How does the cleric governor hope to soar?

For the second time in a democratic dispensation, Benue State is having a Catholic priest as its governor. Many people have found this interesting, especially in a northern state, albeit one with a huge Christian population.

The first was Rev. Fr. Moses Adasu, who was elected on the platform of the Social Democratic Party in 1992 and governed the state from January 2, 1992 to November, 1993 when the late General Sani Abacha forced his way into power via a military coup. Adasu died in 2005, but not without leaving his mark.

He was credited with playing a huge role in the take-off of Benue State University, among other accomplishments. He was also said to have survived an impeachment plot by the state House of Assembly.

The new governor, Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia, is the second Catholic priest to occupy the exalted office, and expectations are high from the Reverend Father; what with the killings, farmers/herders crisis and unpaid salaries and pensions that plagued the tenure of former governor Samuel Ortom.

In fact, in the last dispensation, one could safely say that Benue State was mostly in the news for negative reasons, especially mass killings by criminals that invaded different communities and incessant clashes between farmers and herders. On account of these issues, Ortom and the presidency disagreed openly, and things at some point degenerated into name-calling between the then-governor and presidential spokesmen.

Meanwhile, before highlighting the huge task ahead of Alia, a brief look at Ortom’s eight-year tenure is helpful.

Undoubtedly, Ortom enjoyed the love and affection of the Benue people, who in spite of federal influence, voted for him.

He won on the platform of the All Progressive Congress in 2015, and after he had disagreements with the party, he defected to the Peoples Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2019 governorship election. He eventually secured the PDP ticket and won the election, despite that the APC remained at the centre.

Before 2015 election, Ortom was a member of the PDP where he had served as a member of its National Working Committee. He was the party’s national auditor.

Benue people, particularly, civil servants and retirees, who were owed three months salary arrears and several months of pension and gratuities by the then governor, Gabriel Suswam, saw in Ortom a messiah that would end their tears.

In one of his campaign tours of the state, precisely, at the Catholic Church in Otukpo in the build-up to 2015 general elections, Ortom whipped up sympathy when he shed tears during a Sunday mass in response to the plight of Benue workers under Suswam.

Having realised the enormous burden on him and the expectations of the people of the state, Ortom, after winning the election, started well and ran an open door policy with his slogan then, ‘a labourer deserves his wage’. Many people agreed that he struggled to meet up with that obligation despite the recession until he started lagging behind in salary payments and pensions.

His bold stance against injustice and enactment of the anti-open-grazing law, which some people felt he was using to play politics, further endeared him to his people who promptly coined a nickname, ‘the defender of Benue Valley’.

These and other factors earned him a second term despite the fact that he owed state workers five months’ salary and local government about eight months before the election.

After defecting from the APC to PDP in 2018, he accused the APC leadership in the state of choking him at the detriment of workers’ welfare. He pledged to be faithful to the payment of salaries and promised to clear the arrears when the revenue of the state improved.

Meanwhile, things soon took a drastic turn for the worse after his re-election as the former governor struggled to pay salaries, giving rise to another six months’ arrears that were left unpaid till he left office.

Some of his critics said his inability to pay salaries contributed to the PDP’s performance in the last elections. First, Ortom lost his senatorial election into Benue North-West, while the party also lost the governorship election to the APC.

The winner of the senatorial election, Titus Zam, in an interview with described Ortom’s electoral defeat as a ‘referendum of the people of not only his senatorial district but the entire state’.

Zam, who served as Ortom’s Special Adviser on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs between 2015 and 2018, said it was surprising that a governor who won election and governed a state for eight years could no longer win one-third of the state.

The senator-elect attributed Ortom’s defeat to his performance in the past eight years and the introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System by the Independent National Electoral Commission, which he said helped to sanitise the system.

He added, “Ortom got what he deserved because he didn’t perform well as governor. Tell me, how will civil servants who are owed over two years salary support the governor? How will pensioners vote Ortom who refused to pay them? How will students whose bursary has been denied them vote for such a man?

“So, it was a referendum by the people that having failed woefully for the past eight years, Ortom no longer deserved to be given further responsibility.”

While this is not an assessment of Ortom’s tenure, it, however, underscores the huge expectations residents of the state have from the Alia administration.

Apart from the expectation for him to be above board in terms of morals and accountability, especially as a priest, many also expect him to use all he has, even if he has to consult his maker for wisdom, to address the myriad of challenges facing the state.

Many people have regarded him as a novice in the political terrain, but his performance at the primary and general elections seemed to send a different signal. Many applauded his priestly activities and that many sick persons have been healed under his teaching.

It is believed that the achievements of Adasu, the first Catholic priest to govern the state in 1992, also paved the way for Alia. Some of Adasu’s achievements included the establishment of the Benue State University, the reactivation and upgrade of the College of Education, Oju, and the conception of Tarka Foundation, named after Senator Joseph Tarka, launched on July 2, 1992.

About 32 years after Adasu left the government, his legacy still resonates with the establishment of the state university, which also fuels the belief that Alia, another priest, would again record similar achievements, if not more, if given the opportunity.

As Alia assumed leadership on May 29, people’s expectations and aspirations are high. At the moment, the state workers who owed 10 months’ salaries and local government workers who owed 13 months’ salaries are crying for speedy payment of their salaries.

The security situation of the state is comatose, as amplified by the immediate past government.

For instance, the previous government at a forum disclosed that about 6,000 people were gruesomely murdered by suspected herders within its eight years. It added that 18 out of the 23 local government areas had been overrun by the marauding herders.

