By Tom Chiahemem
PROF DAVID KER, a former Lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria; one-time Commissioner for Education in Benue State; formal Vice-Chancellor of the Benue State University (BSU) Makurdi; visiting Professor at the National Universities Commission (NUC) Abuja and pioneer Vice-Chancellor of Veritas University (owned by the Catholic Church of Nigeria), opens up on his political ambition – to be the next Governor of Benue state, the problems of the state and how he intends to go about solving them. He spoke to NATIONAL ACCORD Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, TOM CHIAHEMEN in Abuja.
Why have you decided to come out for the Governorship race at this time? Is it because of the popular assumption that your area, the MINDA of Zone ‘B’ ought to produce the next Governor going by the zoning or rotational principle in Benue State?
KER: Even if it was not the time for my area to produce the next Governor, I would still have run because am running out of a very firm conviction that I believe the time is ripe for somebody like me-given the experience I have had in Benue since I came back here in 1992. I just felt that I have watched sufficiently what is on the ground, and I felt that it may be just right for me to seek to intervene myself. So, for me, the time becomes ripe for somebody of my experience and conviction.
It is now 38 years since Benue was created out of the old Benue –Plateau State. What is your impression about the level of development in the state? Are you seeking to govern the state because you think enough has not been achieved in those 38 years?
KER: It is not enough, and it is an ongoing process. Since 1976, each administration has carried the state thus far and we have several. The democratically elected Governors have not been that many: You start with the late Aper Aku, you come to the late Adasu, come to Akume and now we have Gabriel Suswam. It’s a long way so to speak – almost 40 years, but certainly there’s a lot that still needs to be done. It is also not something that can be finished; you don’t finish development but you hope that you carry a people to a point where more people will be happy. You will be able to give access to Education, to as many as humanly possible; you will be able to develop agriculture so that you can get people gainfully employed. These are the things that you can bring momentum to bear in such a way that you would have put the state a step further than you met it. None of us can claim we are happy with what is on ground now. At the same time, you have to always be careful because once you are looking at it that way – the issue of blame game and it is as if you are accusing somebody of not doing enough, but several people have, if you like, contributed since 1976. What we are saying is that even though so much has been done, there is still a lot that needs to be done.
So in specific terms, what are you bringing to the table so as to add value to the state? What is your campaign to the people of the state as the next Governorship election approaches?
KER: I am thinking of an integrated development plan that anchors on those two basic strengths that I think Benue has: We have strength in Education (and) we have strength and potential in Agriculture. I think that if you focus on those two at the same time see that an integrated program also involves rural infrastructure and so many of those things that can make it available to as many people as possible, you would have succeeded in transforming the place. When we talk of Education, let’s be specific: For instance, I went to school in a mud hut and of course we used to sit on logs (of wood) and all that. Now, this has been going on for more than 50years. If you said that they should create a situation where nobody going to primary school in Benue would study under a mud hut, nobody would sit under logs in so-called class rooms; if you want to transform the primary Education sector alone, you will keep so many people busy; you will get a lot of employment for people, you will get people more and more involved in what is happening around them. You are transforming thousands of schools and everybody is going to be involved – whether it is the guy making bricks or the guy that supplies cement – all those things are going to galvanize development. That is just primary schools. And then you are thinking of making it attractive so that even if it is in the village (because they used to be attractive in spite of these poor conditions), even if it is in the village, they should be attractive enough so that the teachers would be happier, and then you are bringing, if you like livelihood, back into those rural communities.
Lack of unity among Benue elites has been identified as one of the major challenges facing the development of the state. This divisive tendency among the elites became more noticeable with the return of partisan politics in 1999 and it would appear to be getting even worse by the day. Do you agree that this situation has contributed to slowing down the pace of development in the state, and if so, what do you plan to do about it if you become the next Governor of the state come 2015?
KER: To some extent I have been an active participant, if you like – not really being in the game (politics) full time, but nearly everybody who is involved in the politics of Benue in the past 15 years or more, is somebody who is close to me in one way or the other and a lot of them are my friends. What I keep praying for is, look, if these guys are your friends and you get the opportunity to be a Governor of a state where so many of these your warring friends are participants, it is possible to use that office to unite them, because they respect you. It’s difficult to say why they do so but they do and even they are in different groups if you like. I suspect that if you begin to invite them, to chart with them on the way forward, am sure a lot of these ego problems would be minimized.
Is it not possible to achieve the kind of reconciliation you are talking about without necessarily having to be a Governor? Since you have acknowledged that virtually all of these elites are your close friends, have you ever made effort to try to unite them?
