Now Let Us Make Benue Great Again

Source: Matthew Ma.
Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia (Benue State Governor)
Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia (Benue State Governor)

“The problem we have in Nigeria is that almost everybody is His Royal Majesty, His imperial Majesty, His Royal Highness and so on and-so-forth. You also find out that traditional rulers are appointed and upgraded from one thing or the other.”

Dear Governor, Fr. Hyacinth Alia,
In March 2023, I wrote you an open letter to commiserate with you as the governor-elect of Benue State. This time, my letter is not to congratulate you but to welcome you to Government House Makurdi. But before I proceed, I would like to clearly state that this piece is not an attempt to replicate the analysis many have put forward for your administration. The motivation to put up such a write-up is to plead with you to make Benue State Great Again. You will recall that in March, the people of Benue voted you overwhelmingly to emerge as the governor they can be proud of. The people known by the title The Food Basket of the Nation decided to take a break from the regular faces of politicians they elect every year to elect someone not qualified to lead. They broke the recycling chain and brought in an entirely new person. In retrospect, the voters glimpsed through where a glimmer of salvation once shone. They turned to the Catholic Church, which once gave them a temporal liberator to liberate them from the shackles of agony. Like Rev. Fr. Moses Adasu, you (Rev. Fr. Alia) offered yourself, promising relief to these beleaguered people. Your emergence comes when the socio-political environment and the peace we enjoy in Benue State have collapsed under dilapidated circumstances. Although the situation is critical, I am optimistic that you will not betray the hopes of those who put their confidence in you. And that you will not default on your campaign promises or stray from the noble path.

Your Excellency, I would like to talk to you about the following in this open letter: 1) Traditional rulers, 2) Benue Links, 3) industries, 4) local governments, 5) and 6) the Land Use Act. Soon after you won your governorship election, I watched a video of your visit to our industrious sons and daughters to show your certificate of return. Amongst those you visited were the paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, the Tor Tiv, Orcivirigh Prof. James Ayatse, Isaac Shaahu, a former cabinet minister in the aborted second republic and later, the Chairman of the Middle Belt Forum, and Brig. Gen. John Atom Kpera (Rtd), the first Military Governor of Anambra State after they created it from the old East Central State during the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo, and later the Military Governor of Benue State during Major-General Muhammadu Buhari's regime. You did a commendable job by paying a surprise visit to our elders. You presented your certificate of return to our paramount leader, Tor Tiv. Gone are the days when the traditional ruler would visit the elected governor to congratulate him. But during your visit, you changed the narrative and showed us how to respect our traditional rulers. You paid our paramount leader a surprise visit. Recall that Nigeria has witnessed the removal or dethronement of traditional rulers for alleged offenses, ranging from lack of respect for the governor to, often, gross misconduct. For example, sometime in 2021, the Anambra State Governor dethroned three traditional rulers and withdrew their Certificate of Recognition. The sacked monarchs were said to be among the 12 rulers suspended in the State for visiting Abuja to see President Muhammadu Buhari without the state government’s approval. Recall that one of Nigeria’s prominent figures and former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, was humiliated in like manner for speaking up against the State. In 2022, Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, dethroned the embattled Sanusi over what he called disrespect to legal instructions from the Government of Kano State and other legal authorities. Something similar happened in Benue, where the current governor was decisive in dealing with traditional rulers who held views contrary to his. In one specific example, the Benue state government ousted or arrested traditional rulers a few years ago over violent land disputes in Konshisha, Ushongo, and Gwer East local government areas. The government carried out the arrest and suspension based on an expanded meeting of the Executive Council. Many considered this development unhealthy for the State because of the position of traditional rulers as the middlemen between citizens and the government. Many people felt that constant abuse of this institution would demystify it for citizens and further encroach on the nation’s traditional values. But on whether monarchs have not compromised their offices for selfish interests, the answer in many instances is that monarchs have been at the beck and call of politicians. At various times, they assist politicians in taking power. And when they fall out of favor with them, the governors use the same arguments they may have benefited from to remove them. While many blamed the situation on undue political interference by traditional rulers, which often led them to compromise the value of their office, others felt they should not be isolated from airing their political views simply because of their office. Unfortunately, our constitution does not protect traditional rulers, considering the ease with which State governors remove and replace them.

