By Eric Teniola
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 24years of his life, the conquest agenda of the Fulanis is still lingering. During his era, the problem was not herdsmen but the imperialist policies of the Northern Peoples Congress 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 who were from minority parties that 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 United National Independence Party, Mallam Aminu Kano and 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 is the father of Senator Liyel Imoke, 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 and S.C. Sarma of the NCNC who scored 703 in the 1958 election. He then formed his party 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 struggle of the people we now refer to as the Middle Belt. The struggle snowballed to major crisis which we now term as the Tiv riots between 1960 and 1964. This was at the time that Alhaji Aliyu Muhammed the Waziri 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 riots. These officers who were of the 3rd battalion of the Nigerian Army had just returned from Tanzania after quelling 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 forced out later as a result of allegations of corruption made by one of his kinsmen, Chief Godwin Daboh Adzuana (1942–2012).
The Tiv riot 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.
My friendship with Joseph Sarwuan Tarka (1932-1980) is a friendship that I valued and cherished till date. He was a charismatic leader. He was a true leader of the Tiv people. I was introduced to him by Alhaji Uba Ahmed sometimes in 1977 and since then 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 the plight of his people, the Tiv people. He kept referring to the Tiv riots between 1961 and 1964 and how his people were massacred.
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 took 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 told me several times. At the age of twenty-four, he became 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, 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, UPN. A party led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo who opened the door of opportunities to many tribes in the present Middle Belt or aligned 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 to 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 in 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 won their Senatorial elections.
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 flying to London in 1980 for a medical checkup during which he died.
At the Senate ,although he was 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 could not cope and had to fly out to 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 to honour the memory of Chief Tarka. The local government today is one of the 23 local governments in Benue state. The local government is situated North of Gboko local government area in the North-East wing of Benue State. The local government shares boundaries with Guma, Gwer, Buruku and Gboko local governments.
The Tiv/Fulani crisis has been on for too long. The older generation passed this crisis to the present generation unresolved and it is getting worse. The present generation must not pass the crisis and punish the incoming generation without resolving it. Much blood have been spilled and innocent ones for that matter. Many families have been displaced. Many homes have been destroyed. And for many, they face a bleak future because of this crisis. And for what and why ?
It should and must end!
Eric Teniola, a former director at the Presidency, stays in Lagos