As the 2015 elections approached, PDP spin doctors had good reasons to place Benue State firmly under the grip of the biggest party in Africa.
Based on the fact that ethnicity is a serious issue in Benue politics, they counted on the staying power of David Mark, the career Senator to deliver the Idoma votes as he has always done since 1999. The Senate President was in this year’s election complemented by the powerful Minister of Interior, Abba Morro, who does no wrong in the eyes of the PDP and the presidency – not even when a horde of young men and women looking for jobs die under his watch – the Idoma vote was guaranteed.
On the Tiv side, there was Gabriel Suswam, arguably the closest friend to President Goodluck Jonathan among the PDP governors. The party also counted on the goodwill of Dr. Nicholas Akise Ada, appointed as Minister of State just before the elections. A lot of hope was also placed on Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, former Senate President, Prof. Iyorwuese Hagher – former Minister and former Ambassador and former everything else. Also to be counted was Prof. Daniel Saror, former Vice Chancellor of ABU Zaria and a two time Senator. It was a parade of stars and heavy weights on the PDP side.
Religion is hardly an issue in the politics of Benue. It became an issue this year because the PDP wanted it to be. Benue is predominantly a Christian State, just like any of the states in the South East or South /South. PDP strategists tried their best to make political capital out of religion in this year’s election by portraying the All Progressives Congress as a party of Muslims who brought Boko Haram to Islamise Nigeria. This campaign was intensified with the emergence of General Buhari as the Presidential candidate of the APC and the pervasive clashes between sedentary farmers and Fulani cattlemen in the state. This added fuel to the campaign by PDP propagandist that the APC was waging a modern day Jihad against the Christian community in the state.
The odds were thus stacked against the opposition APC. Benue is rural, poverty ravaged, underindustrialised state with the only industry being the government. The government holds the bread and the knife and those who take the risk of challenging it must be ready to face the heat. The PDP governments, both at the Federal and State levels were quite aware of this and maximized the use of the carrot and stick.
The Benue State government decided to squeeze the opposition further by rubbing salt into the injury. At the local government elections of 2012, the government openly rigged the vote in its own favour. In the show of shame, the opposition did not win even a Councillorship seat in any of the 23 Local Councils in the state.
Consequently, members of the opposition had to survive in a system where all the three tiers of government were sharpened against them – the Federal, the State and the Local. The result was suffocating poverty and lack of stomach infrastructure for opposition members. Notable figures in their camp like Young Alhaji, the gubernatorial running mate of the ACN in the 2007 elections, Prof David Iyornem, Dr Iyorchia Ayu, Prof Daniel Saror, Hon Mzenda Iho, former Speaker Benue House of Assembly, Hon Aboho, member House of Representatives and many others could not stand the squeeze and fled to the ruling PDP.
On the face of it, the opposition was finished in Benue. Perhaps the lone man standing was Senator George Akume, former governor of the State and Minority Leader of the ACN and later APC in the Senate. In a system of bread and butter politics, the man could do very little to spread patronage around his followers and ensure loyalty to him and the cause he represented.
But PDP leaders in the state made two fundamental mistakes and things turned out the way they least expected:
One, they became pompous, reckless and power drunk. A leading figure of the party in the state is reported to have boasted that his mission to the state is to squeeze the people like a drunkard does with an empty can of beer and throw them into the dust bin. He was widely quoted in beer parlours and other rumour mills in the state.
Did the PDP government in the state hear this particular rumour which gained so much currency? If they did, there was nothing done to refute the claim that the premeditated policy of the state government was to impoverish and punish her citizens. Instead, as at the time of election, the state government had accumulated an unpaid salary bill of N15 billion. Another unpaid bill of N15 billion was owed pensioners. In a state where almost every body depends on government stipends for survival, the squeeze was getting deadly. This act of cruelty – believed to be deliberate – caused much anger against the government and the PDP.
Secondly, the PDP underestimated the political resolve and skills of Senator George Akume. It was a costly miscalculation. The man gave the PDP a bloody nose. It was on his shoulders that the APC sprang a surprise and carried the day in Benue. [myad]