Exploring the Dynamics of the 2023 Gubernatorial Elections in Benue state: Identity, Religion and Political Trajectory


The 2023 general elections in Nigeria were critical because they provided an opportunity to strengthen the country's democracy and address several long-standing challenges. It was an election characterized by many complexes with identity, insecurity, and money politics playing a significant role. The effects of these variables have been substantially explored in the national election but remain largely neglected in the subnational elections despite the horizontal inequalities existing in states. Benue state, located in north-central Nigeria is a diverse society where many people base their political decisions on the primal emotions of their connections to candidates, specifically religious and ethnic ties. It is critical to consider what these preliminary findings tell us concerning the March 18 gubernatorial polls in Benue state.

Political Trajectory 

Political polarization in Benue state and the country at large is a key lesson we can retain from Nigeria’s 2023 general election. In the March 18th Benue state gubernatorial elections, 16 political parties contested for the governorship seat. The All Progressive Congress (APC) candidate Rev. Fr. Hyacinth Alia and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Titus Uba received widespread support from the voters. Following the fall out of the election, the APC candidate polled 473,933 votes while, the PDP candidate had 223,913 votes. The PDP candidate was from the erstwhile ruling party in the state and enjoyed the support of the then incumbent governor Samuel Ioraer Ortom, while the APC candidate, was from the opposition party but well known for his clergy work (healing ministry) in the state and beyond.These two front liners are both from the Tiv ethnic group and the Vandeikya Local Government Area

Admittedly, Benue was primarily a People’s Democratic Party (PDP) state, with the party clinching all  three senatorial seats and producing, nine members of the House of Representatives, 23 members of the State Assembly, and 23 chairmen of local government councils in 2019.  The PDP had produced all the governors in the state from 1999 to 2015 when APC flipped the state with emergence of Samuel loraer Ortom. Despite the flip, many of the state structures were controlled by the PDP and in 2019 Samuel Ioraer Ortom dumped the APC to return to PDP for a second tenure yet polled 434,473 to win the election against APC’s 345,155 votes. Given the extent of the PDP's control or dominance over the political landscape, it was assumed that the party would maintain its ascendency throughout the 2023 gubernatorial elections.  Nevertheless, the APC governorship candidate scored 473,933 to flip the state with a margin of lead as high as 251,020. While Benue has 23 LGAs, the APC candidate won 20 Local Government Areas, including Konshisha LGA which has been a stronghold of the PDP. Also, the APC produced 2 senators, 11 members of the House of Representatives, and 21 members of the State Assembly filled in by the APC. A close look at the Benue State election reveals that religion played a significant role in this flip.

The ‘Yes Father’ Mantra

The ‘Yes Father’ mantra depicts submission to a clergy especially one that is a Reverend Father. It is the belief that a clergy possess divine leadership traits and integrity that will make him less susceptible to corruption. This captures why more voters chose to support Fr. Hyacinth Alia over the ruling party candidate in Benue state.  Firstly, in “Yes father,” Benue people may be saying implicitly that the Church is their last hope. In this context, the Church has a moral obligation to act in the service of social justice for the poor. Although arguably regarded as “politically unskilled” catholic priests are among the most educated people in the State who live perpetually in every village, experiencing the daily stings of life along with the people. Conversely, the politicians who boast of competence in governance only visit the village during campaigns or funerals of friends and family members. It was therefore more of natural inclination for voters in Benue to prefer a priest reinforced by the memories of the leadership style of a professional priest served as a governor in 1992.

On January 2, 1992, Very Rev. Fr. Moses Orshio Adasu, was elected as governor of Benue State under the banner of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). It is worthy to note that Benue state University took off under the administration of Very Rev Fr. Adasu and the institution has produced a large number of professionals across different cadres that are contributing meaningfully to the development of society.  He reactivated and upgraded the College of Education, Oju, Fr. Adasu conceived the concept of the Tarka Foundation, named after Senator Joseph Sarwuan Tarka and launched on 2 July 1992. The foundation's building occupies five hectares of land in Makurdi and includes an art gallery, conference rooms, recreational centres and chalets.  Other projects that he started included BENCO roof tile and the Katsina Ala fruit juice company. In sum, his leadership style resonated with a lot people. In the Nigerian Fourth Republic, Rev Fr. Adasu was appointed a member of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in January 2001. The exemplary leadership style of Very Rev Adasu Moses reinforced the believe that there could be certain leadership traits in a priest that can be harnessed. Therefore, the ‘Yes Father’ mantra spread like wildfire across the length and breadth of the Benue state when Rev. Fr Alia contested for governorship. Before Rev. Fr Alia ventured into politics, he had a healing ministry.  His healing ministry had endeared him to the people of the state. 