As the governor of Benue State, we urge your excellency to help the Benue indigenes restore the dignity of our traditional rulers. Let the traditional leaders understand they have the right to receive a guest or politician in their palace but should not travel around to meet the politicians. I have not heard where the Oba of Benin goes to see politicians who visit his State. I have not seen the Emir of Kano visit a politician in his office. Neither have I seen a traditional ruler at the Toll Gate receive a politician on a State visit. The late Ochi Idoma, His Royal Highness Abraham Ojene Okpabi, never left his palace to visit a politician. Politicians paid him a courtesy call when they were on official duty in Benue State. But today, the narratives have changed. Traditional rulers have become errand boys for politicians. We constantly insult them. At times, we ridiculed them and called them names. We reject this kind of treatment of our traditional rulers. We want to see our monarchs playing their roles, asserting their authority, and working together to achieve peace and security in our State. Hence, a politician who visits our State should travel to see our monarch in his palace, not the reverse. As the governor, ensure that traditional rulers are respected and accorded protection against being deposed indiscriminately by agents of the State. It is embarrassing to read on media platforms that some monarchs have been arrested or prosecuted for behaving in a manner that is unbecoming of a traditional ruler. But this issue does not mean that traditional rulers should not be relieved of their duties if we find them lacking. The problem in Nigeria is that almost everybody is His Royal Majesty, His Imperial Majesty, His Royal Highness, and so forth. You also find out that traditional rulers are appointed and upgraded from one thing to another.

Your excellency, the insult to our elders, arrogance, and the quarrel among the Benue people have taken center stage. Tolerance, cooperation, friendliness, hospitality, and the space for collective thinking, opinion, ideas, philosophy, worldview, and consulting have diminished beyond recognition. Indeed, nearly all that was a virtue has given way to everything wrong. The attitude of taking down a brother or sister has become the order of the day. It has become a recurring decimal in our existence as a people. Today, Benue State is at a disadvantage, as it has been since Nigeria’s inception. Still, ironically, we have dealt the deadliest blows from within, creating the most significant obstacles for ourselves. We cannot spare anyone from the destructive drive. As the governor of the most polarized State, we beg you to help us restore the dignity of our traditional institution. We want to respect our traditional leaders but hold them accountable when they fail us. You have the power and determination to do this. And I know you have the compassion to do this.

On May 8, 2023, Scholastica Onyeka of the Sun Newspaper recounted that a Federal High Court sitting in Makurdi adjourned the case on privatization between the Benue State government and its transport company, Benue Links. Ms. Onyeka noted that the state government had, in August 2021, put up 25 of its public assets classified as dilapidated for outright sale or concessions, including the transportation company known as Benue Links. But the Benue Links branch in Makurdi went to court to challenge the state government's decision to sell the company, arguing that the company had not failed to perform in the last 33 years of operation. However, passengers are unsatisfied with their functions, mistakes, delays, and breakdowns. For years, the movement of people and goods in Benue and its environs has become a severe challenge for Benue Links. To say Benue Links faces difficulties would be an understatement. But with vehicles used for public transport in near-total disrepair, the environment also suffered as smoke from old and tired engines made the air unbreathable. Today, the reality is that the public transport system is severely damaged and there are no modern vehicles. What's more, the nonexistence of a government vehicle in the fleet is a true reflection of the dilapidated state of the transportation company. Most of Benue Link's vehicles are privately owned and contracted to Benue Links. The question that needs to be answered is: How satisfied are passengers with Benue Links' service? Is the shipping company meeting its goals? And what could be done to resolve its numerous problems? It is important to note that if our transportation sector wants to become the center of attraction, it must improve its service delivery. It will also allow the business to grow within the company, provide better solutions to satisfy customers, and avoid failures that cause customers to seek patronage elsewhere. Hence, there is an urgent need to make the Benue Links transportation sector more secure, safer, and sustainable. The recent killings, abductions, and abuse of passengers are unacceptable. Other unacceptable tasks in the company include the random prices charged, poor health and safety standards, a lack of working standards, and poor communication to enable the company to maximize all available opportunities. These challenges are a wake-up call for the government to adopt better strategies to help Benue Links provide better services, grow its top line, and be more innovative and efficient.

