Nigeria: Can Catholic Priest Help APC Reclaim Benue State From PDP?

Hyacinth Alia, 56, ditched his cassock last year and emerged as the governorship candidate of the APC in Benue State.

The catchphrase ‘Yes, Father’ has gained currency in Benue State as a maverick Roman Catholic priest bids to dislodge the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from power in the state.

Hyacinth Alia, 56, ditched his cassock last year and emerged as the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state.

The PDP has ruled the North-central state since the return of democracy in 1999, except in 2015 when the incumbent governor, Samuel Ortom, was elected on the platform of the APC. But Mr Ortom 2018 returned to the PDP which had denied him its governorship ticket in 2015 and was reelected on the party’s ticket.

Emmanuel Jime, a former member of the House of Representatives, flew APC’s flag in 2019 but failed to recapture the governor’s seat for his party.

For the 11 March governorship poll, Mr Alia is locking horns with Titus Uba, PDP’s flagbearer and the current Speaker of the state House of Assembly.

Although there are other candidates like Herman Hembe (LP), Joseph Waya (APGA), Bem Angwe (NNPP) and James Mede (SDP), the political barometer shows the contest is squarely between Messrs Alia and Uba.

Alia and Uba’s emergence

When Mr Alia expressed his partisan interest, in line with its Canon laws, the Catholic Church in Benue suspended him from his eucharistic duties.

But he soldiered on and clinched APC’s ticket with the tacit support of George Akume, a former governor and current minister of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Mr Alia’s emergence triggered a multiplicity of suits from other aspirants, including a former Attorney-General of the Federation, Michael Aondoakaa, a veteran politician, Barnabas Gemade; and Terhemba Shija, a professor. But the Supreme Court affirmed the priest’s candidacy on 17 February, clearing the coast for his participation in Saturday’s showdown.

Interestingly, Messrs Alia and Uba both hail from Vandeikya Local Government Area of Benue North-east senatorial zone.

Unlike the APC’s flagbearer whose candidacy emerged through a direct mode of primary election, Mr Uba’s candidature was a product of a micro-zoning arrangement in the PDP within the Zone A senatorial district. The development pitched Mr Uba against the state’s deputy governor, Benson Abounu, who is from Benue South senatorial zone.

Following Mr Uba’s victory over Mr Abounu, Mr Ortom’s former chief of staff, Terwase Orbunde, defected to the APC. Another key contender for the PDP ticket, Dennis Ityavyar, a professor, resigned from his duty post as education commissioner. Mr Ityavyar had been said to be Mr Ortom’s preferred aspirant.

PDP stalwarts said Mr Uba was Iyorchia Ayu, the PDP National Chairman’s preferred candidate.

The Ortom-Ayu war

Governor Ortom’s long-drawn battle with Mr Ayu had its impact on the outcome of the presidential and National Assembly elections of 25 February in the state. The PDP lost the presidential election and two senatorial seats to the APC.

The governor and the national leadership of the party had been on a warpath following Atiku Abubakar’s emergence as its presidential flagbearer. Mr Ortom belongs to a group of five dissident governors of the PDP, the G5. They have been clamouring for Mr Ayu’s resignation on the grounds that he and Atiku come from the northern region.

Mr Ortom, who had declared his support for Labour Party’s presidential candidate Peter Obi, lost his bid to represent Benue North-west senatorial district.

Similarly, a former governor of the state, Gabriel Suswam, lost his reelection bid for Benue North-east senatorial zone.

The height of the political upset was the victory of APC’s presidential standard-bearer and president-elect, Bola Tinubu, in Benue.

Some stalwarts of the PDP blame the losses on Mr Ortom’s conflict with Mr Ayu. They are of the view that Mr Suswam’s supporters would work against Mr Uba’s interest at the polls.

Determinants in the polls

As the Benue electorate head to the polls, a number of issues will be tugging at their hearts as they cast their ballots.

Irregular payment of civil servants’ salaries and a humongous backlog of pensions have blighted Mr Ortom’s eight-year rule.

The near collapse of public primary and secondary education, especially in rural areas of the state, and the displacement of Benue citizens from their ancestral homesteads, remain key issues during the elections.

