Joseph Tarka and the Tiv/Fulani Clash That Still Lingers, By Eric Teniola
The Tiv/Fulani crisis in Benue State has been on for too long. The older generation passed this crisis to the present one in a unresolved form, and it is getting worse with the years. The present generation must not pass the crisis down too, thereby saddling and punishing the incoming generation with an inherited mayhem. Much blood has been spilled, and particularly those of innocent folks.
On March 30, it will be 38 years that Chief Joseph Sarwuan Tarka answered the final call. Unfortunately the issue that he fought against in the last 24 years of his life – the conquest agenda of the Fulanis – still lingers. During his era, the problem was not about herdsmen but the imperialist policies of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), dictated by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, who was then the premier of Northern Nigeria.
He was a teacher like his father, Tarka Nanchi. His mother, Sera Ikpu Anyam Tarka, a nurse, died in December 2005 at the age of 95. At an early age, he attended the London Constitutional Conference in 1958. Others like him, who were young and from minority parties, who attended the conference included Mr. H. Biriye, Dr. Okoi Arikpo of the United National Independence Party; Mr. P. Dokotri, also of the United Middle Belt Congress; Dr. Udo Udoma of the United National Independence Party; Mallam Aminu Kano, Mallam Ibrahim Imam, and Dr. S.E. Imoke from Itigidi in Cros River State, who later became a minister and married a pretty princess from Sabongida-Ora in the present Edo State. Dr. Imoke was the father of Senator Liyel Imoke, the former governor of Cross River State.
Chief Tarka got elected into the House of Representatives, representing Jemgbar Constituency, by 34,243 votes. He defeated J.I. Ukume of the NPC who scored 1,191 votes and S.C. Sarma of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), who scored 703 in the 1958 election. He then formed his party, the United Middle Belt Congress, along with Patrick Dokotri, David Obadiah Vreng Lot, Ahmadu Angara, Isaac Shaahu, Edward Kundu Swen and others. He entered into an alliance with the Action Group, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He later entered into another alliance with the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), made up of Mallam Aminu Kano, Yerima Bello,Abubakar Zukogi, Ahmed Tireda, Gambo Sawaba, Ibrahim Heeban, Saliu Tate, Yahaya Abdullahi, Saliu Nakande, Shehu Sataima, Ali Dakat, Ango Soba, Adamu Gaya, Mallam Lawal Dan Bazua, Abubakar Tambuwal, Babadije Jimeta, Alhaji Tanko Yankassai (spokesman) and others.
The primary aim of Chief Tarka was to fight for the independence of the Tivs from the hands of the Northern Peoples’ Congress. That fight led to the emancipation of the people we now refer to as the Middle Belt. It had snowballed into the major crisis which we now refer to as the Tiv Riots of 1960 to 1964. This was at the time that Alhaji Aliyu Muhammed, the Wazirin Jamaa, who later became secretary to the government of the federation, was sent by Sir Ahmadu Bello as administrator of Tiv land. The Nigerian Army was forced to quell those riots. Senior Military officers, including Major Adewale Ademoyega, Major Christain Anuforo, Lt. Col. Yakubu Pam, Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu, took part in quelling the upheavals. These officers, who were of the 3rd battalion of the Nigerian Army had just returned from Tanzania after cracking down on an internal problem in that country. They later became victims or key players in January 15, 1966 coup. Eventually one of them from the Middle Belt, General Yakubu Gowon, came into power in July 1966 and a few months later in 1967 split the country into 12 states. General Gowon invited Chief Tarka into his cabinet as minister for communication, only to be succeeded by Brigadier General Rufai Murtala Ramat Mohammad (1938-76), but was later forced out of the cabinet as a result of allegations of corruption made by one of his kinsmen, Chief Godwin Daboh Adzuana (1942-2012).
The Tiv Riots and the independence of the Middle Belt played a key role later in the creation of more states in 1967. The calculation then was that the creation of states would free the Middle Belt from the conquest agenda of the Fulanis.
The mystery about his political life was that in 1978, he aligned with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), a party composed largely of those he fought against in the last 20 years of his life. One would have expected that he would align with the Unity Party of Nigeria led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who opened the door of opportunities to many tribes nationalities in the present Middle Belt.