Your Excellency, let me draw your attention to two companies that might interest you in knowing their situations. Nigeria’s pioneer and largest brewing firm, Nigerian Breweries, has, in its 76 years of existence, continued to blaze the trail, going beyond the frontiers of brewing to connect with the daily lives of Nigerians on a deeper level. The company, incorporated in 1946, has breweries in Lagos (1949), Aba (1957), Kaduna (1963), Ibadan (1982), Enugu (1993), and Ama Brewery (2003), which is now the biggest and most modern brewery in Nigeria. Following the merger of Nigerian Breweries Plc and Consolidated Breweries in December 2014, Nigerian Breweries began operations in three additional breweries: Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, Awo-Omamma, Imo State; and Makurdi, Benue State. However, recently, our attention has been drawn to a news story alleging that the Nigerian Breweries have relocated to Kaduna and are producing More Larger Beer from that state and shipping them to Makurdi. How authentic is this story? And if it is true, why did the company relocate? Someone mentioned that their relocation has to do with high taxes. Why do we pay taxes? The simple answer is that until someone comes up with a better idea, taxation is the only practical means of raising revenue to finance government spending on the goods and services most of us demand. Setting up an efficient and fair tax system is far from simple, particularly for Nigeria, which wants to compete in the international economy. The ideal tax system in this country should raise essential revenue without excessive government borrowing. It should do so without discouraging economic activity or putting too much pressure on nonprofit organizations. So why the question of taxes?

Recently, an agro-commodity company, Olam Nigeria Limited, moved to Lafia and attributed the relocation of the largest rice farm from Benue to Nassarawa State to excessive taxation. The company’s Makurdi Unit Head made this disclosure while responding to inquiries from the press. It says that the decision to relocate the rice farm came from overwhelming challenges that bordered on excessive revenue charges. Since the creation of Benue State in 1976, successive political leaderships in the State have made efforts at improving commerce and industry to create not only employment for the teeming youths but also make the State the Food Basket of the Nation it should be. These efforts have borne fruit, with the State's first executive governor, the late Aper Aku, establishing numerous industries during his four years in office. Soon after he left office, these industries steadily collapsed. All these companies, including Benue Links Transport Company and Benue Breweries, are still in dilapidated condition. In 2015, the Guardian Newspaper reported that Nigerian Breweries Plc invested N1 billion towards improving the quality of the More Lager Beer brand, which it acquired. Recall that in 2013, Consolidated Breweries Plc bought More Larger Beer from the Benue State government, which later merged into Nigerian Breweries Plc in 2014. But a few years ago, the company failed to produce anything. Sources say that Benue Brewery has relocated to Kaduna. I do not know how true this statement is, but if that is the case, can we say excessive taxes from the government chase them away from the State?