A Nigerian-born U.S.-based professor of political science, Pita Agbese, believes Mr Ortom’s “awful leadership,…his refusal to pay salaries and pensions’ benefits, will doom any candidate chosen by him.”

In a conversation with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Agbese said the Ortom-led administration had “no infrastructural development of any kind. Roads are in a complete state of disrepair even as new ones were not built. Schools are in shambles with many of them having leaking roofs and crumbling walls. No hospital was built anywhere in the state.”

Mr Agbese, a fierce critic of Mr Ortom’s government, said Mr Alia’s candidacy in the polls “is a complete repudiation of everything Ortom.”

Gauging the political temperature in Benue, the varsity don said the 25 February presidential and National Assembly elections were a pointer to Mr Uba’s defeat at the polls.

He noted that PDP’s loss of two senatorial seats and 11 out of 12 seats at the House of Representatives to the APC shows Mr Uba’s imminent defeat.

“This complete and utter rejection of the PDP by Benue voters should worry Ortom and Uba.”

Since 2017, sentiments of Fulani herders’ attacks on agrarian communities dominated public discourse in Benue. It was a major campaign issue during the presidential election, owing to the huge number of displaced persons living in squalid conditions across the state.

“Ortom’s usual bogeyman, Fulani terrorists, is not working the magic it did for him four years ago,” Mr Agbese said of the president-elect’s victory in Benue despite the anti-APC sentiments largely driven by PDP supporters.

APC’s organising secretary in Benue, James Ornguga, naturally agreed with Mr Agbese that Mr Alia and APC’s “chances at the polls are quite bright.”

Mr Ornguga, a staunch APC mobiliser in the state, argued that the Catholic priest “embodies the yearning of a new Benue of progress and development.”

He boasted of Mr Alia’s popularity across sociopolitical and ethnic divides of the state. For him, Saturday’s election will be a celebration of democracy for Benue residents whom he said “good governance had eluded for nearly eight years.

Mr Ornguga said the APC governorship candidate would win the election.

But, PDP’s publicity secretary in Benue, Bemgba Iortyom, insisted Mr Uba is the candidate to beat.

Mr Iortyom described the PDP governorship candidate as a “tested and trusted” leader in the state going by his position as Speaker of the State House of Assembly.

He attributed “landmark achievements” to the Ortom administration “in the areas of infrastructure and human resource development.”

He dismissed public criticisms on issues of salaries and pensions backlogs, saying the problems were inherited from the Suswam regime.

In the build-up to the 2015 general elections, Mr Ortom as a candidate of the APC pledged to redress Mr Suswam’s failure to pay workers’ salaries and pensions.

But sooner than later, Mr Ortom was bitten by the unpaid salary bug, accumulating several months of salaries, especially for primary school teachers.

But another PDP mobiliser, John Ikwulono, said Mr Uba is acceptable across Benue.

He trashed APC’s victory in the presidential election. Mr Ikwulono, who was a deputy local government chairman of Agatu, argued that the issues during the presidential election were different from the forthcoming state elections.

“The issue of insecurity, for instance, dominated the presidential election because it is the sole duty of the federal government to protect lives and properties, which the APC-led government failed to live up to,” Mr Ikwulono said.

He said Mr Uba holds the key to a greater Benue, expressing optimism for the PDP’s success on Saturday.

Saturday’s showdown may throw up two scenarios – APC’s 2015 victory and Benue’s 1992 governorship mandate.

Mr Ortom’s populist campaign in 2015 catapulted him into the Government House, due to PDP’s imposition of Terhemen Tarzoor (Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Namibia), as the party’s governorship candidate despite being unpopular.

Thirty years ago, Moses Adasu, a Roman Catholic priest, won Benue’s governorship election, but his government was short-lived as it was sacked by the Sani Abacha military junta in 1993.

For Saturday, 11 March, it will either be a test case for the buzzwords – Yes, Father – to translate to the highest number of votes for Mr Alia to enable him to attend to the urgent needs of development or elect Mr Uba, an engineer for Benue’s social re-engineering.


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