Beyond the widespread hopes in the rule of a clergy, the chances of the reverend father was also enhanced by the discontent in the PDP administration. Therefore, the ultimate downfall of the ruling party can be attributed to the conspicuous lack of governance prowess epitomized by the incumbent governor’s failure in security management, infrastructural development, and salary payments. According to the Benue State Emergency Management Agency, as of March 13, 2023 about 5,138 people were killed and 18 local government areas attacked by suspected herdsmen under the dispensation of the People’s Democratic Party. Hence the APC candidate pledged rehabilitation and resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their ancestral homes and establish emergency toll-free call centres and short codes to ease reaction from security outfits in the state. The majority of the owing workers and electorate vowed not to vote for Titus Uba, whom they claimed was an agent of Ortom’s administration, but rather to support Fr. Alia, who they thought would be able to save the state from its dire financial predicament and insecurity. Notably, Alia had international experience in educational management and healthcare administration. He was also an expert in developing goals and budget coordination assessments and a former Director of Pastoral Services, Catholic Health Service, North Campus Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, United States of America.

Ultimately, the people of Benue State chose not to vote for a party but more for personalities. Apparently, the days when religious leaders considered politics to be a "dirty game" are fading. Today's clerics appear to be tired of telling politicians to "change" from the pulpit and instead want to actively participate in politics to bring about the transformation they want to see in society. In Nigeria, the involvement of clergymen in politics is not entirely new. There are a few examples that dissipate that assertion. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a senior advocate and law professor, served as a pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), before Fr. Adasu, Pastor Eno and Fr. Alia. Additionally, Senator Remi, the wife of Bola Tinubu, the current president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is an ordained minister with the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). Among other examples. The likelihood of clergymen going into politics soon is growing due to this trend.  

Implications of the imbrications of religion and politics

Religion can be harnessed for development but still contains intrinsic contradiction that can fuel conflicts. This means that Fr. Alia has a responsibility to follow the ethical precepts inherent in his religions that will promote good leadership and dutiful followership. Every religion, whether Christian, Islamic, or African Traditional Religion, has moral precepts that govern and balance human life positively. This is especially important as secularism is enshrined in the Nigerian constitution. Nevertheless, religious governance is sensitive in the Middle Belt states that are characterized by religious conflicts. 

Benue has a population of 6,141,300, with 94% of Christians and 6%  of Muslims. However, the 6% Muslim population are significant especially because of the history of ethno-religious conflict in the state. Worse still, in an era of climate change, there is a constant migration of the northern Muslim herders to the state. Religion's harmful impact on Nigerian politics is becoming more visible in the country. In Nigeria, every political process has a religious undercurrent. Religious bias has a significant impact on the civil service, appointments to major positions in government, and the overall body politics of the nation. Many Nigerians are now refusing to be posted or transferred to certain sections of the country due to the way religion is treated in Nigeria. This dreadful scenario continues to impede the country's national growth. Therefore, some may believe Alia's administration will be theocratic in his dispensation and this could lead to discrimination and narrowing of government. There are religious people who believe Fr. Alia's administration is for clerics and all policies must be theocentric. Fr. Alia must extend his hands and embrace people of all faiths, tribes, and creeds.

Also, true democracy is predicated on free, fair, and credible elections, in which voters are free to elect their leaders.  The beauty of the democracy lies in the ability of the electorates to make rational decisions. Therefore, when individuals vote based on religious sentiment alone, inferior leaders are more likely to emerge and politicians can easily weaponize religion to serve selfish ends. Religious influences have both beneficial and negative repercussions for a state’s development. Without equivocation, the function of religion in Nigerian politics is constrained by the individual's inclination and the character of the society. Despite these constraints, religion continues to affect the political decisions of the country's successive leaders. This suggests that religion and politics can coexist effectively in Nigeria, but the benefits that can be derived from such coexistence are solely dependent on the sincerity of those who are at the helm of affairs.

As the Benue people stand on the precipice of this reverend minister's gubernatorial reign, one cannot help but ponder the ramifications should he fall short of fulfilling the earthly pledges of his tenure. The stakes soar to unparalleled heights, for in this realm, witnessing tangible results is the sole testament to political efficacy.

Peter Yohanna is an Assistant Programmes Officer at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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