The Ortom-led administration also claimed that there were over two million displaced persons in various Internally Displaced Persons’ camps across the state. Many were also constrained to take refuge with their relatives.

The new governor in his inaugural address pledged to turn around the fortune of the state for better despite the humongous N187bn debt, comprising salary arrears, pensions, gratuities, loans and contractual obligations the Ortom administration left for him.

Alia who tagged his administration ‘Renewed Hope’ assured Benue people that he would restore the glory of the state.

He stated, “We are faced with a situation of sustained insecurity, dampened morale from non-payment of salaries, pensions and gratuities, dilapidated infrastructure, a broken economy, an even more broken civil service, massive unemployment and underemployment, endemic corruption and malaise.

“These are all indicators of a crisis – a deep-rooted crisis, and it calls for bold and swift action. I assure you, Benue people, that as a government, your government, we will act!

“We were unambiguous in our victory speech at the polls that our state, Benue, is broken and needs a reset. The moment is here, and the time is now. A new Benue is possible!”

He reiterated his commitment to the seven pillars of his campaign document, named ‘Strategic development plan for a greater Benue’.

While he has since frozen the accounts of the state government, Alia announced his administration’s readiness to review the anti-open grazing law enacted by the immediate past government to accommodate current realities.

He said, “Effective immediately and until further notice, all government bank accounts in all banks are hereby frozen. A ‘Post No Debit’ instruction shall remain in force until all signatories are changed. Any bank that violates this instruction does so at its own risk.”

“On the anti-open grazing law that is believed to have contributed to attacks on residents and farmers by suspected herders, Alia said, “We are inheriting an anti-open grazing law whose implementation has become controversial.

“Having gone through some period of implementation, it is fit and proper for us to review the law to identify the lessons learnt, hold the gains made, if any, and reform to accommodate current realities.”

The governor, who said he recognised the plight of workers in the state, promised to prioritise payment of salaries and pensions.

He had said, “We recognise the plight of our civil servants and pensioners who are owed salaries, pensions and gratuities. We must strike a healthy balance between caring for the generation that toiled for this state – I’m talking here about pension and gratuity for our pensioners – and paying our serving employees a living wage and investing in the future of our children through revised curricula that meets the demands of a modern economy.

“A labourer deserves his wage, so says the Holy Book. We will prioritise and address the issue by ensuring that all verified arrears of salaries, pensions and gratuities are paid promptly without further delay.”

While stating that the kind of politics of the immediate past government that disconnected the state from the Federal Government would be looked into, he promised to realign the state with the Federal Government in order to enjoy the necessary benefits.

He said, “Politically, our state has been disconnected from the Federal Government because of bad politics. We commit to reconnecting Benue State to the proverbial ‘National Grid’ of Nigerian politics in order to harvest the benefits derivable therefrom.”

Clearly, priests have been governors in the past and they have held other top political or public offices. While some were accused of corruption, a former governor, who is a reverend, was jailed for corruption.

Hopes are high that the Reverend Father, who has no controversy or stain, will not only live above board and preserve the respect for the cassock, but will fulfil his campaign promises, develop the state and would be seen to have done his best for the people.

Some stakeholders who lamented the issues the Ortom administration left behind, advised the new governor to prioritise the payment of salary arrears, pensions and gratuities before focusing on other things.

An APC chieftain and one-time House of Representatives member, who represented Gwer/East and Gwer West federal constituency, Godwin Ikereve, said in an interview with Saturday PUNCH that Alia needs the cooperation of the people to excel.

He stated, “There is no problem that is insurmountable. Using Nigeria as an example, from the crisis of Biafra to the 1993 political crisis and others, Nigeria remains one. So, if the nation can overcome those challenges, by the grace of God, Rev Father (Alia) is going to surmount those huge challenges but this can only be possible with the support of everyone.

“He is aware that there are challenges but may not be fully aware of the degree of the rot, that is the reason he has embarked on a tour of the ministries to diagnose the problems which we know are humongous. But like I earlier said, it is a joint project and everyone must cooperate with the new governor.

Also speaking, a former chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists and incumbent minority leader of the state House of Assembly, Bem Ngutyo, said the new governor had to contend with rots created by the past administration.

He stated, “To be sincere, Rev Father (Alia) came in at a challenging time because there are lots of challenges created by the former administration. These range from accumulated salaries, pensions and gratuities to insecurity, non-availability of farm inputs to farmers, destruction of civil service, decay in basic amenities and a lot of issues.

“Now that Rev Father (Alia) has come in, the expectations are very high, but my advice to him is that he should prioritise his agenda. I will say since Benue is a civil service state and the bulk of the population are farmers, let him begin to settle salary arrears, pensions and gratuities. If he starts with this, I assure you, life will pick up again in the state.

“The position he has found himself in now is very pathetic because there are huge loans and debts incurred by the immediate past administration.”

In his contribution, a retired civil servant in the state, Pa Dave Akpen, said, “I don’t know how the state deserved such a governor who hid under religion to impoverish the people who voted him into office. He used the issue of insecurity to blindfold everyone into believing that all federal allocations to the state were denied him.

“I’m alive by the grace of God and the benevolence of my children. Some retirees who were denied their monthly stipends and hundreds of workers who were owed have died because they could not afford even N1,000 to buy drugs. I know so many of them.”

Akpen advised the governor not to toe the path of his predecessor but to prioritise the payment of salaries and pensions.

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