ANALYSIS: Priest’s ambition threatens PDP’s chances in Benue governorship race
Titus Uba, the Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly, on Wednesday emerged as the flagbearer of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the state’s governorship election. His main challenger will be the governorship candidate of the main opposition party in the state, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which holds its primaries today in Makurdi.
While the ruling PDP made a consensus arrangement that threw up Mr Uba and the Benue State Deputy Governor, Benson Abounu, as the contestants for its ticket, the APC has cleared a priest, Hyacinth Alia, and 11 other aspirants for its primary.
On Wednesday, Mr Uba garnered 731 votes to defeat Mr Abounu, who polled 81 votes.
Mr Abounu, while accepting the outcome of the contest, said “no human being can swim against the tide,” a sentiment that resonates with the Idoma ethnic minority group in Benue.
“The party authority has spoken and the party authority has spoken well – loud and clear and that is how the tide goes,” he said.
“All I can say is that only God can make it possible for somebody like me who is a creation of God to be governor of Benue State,” Mr Abounu said in his concession speech.
Speaking in an interview with this newspaper on the consensus arrangement in the PDP, Governor Samuel Ortom had said it was designed to guarantee the party’s victory at the general poll next year.
Mr Ortom, who was first elected governor in 2015 under the platform of the APC but defected to the PDP before the 2019 elections, said zoning the ticket to Benue South (dominated by the minority Idoma ethnic group) would jeopardise the party’s chances at the election.
“If we (PDP) go in a hurry and nominate someone from Zone C (Benue South), and our opponent (APC) does not do same in Tivland, it means that the PDP will lose the (governorship) election completely, even with the overwhelming support that we have today in PDP. That is a fact,” Mr Ortom said in the April interview.
Two contenders in the PDP, Mr Uba and Dennis Ityavyar, the immediate past education commissioner in the state, hail from Vandeikya Local Government Area in Benue North-east Senatorial District, where the PDP micro-zoned its governorship ticket to the Tiv ethnic group.
The deputy governor, Mr Abounu, was the consensus candidate of the PDP in the Idoma speaking area of the state, but owing to the numerical strength of the Tivs, he lost out in the primaries on Wednesday.
The Tiv ethnic group is in the North-east and North-west senatorial districts and constitutes the largest group in the state. As Mr Ortom said, “this is a game of numbers, and that is what democracy is.”
Mr Ityavyar, a professor, has declined comments on the outcome of the micro-zoning exercise, which produced Mr Uba from his own side; fuelling speculations that he might work against the party at the general election.
Such will not be strange. Mr Ortom’s former Chief Staff, Terwase Orbunde, defected to the APC after he lost out in the PDP micro-zoning in the Tiv speaking area. He is now continuing his bid in his new party.
Following Mr Uba’s endorsement, Paul Orhii, a former director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration (NAFDAC); Susan Waya, wife of billionaire businessman Terry Waya, and six other contenders, all withdrew from the race.
In a statement last Friday, Nathaniel Ikyur, the Chief Press Secretary to Mr Ortom, said the eight aspirants had thrown their weight behind Mr Uba for the PDP ticket.
“The aspirants restated their stance, Friday, May 20th, 2023 after a meeting with Governor Samuel Ortom and Senator Gabriel Suswam at the Benue People’s House Makurdi to finalize their consultations ahead of the party’s primaries.
“The meeting, which lasted for several hours, had eight of the aspirants saying that they decided to throw their weight behind the consensus candidature of Hon. Uba for the sake of the party and the people of the state they had sought to govern,” the statement read in part.
With the foregoing, it was crystal clear that the odds were stacked heavily against the Idoma consensus candidate in the race for the PDP ticket.
‘The Alia hurricane’
In the APC, Mr Alia, a Roman Catholic priest, enjoys grassroots popularity in Benue State, political analysts said.
But other top contenders like Barnabas Gemade, a former national chairman of the PDP; Michael Aondoakaa, ex-attorney-general of the federation, and Stephen Lawani, the immediate past deputy governor of the state, have financial war-chest and are formidable opponents of the radical priest, owing to the tradition of money politics in Nigeria.
