDP’s loss of nearly all House of Representative seats and two out of the thee senate seats, the elder still insists that APC and Fr. Alia are all about euphoria and that euphoria will not get them the office because Alia does not, in his view, have the clout in the Catholic Church implied by Intervention. Above all, he posits that Alia has no leadership experience and would fare worse in inability to pay salaries, returning to his thesis that Benue has a cash crunch crisis.
Ironically, he traces the crisis to Adasu whom he said over-employed in a bid to enact his populism, shooting the wage bill to a level that Joshua Obademi, the Military Administrator who took over from Adasu in 1993 was forced to retrench. Since then, he says, no other governor has escaped owning workers backlog of salaries in the state. It is in this sense that he says Senator Akume and his imagined Abuja circle are a part of the problem. He doesn’t disagree that Senator Akume is generally regarded to be very kind and accessible but he insists Akume is part of the problem “because they know why the governor cannot be up to date on payment of salaries. The money is not there”.
As Intervention reflects on the PDP elder’s protestation of the story, it could not but conclude that everything in Benue State has assumed the Akume – Ortom conflict, including how each camp reads every media report. Everything is read in terms of either it is for Akume and, therefore, against Ortom or the other way round. And that raises the question: if both Akume and Ortom are in politics to serve the people, why is it impossible for the duo to step back and raise the stakes on how best they could come together to serve the people. Those who may consider this a naïve question may think so because they can only see victory or defeat for one side or the other. But, in truth, the people are paying for the conflict. Intervention is, therefore, not interested in reducing the situation to a personality clash between the two.