In Ortom’s Benue, Politicking is Carnival

Dr Tunde Olusunle

By Tunde Olusunle

Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom is not taking his incumbency for granted. Yes, he has been helmsman of his state for nearly eight years now and won the hearts of admirers, while also courting the bile of critics. There are two sides of a coin and both reactions are to be expected of every public office holder. Beyond his subsisting brief as chief executive of his state, Ortom has participated in politics for over three decades now, a resume which privileges him, relative to many latter day entrants into the political fray in his state. For starters, he had been chairman of his local government area, Guma, between 1992 and 1993, when Nigeria’s former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, repeatedly tinkered with the nation’s political transition. The Catholic priest, Moses Orshio Adasu was the democratically elected governor at the time.

He would later serve as Benue State Publicity Secretary of the defunct National Centre Party of Nigeria, (NCPN). The party was one of the five political parties established by former military head of state, Sani Abacha, to anchor the transition programme of his government. With the enthronement of three political parties by Abacha’s successor, Abdulsalami Abubakar, Ortom became Treasurer of the All Peoples’ Party, (APP), which name was later tweaked to become All Nigeria Peoples’ Party, (ANPP). He would thereafter function as Deputy State Chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, (PDP) and Director of Administration of the Benue State PDP, for the gubernatorial campaign in 2007. That campaign produced Ortom’s predecessor, Gabriel Suswam.

Ortom’s aggregate experiences and good work, recommended him for higher responsibilities at the national secretariat of the PDP, where he was hoisted as National Auditor. He was concurrently, Member of the National Working Committee, (NWC). While on this schedule, Ortom was drafted to serve as the Director of Administration and Logistics of the Goodluck Jonathan/Namadi Sambo presidential campaign in 2011. His hardwork and visibility during the process, earned him ministerial nomination when the Jonathan/Sambo federal executive council was being constituted. In football, Ortom will be described as a player who has earned his medals and trophies. Better still, he could be festooned with the badge of a *FIFA- recognised player!*

His services to political parties and governments at various times in various ways, have accorded him *shon-of-the-shoil* acquaintance with every hamlet, village, community and town in his state, through several decades. Across the Tiv, Idoma, Igede, Agatu homelands, he has built contacts and comrades across time and is at home everywhere. But Ortom is not resting pretty, reclining in the padded, wood-panelled, air-chilled comfort of his office, belching instructions to “field commanders and officers.” No. Since the flag-off of the PDP state campaigns in November 2022, Ortom has been on the road. True he is running for the senatorial office to represent Benue North West, (or Benue Zone B) as it is known in the political lexicon of the state. Ortom, however, is leading a broad-based, statewide campaign for his party in general.

At the November commencement of the Benue PDP campaigns, Ortom had pronounced that the PDP will adopt a “bottom to top” electioneering mantra in pursuit of its electioneering process. To this extent, the PDP is interested in producing all the members of the state house of assembly; federal house of representatives, senate and governor. He has not reneged. He has rather, braved the dust, haze and dryness of the harmattan season, to literally lead the troops to the battlefield, in the ongoing political evangelism in Benue State. Short of hurling a caravan around American-style, Ortom encamps for the night wherever dusk falls and continues the PDP advocacy the next morning. Ever cognisant of his roots, he remains down-to-earth and relatable, ever generous with his “paddy-paddy style” handshakes.

Everywhere the campaign team has visited, they have been very well received by ecstatic crowds in typical *carnivalesque* fashion. Benue is the state to beat in the art of “politicking as celebration.” Music, dancing, singing and gyrating have characterised these engagements. In some way, this could be symbolic of genuine affection for a party and leadership which has impacted the people in specific developmental departments, despite obvious constraints. The visibly below par performance of the Muhammadu Buhari administration at the centre, has also bolstered mass resentment for the All Progressives Congress, (APC). The security conundrum in Benue, characterised by the relentless infiltration of Fulani herdsmen into the agrarian state, routinely killing and maiming innocent people in staggering numbers without chastisement by the federal government, has engendered mass dislike for the APC. Camps for internally displaced persons, (IDPs), have become synonymous with the landscape of the state.

