The Governor of Benue State, Rt. Hon. Gabriel Toruwa Suswam, clocks 50 today. In this pre-Golden Anniversary chat with senior editors in Abuja, he spoke about life, politics and his bid for the Senate in 2015. The Managing Editor, Northern Operation of The Nation, YUSUF ALLI and SANNI ONOGU, bring you excerpts:
HOW does it feel being 50 in a country where life expectancy is about 45 years? In everything, I give thanks and glory to God because Psalm 118: 23-25 says “This is the Lord has made, I shall rejoice and be glad in it.” I give glory to God because within a short space of 50, I have been able to be who I am today. It is only by the grace of God that gave me the opportunity and privilege of being in the National Assembly for eight years and being governor for almost eight years before turning 50. There is no adjective that will qualify my gratitude to the Almighty God. I still feel as if it was yesterday, the days are going and the body is still responding to the days. I thank God for His mercies.
How was your growing up like? I was born in a very polygamous family. My father was a traditional ruler. I was born during the Tiv riots, the Atem Tyo in 1964 and the meaning of my native name, Torwua. Then, the traditional rulers were the target because the feeling then was that they were supporting the NPC headed by late Sardauna of Sokoto and the JS Tarka group had the UMBC. My father had more than 15 wives. You know in a polygamous family, if your mother does not struggle, you end up in the village. I was lucky my mother was a struggling woman. I grew up basically with her picking up the bills. We were six but two have died and I am third in line of the boys.
So, I was born in a humble background. Of course, at the time, a traditional ruler was a big deal but it was just a local arrangement. There were a lot of difficulties but my mother was able to struggle to overcome some of those hiccups and gave us education and all of us became university graduates. While I was in form two in 1978, my father passed on and the entire responsibility of raising six children was on my mother’s shoulders but she was very industrious and was able to move us from the village to Makurdi and was able to train us. Fundamentally, I grew up with my grandmother but still under the same circumstances.
What were the lessons you learnt from her? Discipline, courage and commitment without necessarily being aggressive. My mother was a very disciplined woman and that has helped me in life because you will never see me being aggressive or shouting or making noise. I am very disciplined about things that I want to do. I also know that I am a very courageous person. I got that from my mother; I fear only God but I respect people. Once I set my eyes on something, I am always focused.
What motivated you into politics? Let me say that I did not like politics. My immediate elder brother was the one that was into politics. But growing up, we went to NKST Primary School, Zaki-Biam, and NKST Mission School was where a measure of discipline was exercised. If you could not spell a word correctly, you were given severe punishment. You had to be punctual in school and a lot of moral issues that we were put through that helped in guiding me. From NKST Primary School, I went to St. Andrew’s Secondary School, Adikpo, also a mission school where I did my forms one and two before moving on to Government College, Makurdi. Government College was a unity school with a lot of discipline and so from there, I went to SBS Makurdi and from there to the University of Lagos.
I wanted to become an economist because right from secondary school, I was very good in some subjects like History, in which I got A1 in my WAEC; in Literature, I had A2; Economics, I had A3. I was focused on being an economist but when I went to SBS, the stories about wigs and lawyers became a big attraction. So, after SBS, I came out with 10 points and I decided that I was going to be a lawyer. I applied to the University of Lagos. I hadn’t been to Lagos but the university was the first thing that took me to Lagos in 1986. I was given admission. After graduation and qualifying as a lawyer, I started practice with some senior colleagues’ chambers and later joined with Harris Ogbole. We were just struggling young lawyers. But we decided that we were moving to Abuja and it was while in Abuja that I started going home and I had some friends with disposition to politics.
Suddenly, Gen. Sani Abacha died. I was home when he died and the young men began to meet and I was meeting with them. When they formed PDP, in the Youth Wing where we were meeting, I found myself going to my local government constantly. Even at that, I had no intention of running for an elective position. I just wanted to help the process and as I was going and meeting with them, people started talking about House of Representatives. I didn’t know what it meant but I began to develop interest and all the young men were with me and I eventually became serious; I was nominated and elected to the House. It was not a conscious and deliberate effort on my part. It was circumstances that pushed me into it. I thank God that He had a different plan for me, while I was planning a different thing.