Across the globe, one of the vital sources of funding for the efficient running of any government agency has always been revenue generated through direct or indirect taxation. This tax contributes to state revenue, enabling the government to pay wages and provide social amenities and services to the people. But how state and local governments come up with different names for the same tax is worrisome. Despite clear legislation outlining lists of taxes and levies to be collected by the State government, illegal checkpoints and multiple taxes have continued to generate tension in the State. Some writers have highlighted tax duplication as a significant contributor to Benue's poor ranking on the National Ease of Doing Business Index. In Benue, several taxes have destroyed many companies or businesses, despite their relevance and growth to the national economy. As good as the intention behind tax might appear, people have observed that the existing tax system across the State diminishes returns on investment, affects the capital base, and often leads to the collapse of businesses and companies. Corporate and business taxpayers often face the multiplicity and duplication of taxes levied by different levels of government. Your Excellency, the operating environment has been challenging for Benue manufacturers. They are in dire need of an overhaul. To meet this challenge, state and local governments (including their agencies) generate revenue through taxes and checkpoints. These taxes come in different shapes and forms but often conflict with other taxes. A team of inspectors from the Federal Ministry of Environment could, for instance, come on a visit to a factory in one day; another team from the State could come the next day, and another from the local government could come the day after. I call on your government to harmonize taxation and urgently address the multiple taxation and checkpoint issues to prevent illegal and unwarranted excessive taxation.

Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, there has been a decline in the delivery of social services at the local government level due to overwhelming corruption, weak institutions, and oversights. Health services are inadequate; there is no potable water; the educational system at the local level is declining; teachers are lamenting the non-payment of salaries; and public infrastructure is poorly maintained. The situation is dire but neither hopeless nor incurable. However, a lack of transparency and accountability in the structure of local government has hindered good governance at the grassroots in Benue State. The essence of the local government is to bring democracy closer to the people. In Benue, successive governors have failed to conduct elections at the local level, thereby eroding democratic governance. For instance, instead of electing chairmen and women, the government appoints so-called caretaker committees, mainly composed of cronies, to government offices. But state governors choose trusted party stalwarts to carry out their orders. Today, the local government councils are no longer operating as they should. They are not functioning as expected, although they are receiving allocations. The people are not benefiting from the government except for the chairman and other council officials. That is why there are crises in the grassroots system of governance. Since 1999 until now, the local government system has collapsed, affecting the overall structure and development at the grassroots level of government. The provincial government chairmen and women are not functioning. And councilors do not provide the quality representation and accountability needed to promote good governance at the local level. This ongoing impunity has led to continued underdevelopment in communities across the State. Unfortunately, one can observe that many people, perhaps out of frustration, have refused to play an active role at the local government level. Your Excellency, we beg you to break the inconsistencies in the local government system and help foster capable local governments. I am afraid things will remain awful for our people if something is not done urgently about the anomaly.

The land sustains every aspect of our lives, providing fundamental life-support systems. The land is the foundation of our economy and society. It is in the environment that we stand and act. It is where we make decisions that affect not only the land but also the water, oceans, air, atmosphere, and the life they support. The land is not a resource meant for exploitation. It is a crucial instrument for achieving biological, socioeconomic, and physical environments. Land has diverse importance. It preserves the indigenous knowledge of the local inhabitants and their cultural heritage. The recent trend in land exploitation, popularly known as “matching ground” (indigenes) in Benue State, like any other place in Nigeria, has taken on a more drastic and grievous inclination as it affects social, economic, environmental, and human rights. Matching ground is a subset of the much larger process of large-scale land acquisitions. The phenomenon is not new but has occurred unprecedentedly during the past few years. Over the years, the youth have held and terrorized Benue indigenes by illegally extorting money from developers. This problem started a few years ago when some young people would tell you to stop working on your land unless you paid them a certain amount. The situation has degenerated into an unhealthy business, with some people justifying the act of the youth and saying other states are doing it, so why not Benue? Unfortunately, perpetrators of this act cut across different categories of individuals, from thugs to chiefs and even traditional rulers. Consequently, Benue State, an agricultural State, has remained inactive in commercialization. I have noticed with keen interest the alarming rate at which the activities of “Area boys” under the auspices of “matching ground” in the communities of Benue State have discouraged development in the state. It is on record that most investments in the state have folded up as a result of the activities of these youths. Some establishments have moved to nearby Nasarawa State, where they have established themselves and created jobs for the youth in those areas at the expense of Benue State. It surprises us to know that even in Makurdi, the state capital, a group of persons who have given themselves some portfolios as the Makurdi youth leader, Makurdi Land Committee Chairman, or Secretary of Mue Ter go to every nook and cranny where construction work is going on (renovations inclusive) and demand for enormous sums of money to be paid to them before the work could continue. Failure to comply with their outrageous demands would result in work disruptions or the demolition of such properties. In most cases, the activities of these “area boys” appear to enjoy the tacit approval of the Traditional rulers, as the “area boys” exhibit untold confidence in the claim that they are working for the Traditional leaders.

