Prof. Steve Ugba was the candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the last governorship election in Benue State. In this interview with journalists in Lagos, he recounts his experience and efforts by his party to recover what he described as his stolen mandate. Group Political Editor BOLADE OMONIJO, was there.
What motivated you to run for the governorship seat in Benue State?
I took an unpaid leave of absence about a year ago as a Professor of Marketing at California State University in United States of America to come back to Benue on a rescue mission. Spearheaded first by the Almighty God, the good people of Benue and my very good friends, the current Minority Leader of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr. George Akume, former Senate President, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu and lots of other friends who prevailed upon me on the need to come back and participate in rescuing Benue State. But it has been a rocky ride so far. We are at the tribunal right now contesting the announcement of Gabriel Suswam as the winner of the April elections in Benue State. Our petition has seen its ups and downs. But lucky enough, the Supreme Court revived our petition when it ordered the tribunal to retry our petition based on its merits. So, we are back to Benue State governorship tribunal which has met and which will to continue hearing our case. We are very optimistic that justice will prevail.
While you have consistently alleged that the election was rigged, the PDP has continued to deny. How would you convince Nigerians that you are not just a bad loser?
When I came to run for elections in Benue, I was told repeatedly that this was going to be an impossible task because I didn’t have the structures on the ground to win. I was an unknown quantity. I didn’t have money. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant, but now, I do understand precisely what they meant. And I was also reminded by Gabriel Suswam what Nigerian democracy meant as opposed to democracy that I knew obtains in other parts of the world especially in the United States. And one of the reasons why I came back home is trying to institutionalise that brand of democracy. What became very clear to me was that I needed structures to win the elections. By structures, they meant I must have either a battalion of militia with AK 47 riffles spread across the entire state.
Unfortunately, that is one of the features of politics in the state.Can you cope?
I abhor violence. But I have since realised that that is one of those ingredients for success in a political race in Nigeria, especially in Benue State. The second thing that I realised was that I needed lots of money which I didn’t have. I am a teacher. I have never worked for government, except in United States where I worked for the state of California as a teacher. So, I couldn’t have amassed any wealth. I have realised that you need lots of money not to win the hearts of the people, but bribe electoral officers, judges and security forces to look the other way while you commit atrocities. I don’t have any appetite for that. I am very grateful to the current Minority Leader of the Senate, Dr. George Akume, for standing firmly behind me. I am also very grateful to Dr. Iyorchia Ayu who also is solidly behind me. I am also grateful to the small people that nobody care about who have stood solidly behind me in Benue State and outside of Benue as well as others who contributed to the success of our campaign. It wasn’t a campaign based on money. The success that we registered in Benue State was based on the people’s desire for change. It was not only Steve Ugba who deserves this change but the people of Benue wanted a genuine change. They were yearning for it and they all supported my candidacy.
Are you sure you enjoy such support?
If you go to the remote villages of Benue today, you find people shouting and chanting ‘Ugba yon’ (meaning, show change). It is divine intervention. So, I am grateful to the people of Benue who accepted our message of good governance, better education, qualitative healthcare and improved infrastructure that will help to realise our economic development goals. And we wanted to focus squarely using agriculture as the anchor, because that is what we have in abundance. We are known as the ‘Food Basket of the Nation’ and yet we import food into Benue.
You talked about stolen mandate; at what point was this mandate of yours stolen?
I didn’t come to contest for elections to steal votes. I came believing in Prof. Jega when he preached ‘one man, one vote’ and that is what gave me the courage and motivation to inject myself into this process. When I came, I discovered that it was a myth and was not something that others took seriously. I took that seriously, my party, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in Benue State took it very seriously. But unfortunately, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Suswam didn’t take it seriously. Knowing this, we still went to the field and contested the elections. In spite of this, we were declared winner in more than half of the local government areas in Tiv land that controls over 60 per cent of the votes. We have three zones: zone A, zone B and zone C. Zone A and B combined that is where the bulk of the Tiv local governments are. Zone C is Idoma and Igede. We won overwhelmingly in zones A and C. in Zone C, PDP claimed it won because they exploited the real run down local governments.