Who would you say is your role model? Whose style of politicking attracted you? Like I said, my immediate elder brother was the one into all of this. As far as I was concerned, it was a waste of time and I was like why can’t you do something better? But frankly, at the time that I made up my mind to join politics, most of the people who are elders in the state were also new in the game. Senator George Akume was just coming in from the civil service; Senator Barnabas Gemade started with CNC; Senator Ayu who was somebody that would be considered older in the game. But all of them had not practised politics for more than 10 years. So, it was like a new thing that we were all coming into. Because I wasn’t politically conscious, I wouldn’t say that there was any outstanding politician that I took after but while I was a student of politics in SBS, people like Aminu Kano and Waziri Ibrahim attracted me a lot. They were characters that I used to listen to and what Dr. Olusola Saraki was doing in Kwara interested me a lot. So, I looked up to them as people worth emulating. I looked up to them but not to the extent of being in politics. I took interest in them and I eventually had to join. But my joining politics was just circumstantial.
You look very young and you are turning 50; what is the secret behind this? If you ask me, you see, some are born to be slim; some have the tendency of being fat. I thank God that I have been able to control myself because in the family, I am the one that looks like my late mother because she was big and I know that if I don’t control myself, I would look bigger than this. So, it is about discipline; about what you eat and what you do. I am somebody who works round the clock, I hardly sleep on time. I go on and on when it comes to work. I am also sensitive about changes in my body. So, I make sure that I check myself regularly. Medically, they say when you turn 40, you change, so from the moment I became 40, I became very conscious and I began to check. And I have kept very active, if you are docile and keep a sedentary lifestyle, there is the tendency for certain things to happen but if you keep the body active it repels some of those things.
You are as old as Nigeria so to speak because we got our independence in 1960, how will you say Nigeria has changed between independence and today? No, there is tremendous change. For good or for bad? For good. The way we have changed is almost dramatic but because we have a lot of mischievous people who want to see the negative part. Who were driving SUV cars here? Who was talking on GSM? Who were the people who had private jets? There is quite a lot that have changed in the country. Educationwise, we have progressed in a manner that is unprecedented. Even in terms of infrastructure, as late as the 90s how many roads were tarred? Not many. So for me, we’ve positively changed but people don’t want to accept. I went back home and I say that as late as when I came to the National Assembly, it was a big deal for somebody to buy a tokunbo car. It was announced back in Benue that this young man has arrived and that he bought a tokunbo car. Even babies now buy cars. It is not news. As late I went to the National Assembly in 1999, you could count how many young men could afford to buy tokunbo cars. When we were in Lagos in the 90s and we bought tokunbo cars and we could drive home on Christmas, we were the kings. But today those conditions have changed.
The changes are simply amazing. We must accept the fact that we have changed. When we begin to compare ourselves with developed economies, these are people who in the 20s were flying aircraft. We can’t get some basis for comparism. There is no basis. People who have discovered different things as early as in the 18th Century. So there is no basis but we are trying to compare ourselves with such countries and feeling that we are lagging behind. We are not. There is a lot of improvement that we need to do but I will say that between 1960 and now, we have changed a lot. The only problem that we have that has created a major problem in the society is the issue of corruption because from 1960 up to the time that the military took over, those people were actually determined to set Nigeria on the path of development but unfortunately, the military came in and distorted the whole of that and so people begin to see more reason in material things than working for the overriding interest of the Nigerian people and that is what has created problem for us.
