By Agbese Andrew
Let me begin by paraphrasing the words of Prof. PLO Lumumba, the former director of the Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission by saying, ‘if you ask the average Plateau man or woman, what ethnic group its most respected political leader, Joseph Gomwalk, belonged to, they’ll most definitely tell you they don’t care, not because they do not know but because they’ve never viewed him from an ethnic prism.
Similarly, if you ask for the ethic identity of Plateau’s 2nd Republic governor, Chief Solomon Lar, though they know he was Taroh, but many would wonder why the question because they never beheld him from that perspective.
But if you’re to ask to what ethnic group, Plateau’s modern day leaders belong, you’re likely to get an immediate answer.
This is because these recent ones have one way or the other, anchored their leadership styles in ways that projects them more as ethnic champions than representing the interest of the entire people of the state.
This is unfortunate because Plateau has for long been one of the few states where the question of ethnicity never mattered in choosing leaders.
With its progressive brand of politics, Plateau used to be the model for de-ethnicised politics in Nigeria throwing up leaders based on their capabilities, visions and contributions to development than on their ethnic backgrounds.
Unlike some states in Nigeria where ethnicity is the basic and fundamental requirement for choosing leaders, Plateau has proven that it does not suppress the ambition of any of its citizens to lead for not belonging to the ‘right’ ethnic group.
Plateau has for long tried to show the light to states like Borno, Gombe, Benue and some others where members of certain ethnic groups cannot aspire to govern on account of their numbers.
Going by those who have been elevated to leadership positions in the state, right from pre-independence days to now, Plateau state has shown clearly that it has refused to succumb to the debilitating and toxic influence of ethnic politics by giving all fair chances.
That is why in listing elected leaders on the Plateau, one is not confined to certain groups alone as all the about 50 ethnic groups in the state have been given equal opportunities because the people see themselves as one and never bother about ethnic differences so far it is one of them that would be at the helm of affairs.
From the creation of the state, only two of its governors, Fidelis Tapgun and Simon Lalong that were drawn from the same ethnic group while the rest like Solomon Lar, Joshua Dariye, Jonah Jang and Caleb Mutfwang are from different zones and ethnic groups in the state.
Even religion does not matter once the leader is considered an ‘indigene’ of the state. This was what paved the way for people like Ibrahim Mantu, Jaafaru Damulak and Adamu Yusuf Gagdi to win elections even in constituencies dominated by people not of their religious persuasions.
Through some arrangements, the minority ethnic have groups have shared the same platform and are carried along by the majority in all political calculations such that from the wards to local governments, to state and national assembly elections, a system of rotating political offices has been worked out.
In Bokkos for instance, the only state assembly seat in the LG has been made to rotate between the Ron, Kulere and Mushere ethnic groups while in Mikang, with a seat at the state assembly, the position is rotated among the various ethnic groups in the LG.
For the National Assembly seats, the same principle obtains where even the disadvantaged in terms of voter strength are accommodated.
In Jos South/Jos East federal constituency for instance, the behemoth Jos South is not allowed to monopolise the seat as it is rotated to allow Jos East, with a smaller population have its fair share.
Same with Pankshin/Kanke/Kanam;
Mangu/Bokkos; Quanpaan/ Mikang/Shendam federal constituencies and others where the LGs are given equal opportunities to provide leadership.
The same principle has guided election into the Senate where various ethnic groups have a had a go at it in the three senatorial zones.
In the southern zone, the Tarohs and the Gomai, have had it while in the northern zone, the Beroms and Irigwe have taken turns while in the central zone, the pyem, the Mushere, the Ngas and the Mwaghavwul have had it.
It is this accommodation and oneness that saw Joshua Dariye from one of the smallest ethnic groups in terms of population become the state governor for eight years.
To drive this point home, this is like allowing an Etulo man from Adi or a Jukun from Abinse to become the governor of Benue State tate or a Chibok man from Borno State or Tangale in Gombe state become governor of their respective states.
It bears restating that until recently, the ethnic identity has never been a factor in choosing political leaders in Plateau State.
In 2007 after Dariye stepped aside, it was a consensus among all the ethnic groups that Jang should be the governor. His reputation as a go getter and contributions to national politics spoke for him rather than his ethnicity.
Even in 2011 when he faced steep opposition on account of the crisis that rocked the state, the other ethic groups stood behind and gave him an overwhelmingly support.
For someone who enjoyed that tremendous support cutting across ethnic barriers, it was surprising that he would be the first to show ethnic favouritism in the choice of a successor when he against all reasoning, decided it was only someone within his ethnic group that was good enough to take over from him.
But rather than divide the citizens, the decision brought the people together and in protest, voted against the ruling party in the state for the first time.
Since then, ethnic consciousness in the running the affairs of the state has not only become entrenched but has been elevated to a state policy as Jang’s successor, Lalong, did not disappoint, making most of his key appointments from his Goemai ethnic stock.
Unfortunately, one cannot help but notice that in the just concluded tussle over who occupies the Little Rayfield Government House, ethnicity has taken central stage where the Mwaghavwul were pitted against the Ngas due to the ethnic identities of Caleb Muftwang who is Mwaghavwul and the APC candidate, Yilwada Nentawe Goshwe who is Ngas unlike in the past, when it did not matter to which ethnic group either Lar, Tapgun, Dariye, Jang or Lalong hailed from.
Even as the position was zoned to the Central zone, the acrimony had been largely ethnic and not based on the competence and capabilities of the two major candidates.
Both the elites and the masses of the two ethnic groups have been at each other’s throats with negative claims about how the other is undeserving and why it is the turn of the other to be governor.
The Ngas are being pilloried for losing the House of Representatives, Senate and governorship position.
No doubt such innuendos are bound to inflame ethnic passions and further douse the sense of unity the citizens have enjoyed over the years.
Even the coinage of the campaign slogans in ethnic lingos have further added to the sentiments.
This is where it becomes necessary to put in a word of caution.
No one gains from the elevation of ethnicity as a yardstick for choosing leaders. Even those who think they’re benefitting from it lose in the long run because it trumps mediocrity over substance.
With that mindset, the beneficiary does not go out of his way to make a mark as he knows he will be defended by members of his ethnic group whether he performs or not.
People recall the feats of plateau greats like Gomwalk and Jang not because of their ethnicity.
Now that the tussle between Mutfwang and Nentawe has been put to rest, Plateau must not allow itself to slide into the politics of ethnicity.
Muftwang must resist the urge to go ethnic in his administration.
He must show avoid the mistakes of Jang and Lalong and be fair to all.
He should use Gomwalk who governed Benue-Plateau State effectively and was able to blend the numerous ethnic groups which consisted of the present Benue, Plateau and Nasarawa states into one as his role model.
That is why today, when people talk about the Gomwalk administration, no one regards it as the triumph of his ethnic group, the Ngas, and all beam with joy at the mention of his name.