Fault Lines in Tiv Quest for New Agenda

Most young Tiv men and women are currently confused about what agenda their leaders are pursuing. Often times, I have heard one argue that the Tiv have no agenda, or another passionately seeking to know why our leaders behave the way they do.

To be candid and sympathetic to those who hold such views , looking at the decisions our leaders take today or the causes they pursue, sometimes , one can’t help but conclude that , the Tiv people are currently yet to develop an agenda or our extant leaders are yet to communicate a concrete one to the younger generation, to follow. But It has not always been so with the Tiv people. Our history shows that the Tiv people have always been conscious of their agenda. Leadership followed it passionately and communicated it clearly to their followers.

On the Cameroon Mountains, especially the one called Swem, in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, our forefathers faced a population challenge amongst others. Leadership had to come up with a solution; to set an agenda to achieve it. Perhaps, as they wondered on the mountains to hunt, their hunters had seen the lush Benue Valley and the peoples who occupied it then. But for the survival of the tribe, they descended from the mountains in unity, dispersed the other tribes and occupied the plains.

Throughout the 17th century up to the 19th century, the Tiv people did not only occupy the Benue Valley conveniently, dividing the land to families and men of valour whose descendants bear their names today, but they also resisted any attempt by any invasion, to either recapture the land or take over from them. It was about same time that the Tiv people defeated the jihadi groups, who, inspired by the leadership of a Fulani Scholar, Usman Dan Fodio, attempted to conquer and islamise their people. In spite of the fact that the jihadists had made considerable successes somewhere else, they failed in Tivland.

Above (L-R): Governor Samuel Ortom,, Senator George Akume, Below (L-R): Senator Gabriel Suswam, Senator Barnabas Gemade

By 1854, the Tiv began to face another challenge. That year, a Scottish surgeon, William Balfour Baikie , became the first European to see the Tiv people . He was a member of the The Niger Expedition sent out in 1854 by Macgregor Laird. The aim of the expedition which was supported by the British government, was to make treaties with the native peoples, introduce Christianity and promote trade. The initial relationship between the Tiv and Europeans was very frosty, but once more there was a way out.

By 1906, at times using force, persuasion or deceit, the British had successfully berthed in Tivland. Now, living with the people, how could they relate with them? Out of this strange marriage, the likes of Jato Aka, Mkovur Jagera and others who had emerged as white men chiefs, set an agenda for the tribe.

They argued that the ways of the strange white man were not totally bad, so the people should take advantage of some of these ways. As a result this, Christianity which came to the tribe in 1911 and formal education which started in 1915, were to be tolerated, albeit reluctantly, by some members of the tribe who listened to the wise summons of people like Jato-Aka in the 1930s and 1940s.

So, Tiv elders who accepted to send their children to school or released them to the missionaries on time like Sai of Shitire, Ugba Gwar of Ugondo, Shande Anyakpa of Usar , Ikpato Adikpo of Nanev, Tarkaa Nachi of Mbakor, and Ikyaagba of Mbaduku, Adamgbe of Mbayongo, amongst many others , would have the benefit of producing the first set of Tiv elite in 1940s and 1950s.

But there were other challenges. Some administrative decisions of the white man were destroying the outlook of the people . For example , some of their decisions attacked the unity of the people and divided them indiscriminately into divisions, kindreds and clans. Moreso, in Northern Province, the Tiv were also placed apart, some in Muri, and others in Munshi and Benue Provinces, with white men as Residents and District officers .

There arose a group in Tiv land to challenge this and set an agenda. They wanted their unity and needed an arrow head to intercede on their behalf. This task was taken up by ex service men who had earlier fought in the white man’s wars , such as Emberga Samu, Igyuse Doki, Ula Lisa, Makondo Igbon etc and educated Tiv elite like Orodi Ugba, Yough Agera , Iyorkyaa Ako and clan heads like Jato Aka. Once more , informed leadership was able to secure a Division for all Tiv with headquarters in Gboko in 1932 and got an arrow head in 1946, when the first Tor Tiv was chosen.

According to Shima Ayati, the small local Tiv elites that evolved during this period were not sufficiently equipped with an understanding of what constituted politics, power and its benefits . Inspite of that, they had formed The Tiv Progressive Union, TPU. Prof GN Hembe has stated that TPU was an expression of the ever- growing Tiv consciousness and particularism within the ethnically competitive Nigerian political system.

So, when the Tiv were called upon for the first time to provide leadership for Nothern House of Assembly in Kaduna in 1951 and Federal House of Reps in Lagos in 1954, it was the Tor Tiv , Makir Dzakpe and TPU members that set the agenda to get the winners. One of the Tiv people elected in 1954 at the age of 22 to the House of Reps in Lagos was Joseph Sarwuan Tarka.