Otherwise, there are a lot of positive changes in the country. It was also the military intervention and the war that brought in armed robbery into our country and so while there are very positive changes, you also have some negative ones as well but put on the average, I will say the positive ones are more than the negative. Look at Press Freedom. These are all changes. Internet, social media…
I like one aspect of your life where you said that you were in the University of Lagos, then you read law; what was your first day in court like and who is the judge that you appeared before? I was with Professor Olawoye and it was actually a political case. I have forgotten the judge because it is long but it was very interesting. Professor didn’t appear himself so I went with a senior in court and the secretary of the party then, I also can’t recollect the party it was, it was saying that he was not qualified to be the secretary and the man was defending himself. He stood up and they asked, they said you don’t have western education,
how can you be the secretary of the party? What I recollect vividly was the answer. He said that they were voting people and not voting English. You know the judge himself burst out laughing. It was quite an ingenious way of answering the question – they were voting people and not English and that where he comes from, the language they speak predominantly is Hausa language and so are they saying that he can’t speak Hausa or what? That was my first experience as an intern with Professor Olawoye. Professor Olawoye was my Professor in the university.
Was it Hausa or Yoruba language? No, it was Hausa and he brought the case to the Federal High Court, Lagos, in Tinubu Square. How did you meet your wife? I got married to my wife in 1998. We met the year before then in Kaduna incidentally. It was in Kaduna and she was also visiting and we met. It was in a restaurant and she was with her friend. She then, I think, had finished serving with FCDA and working with them. I was a freelance young lawyer who was all over the place. I was also visiting Kaduna and we met and started joking and I said, ‘Ah, she looks like she would be a good wife.’ That was a joke but I think God worked on that and incidentally she was in Abuja and I used to come here because we we started practice, they had just established the Corporate Affairs Commission and with a few young lawyers who were incorporating companies, the in thing was to convince people to incorporate companies.
The pay wasn’t much but we were making some change and behaving big. So, I got back to Abuja and then there were landlines then working. We started talking on the phone and then one thing led to the other, and we became friends. We dated for about a year and we ended up getting married in Ibadan. We have a son, Terna but before then I had a relationship that did not work but produced a son, Shima. So, I have two big boys. She is an architect. In 2003, when you contested for the House of Representatives against one of your late brothers, Mahmoud Akiga, there was this attack in which one of your boys was killed. Have you forgiven people that perpetrated that? You see, God has a way of setting people’s path. I think God has set my path and for anything that I do in life, I have committed it into God’s hands. You won’t see me being aggressive or unduly aggressive for anything. I am a very determined person but I am not aggressive in trying to achieve material things because that can only come from God. Like the experience you have mentioned, I went to the House of Representatives in 1999. When I was to go back, there was serious gang up from some of my elders and friends. They just ganged up and did not want me to go back. So within my local government headquarters, they had planned to even assassinate me but somehow, I was in the village and I would be voting that morning.
I woke up but unlike me, during election, the person you are seeing now is not the same person you see during election. I am totally a different person. So unlike me, I voted and sat back. I did not go anywhere because I was very weak. My spirit was just weak. I sent one of my aides, Joe Ker, but they almost killed him but the orderly that went with him was shot. They shot at them; they thought he was dead because they were waiting for me. They moved these militia from all over other places in Benue into the local government headquarters. Nothing would have stopped me from going to see how the elections were going. But funny enough, I did not go. So I sent them. He escaped by the whiskers but my orderly was shot and they thought he was dead. They shot him and as a policeman, he laid still.
So when when they came, some said just put fuel on him and burn him but one said let’s not waste our fuel, he is already dead. So they left. They were chanting and looking for me, saying ‘we will cut him into pieces.’ I wasn’t there. So, I have forgiven them because thereafter I had won several elections, after that incident I became governor. Even some of the people who participated, who the policeman identified are people working closely with me now. So I am not somebody who keep malice with people. If God had wanted me dead, I won’t be sitting here. God did not want it, so He stopped it and I have continued to progress over and above some of the people who engineered that, so I hold nothing against any of those people.