The APC itself is engulfed in a flurry of litigations, with a plethora of claimants to the gubernatorial ticket of the party. Hyacinth Iormem Alia, a Catholic priest; Barnabas Gemade, a former national Chairman of the PDP, and Terhemba Shija, a university professor, are locked in battle over who the actual governorship candidate of the party is. Curiously, Bola Tinubu, presidential flagbearer of the APC at the Benue State rally, Thursday January 26, 2023, raised the hand of Barnabas Gemade as governorship candidate of the Benue APC! This action is considered a breach of a subsisting court ruling. Such is the present confusedness in the affairs of the APC in Benue State.

While the APC grapples with its internal problems, Ortom, leaders and members of the PDP, have toured and campaigned in all 23 LGAs, which constitute the 11 federal constituencies and three senatorial zones in the state. From Benue North East comprised of Logo, Ukum, Katsina Ala, Kwande, Ushongo, Vandeikya and Konshisha, the PDP has also toured Benue North West. This is made up of Buruku, Gboko, Tarka, Guma, Makurdi, Gwer East and Gwer West. Benue South, where we have Oju, Obi, Otukpo, Ado, Okpokwu, Ogbadibo, Ohimini, Apa and Agatu LGAs, have also been covered. It is a measure of the seriousness Ortom attaches to the campaigns, that he spent two nights on the road in the senatorial segment of the state known as “Zone C.”

Specifically, Ortom encamped in a private hospitality facility in Otukpo, in the course of the campaign tour of the area. He defied the ever recurring ethnocultural suspicions, even superstitions, between the disparate cultures and tongues in the state. There have always been fissions between the Tiv, Idoma, Igede and Agatu ethnicities in the state, which Ortom moved briskly to mitigate beginning from the earliest days of his government. His trademark *Benue unity* multicoloured headgear which bears the representative colours of each culture and ethnic group in the state, was introduced to reassure all sections of the state that they see themselves as one. Today, Ortom holds the record of prosecuting the most thorough, most enervating political campaigns in Benue State, compared to his predecessors!

On the dais each time he led the campaigns at the senatorial headquarters of the various zones, he was flanked by senators representing the zone. To this extent, Emmanuel Orker Jev, Gabriel Suswam and Abba Moro, took turns to accord desired backup to Ortom in their respective senatorial districts. Each time he mounted the soapbox, the messaging was the same: Except for the circumstances which bred his ascent to office on the vehicle of the APC, Benue State had remained steadfast as a PDP state. With all three Senators representing the state and the preponderance of members of the House of Representatives being members of the PDP, the political lifeblood of the state remains essentially PDP. To this extent, it would be wise politics to sustain allegiance for the PDP, from the very taproots of the political pyramid.

An interesting dimension to the 2023 political campaigns in Benue State, is the total involvement of the wife of the governor in the ongoing process. Away from her usual chores as first lady, Eunice Erdoo Ortom, has put together a backup campaign team to reinforce the precedence of her husband and his predominantly male campaign cast. She is typically kitted in jeans trousers, sneakers, customised tops and bowler hats, to underscore the seriousness of the electioneering. Her focus is the women and youths, who she engages at the level of the 11 federal constituencies in the state. These are: Makurdi/Guma; Gwer East/Gwer West; Gboko/Tarka; Logo/Katsina-Ala/Ukum; Kwande/Ushongo; Vandeikya/Konshisha; Oju/Obi; Otukpo/Ohimini; Ado/Okpokwu/Ogbadibo and Apa/Agatu. She is thus ensuring deeper permeation of the overall campaign epistolary.

The political mood of the PDP in Benue State is upbeat. At intervals, automobiles with mounted heavy-duty musical equipment drive through the streets of Makurdi, Gboko, Otukpo, Katsina-Ala, dishing out music in loud decibels. This is as an integral part of the political sensitisation process. Speaker of the State House of Assembly and gubernatorial candidate of the PDP, Titus Tyoapine Uba is back from his foreign medical trip, after a health scare late last year. With his running mate, John Mgbede, a former state chairman of the PDP, Uba went through the campaign grills, from A to Z. While not leaving anything to chance, Ortom is confident that the track record of the PDP over the years will see the party through. Having dominated the leadership of the state for the better part of the 24 years of the fourth republic, Ortom declares the PDP is the party to beat. This is as he enjoined his people to collect their permanent voter’s cards, (PVCs) unfailingly and to make their votes count on election day.

*Tunde Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, scholar and author is a Member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE).*