It’s not exactly a novelty for a cleric to aspire and win a major election in this part of the world. However, in the turbulent political history of the Nigerian state, a few clerics particularly of the Christian faith have risen to the peak of the political ladder, succeeding where established politicians failed. Of the lot, Rev Fr Moses Adasu and Rev Jolly Nyame, former governors of Benue and Taraba states respectively readily come to mind.
In the build-up to the March 18 governorship election, another Catholic priest, Rev Fr Hyacinth Alia caused a stir with his emergence as the candidate of the All Progressives Congress in Benue State. Given his background as a worker in the vineyard of the Lord, not many gave him a ghost of a chance to make the primaries, particularly given the war chest involved in the selection processes of candidates in this part of the world. Even with his emergence, only a negligible few gave the popular cleric a chance.
The ruling Peoples Democratic Party in the state, symbolised by Governor Samuel Ortom reminded anyone who cared to listen that its candidate, Titus Uba, was fated to continue from where Ortom would stop on May 29, 2023. At the end of balloting, sorting and counting, the Independent National Electoral Commission announced Fr Alia winner of the poll, after garnering a total of 473, 933 votes to leave the PDP standard bearer in a distant second with 223, 913 votes.
Since his emergence, public commentators have continued to advance reasons for this feat, with the religious lot, arguing that the prayers of the faithful triumphed over the antics of men.
Born on May 14, 1966, Hyacinth Alia attended St. Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos, earning a Diploma in Religious Study in 1987.
In 1990, he bagged a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sacred Theology. His quest for more educational accomplishments took him to Fordham University, United States of America, graduating with a Master of Arts Degree in Religious Education with expertise in Psychology and Counselling. He also bagged an MA in Biomedical Ethics from Duquesne University, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, USA and later, a PhD in the same discipline from the same university, Following his ordination as a full-fledged Catholic priest, young Alia served in various capacities including as a vicar of St. John Parish, Gboko, Assistant Cathedral Administrator, Our Lady of Perpetual
Help Cathedral, Makurdi, Parish Priest of St. Jude’s Parish, Koti-Yough, Parochial vicar of the Immaculate Conception Parish, Astoria, New York, USA.
Described as a man of indescribable humility, Alia’s calling to the priesthood in the Order of Melchizedek manifested in his social works across the state, providing food and relief materials to the poor and needy. With his expertise in Biomedical Ethics, he started HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, preaching abstinence and faithfulness to one’s partner as the singular most preventive measure against the deadly disease for single and married people respectively.
Long before he decided to delve into the world of partisan politics, Alia had secured a place in the consciousness of Christians, particularly the Catholic faithful in Benue and neighbouring Taraba States.
Aware of the Catholic Church’s strict adherence to certain ethical codes, the cleric cleverly kept Sundays for the celebration of Mass, picking Saturdays for his healing masses. A few years after the debut of this healing mass, many Catholic and non-Catholic members flocked to the centre in search of one miracle or other. Tales also abound of how Fr Alia’s holy water miraculously turned around the fortunes of many businesses in time past. Thus, a school of thought believes that this earlier bonding with the people through healing largely accounts for the solidarity shown for him on the ballot.
Mrs Mary Asatsar is a devout Catholic and a member of the Catholic Women’s Organisation. Originally from Edo State, South-South Nigeria, Mrs Asatsar who worships at St John’s Catholic Church, Mutum Biyu, Taraba State is married to a Tiv man from Benue State and has known Father Alia for the past 25 years. As tales of miracles continue to be linked with the cleric’s meteoric rise to political stardom, The PUNCH spoke with Mrs Asatsar who bared it all this way:
“As a Catholic, I cannot explain how happy and excited I am about Father’s victory in the election. I am a registered voter but I can only vote in Taraba State where I live. I know many of us, particularly CWO members who would have loved to travel down to Benue State just to go and vote for the Reverend Father,” she said, before taking a trip down memory lane to explain how she first got to know about the revered man of God.