There is the issue of godfatherism in Nigeria politics and Benue cannot be an exception. There are allegations in some quarters that there was this your godfather who was dictating but at a stage, you said let me be myself. What is your take on godfatherism in Nigerian politics? You know, everywhere globally, politics whether we accept it or not, you can’t rule out the issue of godfather or godmother or whatever you call it. People call it different names in different spheres but you know for even Obama to have won elections in the first place, there were people behind it. It is just that those people would not become as visible as our own here will want to be. Once, you assist a person to attain that, you have achieved your own purpose, so allow the person and probably guide the person from behind. But here, godfathers and godmothers you have want to determine everything. It is not practicable.
My eldest son just turned 17, the other one is 13 and most time, when I sit down with them, and say look, they will say no that they can’t do it and there is nothing you can do. That is your own child who is still a child. They will tell you no. How much more an adult that has won election to an office as governor and there are different interests that are seeking for his attention and then you want to determine what he does. You see, that is our problem here. The problem here is that we don’t give space. Once you assist somebody in an office, you want to even determine what he does with his wife. That kind of thing can never work anywhere and that is why there is problem everywhere.
I think that as I exit, that is a lesson to me and that is why I have tried as much as possible to allow the situation in Benue to be free and fair environment, so that any person who emerges can operate freely. I don’t want a situation where they say this is Suswam’s boy. I don’t think that is right. Our politics is developing. So we must begin to pull back. You know elsewhere when people leave office, you don’t even hear about them. But when you hear about them, you hear about them in foundations, in charity works, but here people want to finish and come back and say look, this boy I put here, you know I must pull him out. As long as we continue with that disposition and attitude, we will continue to have problems.
So for me, Senator George Akume is my elder brother, he is my boss and we worked together very closely and among other people, he participated actively in making sure that I become governor. We parted ways politically because there were certain tendencies that did not agree with my philosophy and so we parted ways. We are not enemies but politically we parted ways and we still relate and I believe that there is room for us to relate as we move on. In politics, our late Zik said that what should be permanent should be interest so the issue of godfatherism in Nigeria is a big political problem for people who want to still remain in office when they are out of office. That can’t happen and that shouldn’t happen and I pray to God that I should not find myself in a position where I want to remain in office even when I am out of office.
What is the relationship between you and Senator Barnabas Gemade? Senator Gemade is an elder that I respect very much. When we started this politics and said it was a Youth Wing, he was the leader of the elders and eventually he became the National Chairman of this party. So I respect him. When I became governor and he said that he wanted to be a senator, I supported him with my whole heart. Senator Akaghergher was the senator then. He wanted to go back but we pulled Senator Akaghergher back because of the respect we have for Gemade for him to go to the Senate. And when he was campaigning, everywhere he went, and I say this on my honour, let him deny that he never said that he was doing it for one term because we have a tacit understanding in my senatorial zone that whichever district gets it that is eight years. It is not anything written but it is a tacit understanding and I challenge Gemade to deny that he did not say he was going to do one term to complete the eight-year tenure of what was given to them.
