Benue Guber race 2023:    Who wins, who loses?

Since 1999, the battle for the control of the state has been between PDP and APC

Benue Guber race 2023:    Who wins, who loses?
Rt. Hon. Uba, (l) and Rev. Fr. Alia

By Nick Odeh 

 In the next  few weeks in Nigeria, political campaigns will start for the 2023 general elections. The Governorship race is one of the most important in the series of elections towards the political change of baton in 2023. In Benue State, an array of candidates are in the race to succeed Samuel Ortom, the incumbent governor, who is expected to quit the exalted office on May 29, 2023. Those in the race are all, ahead of campaigns, criss-crossing the State in behind-the-scene moves to put themselves in vantage positions. 

 Benue State is usually a political hotbed. Since 1999, the battle for the control of the state has been between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC), the two dominant parties in the state. However, the battle for supremacy in the forthcoming election presents a fresh challenge as events that have unfolded in the aftermath of the party primaries indicate. 

 Ahead of the primaries, the Idoma and Igede people who constitute the Benue South Senatorial District (Zone C) had canvassed for the PDP and APC to pick their governorship candidates from Zone C to enable the zone produce the Governor of Benue State in 2023 for the first time since the creation of the State 46 years ago. But as it turned out, both PDP and APC, in their primaries, produced their governorship candidates from the Tiv geo-political enclave. The Tiv people of North East (Zone A) and the North West (Zone B) have since the creation of the state in 1976, always produced  the State Governor, leaving Zone C permanently with the Deputy Governorship position.

The primaries were trailed by controversies, resulting in mass defections and in some cases, litigation, by those who lost out. Senator Barnabas Gemade who failed in his bid to secure the governorship ticket on the platform of APC, took his case to court. Describing the exercise as a sham, Gemade is seeking the nullification of the Benue State APCs primary election which produced Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia as candidate. Said Gemade : "I am poised to challenge the impunity in our party decisively and by the time I or any of the aspirants becomes the gubernatorial candidate of our party (APC) through credible means and not through vote allocation in private, sanity will prevail." 
The court has fixed September 13, for hearing.
Also, PDP and its governorship candidate in Benue State, Rt. Hon. Titus Ubah filed a suit at a Federal High Court, Abuja, against INEC, Alia and 13 others, seeking the nullification of the APC governorship primaries in Benue State. The case is slated for September 20, 2022, for definite hearing. 

The controversy surrounding the selection of APC's Deputy Governorship candidate, Hon Sam Ode, former Minister of State for Niger Delta Affairs, is yet another of the problems for APC. Speculations are rife that the process was manipulated by Akume in favour of Hon Sam Ode, ostensibly because of their maternal affiliation. Ordinarily that wouldn't have been a big deal, since Hon. Sam Ode is Idoma by birth. His tradducers are miffed over what they consider to be an imposition, in utter disregard for the zoning arrangements that have existed previously. Benjamin Paul Audu insisted the position is for Apa and Agatu federal constituency. 
He said: "If justice and fairness are anything to go by, it is rightly our turn. It is the height of injustice and brazen insensitivity to the spirit of oneness and brotherly spirit with which we the Idoma have lived with ourselves thus far."  He argued that since "Benson Abounu ( incumbent Deputy Governor )  is from Otukpo local government, equity and fairness require that after all the federal constituencies in Idoma land have tasted the seat to the exclusion of Apa and Agatu, this turn should be for us." Both Ode and Abounu hail from Otukpo.

In all, 17 candidates are jostling for the plum job. The number could drop  when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) releases its final list of governorship candidates on October 4. Expectedly, all the parties involved have intensified their consultations across the State in search of platforms that could give them the support they so desperately need to produce the next Governor of Benue State. 

However,  it would appear that the governorship election will be a straight fight between the PDP and APC because of the formidable structures they have built over the past years. But this is not to dismiss the others who also have what it takes to make strong statements because of their impressive war chests and or their credibility. But there could be reversals of fortunes. Already political observers and analysts are pointing at trends that indicate the possibility of a third force that could create an upset. The Accord Party and the Labour Party have been variously mentioned as the  platforms to watch in the evolving Third Force permutations.

PDP is fielding Hon.Titus Ubah, the Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly, as its governorship candidate. He has the full backing of the incumbent Governor, Samuel Ortom, and by extension, the apparatuses of State power. The power of incumbency is enormous. Hon. Ubah is expected to preach continuity, anchored on the achievements of the Governor Ortom administration. But the current administration has, in the estimation of many  bumbled and botched the job. One area of Ortom's weaknesses which analysts readily point out is the huge salary and pension arrears.  Civil servants and pensioners in Benue are greatly pained by this. And they may want to express their anger by refusing to vote for the governorship candidate of the PDP in the 2023 elections.

Another sore point is the perceived infrastructural development deficit in the State. These will impact Ubah's campaigns negatively. This makes the task of his challangers easier, as they will try to discredit and erode the legitimacy of his power base. Already, candidates of the other political parties have started firing shots. Hon. Herman Hembe, the Labour Party Gubernatorial candidate, took a swipe at Ortom's administration on the issue of development. Said he: "Where there is war, there is development. In Borno State, where the Governor has been fighting Boko Haram for the last six years, infrastructural developments are being carried out. They are building schools, bridges, etc." He said he would change the narrative if elected as Governor in 2023.

And last week, the candidate of the APC in the State, Rev. Fr. Alia, was full of lamentations over the poor level of development in Benue State. He maintained that despite its enormous natural and human resources Benue State has remained largely underdeveloped. The governorship candidate said that his main mission in partisan politics was motivated by "the compelling need to liberate the good people of Benue State from incompetent leadership, unconscionable looting of public funds, poverty and economic backwardness." 