Interaction with people who have encountered the “area boys” has expressed their frustrations and ordeals at the hands of the area boys. I was dumbfounded to hear that an individual who attempted to drill a borehole in Makurdi to make water available for his household and the immediate community had to pay an outrageous amount before he was finally allowed to continue with the borehole. I also noticed that most people declined to invest in the State because of the “area boys” menace. Some Benue sons and daughters who wanted to set up industries in Benue had to relocate to Nasarawa and Abuja because of the threat of “area boys.” These investments would have created jobs for over 90% of the State’s population. But as someone who has interacted with Benue communities, the State is not what the founding fathers envisaged. There is increasing youth agitation in all facets of the State. Our youth have embraced violence instead of peace. Your Excellency, to ensure that the Benue of our dream is achievable, I recommend the following actions: You instruct security agencies to take appropriate measures to safeguard lives, property, and investments, including planned investments halted by these area boys. I beg you to call the traditional rulers supporting the area boys to order. I appeal to you to speak to the Benue State House of Assembly and the Ministry of Lands and Survey to review appropriate legislation that affects customary land sales and related charges. The Ministry of Land, on the other hand, should educate land developers on standards, customs, and regulations. Your government should issue a public statement condemning the illegal actions committed by hooligans masquerading as community youth development associations and remind relevant security agencies to do the same when victims report cases. When the time is right and under the right circumstances, we should tax potential investors or charge very little to attract and encourage investment. And finally, your government and agencies of land distribution should set up a special task force to streamline land acquisition and development and begin the “Ease of Doing Business” procedure.

Your Excellency, you have to cover yourself with the armor of God so that you will stand against the schemes of evil in our land. To do this, it is up to you to decide what sartorial gift you intend to hand to the Benue people. You know our challenges: we have reduced the workers to peasants; the agricultural products continue to rot away in the vast fields while the youths roam cities in search of white-collar jobs; and of course, the protracted header-farmer clashes, which have become the most prominent cash cow of the outgoing administration. The admirers of the outgoing governor called him “The Defender of the Benue Valley.” But I see this nickname as a misrepresentation or a caricature of him that is derisory and pathetic. For instance, why are more than half of the twenty-three local councils in rural Benue in the hands of the so-called terrorists? What was he defending? You promised to safeguard our land. Although this fact is tricky, you will succeed if you properly discern it. Hence, you deserve all the encouragement and prayers to make Benue great again.

The highest impediment to effective governance is the quest to amass wealth at the expense of the State. The media has widely reported that most of Benue's political leaders came to power poor but stepped down as wealthy emperors. That happens due to what the journalist Mikela Wrong has called "Our Time To Eat," the uncontrollable appetite that leads people in positions of authority to confuse their holdings with the public estate. We have seen this several times via flagrant robbery, shoddy privatization programs, contract inflation, and an absolute lack of accountability. I am optimistic that you will do everything possible to control this Benue elite syndrome. You know what our vocation entails. We have taken the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. For that, I am confident you have no business dipping your hands into public funds. Hence, if you would take from the words of Jesus, you will let the light shine brightly across Tivland, Idomaland, Igedeland, and, importantly, the entire Benue State. We will experience the shining of light and the rebirth of hope in Benue State.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.