An X-Ray of 1979 Gubernatorial Election in Benue State


The year 1979 was a watershed in the political history of Nigeria. The year came with so much hope and happiness. For the people of the old Benue State, it was not just a year of happiness but also of a palpable anxiety! Why so? Let’s give a little background to the year 1979.

We all remember that on 1st October 1960, Nigeria got independence from Britain. At this point the country was divided into three regions ; The Northern, The Western and The Eastern Regions . Like their mother country, Britain, the new nation, Nigeria also practiced a Paliamentary system of government.

In 1966, only six years after Independence, twin military coup in January and July brought up a new system of administration which was presided over by the military. From 1966 to 1979, we had Generals Aguiyi Ironsi, Yakubu Gowon , Murtala Mohammed and Olusegun Obasanjo as heads of state.

Amongst these four heads of state ,I will single out for mention  Gowon and Murtala Mohammed, because of the fact that they created the first states including Benue . In 1967, General Yakubu Gowon became  responsible for the creation of new states in Nigeria. The three major regions of Nigeria were divided into twelve states.

These were North-Western State, Kaduna State, Kano State, North-Eastern State, Kwara, Benue-Plateau State. Others were Western State, East-Central state, Lagos State, Mid-Western (Bendel) State, Cross River State and Rivers State.

In 1976, General Murtala Mohammed created nineteen more states in Nigeria. Federal Capital Territory Abuja was carved out of Niger State. The North West States were divided into Niger and Sokoto. Northern Eastern State was divided into Bauchi, Gongola, and Borno. Benue-Plateau was carved into Plateau and Benue. Western State was separated into Ondo, Ogun, and Oyo. The East Central States were separated into Imo and Anambra. Therefore, in 1976, there were 19 states in Nigeria.

JS Tarka

Although Benue State was created 1976, from then to September, 1979, the state was governed by military adminstrators ; the first was Abdullahi Shelleng and the second was Adebayo Lawal! So as 1979 presented itself, it was a joyous moment for the indigenous people because an opportunity had finally come for them to elect a leader for themselves.

Aper Aku

We need to clarify another important issue here before discussing the factor that decided 1979 election proper.

When the milliary took over in 1966, they did not only kill some political leaders who had played significant roles in the politics of the day but they also banned all political parties and even tribal associations . But some politicians like Joseph Sarwuan Tarka, the then political leader of the middle belt, were lucky .

People like him were not only

spared by the coupists but they eventually became part of the subsequent military administrations, serving as a minister of Communications and later of Transport. As a minister , he waxed stronger , amassed wealth and power. He was also  the defacto leader of Benue State that influenced the creation of the state .

Although Tarka and most of his loyalists had political and administrative experience, they were poorly educated. They had no degrees. But in the early 1960s, young men from Benue State had begun to acquire degrees and they wanted to intellectualise the politics of the state . With the return of political activities in 1979, they had their opportunity.

Led by an orator, charismatic and enigmatic fellow, Paul Unongo, the intellectuals felt, 1979 was now their turn to take over Benue politics. In 1969, ten years earlier, Unongo had

given then a base to agitate for space and inclusion.

Unongo’s treatise, “where do we go from here, An Open letter to the Tiv People of Benue Plateau State on Socio Economic Conditions and Administrative Reorganization”, written in August 1969, to Professor Terhemba Shija, “roused the Tiv to the challenges of development that were confronting them and set out in clear terms what the options of the people were in articulating and ordering into existence a better world”

So in 1979, Tarka who was the political godfather of Benue State faced a crisis. The time was ripe for an intellectual governor, but he lacked one amongst his insiders! So how did Tarka solve this crisis and ensure that he was not benched by the intellectuals?

All political and tribal associations as I have observed, were banned from January 1966, until September 1978. Activities for a return to a democratic

rule began when the then electoral umpire, the Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO carried out registration of voters. The exercise was conducted throughout the federation from 14th January to 28th February 1978.

When the ban on political parties was lifted on 21st September 1978, some associations applied to be registered as political parties. About 19 associations met the criteria and submitted their applications, but only five were registered.

Paul Unongo

The five political parties that qualified for registration were National Party of Nigeria, NPN, Great Nigeria Peoples Party, GNPP, Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, Nigerian Peoples Party, NPP and Peoples Redemption Party, PRP.

In Benue State, to execute the 1979 election, Tarka with his loyalists pitched his tent with the NPN and Unongo and his gang of intellectuals chose NPP, now what was left out was a candidate. How would they get it?

The intellectuals fired their shot. They chose as expected, an experienced and highly educated, Paul Richard Vekaa Belabo, a lawyer who had lectured at Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, and was now a director with the Central Bank of Nigeria. It was a good choice because, Belabo had been educated at home and abroad, and he had the experience and connection that most of Tarka’s men lacked. This was intimidating and fell in line with what Unongo had in mind.

Tarka’s closest and dependable loyalists who wanted to win the NPN ticket were Hon Isaac Shaahu and Hon George Atim Atedze. While Shaahu thought he was entitled to the ticket because of his long years of political apprenticeship and association with Tarka, Atedze wanted to be considered because he had acquired more administrative experience.

It was true that both Shaahu and Atedze had been very close allies of Tarka. They had been with him since the 1950s when he led the United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC. It was also quite true that they had garnered enough political and administrative experience in the process, but none of them was a university graduate.

That was when the choice of Aper Aku , a 1964 graduate came handy. It must be noted that, in addition to his education, Aku had demonstrated raw courage when he petitioned Joseph Gonwalk , governor of Benue Plateau and swore an affidavit accusing him of corruption, in 1974 . Also in 1976, when he was appointed Chairman of Kwande Local Government, he showed alot of promise.

So in the 1979 governorship election, although the Igalas and Idomas had conceded to a Tiv governor, in the end what mattered to the stakeholders was not necessary the zones their candidates came from. The key factor of the 1979 Gubernatorial Election was intellectualism! In 1979, the time was ripe for an educated governor and the lot fell on Aku.


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