Benue State, like every other state in Nigeria, is politically divided into three senatorial districts: zones A, B and C. The Tiv-speaking people of the state, the single largest ethnic group, dominate both zones A and B, leaving zone C, for the Idoma-speaking people of the state. The Tiv have 14 councils, leaving the Idoma with nine.
The state was created in 1976. But since its creation, no body from the Benue south senatorial district, otherwise known as zone C, has been governor of the state or speaker of the state House of Assembly. It only produced a Chief Judge last year. Before then it never came near the position.
But for constitutional provision, based on population alone, the Tiv could produce the governor of the state, without the Idoma people.
Daily Sun however learnt that any time there is crisis of confidence within the Tiv people during electioneering, the Idoma people becomes the beautiful bride, as they determine the direction of the pendulum.
From 1999 to date, they have remained the deciding factor during contentious governorship contest. And each time they play the role, Daily Sun gathered, they are always promised power in return. But once the decision hour comes, something else would happen and the Idoma people would be back to the drawing board.
How the Idoma lost out in 2003
Before the 2003 elections, the Idoma people had concluded that they would produce the next governor by truncating George Akume’s second term bid. But Senator David Mark felt otherwise. He insisted that the time was not ripe. He reasoned that the Idoma people should support Akume for a second term, so that Akume too would support the Idoma’s bid in 2007.
But some Idoma people felt betrayed by Mark’s position. They moved en mass from the PDP to the then Saleh Jambo-led United Nigeria Peoples Party (UNPP). Retired Generals Geoffrey Ejigah, Lawrence Onoja and a host of other notable Idoma politicians, including Alhaji Usman Abubakar, known in the local parlance as “Young Alhaji,” were among those who parted ways with Mark.
UNPP went into governorship primary; Onoja an Idoma and Mike Nku, a Tiv, were among those who contested for the party’s governorship ticket. At the election, two Idoma speaking councils failed to cast their votes for Onoja. But even at that, Onoja gave Nku a good run for his money, as he got most of his votes from the Tiv delegates. The feat made it impossible for a clear winner to emerge. They were to go for a runoff election. But as they were preparing for the runoff, the “Judas” among the Idoma people too also began scheming.
In the end, General Ejigah (Rtd) went into negotiations with Nku so that one of his younger brothers could be Nku’s running mate. The runoff was abandoned; Nku became the party’s flag bearer at the expense of Onoja. Ironically, the same group of persons who had moved out of the PDP en mass on the premise that it was their turn to produce the governor, suddenly realised that the “time was not ripe” for an Idoma governor.
Senator George Akume, who was serving his first term at the time, indicated interest in seeking re-election. But then he had difficulty in convincing the Tiv people to give him another term. However, to make his second term assurance from the zone C double sure, he was said to have gone into a gentleman agreement with the PDP leaders in the zone, with a promise to hand over to an Idoma man, should they support his return bid.
President of the senate at the time, David Mark, led the Idoma team to the said meeting and negotiations. At the end of the election, Akume was returned as agreed. But when 2007 election was approaching, with the Idoma people looking forward to seeing how the gentleman agreement will be implemented, Mark and Akume fell out, thus making it difficult to implement the said agreement.
How they lost out again in 2007
If the contentious third term agenda had sailed through, taking the driver’s seat in Benue State would perhaps have been a fait accompli for the Idoma people; Mark would have been in charge of the party machinery in the state. He would have been the one calling the shots. One of his kinsmen would have emerged the party’s standard bearer in the state. And the Idoma may have been on their way to realising their long time ambition of producing the number one citizen in the state. Reason: Mark was the only senator from Benue State that supported third term. And he has consistently told anyone who cared to listen that he had no apologies for the position he took, even as he insisted that he took the position in the collective interest of the Idoma nation, in order to protect its political future.
Interestingly, he was the last to speak on the floor of the senate in support of third term on the day it was thrown out. In fact, while making his own contributions, Mark had pleaded with the senate president to give those senators who had earlier spoken but who had no “courage” to declare their stand, another opportunity to speak so that they could take a stand. The rest as they say is now history.
But even after the demise of the third term agenda, the Idoma, especially those in the PDP did not relent in their bid to ensure that they produce the governor in 2007. Although, Mark was said to have made spirited attempts to enforce the gentleman agreement the group had reached with Akume, the zone C governorship aspirants that year, made it impossible for Mark to make any meaningful mark in that regard. Despite that, he made efforts to ensure that Akume respected the understanding by insisting that only the governorship aspirants of the Idoma extraction should participate in the PDP primary.
Daily Sun however learnt that Akume had reportedly told him that he (Akume) never told his people (Tiv) about the said understanding. Mark was said to have asked the Idoma people who want to be governor at the time to return to Otukpo to conduct their own primary, so that the name of whoever emerges from Otukpo would be taken to Abuja. And since he had the backing and support of Obasanjo, if they had listened to him, Daily Sun can authoritatively; an Idoma governorship candidate would have emerged on the ticket of the PDP in the state.
But the aspirants turned down the proposal because they feared that Mark could as well seize the opportunity to install one of his cronies. At the primary, about seven Idoma governorship aspirants, including Chief Steven Lawani contested, while all the Tiv aspirants stepped down for Suswam, the Idoma split their votes and could not go far. And even when it was clear that there was no way Suswam could emerge a clear winner from the election, the deputy governor at the time, Mr. Ogiri Ajene and the deputy Speaker, Ralph Igbago who were part of the seven Idoma that contested against Suswam, asked that their votes be added to those of Suswam, that was how Suswam carried the day.