KER: It is very difficult if you are not in charge. It is very difficult. If you don’t have a high stake it just remains what it is – friendship, but when you have authority to be able to demand certain things of your friends, it becomes simpler. In my small way, I’ve always tried to see how I can bring some of them to begin to talk, but I think without the kind of authority that the office (of Governor) gives you, it’s a bit difficult.
Given your experience in politics and the academic world, what exactly can you say is the major problem of Benue, considering that educationally the state is not backward and the state is very secure in terms of food and Agriculture? Why have the people of Benue remained relatively poor compared to their fellow countrymen elsewhere?
KER: Unemployment has become a problem because once you begin to educate so many people, you must also make room for getting them gainfully employed and that is an issue, so even when you say okay education is one of your strong pillars on which you…. You must also realize that as you talk about education, you are going to talk about the products, and the room for getting people gainfully employed is not much, because the industrialization base is minimal – almost non-existent now, so you will not create an avenue where people can actually get properly employed. Getting them employment puts something in their pockets and gives people the dignity they deserve. So unemployment, I think is the major problem now, because of course it leads to a lot of the poverty that we talk about. And you see, this unemployment thing, once a student is a graduate, he is carrying a universal document and should be able to get jobs everywhere. I also think that we need to be a little more aggressive in, if you like, exporting these products that we have, so that they can get jobs. Are they aware that there are vacancies? Now with the internet, there are opportunities where people know where things are available. Not many of them even know this means. It is possible that you can even create an office in Makurdi or even in the other cities as well, where somebody is in charge, collating information on what is available and letting these young people know that yes, if you went here you would probably get a job. Something like a Bureau for employment. We need that and once you have that and people are manning it and everyday young people go there, they may be lucky and they will find something, because if you keep focusing on possibilities in Benue state, you will not get much. Why don’t you encourage them also to go out, because the document they are carrying, the certificate they are carrying, is a universal document, which can get them a job in the United States, it can get them a job anywhere, so why must you focus around there (Benue)? Although it’s also important for us to seek to retain the best as well, so you need to revamp the service in such a way that it’s also able to retain and use the best material that the state can create.
There are growing fears in Benue state over the incessant violent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and the indigenous farmers particularly in Guma, Makurdi and Agatu. These attacks have led to the loss of lives and destruction of houses and property in the affected communities. Are you aware of this problem and what do you think is the solution?
KER: The issue is one of grazing facilities, but obviously if the two communities will realize that they know each other, it’s that violence has become the answer. It’s not the first time that they’ve lived together – these cattle rearers and farmers. We need to go to the roots of the violence itself, because both communities need each other. Let’s face it, the farmers need the protein that these people (Fulanis) look after and the cattle rearers themselves need the food. So there’s an inter-dependence.. We need to look at why this inter-dependence being undetermined. Is there something to it that we don’t know? We can try to find out. It is possible, as some people are saying, that the desert is encroaching and it’s making it more and more difficult for the owners of these cattle to use what they have where they are, so they are moving south more and more, but I believe there’s a lot more work that needs to be done and I believe it is possible to get these people to learn to live together because if you have cattle that live further, I don’t think it is in your interest to keep fighting because when you fight, where is the grazing land? Because you can’t get grazing land by force; it’s not going to work. How long can you continue to chase people away so that your cattle can feed? So we need to get to the root of it, and I don’t want to rush into saying that I know why it has escalated into violence.
In the course of this chart, you mentioned the late Aper Aku who was the first civilian Governor of Benue state. People keep calling the name of Aku because of the things he did or the things that he started. The tragedy is that today, such industries as the Taraku Mills, Otukpo Burnt Bricks, Benue Breweries Ltd and Benue Bottling company, are either moribund or they have been privatized or commercialized.. Here you are, talking about reforming the education sector (which means educating more Benue citizens) and getting the graduates from these schools gainfully employed as a way of reducing the growing poverty level. How do you reconcile this tragedy with your campaign promise?
