By Dan Agbese
When civil servants from the newly-created Benue State were leaving Jos for home on the demise of Benue-Plateau State on February 3, 1976, my friend, Peter, a Russian-trained civil engineer, came to my office at the Nigeria Standard to bid me good bye. Peter walks with a swagger. With a pronounced swagger that day, he sauntered into my office, always a cheerful man.
As he was about to leave, he said to me, “Dan, the Plateau people are saying we will die of heat in Makurdi. Well, we will surprise them because we will air-condition the whole of Makurdi.”
He greeted his unusual ambition with his usual loud laughter. Peter spoke in jest because, of course, no one would be mad enough to think of air-conditioning the new state capital. However, his joke reflected the ambition of the people of the new state. They verily believed they had the capacity for an uncommon development strategy to make the new state the envy of Plateau and the other states in the country. The new Benue State was set up on the tripod of Tiv, Igala and Idoma ethnic groups. A unique political structure guaranteed to make politics in the state a pull-push-pull affair. As the civil servants and others gathered in Makurdi from Jos and Ilorin, they entertained the beguiling hope that with the state’s enormous human and natural resource potentials it would be easy to to make it great in the time it took to say Benue.
Each of its first two military rulers, Col Abdullahi Shelleng and Group Captain Bayo Lawal, tried in his own way to set the state on a course of potential development. But the man who brought the road map that pointed the state towards its potential greatness assumed office on October 1, 1979. Mr. Aper Aku took on the mantle as the first civilian governor of Benue State. A former principal of the Federal Training Centre, Kaduna, Aku was a graduate of Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone. Were he alive, he would be 80 years old this year.
Aku was a political protégé of the strong man of Middle Belt politics and minority struggles, Chief Joseph Sarwuan Tarka. Aku earned his reputation on the national stage as an anti-corruption crusader in 1974. He swore to an affidavit alleging wrong doing against the military governor of Benue-Plateau State, Police Commissioner Joseph Gomwalk. It was a revenge affidavit because Tarka believed Gomwalk had a hand in Godwin Daboh’s affidavit alleging wrong doing against him also in 1974. But in office, Aku took his anti-corruption stance seriously. He knew the nation waited to see how he would perform, anti-corruption wise.
Aku was a simple man wo came into office with a good heart enlarged by his commitment to honest leadership. He gave the state its first comprehensive development strategy. Remembering Aku at this time is a wake up on the political leaders of Benue State. As they jostle for power in the next election circle, it is time for them to define their mission in politics in view of the current critical challenges facing the state. No salaries, no pensions and empty offices. You thought it could not be worse. Benue has gradually but surely lost the potentials for greatness. It has fallen from the height to which Aku took it to a state groping in the dark for a shaft of light in the dark tunnel of tunnel vision. The state is humbled by lack of progress and hobbled by the resultant poverty. We watch as other states stride ahead of our state in all aspects of economic and social development.
If Aku were allowed to return briefly from the dead and see what those who came after him have made of the state, he would certainly be shocked; shocked by the fact that the state has systematically been robbed of its potentials and is today an impoverished state, the pathetic victim of myopic leadership and the me-first nature of our current national politics. He would be shocked to see that his development projects have not been sustained let alone improved upon. He would be shocked that the promise of Benue State in his time lies today like a shattered pot of burukutu in the scorching sun. I bet he would weep for the people who have been so comprehensively cheated by their own people over the years.
The political leaders of the state should do us all the favour of thinking about the present and the future of the state. Things can only get worse unless they commit to rescuing and rebuilding the state. Power turns into tyranny if it is not used for the good of the people. Even the most rabid sycophants among us would admit that things are not going well for the state. The bad times did not just happen; they crept up on the state over the years and were allowed to fester. And now, this.
It is a wrong attitude. Why should our state with all its human resources and natural endowments crawl while other, younger states are leaping ahead? I am glad Peter did not attempt to air-condition Makurdi. It could have been a disaster, you see? Aku did not bring a magic wand to Government House, Makurdi. He came, armed with common sense. His road map to the future greatness of Benue State is lost in the mist of time. But it is worth recalling that it rested on the simple paradigm of using what you have to get what you want. Benue is an agricultural state, the food basket of the nation, no less, known for a variety of farm produce – yams, soya beans, pepper and citrus fruits. His wise and pragmatic agricultural, industrial and social development strategy was to use the state’s agricultural produce as raw materials for agro-allied industries.
His first successful attempt was the Taraku Oil Mills. Benue is the largest producer of soya beans in the country. Soya beans have numerous uses. Its oil is a much sought after cooking oil. It provides baby as well as animal feeds. Products of Taraku Oil Mills were much sought after throughout the country. Its impact on the local economy of the surrounding towns and villages in its catchment area is better imagined. Its impact on the soya bean farmers was equally great. They had a ready market and felt encouraged to produce more soya beans to improve their living standards.
Now, zip. Taraku Oil Mills is dead. Why should such a factory die despite the availability of soya beans? A senior staff of the Bank of the North once told me that the Benue State government secured a N250 million loan from the bank to revive the mills. The loan was fully drawn down. Yet, according to him, the only new things in the premises were the fresh grasses growing there. I confirmed it
In only four years and three months in office, Aku did titanic things. Check these: Taraku Oil Mills, Benue Burnt Bricks, Benue Breweries, Ikyogen Cattle ranch, a fish farm, the jute bag factory. The jewel in his crown was Lobi Bank he set up to help business men and women in the state obtain loans without too much hassle. He did not have much money. The state’s internally generated revenue was a princely N15,000 per month. Aku had common sense. He had commitment. He had a road map. And he followed his road map. I think it is a shame that no one after him has measured up to him all these years. It is a shame that all his industrial and development projects are dead. It is a shame that the men strutting our political stage want power without responsibilities.
This Benue State was the state of Aku’s dreams. Our political leaders must think. Not about individual power and wealth but about the people who hew the wood, draw the water and break their backs. If they take their responsibilities seriously and allow the people to freely choose their representatives, an Aku would also rise again. I say this mindful of the depth to which venality has sunk the sense of public service by our leaders.
Don’t weep brother. Miracles happen.