By Charles Terseer Akwen
Joseph Sarwuan Tarka holds a very significant place in the political history of Nigeria. One, among many other nationalist figures from the North-Central region of the country, he is fondly remembered today for the many ways his political thoughts and social behaviour, with those of his associates, have helped in shaping the democratic culture the country seems to be cultivating at the present moments. Notably, the Nigerian political reality is a point in reference.
Having gone through various leadership battles starting from the pre-independence liberation struggles against foreign domination which was orchestrated by the founding fathers such as Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Anthony Enahoro, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and others, the country after her independence in 1960 was plunged into a series of military coups.
Indisputably, the Khaki Boys invasion into the political space of the country further created a lot of conflict of interest which incidentally led to the 1967 Nigerian Civil War. However, shortly after the war, major key players in the leadership sphere started warming up to redefining the pathway on which Nigeria would redirect her course. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, the country soon thereafter woke up in shock to continue in her old ways.
One military junta lead into with each carving a unique way of perceiving the country’s reality. Since the political space was highly contestable, the men in uniform refused to let the civilian politicians occupy the centre stage. Thus, the decade which followed the Civil war continued to witnessed coups and counter-coups. The botched Coup led by Lt. Col. B. S. Dimka on February, 1976, was closely followed by a series of other coups: Buhari- Idiagbon 1983, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, August 27, 1983, the abortive coup of Major Gideon Orkar on April 22, 1990, the General Sani Abacha led government of November 17 1995 and that of General Abubakar Abdusalami who finally handed the mantle of leadership to a democratically elected president, General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. On record therefore, while the military boys were at the corridors of power, the country witnessed an insignificant short-lived civilian administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979–1983 and the Interim Government of Ernest Shonekan in August 17, 1993.
After several failed attempts at conducting credible elections in the country which eventually led to the cancellation of the June 12 1993 presidential election, the political consciousness of the people continued to wax even stronger until such a time when by design or an act of God, the stage was set for the beginning of a different political experience in Nigeria. This time, another civilian government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo emerged in 1999.
Since then, the country has continued to grow steadily moving from one civilian administration to another. As the nation transited from Olusegun Obasanjo, the late Musa Yar’Adua, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to the present government lead by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian society has been driven by both consistently and contradictory push towards leadership excellence and cultural behaviour.
What lessons has the country learnt of the past mistake as it strive towards global relevance? No doubt, it would be a song without rhythm to keep referring to the Nigerian military experience as the solely recognisable factor that has adversely affected the country. Over the years, what we have come to see in the political terrain, even in the civilian dispensation, leaves us to question the value system of the Nigerian ruling class. Our leaders must understand the cultures and values which promote integrity and peaceful co-existence among the people. If the ordinary man on the street does not have any iota of confidence in the leadership of his country, one is left to ask: has previous leaders not define or design the political culture of engagement accurately?
To what extent can we boldly say that within a certain time frame, the set agenda of any government would remain visible fir every Nigerian to see? What values should we uphold? Which should we jettison, redefined or reproduced?
Today, we remember Joseph Sarwuan Tarka, the father of Middle Belt politics. He was born on the 10th of July, 1932 in Igbo. Gboko of Gwer Local Government Area in Benue State. J. S. Tarka attended the Native Authority Primary School for his elementary education. Upon graduation, he sought to become a teacher and worked briefly in that capacity at Katsina-Ala Middle School before proceeding to Bauchi Rural Science School to further his academic career.
It is on record that at a very young age of 22, Tarka was elected to a seat in the Federal House of Representative to represent the Jemgba Constituency in 1954. And in 1957, he emerged the leader of the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC), a party which formed an alliance with the Middle Zone League led by David Lot and the Action Congress, the dominant party in the South West, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
In 1958, J. S. Tarka was appointed the Minister of Commerce and Industry a position he held until 1959. Following violence in the Middle Belt after the pre-independence election of 1959, he was arrested and charged with felony along some members of the Nation Congress in 1962. Although subsequently acquitted for lack of evidence, Tarka was thereafter appointed Federal Commission of Transport and Communication in 1966. By January, 1957 there existed three factions of UMBC. J. S. Tarka was chairman of the Boundary and Viability Committee of one of them. He recommended a Middle-Belt that comprises Adamawa, Benue, Ilorin, Kabba, Niger, Plateau, Southern Zaria and Souther Bauchi provinces.
During his active years in politics, J. S. Tarka was able to bring all the minorities in Nigeria within one party. This is one huge contribution that has left a very positive impact in the history of Nigeria politics. This is because the democratically elected civilian government of Shehu Shagari was decided by these minority groups.
Even though the entire western Nigeria was controlled by UPN and the East by NNP, while the core North was controlled by GNPP, the political ideology of making the voice of the minority count is what made J.S Tarka stand run has helped to reduce unhealthy tension, disenchantment and political apathy among smaller ethnic groups in Nigeria. This giant figure fell to the cold hands of death on the 30th of March 1980 at the age of 48 at a faraway London hospital after a brief illness. Even after his death, his legacies still live on.