KER: It is worrisome and I think that the original ideas that led Aku to a lot of what Aper Aku was able to do, they are still there – even the actors, even the people who were involved in that integrated development, they are still there. People who saw us as an agro-based society and decided to tailor all our industries in such a way that they will feed from the agricultural base, and a lot of the programmes that were started, some of them had not even materialized (such as the Ber-Agbum Fish Farm project) and so many other programs that were started. The good news is that a lot of those Aku guys, they are there and you need fresh ideas. So you need these people who will have fresh ideas to sit with these people who had the original ideas so to speak, and then we can work together and have an integrated industrial programme that takes care of these needs of the rural communities as well as the urban centers. The other day I said as far as am concerned, there’s no city in Benue and some people misunderstood me; they saw it as criticizing somebody. But like I keep saying, Benue is 40 years old, so when you say there are no cities in Benue, you are not accusing anybody of not doing enough. But I think that there is a lot that even urban renewal can do in terms of employment for people. There are some very interesting examples I keep saying: they are small but worth it. For instance, look at transportation in a big settlement. If you have a transport system within Makurdi metro pole that takes care of people who are coming from Airport Base, may be all the way to Modern Market – if you have a system takes care of people coming from Apir, may be all the way to Adaa – you have something like integrated… something that is moving locally so that every one hour for instance people will know that yes, there’s going to be a bus that is going to take me from “A” to “B.” That alone will keep people busy. There are some social services you don’t expect to make profit but you can reservice other services and make people more productive, so that the guy who stays in Apir, has no reason to say he came late to work because there was no transport. Those kinds of things, because municipal services really make a city and we can’t continue to be at the mercy of bus drivers, Okada riders etc. There must be a better way of organizing transportation in these places in such a way that people will feel that there is order in these arrangements. So when a guy wakes up at Fiidi or wherever and he wants to come to market by 9am, he knows that if he stands by the road there, opposite the Air force Base, he will get a bus that will take him down at the minimal cost and you are keeping people busy in all of this.
Are you not bothered about the meager amount that comes to Benue State as her share from federal allocation? Is this low revenue not going to hamper the kind of developmental plan you have talked about?
KER: You always have to cut the coat according to your size, as they say. You know what you are earning, so your plans must be tied to what is possible and I am sure that if you space it out in such a way that, for instance, if something is going to cost you 5 billion but you know that every month you are going to get about N2.5 billion, you should be able to put a percentage aside so that you can accomplish that project. I think with some bit savings…it’s a bit worrying because it fluctuates as well, but of course, we need to do more about raising local revenue.
Given the absence of thriving industries and big commercial ventures in Benue, do you think there are still viable sources of generating internal revenue available in the state?
KER: A lot of experts will tell you that they are and I am sure with your known expertise it is possible to improve our internally generated revenue base because until recently the revenue of the state is improving but I don’t know whether it has shown.
Now back to the issue of 2015: There are several issues, factors and permutation around which politicians seem to be building their campaign for the next governorship election in Benue state, and one these is the issue of rotation among the three zones or Senatorial Districts in the state. Have you considered these factors and how do they favour you?
KER: In a nature of democracy, people should be given the opportunity to run for any office. That is my belief. When I came into this thing, I wasn’t coming in because of the advantages accruing from being somebody from MINDA, because I was convinced that this is the time I can get involved in development issues more aggressively on my part for the state. I have been a teacher for nearly 40 years and I thought that I watched what goes on enough and I think I can do something. I don’t think it is right to say’oh, you are from Zone C so forget it, or that you are from Zone A so forget it. I think that pressure groups are right as well; that is the beauty of democracy. So the MINDA group is also a pressure group and has an argument that says all the others had opportunity of governing the state and it is now our time. I don’t think you can take that from them. But if people of Zone ‘C’ say well, you are talking of your time but we the Idoma and Igedes never had any opportunity, I don’t think there is also anything wrong with that, and if you have any pressure group that is making that possible, all of us we will listen. The same thing with zone “A,” where the jichira people had said well, Adasu administration was an abnormally) and the Supreme Court gave a verdict to that effect) and that is also said a special point and I think it is a claim that can be argued as well. The good news is that in a democracy, all these things can be ironed out; people can sit down and work out who is making more sense than the others, and in the final analysis, the question should be: do you have a candidate who has credibility, who has integrity, who has pedigree, who has experience that is capable of lifting us beyond these sentiments? I think that is also important. I think from 2015 and beyond, the issue of caliber and quality of a candidate will also become very important.
Let’s even assume that it is the turn of MINDA as you said, and several candidates have emerged, so what chance do you think you stand?