As punishment for his actions, the deputy speaker’s dad was removed from his position as a village head at the time. In the end, Suswam won the primary, and went ahead to win the governorship, albeit in controversial circumstance.
The 2011 contest
Like Akume, Suswam, had his first term. But towards the 2011 elections when he was gearing up for a second term, he fell out with some chieftains of the party in Tiv land, including his predecessor, Akume. And like Akume again, he also turned to zone C, for rescue. Another deal was again allegedly sealed.
By this time, Akume had defected to the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and was the one leading the onslaught against Suswam and his team.
But for the Idoma people, Suswam would have lost his second term bid in 2011. The massive votes he got from the Benue south senatorial district, having lost the election in his Tiv zones A and B woefully to the ACN candidate, made the difference.
Like Akume, like Suswam
Unlike the pact with Akume, there was no clear cut pact with Suswam concerning Idoma and 2015. However, because of the calibre of his deputy, Chief Steven Lawani, and considering the fact that the Idoma people were there for him in 2011, the Idoma people had thought that Suswam would reciprocate the gesture extended to him in 2011, by supporting them in 2015.
But in December 2011, shortly after winning his second term, Suswam in an interview in Kaduna, after one of the Northern States Governors Forum (NSGF) meetings gave what seems like a death knell on Idoma governorship.
When asked if he was going to support the emergence of an Idoma person in 2015, he simply said “it is not in my capacity as an individual to determine where power goes at the end of my tenure. It is a collective thing that the majority of the stakeholders will sit down at the appropriate time and take decision on. It is the stakeholders that will determine where the next governor will come from. So, as an individual, even as governor, I don’t have that latitude to sit down and said ‘look, this is the person.’ We can only do that collectively and I believe in collective leadership.”
Unlike in 2003 and 2007, there were also no serious agitations from the Idoma people in 2015 over their ambition to govern the state. But many had thought that Chief Steven Lawani, Suswam’s deputy for eight years, would be given the “right of first refusal.”
Lawani, a former deputy national chairman of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC), who won the senate seat to represent the Idoma people during the late Abacha’s “five fingers of a leprous hand” before the inauguration was aborted, is seen to be at home with the Tiv people.
In terms of political experience, before 2007 he was far ahead of Suswam, who later became his boss. Age wise, Suswam is nowhere near him. But he once again proved his humility when he reluctantly accepted the offer to pair up with Suswam in 2007.
In 1999, against the PDP fireworks, the Ogbadibo-born politician-cum business man delivered his area to his then party, the APP. But in spite of his loyalty, Suswam never programmed Lawani to succeed him in office. Like Akume, Suswam brought in another Tiv man who defeated Lawani and others at the PDP’s governorship primary. In the end however, incumbent governor, Samuel Ortom, who had participated in the PDP primary, emerged as the candidate of the All progressives Congress (APC) and went ahead to win the election, though with minimal support from the Idoma people.
Ortom, his 2019 gambit
But for the recent Herdsmen’s killings in the state, Ortom would have probably been roundly defeated in the next year’s governorship contest. And his major sin will be his inability to pay workers their salary. As at the time of this report, he still owes workers between eight and 12 months arrears.
With the hostile nature of his Tiv brothers, like his two other predecessors, Ortom may have to turn to the Idoma people once again in 2019 to deliver him. The only snag is that, as at today, the Idoma area is predominantly PDP. But one man that is likely to make the difference in the Ortom team is the Otukpo council chairman, George Alli. His positive impact on Otukpo since he became chairman may translate into votes for the APC during the governorship contest.
The hostility towards Ortom was openly displayed in Makurdi the state capital recently following the January 1, 2018 killing of Tiv people by Fulani herdsmen. Reports had it that the governor was allegedly stoned, when he attempted addressing the protesting people.
Ortom himself made allusion to it in the interview he granted few days after the incident, when he said though he has been consistent in urging the people of the state not to take the law into their hands, he is losing control of the people because of the persistent killing of innocent women and children by Fulani herdsmen and by the inaction of the federal government.
He added that “you can see that it is getting beyond me. Even when there was protest against the recent killings in Makurdi, I went there, there was massive resistance. It became violent and it is even God that saved us. I would have been attacked. “
Conscious of the fate that awaits him, Ortom when asked if the recent killings had made the job of campaigning for an APC presidency more difficult, since he is one of the governors who said there was no alternative to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019, the governor declared that he has suspended all political activities until the killing of innocent people in the state stops.
“I have suspended everything about campaigns and all that, even for myself. Yes, I am contesting in 2019 but I don’t want to be campaigning for now. I cannot campaign for myself or any other person until this matter is resolved. I cannot preside as governor over dead people. The lives of my people come first before politics. In fact, I have decided that I am not going to engage in any political activity, whether for myself or for anybody until this matter is resolved. I cannot be talking about 2019 when my people are being killed. If I win, will I preside over dead bodies? If that will make other people to take the governorship from me, so be it. I must not be governor,” he declared.
Although, votes from zone C have always decided who governs the state, especially during contentious contest for governorship, those who make the governors cannot however be governor; neither do they get any compensation in terms of economic development and infrastructure in the area after every election, Daily Sun investigations reveal.
Zone C, investigations further reveal, remains the most underdeveloped part of Benue State with only one abandoned state cottage industry, known as the Benue Burnt Bricks.
The industry, it was further gathered has not functioned for over two decades now. But zones A and B, Daily Sun gathered have over 20 state government owned industries. Like the Burnt Bricks however, many of the industries in the Tiv areas too are moribund.
Even in terms of political appointments and employment in the state civil service, they are very lopsided in favour of the Tiv people. For instance, for the first time since 1999, the position of the Secretary to the State Government (SSG) was denied the Idoma people this time around.