That is why the entire elders with no exception in Zone A – they were the people who bought my forms. They were the people who said I should go to the Senate. The Senate is actually not supposed to go to my district. We are composed of three districts in my Senatorial Zone. It is supposed to go to another district but elders from that district agreed as is the tradition and custody to the Tiv people to loan it to my own district, knowing that after I would have gone for eight years as it is customary, or whatever it is they will have it back. And so for Senator Gemade, what I would have expected from him as an elder statesman was to call all of us and sit down and say ‘look, we have an understanding in our Senatorial District. These four years are not enough for, me what can we do?’ Instead he went straight attacking me and assassinating my character and all kinds of thing and I felt that for an elder, that is not right and that is not fair. The people said that I should go to the Senate. The elders unanimously with no exception said that I should go – they bought my form with their meagre resources. Does the PDP discuss zoning since you said they have not given automatic tickets to anybody? The party discusses consensus and encourages dialogue and zoning. Zoning is a principle that is not written in the constitution of the party but it is something that is encouraged so that people don’t feel marginalised. And so they encourage it. And in Benue, you will know that Aper Aku is the proponent of zoning. Aper Aku started this in NPN. In Benue, among the Tiv, zoning is something that is a cultural thing. It is very cultural within the Tiv that if today this person has gotten this, if it takes a 100 years and that same position comes back to that community, they will say 100 years ago this person got it from here, it should move to that place and eventually, the Nigerian societies have imbibed that and it is working in a lot of places so as to avert crisis in most of the highly contentious areas. How do you defend this charge? They say when someone like you have been in the House of Representatives for eight years and you have been governor for eight years, though you are still full of energy, they will ask, must it be you alone? That is why I am not contesting for governor, I want to go to the Senate. To be the governor and the Senate are two different things. What we need also at some level are people who have cut across, and that is the way that we can develop the country. You know, America is not a good example but we keep giving it because our constitution is modelled after their own. Politics is not an all comers affair. There are families that are political and for you to become governor, you can’t wake up from your bed in your village just because you have money and say you will be governor. It cannot happen. You can just not sleep and say that I have made money from crude oil and so I want to be president, it would never happen.
You must either be a governor, a senator, or in the House of Representatives. You can never, never be governor without either passing through the State Assembly or the House of Representatives. You can’t. So we must also develop a political culture here and that is the only way we can develop the process. So when you have people with my kind of experience wanting to go to the Senate, I believe that it is to add value to that institution. It is not for any selfish interest, we are not saying that we will entrench ourselves in the executive, we want to build these institutions. Once we have a political culture – it is only in Nigeria people will go and do 419 from America and come here and they are running for governor and people are following them without any pedigree, without anything to show who they are and later the people will start having problems. So, I believe at the age of 50, I am just turning 50 by the grace of God, I have a lot to offer given the experience I have gathered over the years.
If the national leadership of your party says you should step down for Gemade, are you going to dump the PDP? No. I don’t think that that situation will arise. But PDP is a party that I started in 1998 and I am not somebody who is flippant in even talking of somebody who will just walk out because of one single incident and say that I am changing party. I am a very philosophical person, I believe in certain ideologies. Politics in Nigeria, people take it as an end to a means. I am not that kind of politician. I believe in PDP. If and when I am tired and I decide on anything I will leave politics. I will not go and say I am changing political party because of an incident. I will simply pull back. I am a professional and there is a lot that I can offer in other areas and so, I want to assure you that the leadership of the party and the presidency will not engage in a scenario that you have painted. Nothing like that will happen in the PDP. All of us are encouraged, where has dialogue is not possible, we go the field.
You will exit as governor by May 29 next year, looking back over these years, what can you say that is your major achievement for the state? In other words, what legacy would you say that you are leaving behind in Benue State? First is the attitude. I have said this several times. More than the physical development on ground, the attitude of an average Benue man has shifted from extremely negative to mid positive. When I became governor, the attitude was very very negative.
You know anything about government, people were just negative because they have been told lies over a long period of time. So they never believed in anything. There was apathy and so that has changed. Now they believe that government can make promises and fulfill them. Anytime I make a pronouncement, they will say that you made pronouncement and you fulfilled them. That shows a shift. You know attitude of people is major in any society. If the attitude is negative, no matter what happened, that society will not move forward. And so my major achievement that I can beat my chest is the slight change in the negative attitude of the Benue people to the positive one.
You know, there are whole lot of legacies in terms of physical infrastructure but the one that I am proud is that shift and how did it happen? When I came in and there were promises, no body believed that that will happen because in the past it has not happened. But I decided at I was going to change that, so virtually everything I said I would do I have been able to do within the limited resources available to me. Some I have not completed the way I wanted, but they can see it and so they now believe that this can happen. So there is a big paradigm shift in the attitude of the people towards the positive more than it was before and I want to say that is the legacy I want to leave behind and I am happy that I was able to do that.