Fr. Alia said he had put together a "bold and strategic, comprehensive plan of action aimed at reinvigorating key areas of the state's local economy to spur economic growth and improve the standard of living for ordinary Benue citizens." 
Governor Ortom was miffed over the comments credited to the APC governorship candidate. In a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Ortom said it was ridiculous and unfortunate that such comments came from someone who has "never in his life been tested in any public office, not even at the council ward level and, therefore, totally lacks the capacity to fathom what it takes to govern a state." He challenged Alia to publish his track record of what qualifies him to seek public office as Governor. 

Ortom said: "Here is a man who doesn't have any evidence of development in all the places where he worked as a priest before his suspension by the church. If he could not bring growth to any of the churches where he served, how can he develop a large entity like the state?" With exchanges like this, the campaigns promise to be messier.

 Not to worry, Hon. Ubah can count on some good legacies of the Ortom administration. The enactment of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law (2017) expected to bring a permanent solution to the incessant herders/farmers crises, is one. Another is the inauguration of Benue State Community Volunteer Guards, August 4, 2022, to complement the efforts of conventional security agencies in the State. 

The APC candidate, Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia, a Catholic priest, is a protege of Senator George Akume, a former Governor of Benue State and current Minister of Special Duties. Akume, considered to be the baron of power and influence in the state, had produced two Governors of the State previously: Senator Gabriel Suswam  (2007) and Governor Samuel Ortom  (2015). In 2023, can Akume repeat the feat? The name "FATHER ALIA" rings a bell in the minds of the Christian faithful, particularly those of the Roman Catholic Church. He runs a Healing Ministry named after himself which has impacted positively on the lives of humanity as there has been testimonies of divine potency and revival on their lives.

But in spite of their front-runner status,  PDP and APC have cause to look over their shoulders as Labour Party and Accord Party are in hot pursuit. The governorship candidate of Labour Party is Rt. Hon Herman Hembe, a lawyer and a third term House of Representatives member representing Konshisha / Vandeikya Federal Constituency. Hembe had sought the APC governorship ticket but had to switch to Labour Party as the coast became unclear. He took a swipe at the leaders of both PDP and APC in the state, saying they were only looking for Governors they could control. "They say they cannot vote Hembe in those big parties because he cannot be controlled," he said.

Hon Hembe, a ranking member of the House of Representatives, reportedly has 14 bills to his credit. He is known to have used his membership of the Green Chamber to provide basic amenities to make lives more comfortable for his constituents. He will, therefore, be running on his record of achievements. Above all, he has anchored his wagon on the Labour Party national train which Peter Obi's Presidential campaigns have popularised. There is the possibility of a bandwagon effect that could rub off on the candidates of a party, including Hembe. But not all the time, as the latest Osun State off-cycle governorship polls revealed. Labour Party failed to make a meaningful impact in that election in spite of its social media hyper-marketing. 

Finally, the Accord Party's presence in the permutation is a product of a careful analysis of the pervasive sentiments of the Zone C people. The party's governorship candidate for the 2023 polls is Dr. Mathias Oyigeya, a consultant psychiatrist, and former Medical Director of Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi. His candidacy represents the face of the marginalised people of Benue South Senatorial District (Zone C). Long before any individual aspirants had emerged, the people of zone C were harping on the need for the Tiv to drop the jingle of  "majority carries the vote" and allow the zone to produce the next Governor of Benue State. That did not happen. 
 Of the four candidates from Zone C, Dr. Oyigeya seems to command more acceptability across the state. Many point to his character, competence and capacity as virtues needed  to drive growth. Already Oyigeya's candidacy has received endorsements from several platforms and critical stakeholders. The Benue Rebirth Movement (BRM), a platform which has been agitating for Zone C to produce the next Governor of Benue State, is one. AVM Monday Morgan (rtd) is the National Coordinator of the Movement.

 BRM had, in a press release, July 18, 2022,  endorsed Dr. Oyigeya, the Governorship candidate of Accord Party.  The endorsement followed "the adoption of the report of a committee set up by the Project Management Committee (PMC) to recommend one of the Governorship candidates from Zone C, for consideration as the candidate to support.

The Movement expressed its confidence in the ability of Dr Oyigeya to perform creditably as Governor of the State. It said Dr Oyigeya's selection "was not based merely on the fact that he hails from Zone C, but equally because he is one of the most detribalised, educated and capable politicians with commendable track records in whose hands Benue people can entrust the governorship position." 
Similarly, Pan Idoma National Congress (PIC) endorsed Dr Oyigeya as her preferred cadidate. In its press release dated August 3, 2022, PIC stated that their decision was "based on wide ranging consultations and meeting with opinion leaders and elders, coupled with careful assessment of the candidate." 
Aĺso, the Accord Party made a strategic move in its choice of a female as the Deputy Governorship candidate. The Dr Oyigeya's campaign organization said of her choice: "We are gender sensitive. As the only Governorship candidate with a female as running mate, our principal is poised to make history," the organization said in a statement, adding, "history can be made in a day, an hour, a second by the right action at the right time. "If the party wins, Dr Oyigeya becomes the first Governor of Benue State of Zone C extraction, and his Deputy, the first female Deputy Governor of Benue state."

 With the candidates putting in place necessary political strategies and machinery to realise their dreams, the governorship race promises to be a battle of wits, political intrigues and influence.  Who wins and who loses, remains a matter of conjecture for now.

Mr. Nick Ode writes from Makurdi, Benue State