My friendship with Joseph Sarwuan Tarka was a friendship that I valued and still cherish till date. He was a charismatic and true leader of the Tiv people. I was introduced to him by Alhaji Uba Ahmed sometimes in 1977, after which our friendship grew and lasted till he died in a London hospital on March 30, 1980. I was at the hospital with Senator Uba Ahmed when he died and we accompanied his corpse back to Nigeria in a Nigerian Air Force Hercules plane, courtesy of President Shehu Shagari. I was also at his funeral service in his hometown. Between 1977 till his death, his general complaint was about the plight of his Tiv people. He kept referring to the Tiv Riots and how his people were massacred during the military campaigns that followed it.
Chief Tarka was a persuasive talker not used to exaggeration. At his Ikoyi residence, near the present Ikoyi marriage registry, his house was always full of people. To ensure privacy, he would take me upstairs, where he would narrate tragic stories of the Tiv Riots. He explained to me then that the Tivs were not the aggressors; “How can we be on our land”, he pointed out several times. At the age of twenty-four, he had become a leader, and he died at the age of 48.
The mystery about his political life was that in 1978, he aligned with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), a party composed largely of those he fought against in the last 20 years of his life. One would have expected that he would align with the Unity Party of Nigeria led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who opened the door of opportunities to many tribes nationalities in the present Middle Belt. Or that he would align with the Nigerian People’s Party of Chief Solomon Daushep Lar, Chief Paul Wantaregh Unongo, George Baba Hoomkwap, Garba Matta, John Wash Pam, Abubakar Ibrahim, Muhammadu Musa and others.
In the 1979 Benue East Senatorial election, after joining the NPN, he scored 122,622, as against Mr. J.V. Vembeh of the NPP, who scored 15,180 and J.V. Yaji of the UPN who had 5,747. His son, Simeon was also elected on the platform of NPN, Gboko Constituency into the Federal House of Representatives. With his influence, all the NPN candidates in Benue State, including Chief Andrew Abogede, Mr. Suemo Chia, Chief Ameh Ebute and Colonel Adah Ahmadu Ali, all won their senatorial elections.
On December 8 1996, General Sanni Abacha created Tarka Local Government out of Gboko Local Government in honour of the memory of Chief Joseph Tarka. Today, the council is one of the 23 local governments in Benue State, and is situated situated north of Gboko Local Government Area, in the North-East wing of Benue State.
When he joined the NPN, he was denied the presidential nomination of the party in 1978, the Senate presidency in 1979 and the Senate leadership also in 1979. He was only rewarded with the chairmanship of Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriation, before being flown to London in 1980 for a medical checkup, during which he died.
At the Senate, although an NPN Senator, he was more at home in company of notable UPN, NPP and GNPP senators, including Senators Abraham Aderibigbe Adesanya, Mahmud Waziri, Patrick Emeka Echeruo, Kayode Ogunleye, Idrissa Kadi, Buka Sanda, Joseph Ansa, Kunle Oyero, Jonathan Olawole Akinremi Odebiyi, Cornelius Adebayo, Stephen Adebanji Akintoye and, of course, his friend, Senator Jaja Anucha Wachukwu (Aba). He enjoyed his Senate days until his health deteriorated and had to leave for London with his friend, Senator Uba Ahmed (Bauchi North East).
On December 8 1996, General Sanni Abacha created Tarka Local Government out of Gboko Local Government in honour of the memory of Chief Joseph Tarka. Today, the council is one of the 23 local governments in Benue State, and is situated situated north of Gboko Local Government Area, in the North-East wing of Benue State. The local council shares boundaries with Guma, Gwer, Buruku and Gboko Local Governments.
The Tiv/Fulani crisis in Benue State has been on for too long. The older generation passed this crisis to the present one in a unresolved form, and it is getting worse with the years. The present generation must not pass the crisis down too, thereby saddling and punishing the incoming generation with an inherited mayhem. Much blood has been spilled, and particularly those of innocent folks. While many families have been displaced, many homes have equally been destroyed. And many still face a bleak future because of this crisis. It should and must end.
Eric Teniola, a former director in the Presidency, Writes from Lagos.