If PDP and Suswam had won this election fair and square, Steve Ugba will not be sitting down here today talking to you. I will be the first to congratulate him because it’s not a do-or-die for me. The votes were stolen and the stealing didn’t just start at the collation centres because Government House was monitoring the returns and instructed people to go back and change numbers. We didn’t have the capacity to tell people to change numbers; government did using the Resident Electoral Commissioner, Alhaji Nasir Ayilara, against whom we had complained severally that he was a biased empire. We saw him as a biased umpire, we didn’t want him around. So, we believe and not just ACN, the people of Benue believe and if you go to the streets today and ask anyone who won the election, they will tell you ‘we didn’t vote for Gabriel Suswam. We voted for Steve Ugba’.
But, in your view, why Steve Ugba?
This is not the first time that Gabriel Suswam has stolen a mandate. This is not the first time that PDP in Benue had stolen someone else’s mandate. What they told me each time I went on our campaign trips or rallies, the first question they asked me was ‘Governor, if we vote for you how are you going to ensure that our votes count?’ Every single place that I went to, that was what they kept asking me. At first, honestly, I didn’t understand what they meant until the day of the election when I started receiving phone calls ‘we don’t have ballot papers here’, ‘people have run away with ballot boxes’, ‘they are shooting guns in the air’, ‘they are preventing ACN people from voting’. I then understood exactly what they meant. They were powerless and they needed someone to stand up and fight for them. That is why we have gone to the Supreme Court and we are prepared to go to the Supreme Court 200 times until it says that we didn’t win the election fair and square. It’s not about Steve Ugba, it’s about people. Their expectations are very high. We want to discourage the culture of impunity in Benue State, to give people a chance to develop.
The time frame for election petition is six months, going by the 2010 Electoral Act. As such, the PDP is saying that your petition has expired…
Our case, just like other cases at the tribunal in Benue, has been thrown out on technical grounds. ‘You didn’t put a dot here; you didn’t sign on this line or you used wrong colour paper, case dismissed’. We have been challenging these rulings and the cases have been coming back, including this provision of 180 days.
The truth is that, our case was aborted and dead by the time we got to the Supreme Court which means there was no case and time was not running. As far as the tribunal was concerned, it’s all over. But the Supreme Court said ‘go back and retry the case on its merits.’ So, you have to start afresh and that is what even the tribunals in Benue, has said. The Appeal Court in Benue has now ordered those cases bordering on this 180 days timeline to go back and start afresh. At the time our case was aborted, we had started presenting our material and they were all accepted. We were at the point of introducing our witnesses and then present our final evidence when our case was aborted. The Supreme Court has revived our case and we will have another 180 days to retry it. So, we are very thankful to the Supreme Court for doing what is right.
In the recent past, Benue politics has become violent with either PDP or ACN accusing each other of instigating the attacks. Where do you stand on this?
People often ask: how come there is always violence between PDP and other parties? The last time it was PDP and ANPP (All Nigeria Peoples Party). Then another party comes, its PDP and that party and violence. So, when a party now tries to oppose PDP, must there be violence? My family repeatedly had been victim of political violence. My ancestral home was torched, my grand parents’ bodies exhumed and burnt. My younger brother was killed in 1983 because of political violence. Paul Unongo, a Minister of Steel, is not my biological father but that is the person who trained me to be what I am today. He ran for governorship in 1983 after he was declared a loser. few years after that, my immediate younger brother who just came back from United States on holidays was intercepted and slaughtered because of politics. That was why people wanted to stop me in order not to awaken the trauma of my experience. I have been outside this country for 40 years. I have had time to reflect and ask myself very probing questions. My father died in a car accident with my two sisters, my mother died in a car accident with 18 other people. Does it mean that I am not going to drive a car for fear that I may also die in an accident? I said no; that is a defeatist attitude. I cannot stay in the United States and keep pointing accusing fingers at people who are suffering at home. We want to change this culture of violence. The people in Lagos State are thriving not because they all come and kneel down before Governor (Babatunde) Fashola. He created the enabling environment for people to thrive. Fashola is not the richest man in Lagos State and I don’t think he is dreaming of being the richest man in Lagos State. However, in Benue, the governor has to be the richest man. Why? The governor has to be the most popular person. Why? All roads must lead to Government House. Why? That is the culture we want to change and by extension we hope that other states in Nigeria will follow. We have restrained our people from reacting to the provocations of PDP. We have more people on the ground than PDP; people who are interested in Ugba’s cause, PDP supporters, ANPP supporters, CPC supporters and other political parties. So this cut across all political parties and people are not voting for ACN only but they are voting for the symbol that represents hope for them.