“I travelled with my husband, Asatsar Lyum to his village, Aliade in Benue State many years ago when we first heard of Rev Fr Hyacinth Alia’s power to heal the sick and oppressed. I accompanied my husband to Aliade in search of a herbal solution to a waist pain he had suffered for many years when a friend of his asked us if we had heard of Fr Alia. We eventually traced him, and he prayed for us. We left with a bottle of holy water and returned to Taraba. Less than two weeks later, the pain disappeared.”
That singular feat was to shape Mary’s relationship with Fr Alia in many ways than one. According to the mother of four, Alia’s church in Benue State soon became a Mecca of sorts for her and others who went there in search of a miracle.
She continued: “We attended his Mass in Gboko frequently both for prayers and change in our lives. My petty business (sewing) witnessed a major leap that I will never forget. Farmers, artisans, name them-were always present anytime we went visiting. I have friends here in Mutum Biyu, some are in Lomodo and Bali who used to go there with me for blessings. None of us returned the same way we went.”
Collaborating with Mary’s position is Sam Agah, a Tiv good governance advocate resident in Abuja. In an exclusive interview with The PUNCH, Agah noted that Father Alia’s healing services played a large part in his victory over Uba of the PDP.
“The healing mass and miracle services which the Rev Father has been performing for decades indeed put him and his public image on a first-line basis with many of the Benue populace, especially in the Tiv-speaking areas. The healing masses mainly for the poor coupled with the Father’s reputation of supporting the poor is essentially what played a part in boosting his popularity among our people which ultimately culminated in his victory.”
The PUNCH, however, could not independently verify claims of healing by Alia’s supporters.
But for the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Ortom, Nathaniel Ikyur, the governor-elect’s much-talked-about popularity is as fake as the miracles attributed to him. According to the CPS, the Catholic cleric merely “hypnotize” the people, many of whom voted blindly in support of the APC.
“He should show us the people he healed. Where are the businesses he turned around? The truth is that he hypnotized the people and they fell for the cheap lies. I attend Christ Embassy and testimonies about healing. These people who come to testify are people we can identify with, and they will you what happened to them at the touch of the word of God.”
“Father Alia does voodoo politics and that is what played out in this election and of course, the division caused by the PDP National Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu in the State affected the fortune of the PDP,” he added.
Reverend Father Alia may have earned himself a seat in the gathering of A-league politicians with his election on March 18; the task of governing Benue in the next four years is no doubt, a daunting one.
Outgoing Governor, Samuel Ortom, had in the past four years, witnessed massive killings of defenceless Benue indigenes and residents by gunmen, with the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd)-led government doing little to curtail the ugly development. Tired of the little progress made, Ortom had resorted to open rebuke of the Federal Government; a development that fetched him applause and condemnation in equal measures.
While the opposition lauded Ortom for speaking truth to power, the Presidency and APC chieftains in Benue State accused the governor of attempting to hide his failure to provide services for his people.
As the cleric-turned-politician prepares to mount the saddle in the few weeks ahead, an indigene of Benue State, Cletus Odeh told The PUNCH that security remained huge challenge indigenes and residents expect quick fix “because of what they have been through over the years.” According to him, “People believe the governor-elect has the answers. A lot of Benue people see him as a true man of God, a priest who prays and gets answers from God without delay. I am a Catholic and I can tell you that many of our people believe the killings would come to an end. But truth is that the Federal Government must sit up and assist the governor to make the state safe for all. He cannot do it alone, considering the fact security is an exclusive item to the Federal Government.”
Aside from insecurity, Alia would have the Benue State workforce to contend with over the backlog of unpaid salaries and pensions. It would be recalled that the governor-elect while on a courtesy visit to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) recently, chided Ortom for leaving Benue workers in the Intensive Care Unit: a jibe the outgoing governor did not take lightly.
As revealed by Ortom himself, a huge burden awaits Alia in the payment of outstanding salaries and pensions, even as he claimed that he did his best with the bailout that came from the Federal Government.
Will Alia succeeds where Ortom failed particularly in the twin spheres of security challenges and prompt payment of workers’ salaries? Will his ecclesiastic powers bring to an end, the years of lamentation and little progress? Time will tell!