THE CHANGE IN BENUE – How It All Started
By Peter Shande
It was September 2006, that Wantaregh Paul Iyorpuu Unongo was finally convinced to abandon his consistent opposition to the central government and join Olusegun Obasanjo in the PDP. Samuel Adaa Maagbe was the liaison between Obasanjo and Unongo in the scheme that Maagbe claimed was going to network the Tiv into central participation in Nigerian affairs. Being part of a prayer group in the Villa, which comprised others like Prof Jerry Gana, Adaa Maagbe became a constant visitor to the Kwame Nkrumah residence of Unongo at Asokoro, pleading Obasanjo’s cause, wheedling and offering guarantees.
It was President Obasanjo’s intension to garner support from political leaders throughout the Federation in order to, not concerned with errors in his thought, foist on the nation an agenda that would permit him at least an additional term in office. With him, this was more than an interest, it was a mission. He was convinced that in Benue State, Unongo would be central in determining where the matter stood.
Obasanjo was at the same time trying to strengthen the structures he had been strained into building within the PDP by his deputy, Atiku Abubakar’s intransigence over his re-election in 2003. Those foundation members of the party that would fail to align with him, Obasanjo, whose only notion of justice is that he must be right, were gradually getting sidelined, Atiku inclusive, as he kept bringing in fresh faces whose main recommendation was allegiance to his person.
In the scheme, Wantaregh Paul Unongo was to be empowered financially and his hand strengthened politically to emerge the unchallenged “Lord of the Manor” of Benue politics. That would serve to explain why immediately after he took the plunge and joined the PDP in September 2006, the State executive council of the party was dissolved from Abuja and he was asked to recommend a caretaker committee with inputs from Sen. David Mark and Chief Barnabas Gemade.
David Mark appointed the Party Chairman from his zone C in the caretaking arrangement, Unongo had the Party Secretary and a couple of other officials, while Gemade chipped in a few relatively unimportant members, since he was considered a junior member of the coalition whom Obasanjo was not particularly fond of for obvious reasons.
Naturally, George Akume, the then incumbent governor, felt short-changed and run to Abuja to plead with Obasanjo. He was rewarded and permitted to bring into the State Working Committee a few protégés like Chief Samuel Ortom, the erstwhile State Secretary of the party, who were however, handed innocuous positions on the caretaking committee.
The way Obasanjo had it figured out; Wantaregh Paul Unongo was to go to the senate from Benue North East zone (A) and Sen. David Mark was to, with the assistance of Unongo and Gemade, be crowned the governor of Benue State. The manipulations at the centre had already zoned the Senate Presidency to Benue, which was to be Unongo’s if he would help Mark emerge the governor.
George Akume and Paul Unongo had different ideas, however. Akume favoured two candidates. If the governorship was to necessarily shift to zone C, he was ready with his deputy, Chief Ogiri Ajene; if it was to rotate to zone A, he had gotten ready his friend, Prof Steve Torkuma Ugbah, a professor of entrepreneurship at the California State University.
As unlikely as it may seem, Akume’s main hurdle in presenting Prof Ugbah as the PDP candidate in 2007 election was Wantaregh Paul Unongo, Ugbah’s uncle! For whatever reason, Unongo insisted on presenting himself as the gubernatorial candidate and refused to entertain any suggestions otherwise. Steve Ugbah on the other hand, would not entertain the thought of having to enter the arena to contest against his uncle who is like a father to him, insisting that if he were to contest, it had to be with the blessing of this legendary uncle of his. George Akume felt the same way and kept pressuring the elder statesman for his consent to offer his (Unongo’s) nephew. Unongo was adamant.
With Unongo insisting on going it himself, Steve Ugbah, in deference, withdrew before even going public with his intention. Akume then saw a fall-back position where Ugbah’s candidature refused to make any headway. Of those others offering themselves, he imagined that Hon Gabriel Suswam would be more amenable to his ways even if he wasn’t the best he could muster from zone A. Though not too comfortable with this candidature, Akume still felt he could somehow with a Hapsburgian grasp of puppet master, supervise, balance and possibly manage to dominate Gabriel Suswam in that office. Little did he know.
Prof Ugbah hung around Benue until the elections of 2007 were over and Suswam got sworn in as the 4th executive governor of Benue state on 29th May, 2007. He publicly acknowledged his readiness to work with Suswam towards a greater Benue in a chat with the editor of the National Truth newspaper in Makurdi in the early part of June, 2007.
Shortly after that public overture made in humility and devotion to Suswam in the interest of the state, he left for the USA, not to be noticeably present in political circles of Benue till December of 2010.
- To be continued