By Ushakuma Anenga
It’s no longer news that Governor Gabriel Suswam lost his bid to represent Benue north-east senatorial district at the senate. He was defeated by the incumbent senator, Chief Barnabas Gemade in a keenly contested election. Many will attest that the election was more about Suswam than it was about Chief Gemade.
In 1999 when Nigeria returned to democracy from military rule, Suswam, a young hustling lawyer abandoned his wig and gown to contest and win the Kastsina-ala/Ukum/Logo house of Representatives seat under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). With his charm of innocence, charisma and determination, Suswam had all the ingredients of a good politician and there was every reason to believe that the young man will go very far.
After 8 years at the Green Chambers of the National Assembly, in April 2007, Suswam was elected Governor of Benue State, succeeding Dr George Akume who, arguably singlehandedly picked him in a manner that is familiar in Nigerian politics. Dr Akume planning to go to senate, needed a young vibrant confidant who would continue his decent strides and also pay some allegiance, and this he found in Suswam.
Suswam’s career and reputation continued to blossom, his early years as governor saw a lot of positive changes. In fact, my one and only Facebook post on October 1, 2007 (independence day) was simply “Benue can celebrate” referring to the impact Suswam had on the state in that short period as governor. Such was the air of approval and optimism that greeted the visible infrastructural developments at that time. Roads were being tarred, drainages built, and…. that’s it. That alone was something! That the roads in Makurdi notorious for “pitholes” were now motorable, was something. Although there were rumours that those were Akume’s projects, it didn’t matter much because Suswam took charge of them to completion – a feat worth commendation. The early days of Suswam’s government, I must confess, were impressive. His meteoric rise from humble beginnings to governor at a young age of 41 years was an inspiration, especially to the youths and endeared the people towards him.
Fast forward 8 years after, and the issues that surrounded Suswam’s loss in the election, one begins to wonder what really went wrong. How did all this love fade away? The reasons are not far fetched. Amongst many issues, two things stand out in the ontogeny of Gov Suswam’s political undoing.
First, was an infamous fallout with his boss and predecessor, Dr George Akume. Suswam wanted to stand alone and set up his own political empire, and for many other reasons well covered by the local media and rumoured on social media, details of which I’m not qualified to unravel, these two gladiators just couldn’t get along. As the issues went unresolved, it became clear that they wouldn’t share one umbrella – the umbrella party, PDP, could not accommodate them, hence Akume leaving to seek refuge in newly formed Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). Akume will go on to contest and win a return to the senate under this party.
The ousting of Akume looked like victory for Suswam but it wasn’t long before Akume came calling. In 2007, whilst Akume won his senatorial election quite easily, Suswam had a formidable opponent in his kinsman, Steve Torkuma Ugbah, a Professor of Marketing at California State University, brought by Akume into the governorship race to wrestle power from him. The ensuing campaigns and election have been described as the stiffest and fiercest in the history of Benue State. The people, buoyed by the promise of change, rallied round the relatively unknown professor with Ugbah nyior, shior chenji meaning ugbah’s arrival has changed the game, as the campaign slogan. This gave Suswam a torrid time but as it’s characteristic of the black cat, he won the elections against all odds while Prof Ugbah headed for the court.
In the runoff to the last election, Akume defiled party norms and reason to jettison competent hands like Andrew Ayabam and Adaa Maagbe to more or less, award the APC Benue north-east ticket on a platter of gold to someone he knew will give Suswam a run for his money, Chief Barnabas Gemade – a serial chairman of five political parties and Gemade too was giving the “Akume treatment” by Suswam and was happy to join forces with his somewhat prodigal son, Akume to create what now is history – Suswam’s epic defeat.
Secondly, perhaps Gov Suswam’s greatest undoing has been the issue of non-payment of salaries and the levity and impunity with which the issue was handled. Civil servants worked for several months without pay, pensioners same with public primary and tertiary institutions all closed down for almost a year. Although the government cited several reasons as to why they couldn’t pay, even going as far as taxing 10% of every workers wages to offset the state’s wage bill, workers still weren’t being paid regularly. The consequence was state-wide hunger and poverty because the states economy resolves around salaries despite an agrarian status, a lack of which was definitely unacceptable.
To compound the issue, statements like “don’t expect salaries this month”, “I cannot perform magic”, “it will get worse” and all manner of impuntous utterances with little remorse, were attributed to the governor at different forums. That only added to the brewing resentment against him.
The rest is history, Gov Suswam lost most likely because Benue workers and their dependents at home voted massively against him, and have vowed to even do worse during next week’s governorship elections if they are not paid fully. Besides that, Suswam still faces a herculean task of installing his chosen successor, Prince Terhemen Tarzoor against an opposition that is not just basking in the euphoria of winning last Saturdays presidential election, but boast an experienced politician and former Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr Samuel Ortom as governorship candidate, and most importantly, the goodwill of the people.
Usha Anenga is a columnists for Benue.com.ng and writes from Makurdi. He tweets using @UAnenga