Earlier today, a very mindful senior colleague called to alert me of a photo mix up in the Abuja based The New Telegraph (Thursday, September 11th, 2014). He thought I was within Nigeria to check it out in the hard copy. I had to do that electronically. In an interview the paper had with Chief Mike Onoja, a former Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Defence, my picture was used instead of that of the chief. But my interest shifted quickly from the picture mix up to the substance of the interesting interview in which Chief Onoja indicated his plan to challenge Senate President, David Mark, for the Zone C Senatorial District which is the entire Idomaland, in the 2015 elections, if there will be one. He charged Mark with monopolistic politics and non performance. It has all the promises of a great entertainment if the contest ever takes place. Given the material and political ruin that has come the way of all those who have challenged David Mark in the last 16 years, Chief Onoja must, indeed, be courageous to come out in a very categorical manner. General Lawrence Onoja who was expected to match David Mark’s artillery approach to politics, (though Mark was of the Signals in the military) didn’t quite square up in spite of his spirited efforts. This is not to talk of former Senate President, Ameh Ebute or the petrel by the name Young Alhaji. Until recently when Ebute found his voice again by aligning with Edwin Clark, Mark was the conqueror.
The interesting thing with Chief Onoja is that he could be David Mark’s nemesis. I am not too sure what the balance of sentiments for and against Mark is in Idomaland today but the Chief was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence when Abacha was Head of State, meaning that he was actually the Minister of Defence. He might not have been decked in the military fatigue but he was in a position to know one or two things about military officers, of which Mark was one. So, in him, Mark might find a tough challenger with the resources and advantages of bureaucratic politics. An extremely weak politician like Mark when it comes to mobilisational politics could be very vulnerable if his opponent is someone who knows one or two things about power. I am not sure it is conceit and vanity that makes Mark such a disaster in mobilisational politics. My distant reading is that it is not just his forte and, probably thinking it is too late in the day to learn such a whole new trade, he simply retreats into the conspiratorial tactics of his military profession. He is not alone in this. Except IBB, most retired military officers in politics have that problem. The military psychology comes up too powerfully too quickly and the difference between an opponent and an enemy tend to disappear altogether in their interpretation of things.
But it is a problem in a semi-industrial society to be a political leader without the skills to rouse the folks. For, it is in that rousing the folks and the associated symbolism that the real utility of the leader lies in this sort of social set up, more than in the concrete things like securing political and technocratic appointments for followers and faithfuls that the leader can claim credit. This is more so for a materially and politically disconsolate community like Idomaland under the psychological stress of their real and imagined Benue condition.
I have heard people say, for example, that David Mark made sure that no independent political organisation exists in Idomaland to articulate Idoma interest beyond himself. That he penetrated and planted his acolytes in even the more promising ones like the Idoma Forum where he is alleged to have planted my friend, Dr Aju Ameh as President sometimes back. The point is that if there is a strong candidate challenging Mark, all these kind of details would work against him, whether they are true or not. This would be more so if Jonathan’s current manoeuvres do not produce the kind of relief that would enable him come to the help of those who might be finding it difficult to win back their seats. If the president is finding it difficult to retain his own seat, how can he direct repressive state apparatuses to ‘assist’ any other person in the political ocean?
Jonathan might have his jokers but he too knows only too well that retention of power in Nigeria is not decided much by the Nigerians but by diverse interests across the world. There is no doubt that a smart incumbent can penetrate the global centres of economic, intellectual, diplomatic, military, oil and international personality powers more easily than contending forces. Still, reality will ever remain very complicated and a Jonathan could find himself drowning miserably in 2015 without all his current jokers being of help to him, not to talk of him being in a position to do anything about saving a David Mark, electorally.
Be that as it may, the question is: do we need politics to be about slugging it out in Idomaland? Idomaland, like most Nigerians, have lost out. The poverty level is depressing. The suffering is unspeakable. Above all, there are no populists on the prowl, explaining or weaving banners of hope, at least in words, to a disinherited community. If anything like this is ever attempted, it is on the basis of a patron-client relationship, nothing elevated. Ordinarily, it is those who hold political office that have the gravitas and the platform to float across the board but where is that local government chairman, legislator, senior political citizen or minister who does that in Idomaland? Abba Moro, the Minister of Interior is about the only exception in this respect. He’s got mobilisational skills but he is too far from reflexivity and the humility to be a leader of folks. Audu Ogbeh is the one who combines the consciousness, the experience, (from his 2nd Republic politics) as well as the skills. But one would suspect that he is too decent and, subsequently, lacks the resources to transform into a folk symbol even though the brilliance is there. I stand to be corrected.