On his dying bed in 1980, JS Tarka , who rose from the pack of those elected, to take over the political leadership of Tivland , wrote a letter to the Tiv people . In the letter , he outlined what was his aim of joining politics. Although, he wrote in Tiv language, Nath Ikyur has translated the letter thus:

“My first task in my political career was to ensure the creation of states so that every part of this country would benefit. That was under the umbrella of the defunct UMBC. Tiv people followed me in this. Unfortunately, UMBC did not form the central government and therefore, Tiv people were in opposition. That is why the Tiv people did not get any fair deal in that dispensation. ”

As a minister in the Yakubu Gowon administration when a coup happened to truncate the first republic, JS Tarkaa stated in the letter that he prevailed on Gowon to create states of which Benue State was also created in 1976.

Tarka also noted that, “when party politics returned in 1979, my concern was that the Tiv people should not continue to be in the opposition as it was the case in the First Republic. That was the reason I convinced you all to join me in the NPN where I was one of the founding fathers. I knew NPN would form the central government. Here too my desire was met because NPN formed the government at the centre and the Tiv were not left out. Now the two important issues that bothered me in my political career were settled.

There were other political loyalists of Tarka and even his elders , but he stated in his dying letter that he left the Tiv people in the hands of Aper Aku who was then the governor of the state. Aku was to set the agenda of Tiv politics. But the military struck again, arrested Aku, put in prison, and he died shortly after he was released from prison in 1988.

During the burial of Aku, Peikyaa Zegi, a composer, sang a song in his honour. He ended the song by asking a one-time Commissioner of Aku, JT Orkar a question. He asked that when Tarka was dying he left the Tiv people with Aku, now that Aku had died suddenly who was he leaving the Tiv with? There was no person in sight.
The person who took over the mantle of Tiv political leadership naturally was Wantaregh Paul Iyorpuu Unongo. But Unongo had come on the stage as a rebel . In 1969, he left the university and wrote a treatise, “where do we go from here?” According to Prof Mvendaga Jibo, the arguments of Unongo were not significantly different from Tarka, but the difference was that he put them on paper, which was a novelty. He attracted the younger generation. After the 1960 and 1964 political crises, Unongo felt it was important for the Tiv to leave, “primitive lifestyles to modern ways’.

From 1983 to 2007, Unongo contested elections predominantly, to be elected as governor of Benue State, but he always lost. That did not stop Unongo from doing his bit for Tiv people . Unongo established hospitals, hostels, schools and transport businesses which subsidized services to the people and offered employment to Tiv people . Also when he became a federal minister of Steel Development in the Second Republic in the adminstration of Shehu Shagari, he influenced the appointment of Tiv elite like Tachia Jooji, Moses Saror and Terngu Mede.

I can say that it was from the hands of Unongo that at the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1999, that Chief Barnabas Gemade and Dr Iyorchia Ayu took over the mantle to give Tiv an agenda. Gemade and Ayu, arose strong during the short-lived Third Republic and the Military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. Ayu was Senate president,and Gemade , first a minister, then chairman of chairmen of the five political parties that Abacha was planning to use to become a civilian president.
Gemade and Ayu brought George Akume to the people to be governor . In doing this, they rejected Sir Ignatius Igbauke Nomwhange who was very experienced. Were Gemade and Ayu able to give the Tiv an agenda? Akume broke out of the confusion caused by Ayu and Gemade infighting and by 2011 began building his structures. He became the defacto leader of Benue politics in 2015, but has he been able to create an agenda for Tiv people?

If you ask me, I will say Ayu, Gemade and Akume were unwilling or unable to use the previleges they had from 1999 to 2019 to either create an agenda for Tiv people, or at least empower the tribe as it was the cases in the past.

As Gabriel Torwua Suswam began his journey in the 9th National Assembly on 11th June, 2019, he got the mandate to set an agenda for Tiv people . In the last election, both Gemade and Akume who had been more experienced than him were rejected by the people, leaving him alone on the stage. As a former House of Representatives and two terms governor, there was none of those elected in the 2019 election with his pedigree.

Unfortunately for him, like JS Tarka in the 1950s and early 1960s, Suswam has taken the leadership of the peope when the Tiv have gone back to opposition, what Tarkaa feared .

To set a new agenda for Tiv people, Suswam, must use his experience and tactics to liase with Samuel Ortom, the governor of Benue State, HRM Orchivrigh Prof. JOI Ayatse, Tor Tiv and even Senator George Akume, a minister in the Buhari administration, Ayu and Gemade.

The Tiv elite must reconcile, put the tribe ahead of personal interests and once again, come up with a concrete agenda that will pave the way for us getting more benefits from government and developing our agricultural potential!

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