KER: I stand a very good chance in all the camps. I have been saying in a humorous way to some people that look, there is this thing they call CV (Curriculum Vitae)..Ok, Tom went to the famous Mt. Saint Michael (Secondary School, Aliade), he added the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, he had got these degrees and all that. For me, that is important only to a point. What value has Tom added with all these famous and prestigious institutions? And I gave them and interesting analogy if you like: in those days (and I am sure it is still done), there were these people at the motor park. They used to have a game between them and the owner of the vehicle. The receipt that the passenger had is usually different from what is in the stock, so when the man (owner) is not sure, he normally says every passenger should bring out their receipt and then they will check and see whether the account is correct. For me that is the issue: if you claimed that you went to a famous school, you went to prestigious universities and higher institutions, the bottom line is what has all these institutions given you and added value And I am not coming to this vehicle with that kind of stock. When I was Vice-Chancellor of the Benue State University, I really did my best to add value to that institution. It became an award-winning institution; I became an award-winning individual and Benue State University really rose to heights. In a manner of speaking, I can say well, I proved that I can work on situations I find myself and improve on them. That is one aspect. So even though I have what may look like a big CV, to me that is not what is important. What have I done with that CV? And I think I have done a lot, so if you see me as a MINDA candidate or a Zone ‘B’ candidate, or a Benue candidate, I think I can hold my own in any of those camps.
For many years now, especially since the coming of the present Jonathan Administration, no federal government projects have been done in Benue State. Although the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approves huge contracts each week that the Council meets in Abuja, like roads, water, electricity etc, none of these contracts has so far been awarded in Benue. What do you think is responsible for this situation, and if given the opportunity of becoming the next governor of Benue, how do you hope to attract federal presence to the state?
KER: Definitely, these are things that can be looked into, but it doesn’t make sense, from outside, to start proclaiming that you will do this or you will do that. I think the important thing is that obviously, there are many advantages that certain kinds of lobbying bring to bear on the community in which you live. I am sure that our Governor (Suswam) is well connected at the federal level. If he is not attracting federal presence, we should ask for the other reasons and we would want to know, because in future, you find out, oh, how come we didn’t get in spite of his enormous influence? But we can’t stand from outside here and blame him yet. I believe strongly that there are many ways you can put pressure and get results. One of the ways is, first of all, we were talking about unity; we are not united as a people! We don’t seem to be able to present a common position: How much are we standing behind our governor, for instance, to be able to see him as a lobbying block? This is important because he can’t do it singly. When he is going, what position of strength is he carrying? Is he carrying all of us behind, or are we doing what we said we are doing – bickering? I think that first of all, you must go from a united, strong point and then begin to make an input that is stronger than, perhaps, what we are seeing now.
After many years of agitation by some sections of the society, President Jonathan has now agreed (and has already set the necessary machinery in motion)to convoke a National Conference, which will provide an avenue and atmosphere for the different ethnic groups and nationalities that make up Nigeria to sit down, air their views an grievances and agree on the way forward. As one of the elites from Benue state, what would you say is going to be Benue’s Agenda to the forthcoming National dialogue in Abuja?
KER: Well, there are several issues, but obviously the one that concerns us is that we are a Minority and we’ve had problems that come as a result of being a Minority, and we need to address these issues of Resource, for instant: what is really coming to us? We have being at the centre of Nigerian politics for a long time (and) we ought to be generating more investments from our engagement with Nigerian community. Whether it is during the Civil War or even democratic setting, we always seem to vote more for the person at the centre but we don’t seem to get anything out of it. We should be in an atmosphere where we sit down and say look, what is in this thing for us? As we go to the National Conference, we will look at all those issues that affect Minorities. Obviously, this issue of grazing rights will have to come up. We must discuss the issue of who owns the land and citizenship. These things are important for us.
The Federal Government has just drawn the curtains on the celebrations marking 100 years of the Amalgamation of Nigeria. What is your take on the just concluded Centenary celebration? Was it justified?
KER: I believe it was justified. You know, the problem with nations of our kind is that sometimes, we may be impatient and we just seem to have repeated so many old mistakes over and over. But I think that the more we fail in repeating those things, the more we get stronger. Some of the issues that have worried us – whether party in the North or in the South or whatever – they are beginning to get resolved. Some years back, it wouldn’t have been possible to have a Jonathan as a President of this country. So I think that we are coming by and by, but it will get better if basic infrastructure was always in the forefront – improve our railways, improve the transportation system, let the economy move, etc and a lot of these other problems would not be as in the forefront as they are now. Generally, I think that we have come a long way and the 100 years is not a waste and I think it’s not a mistake that we were amalgamated. We are strong and we need each other. We need each other so much that there’s no way that people can pretend that they can carve out small kingdoms for themselves and begin to operate any more. We are inter-woven and people are becoming more desperate. If you go to a school and kill about 40 or more children, obviously you are desperate. There’s going to come a time when that kind of desperation will have to be arrested. Once we do that, I think we have the potentials of being a great nation, and those potentials are too great for us to miss.
Source: NATIONAL ACCORD NEWSPAPER