APC insiders are of the view that Mr Alia appears to be the preferred candidate of George Akume, a former governor and current minister of Special Duties, given the former’s acceptability amongst the masses.
“But Alia’s emergence as APC candidate is only possible through a consensus arrangement, given the role of money in Nigerian politics,” an APC stalwart who did not want his name mentioned said.
A professor of political science at the Federal University of Lafia, Nasarawa State, George Genyi, described Mr Alia as a “charismatic politician” whose chances are bright if he emerges as flagbearer of either APC or any other political party.
“His (Alia’s) chances are very high as a grassroots mobiliser. This is where his popularity stems from,” Mr Genyi said, adding that the priest has big hurdles to cross if he must clinch the APC’s ticket.
While an aspirant like Terhemba Shija, a professor and astute politician, has relied on his intellectual capital to woo delegates ahead of the primary, politicians like Messrs Aondoakaa, Lawani and Germade will deploy their resources to emerge as the APC candidate.
According to Mr Genyi, Mr Alia possesses the capacity to reverse the low level of development that has characterised Benue for a long time.
“Father Alia happens to be one priest who has been able to prudently apply church resources for human development.”
APC’s defeat will end Akume’s political career
Mr Genyi says if Mr Akume is “unable to have a governor elected in Benue in 2023 on the platform of the APC, then he would have said bye-bye to politics.”
He noted that the party (APC) needs a popular candidate; adding, “Father Alia happens to be the one.”
“If they field another candidate, their chances of winning the (governorship) election will be very narrow.
“Even if he doesn’t win the APC ticket at the primary, once he gets the ticket of any party at all, he will defeat other candidates to emerge governor next year. He is like a hurricane,” Mr Genyi said.
But to guard against any form of manipulation of delegates at the primary, the APC has adopted the direct mode of electing its flagbearer for the Thursday election.
Daniel Ihomun, APC’s publicity secretary in the state, said Mr Akume met with party stalwarts on May 23, where the mode of the primary was endorsed.
One of the top contenders, Mr Shija, a professor, said the APC was at liberty to adopt any mode of election that would produce the party’s candidate.
Mr Akume was quoted to have said he would allow “the people to nominate the candidate of their choice. We are throwing it back to you; you decide.”
He was speaking with party members at the meeting in Makurdi which had the state chairman of the party, Austin Agada, and the governorship aspirants in attendance.
Church suspends priest
Meanwhile, the Catholic Diocese of Gboko has suspended Mr Alia from performing his priestly duties for taking into active politics.
The Bishop of the Gboko Catholic Diocese, William Avenya, in a letter dated May 20, announced the suspension of Mr Alia from public ministry “after series of admonitions” to him.
Giving reasons for Mr Alia’s suspension, Mr Avenya said, “The Mother Church does not allow her clerics to get involved in partisan politics on their own.”
It will be recalled that the Catholic church in Benue had suspended Moses Adasu, one of its priests who vied and won the governorship election in 1992, but his government was short-lived as it was sacked by the Sani Abacha military junta in 1993.
But a Nigerian born U.S.-based professor of political science, Pita Agbese, disagrees with the Catholic authorities for suspending Mr Alia from the church.
Mr Agbese, a fierce critic of the Ortom-led government, said, “Benue needs both a physical and a moral re-birth and a physical regeneration.”
He noted in a Facebook post that, “many people in the state see (Mr) Alia as the embodiment of the new morality which would uproot Ortom.”
Mr Agbese said, “Whether Alia has the moral characteristics that have been imbued on him by his supporters may not be as important as the fact that he is seen as possessing all the qualities necessary for burying Ortomism.”
He said if Mr Alia “emerges the APC flagbearer, I will wholeheartedly support him against the presumptive PDP flag-bearer (Mr Uba).”
WATCH: Governor Yahaya Bello’s Roadmap to Hope 2023