Against this background, some of us would think it is not about slugging it out, wasting money in an unproductive competition for power when we are surrounded by people whom misery has reduced to a life of permanent agony. It might sound unrealistic or too much to expect our political elite to rethink but there is also a limit beyond which the current collective non-challance can turn into something threatening of the privileges they enjoy today, including the situation of everyone bowing down to them and calling them ‘Okpani’, (translates roughly to ‘master’ or ‘superior’). By the psychology of most members of the Idoma elite, this is most unlikely to happen but then if Idomaland cannot elevate politics in Nigeria, then which ethnic group can again? A small ethnic group when compared to larger ones, it has, however, always been within the topmost echelon of power in the history of post independence Nigeria. It is such that the ethnic group today has a reservoir of ambassadors and permanent secretaries of the old type, a former senate president, the incumbent one, an ex-Chief of Air Staff, an ex-national chairman of the PDP, several former military governors and what have you!
Within that context, politics in Idomaland ought not be this gangsterism going on in the name of democracy in Nigeria. In Idoma land, democracy should have gone beyond the associated rituals by now because that is one ethnic group that has put to test the concept of a minority. So, democracy should not just be something happening but something happening that advances the life of the people of that senatorial district positively. To that extent, it would have been better if the elephants talk things over rather than fight. Unless if someone has proved Julius Nyerere wrong regarding his thesis that it is still the grasses that suffer whether elephants fight or plumaged.
I wouldn’t know everything happening on the ground since I am not on the ground but it looks like nothing elevated is about to happen as Idomaland is already being shared by rising and dominant powers: David Mark, Ameh Ebute, Mike Onoja, General Lawrence Onoja and Audu Ogbeh, (I don’t know where to fit General Ejiga in this new ‘spheres of influence’) each one with his own access to Abuja or the national space. But of what use are these tigers and their tigritude to Idomaland when they cannot come together and solve any problems of their immediate constituency? Were coming together to happen, by some magic, there could emerge a charter of demands constituting the assignment. With such an assignment, who goes where can be bargained without all the demeaning and self-humiliating ‘wuruwuru’ that people engage in for the sake of power for its own sake. But will it happen? Very unlikely, more so that the voices of restraint and sobriety such as those of Professor Isawa Elaigu, Chief Dan Agbese, Dr. Enyantu Ifenne, Professor Armstrong Adejo and the late Professor Ada Ugah have gone quiet. And who can blame them? They must be tired after talking, talking and talking and nobody listened. And yet, the society is degenerating and we still call ourselves elite?
Let there be no mistake that even if the elections would be free and fair in 2015, choosing between Mark and Onoja would still present the Idoma people a complexity. It has nothing to do with Mark as a person but the Sociology involved. Even those who would ordinarily feel no sentiments for Mark the person would still, consciously and unconsciously, feel a certain inner feeling of worth that a Mark is the Senate President, exercising power at Abuja presumably on his or her behalf. When you encounter the sense of despondency among Idoma civil servants in Makurdi, you can appreciate this better. The empirics confront one’s Socialist orientation but the empirics of a great sense of despondency, of having been excluded is real among many Idoma people in Benue State. And the thought that there is David Mark at Abuja is a powerful mitigation even though most of them would never have met Mark in person or received any material benefits from him. If Mark had not allowed alienation to set in between the people and him, he would be difficult to defeat because, as a fifth term senator by 2015, he should be a very, very senior citizen with no need for any particular office before he could be his community’s access to the abstract thing called Nigeria. Somehow and very unfortunately, there is a gap in Mark’s politics which a contender who also knows how Abuja works can exploit to deadly effects, especially if that contender has probably cultivated a more personable identity as well as better communal linkages over the years. He could rupture David Mark’s well oiled but vulnerable monarchism.
No relation of any other Onoja mentioned in this piece, the author wrote in from the UK