Newswatch (Lagos)

3 November 2002

Nigeria: Coming Too Late

Abuja — Benue leaders reject Obasanjo's overtures, saying it would have been better if it came much earlier

President Olusegun Obasanjo has never had cause to feel so disappointed as he did over the outcome of the meeting he had with political leaders from Benue State in Abuja on Friday, October 18. The meeting which was at the instance of the president, Newswatch learnt, was for the president to resolve his differences with the people of the state, exactly one year after the reprisal killings of hundreds of Tiv people by soldiers in Zaki-Biam and several other towns and villages. The president planned the meeting as a strategy for ensuring good reception from the area for his re-election bid. It was for his re-election plan that the president expressed regret over what he called excessive weapons by soldiers during the army operation in some parts of Benue . He followed up with a promise to, among several things, expeditiously complete the 330 KV power transmission line from Enugu to Aliade, construct a bridge to link Benue with Nasarawa State at Oweto, digitalise the Gboko telephone exchange and release of N250 million as counterpart funding for the speedy completion of Makurdi water works.

The promises and the expression of regret, which some called official apology were to pacify the people to promise the president of their support in 2003.

Contrary to the president's expectations that the people would accept his pleas and support his second term bid, a source at the meeting told Newswatch that the people refused to budge. Newswatch gathered that almost every speaker from the Benue side told the president some bitter truth. David Mark, retired general and senator, was the first to tell the president the feelings of the people. He was quoted as telling the president that it had become an offence for politicians in the state to even mention the president's name during political rallies in the state.

Mark told the president that the sentiments against him (Obasanjo) in the state were informed by the neglect and refusal to fulfill campaign promises made to the people of the state. Benue ranked third among the 36 states in the federation in polling the highest votes for Obasanjo, during the last presidential election. He is yet to even visit the state since after the election.

George Akume, governor of Benue State , told the president that the people of the state were disturbed by the low level of federal presence in the state, the lack of infrastructural facilities, inadequate power supply, poor road network, the abnormally high rate of turn over of appointees of the state in positions at the federal level. The few federal establishments in the state, he said, appear not to be receiving the desired attention.

To support this claim, Akume said the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi was being poorly funded, just as work on the development of the Federal Medical Centre in the state capital was progressing at a snail speed. Similarly, he said, construction work on the Federal Secretariat in Makurdi had been abandoned, thus making Benue the only state of its age without a functional Federal Secretariat.

" It was this low level of federal presence that informed the firm stand of the government and people of the state on the privatisation of Benue Cement Company, BCC, which remains to date the largest federal government investment in the economy of the state. Mr. President is aware of the stalemate created over the choice of core investors in the federal government shares in the company. We plead that you intervene to resolve the impasse so that the company will be returned to its days of glory and begin to exert positive influence on economic activities in the state," Akume said.

The governor also informed Obasanjo that Benue State has also lost 13 senior federal appointments during the tenure of this administration. We appeal for the replacement of those displaced in order to strengthen our sense of belonging," Akume said.

The meeting between the people of the state and the president which came on the eve of the anniversary of the Vaase and Zaki-Biam killings, rekindled the memory of the army invasion of Tivland. Akume told the president that the army invasion last year created a humanitarian crisis never before witnessed during peacetime in Nigeria .

He told the president that the people demand the sorting out of the full implication of the military action so that it would cease to be a source of strained relationship between the people of the state and the federal government.

Abu King Shuluwa, a frontline politician in the state, told Newswatch shortly after the meeting that the decision to attend the meeting should not be misconstrued to mean that there has been reconciliation between the president and the people of the state.

" The president invited us for a meeting and we attended. We told him the way out. It is left for him to fulfill all these so that we can forge ahead. But for now, it is wrong to assume that we have reconciled," Shuluwa said.

Another indigene of the state, who attended the meeting described the president's gesture as a political gimmick, coming at a time he was desperately looking for support to get the second term in office. He dismissed the regrets expressed by the president over the use of excessive force in the army operation in Vaase and Zaki-Biam as fake.

" The president is not genuine in his regrets. How can he when the federal government through the army has been telling all sorts of lies at the Justice Okwuchukwu Opene judicial commission into inter- communal conflicts in Benue , Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba states," he said.

Alexander Ogomudia, Lt. general and chief of army staff, COAS, through Col. Danladi Kaka of the Army Headquarters, had told the Opene panel while testifying on the role of the army in the Zaki-Biam massacre that army armoured vehicles were not used during the military operations in Benue and that the army killed nobody during the operation.

The group also took exception at the president choice of people from the state for political appointments. The complaint, Newswatch learnt, was to the effect that most of the president's appointees from the state were people who have no political base, and as such were not capable of improving the fortunes of the party at the polls.

A presidential source told Newswatch last week in Abuja that given the gravity of this complaint, coupled with the demand by the members of the House of Representatives for the president to drop some ministers, the president is likely to effect a cabinet reshuffle before the end of this month.

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