Title of Book: Aper Aku: The Rise of Minority Politics in Nigeria
Author: Nathaniel Ikyur
Publisher: Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan
Year of Publication: 2014
Reviewer: Terhemba Shija Ph.D
This is a critical biography of the first elected governor of Benue State, the late Aper Aku who ruled for 4 years and died in 1987 at the age of 49. This book comes closely on the heels of a more intimate biography: The Aper Aku Story: A Living History by J. A. Anemba published two years ago, when it appeared history had delivered its favourable verdict on the late Aper Aku, exonerated his alleged sins and pronounced him a hero.
For sometime now in Nigerian contemporary history, the name and story of Aper Aku had been contrived as a touchstone for the best and the most selfless in public office, his blueprint, the First Rolling Plan as the most idealistic of developmental philosophies; his memory as the anthem of political worshippers and his legacies, the reference point of dynamism by successive and aspiring governors in Benue State and beyond. Given this trend of discourse, I is expected that any new book on Aper Aku might be predictably panegyric and might lack fresh insights or rigorous intellectual energy to interrogate already established opinions about Aku’s anti-corruption crusade, his heroism and messianic mission in Benue.
Nathaniel Ikyur’s book, Aper Aku: The Rise of Minority Politics in Nigeria however, explores a different trajectory of the Aper Aku narrative. As the title suggests, the author presents him as a prime figure in the politics of ethnic minorities in Nigeria, a legacy he logically inherited from his mentor and political leader the late Senator J.S. Tarka.
However, we notice the author has given us much more than what he intended. Out of the 17 chapters that make up the book, only three (chapters 9, 10 and 17) discuss the activities of Aper Aku as a crusader of the minorities. The rest of the chapters are more or less a depiction of his life as a popular governor who inherited a State that was innaundated with backwardness, ignorance, disease envy, jealousy and corruption; and had engaged in a relentless battle against forces from within and without to remedy his society. And like the fate of a classical tragic hero, his personality is brought under scrutiny, he is accused of corruption, betrayed by friends, relations and political associates, suffers considerable press disparagement; accused of corruption, undergoes mental and physical trauma which considerably diminish his health; goes to prison again after frivolous charges by military power usurpers and dies prematurely at 49 leaving virtually no material inheritance for his family.
We realise, we are reading the story of a human being and not a god. Naths Ikyur’s story of Aper Aku is that of a man with a noble soul who, is encompassed with overwhelming challenges, who displays his fair share of human frailties, and whose individual determinism is thought to have crushed by the weight of his society’s problems. He succumbs gallantly as a martyr for the cause of development, but now resurrects in his society as a hero.
The book takes the reader back to the source and provides fresh, clear and interesting information from previously unexplored government documents, personal letters from Aper Aku, J.S. Tarka and other key figures, newspapers and magazine reports as were transcripts of court proceedings in relevant court cases. Much of this book is therefore realised through an epistolary literary device. Letters are unearthed and strunged together to explain phenomena. For instance, the author publishes the letters J.S. Tarka wrote to various political allies in the Senate and Tivland while in a London hospital suffering from terminal ailment. The letter he wrote to the Tiv people generally dated 17th March, 1980, two weeks before his death, for instance, specifically explains the idea of who succeeded as the political leader of the Tiv people: part of it reads:
Do not allow a few of Tiv sons who, because of money, have joined others political parties to gain financial benefits. Let them not use you to get money for themselves. I am going but leaving Aper Aku and others who would not sell the Tiv people. They will all lead you until the day God will also call you to meet me. Please remain united with one voice (p. 67).
Another letter written by Aper Aku’s deputy, Mr. Isah Odoma to the governor at the height of their disagreement revealed the deep-seated acrimony that existed between the two, especially arising from in a situation where his running mate had emerged first from the Igala caucus of the party and was to be paired with just any candidate that the NPN was to nominate as the governorship flag-bearer in the Tiv area. Isah Odoma himself did not support Mr. Aku ab initio for his nomination and was clearly incompatible with the administration. The author publishes one of the letters he wrote to governor Aku in which the language is quite disrespectful and even rude:
You would recall that we became seriously acquainted since December 1978, when you were nominated governorship candidate and I deputy governorship candidate of our great party in the 1979 general elections. You would also recall that shortly after, you wrote a petition against me that you would not be able to work with me that a new deputy gubernatorial candidate be looked for. The matter was however resolved at the party level and we were asked to run together in these two various capacities… I would opt out of the 1983 gubernatorial race…you are therefore free to choose anybody of your choice to run with you. Here of course, I have to warn that in doing so, you must put the interest of the party and the State first. There are not alternatives to these. (p. 140-142).
Aper Aku himself was an avid letter writer. He wrote his letters with punchy and laconic diction, bereft of protocols and unnecessary perambulations. We get a glimpse of his forthrightness as he writes Chief Adisa Akinloye, National Chairman of his party, NPN (Pp 216-319) and President Shehu Shagari (Pp. 220-221), as he addressed issues of alleged destabilization of his political party in Benue State in the wake of his re-election campaign. We also see his craft as a poet in the apology letter he wrote to J.S. Tarka shortly after he had been nominated as governor and was accused of insubordination and arrogance by the likes of Hon. Isaac Shaahu, Kundu Swem, and Gbangban Kor. He writes:
Dear Dr. J.S. Tarka, Doubt that the world is round Doubt that the sun sets in the West
Doubt that the sun rises in the East.
But never doubt the loyalty of Aper Aku…
I am not particularly good at reporting incidents, back-biting and causing confusion. I have facts and figures for all actions I take. Anything I do I put your overall interest first…
…my plea is that a little more trust in me and you will see smooth results. I believe in resolving problems amicably, but not where the truth is deliberately hidden from you for any reasons.
I feel you have treated me very well in all cases except these matters relating to Gbangban Kor, Mr. Swem and Shaahu. You have not been open enough to me on these cases. I know your basic concern, but this should not be treated in isolation. (p. 47-48).
Indeed, the book derives its strength, sanctity and nostalgia from the discovery of hidden letters. Chapter fifteen, “prison letters” essentially carries seventeen such letters by Aper Aku as a political prisoner, mostly undated and written in Tiv and addressed to family members, his lawyer, Chief Edward Ashiekaa and various political allies within the three years he served his prison sentence at the Kaduna prisons.