Saturday, 7 March 2015

OPINION: Thoughts on Benue State by Nats Onoja Agbo

Benue State could be described as a child of circumstance because its creation in 1976 was to rescue its citizens from perceived marginalization and underdevelopment in those States where indigenes of the State resided. Just as the Benue arm of Benue-Plateau State was complaining of marginalization, so was the Igala arm of the old Kwara State. The Igala arm of Kwara State was so neglected that it was derogatorily called Kwara Overseas.

With such a background, the two groups came into Benue State with Quixotic zeal, scaling hurdles with ease in the attempt to reduce the distance between the State and others that took the lead in such fields as education, agriculture, provision of health facilities and many more. Indeed, leaders at various levels were in a hurry to develop Benue State. The result, of course was the robust State which Aper Aku as governor bequeathed to the people during the Second Republic.

Aku turned out to be more progressive than those loud politicians who were chanting progressive slogans at the time. He established three colleges of education in one day and 124 day secondary schools also in one day. Aku also sought to lay the foundation for the industrialization of the State by establishing the Ber Agbum Fish Farms, Lobi Bank, Taraku Oil Mills, Otukpo Burnt Bricks Company, Idah Sanitary Wares, Benue Bottling Company and Benue Breweries. He built the Government House in Makurdi, constructed roads, built new General Hospitals and started the process that led to the establishment of Benue State University, Makurdi. The Makurdi Sheraton Hotel project, which he started, required only 800, 000 naira for its completion when contract for the job was terminated by the succeeding military regime.

Thereafter, Benue State began its journey into embarrassing decay. Atom Kpera who succeeded him was so impatient with the civilians that he virtually pulled down every­thing that Aku labored to install in the State. He closed down the three colleges of education and the 124 day secondary schools. He also pulled down Benue Hotels and sold everything that belonged to the company just as he ordered the closure of Ber-Agbum Fish Farms.

Benue State received some fresh air during the regime of Group Captain Jonah Jang. He was a young man who felt that Makurdi deserved better attention as a State capital. Jang was often quoted as saying that it was very expensive to advertise poverty. It was with such philosophy at the back of his mind that he embarked on the regeneration of Makurdi. He opened up streets, started dualizing roads leading to the State capital and made spirited efforts to revive abandoned industries. He also tried to restore confidence of the people in government and in their ability to change the near-rural nature of Makurdi and other urban centers in the State. But his rule was short-lived as he was posted to the defunct Gongola State just when the people of Benue State were beginning to key into his urban regeneration plans.

Thereafter the State went through more military rulers, a short-lived civilian government under Rev. Father Moses Adasu, another military interlude and eight years of civilian rule under Senator George Akume before Governor Gabriel Suswam came to power in 2007. But given the benefit of hindsight, the Aku era and the short-lived Jang regime turned out to be the only periods when Benue State experienced determined efforts at developing its infrastructure.

When Governor Gabriel Suswam took over the mantle of leadership in Benue State in 2007, not many pundits gave him and his team a chance to succeed. The skepticism was not so much because of his antecedents but because of the monumental nature of the problems, which his administration inherited. Some of the inherited problems were dilapidated infrastructure, scores of abandoned projects, mistrust and suspicion among the ethnic groups and apathy towards government and its programs. Given the experiences of the previous years, many people believed that the new government would wear the toga of business as usual.

But when Suswam set out to actualize his dreams as enunciated in the blueprint, Our Benue, Our Future, his first port of call was the infrastructural development of the State. Most of the public infrastructures, especially urban roads in such towns as Makurdi, Otukpo, Katsina Ala and Gboko, had fallen into total disrepair. The immediate past government attempted to rehabilitate some of the roads but most of the jobs were abandoned by the contractors. The Suswam administration tackled the problem headlong, and within just a few months changed the face of urban and rural roads in the State.

By 2007, Government House, Makurdi was the old structure that was bequeathed to the State by Aku. Some of the toilets had not functioned for many years, just as most of the furniture in the offices were old and creaking. Today, Government House, Makurdi is an architectural delight, furnished with state-of-the-art furniture. The government of Benue State has also modernized virtually every government building in the State.

Until five years ago, most of the streets in Lobi Quarters and Ankpa Quarters in Makurdi were full of potholes. Today, they are indeed some of the cleanest housing estates in the State, made so by the quality of work done on the roads. Indeed, when history would give its verdict, it is the quality of his works that will stand Suswam out in Benue State. It was perhaps because of these lofty efforts aimed at regenerating public infrastructure in the State that he has consistently received awards from some media organizations as Best Governor of the Year on Infrastructure.

It is no exaggeration to say that Benue State is on its feet again. People have taken a cue from the infrastructural development of the government and are building houses that compete favorably with those in developed countries. New businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, are lighting up the State capital and some of the major cities in the State. By 2007, there were only four standard hotels in Makurdi. Today, there are more than 30 of such hotels in the State capital. Many of such hotels have also been established in the other major towns in the State.

There have been remarkable attainments in water works, rural electrification, education, health and agriculture. What is most gratifying about the government of Benue State is its relationship with the private sector. For the first time in many years, private businesses have begun to express themselves, a process that would certainly change the economic fortunes of the State. Apart from creating jobs for the teeming youths of the State, new businesses that are springing up would lead to monumental increase in the State’s internally generated revenue. It is erroneous to hold that government alone should provide jobs for the people, build industries, schools, hospitals, etc. What is required of government is the enabling environment for private businesses to thrive. Despite the financial difficulties it is facing due primarily to the economic melt-down that is affecting many countries, the government of Benue State has provided that enabling environment for private businesses to thrive.

The development of any society is a process. It is admissible that the process started since its creation in 1976 and would continue for as long as Benue State exists. The decay of public infrastructure in the State lasted for long; it will also take a long time to fix. After so many years of trying, Benue State appears to be taking sure and irrevocable steps into the super league of developed States. My prayer is that the in-coming government should build on the successes of the Suswam administration and expand the frontiers of growth; only then can the process of developing Benue State continue its journey and its assured leap into the super league of developed States uninterrupted.

Nats Onoja Agbo

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