By Tony Iji and Joseph Ode

… A Peep into His Rising Political Influence

In contemporary Nigerian politics, when you mention names of topmost politicians with high electoral value and mass followership anywhere, chances are that one of them must be Senator George Akume, former executive Governor of Benue state and the current Minister of Special Duties and Inter-governmental Relations. He is unarguably, the most influential political figure from Benue state and by extension North central region of Nigeria in recent history.

In the last 24 years, Senator Akume has been a permanent fixture in the politics of Benue state and has, during the period, grown to become, undoubtedly, the most influential politician in the state. There are very few of his contemporaries who have so consistently, and for such a long time, dominated their political environment like Senator Akume.

He busted onto Nigeria’s political arena after his retirement as a Permanent Secretary from the Benue State civil service to become the third elected Governor of Benue state in 1999. Since then, he has remained on top of Benue and national politics, serving two terms as Governor, elected a three-term Senator of the Federal Republic, emerging as Senate Minority Leader as well as Leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Benue State and a minister.

Akume’s influence on Benue politics is only comparable to that of Senator Bola Tinubu of Lagos, to the extent that the duo remains the only State Governors of the 1999 – 2007 set who have succeeded in using their influence to install their successors to date. Also, like Tinubu in Lagos state and South West, Senator Akume has been instrumental to the election or appointment of many politicians into party and public offices in Benue state and the Federal Government since his days as Governor.

Senator Akume served as the State Governor on the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In his gubernatorial capacity, he doubled as the party leader in the state who used his position to pave the way for Rt. Hon. Gabriel Suswam, the then member of the House of Representatives, to become the PDP Governorship candidate who eventually got elected Governor in 2007. In the same year, Akume was elected Senator for Benue North West.

However, barely midway into his first term, Governor Suswam fell out politically with his mentor, Senator Akume, forcing the latter to defect to the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), formerly known as Action Congress (AC). It was formed via the merger of a faction of Alliance for Democracy, the Justice Party, the Advance Congress of Democrats, and several other minor political parties in September 2006. The party controlled Lagos state. It was regarded as a natural successor to the progressive politics more closely associated with the Action Group and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the First and Second Republics, respectively.

One of the arrowheads of ACN was Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s President-elect, who was Lagos state Governor between 1999 and 2007. Akume’s defection to ACN at that time marked the beginning of a robust partisan relationship between him and Tinubu, which in later years have proved to be an asset to Akume in building his own political base and influence.

To Akume, that relationship became handy almost immediately. Akume picked the Senatorial ticket of ACN and handed Prof. Steve Ugba, a diplomat, the gubernatorial ticket for the 2011 general election. Determined to see ACN take control of Benue state, Tinubu joined forces with Akume to give Governor Suswam, leader of PDP in the state, the political fight of his life. Suswam narrowly secured his reelection as Governor against Ugba but Akume solidified his hold on the ACN leadership by winning the Senate seat to represent Benue North west.

Three years later, in 2013, ACN transformed into All Progressives Congress (APC), through merger with other parties, with Akume still as leader in the state. This set up an epic battle between PDP, the ruling party then at both the Federal and state levels in the 2015 general election. Governor Suswam guided the PDP to a primary election in which frontline aspirants like his Deputy, Chief Steven Lawani, Samuel Ortom, who had resigned as Minister of Industry and Investment to vie for the governorship, amongst other heavyweights, were brushed aside in favour of the relatively unknown Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Terhemen Taazor. Suswam, on his part, picked the Senatorial ticket for Benue North East.

Within 48 hours of losing the PDP Gubernatorial ticket, Ortom ran to Akume, who used his position, through legal instruments, to stop the APC primary election that was on-going with Emmanuel Jime, a House of Representatives member, coasting home to victory. From that point, Akume straightened the path to the emergence of Ortom as APC flagbearer and winner of the 2015 Governorship election. Suswam lost his Senatorial bid to APC’s Barnabas Gemade while Akume won his Senatorial reelection against PDP’s Terngu Tsegba.  That meant that PDP, apart from losing the Governorship, retained control of only Benue South Senatorial District.

However, like the case of Suswam, Ortom and Akume soon fell apart a couple of years later, making Governor Ortom to defect back to PDP, on whose platform he contested for reelection in 2019. He won. Suswam, too, won the Senate seat, with Akume losing his Senatorial reelection bid.  With Comrade Abba Moro of PDP taking over from the erstwhile Senate President, David Mark as the Senator representing Benue South, most House of Representatives seats were won by PDP and the State House of Assembly dominated by PDP, it would appear that Akume and APC had lost political control of Benue state. Right? Wrong. Those who thought so did not reckon with Akume’s doggedness, his loyal mass followership in the state and his links with the great political fighter and National Leader of APC, Bola Tinubu as well as President Buhari. The President who was re-elected for a second term appointed Akume as Minister while Tinubu, with an eye on the 2023 Presidential election held tight to his Benue state political ally, Senator Akume. Together, the trio of Buhari, Tinubu and Akume plotted the fall of Governor Ortom and PDP in 2023. To make things easier for them, the relationship between Governor Ortom and President Buhari deteriorated over the issue of insecurity in the state, allegedly occasioned by deadly herdsmen attacks on communities in the state. The hostile relationship between the President and the state Governor apparently strengthened the partnership and resolve of the triumvirate to dislodge Ortom and the rival PDP from political control of Benue state in 2023.

Akume deftly deployed his position and influence as the state party leader to ensure the emergence of Hyacinth Alia, a highly revered and popular Catholic priest, as the APC gubernatorial candidate. He was pitched against PDP’s Titus Uba, Speaker of the state House of Assembly, who was considered a weakling and stooge of Governor Ortom.

Unwittingly, Governor Ortom placed a smoking gun in the hands of his opponents by joining hands with four other aggrieved PDP Governors (G-5) to fight against the victory of their party’s Presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. This action divided the party in the state into two, with one part following Governor Ortom to vote for the Presidential candidate of Labour Party, Mr. Peter Obi, and the other, led by Dr. Iorchia Ayu, PDP National Chairman, standing by Atiku.

PDP in Benue state went into the Presidential and National Assembly elections on February 25, 2023 in utter disarray and they were routed by APC forces led by Senator Akume. APC won two of the three senate seats and nine out of 10 House of Representatives positions. In the Governorship and State Assembly elections that followed on March 18, Akume and his men consolidated their victory with the election of Rev. Fr. Alia as Governor and 24 out of 30 members of the state House of Assembly on the platform of APC.

One significant testimony to the huge influence of Senator Akume was the election of his wife, Regina, as member of the House of Representatives for Gboko/Tarka Federal Constituency.

Another evidence of Senator Akume’s larger-than-life influence on the outcome of the elections is the huge crowds of individuals and groups across the state who, like pilgrims, have been trooping to his residence to congratulate him on APC’s victory in the state. Much as the visits to the minister reflect his contributions to the success of APC in the state to date, they also make a loud statement about the influence he is expected to wield in the incoming administration of Rev. Fr. Alia. It is now generally believed that anyone, group or community that is seeking any political appointment or patronage from the Alia administration who does not seek the prior endorsement of the state party leader is just having an idle dream. Ditto for those from Benue State seeking similar benefits at the Federal level under the incoming administration of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.

Those who thought that, after over three decades in control of political power in Benue state, the political influence of the 69-year-old maverick politician may be nearing its end should have a rethink. With Rev Fr. Alia whom he almost single-handedly made Benue state Governor and his political ally, Tinubu, assuming exalted political offices on May 29, Akume’s political star may just be about to shine anew.

Senator George Akume, from Tarka Local Government Area of Benue state, was born on 27 December 1953. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Labour Relations from the University of Ibadan.

He had an unbroken career in the Benue State civil service before retirement as a Permanent Secretary.

In 1999, he became Governor of Benue State and served two terms of four years. He was the first Governor of Benue state to have completed two terms in office.

Akume was a three-term Senator who was elected on the platform of three different political parties. He first won election to represent the people of Benue as a senator for Benue North-West in Nigeria’s senate in 2007 on the platform of PDP. Akume was re-elected Senator for Benue North-West in the April 2011 elections, running on the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) platform. He polled 261,726 votes, defeating Terngu Tsegba of the PDP who scored 143,354 votes. He was again re-elected to the senate under the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015. He was Senate Minority Leader from June 2011 – June 2015. He was Chairman, Senate committee on Army and a ranking member of senate. He was nominated and confirmed a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by Muhammadu Buhari in 2019, a position he holds till date.