By Peter Awunah, PhD

On Saturday, 4th of May, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), as part of its activities to mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, held a ceremony at the Barcelona Hotels, Abuja where the union also gave awards to some personalities. Among those presented with the awards was the Governor of Benue State, Rev Fr Hyacinth Alia.

The award handed to Governor Alia was tagged “Advocate of the Masses and Human Rights Award”.

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Since I read about the award and saw pictures from the ceremony, I have been wondering what has happened to our society. How does a man who has no respect and value for human rights qualify to be given an award on human rights? How does a man who has zero regard for the rule of law merit a medal that represents the sanctity of life and societal justice and sanity?

Though I understand that the Benue State Governor paid heavily to be given the award, I expected the NUJ to resist the temptation to put its laurels on the shelf for sale. Journalists are expected to be the pillars of democracy who ought to uphold integrity in governance and NUJ cannot afford to do anything to the contrary.

Among the current 36 state governors in Nigeria, the one who shows gross contempt for human rights and repeatedly violates court orders is Hyacinth Alia of Benue State. It is on record that despite court rulings and orders, governor Alia suspended the 23 local government chairmen in Benue State and the entire councils including the legislative arms from office indefinitely.

The council chairmen through their lawyers had proceeded and commenced contempt of court proceedings against the government of Alia and the Benue State House of Assembly, serving on them Notice of Consequence of Contempt Proceedings, on 27th June, 2023, and had also approached the High Court of Benue State seeking through an ex parte application and a substantive suit to have the Benue State Government restrained from interfering with their lawfully given mandate and tenure of office. Sadly, all of those orders of court did not deter the Benue State Governor from going ahead in impunity to order the suspension of the duly elected local government council administrations which he illegally enforced and has since put in place his cronies who are running the affairs of the local governments without any form of accountability.

With such rascality in government, I wonder how NUJ found Governor Alia qualified to receive an award that has to do with the rule of law and human rights.

In less than six months into his tenure, Alia became the Governor with the highest number of human rights violations by ordering the arrest and detention of whistleblowers and critics of his administration, the latest case being the arrest and incarceration of Uchenna Mojekwu, who is the Secretary of Global Integrity Crusade Network (GICN).

The group had lodged a petition with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), outlining allegations that the government of Alia, acting through his aide Dennis Akura, the Special Adviser on Bureau of local government and chieftaincy affairs who is accused of diverting more than N20 billion from the Benue State local government accounts. Other groups have separately petitioned Alia for misappropriating over N46 billion of state funds.

Before the arrest of the GICN secretary, at least seven members of the opposition in Benue State had been picked up by the police and detained on the orders of the Governor.

Last week, I wrote an open letter to Governor Alia expressing my utmost concern and disappointment regarding the recent reemergence of thuggery in Benue State under his leadership. I cautioned the governor that the use of thugs to intimidate and harass political opponents is a regressive and unacceptable practice that has no place in a democratic society.
It is unfortunate that NUJ did not find these concerns important to resist the lure of multi millions of naira from the governor in exchange for their award.

I must commend the Deputy Spokesman for the House of Representatives, Hon. Philip Agbese who rejected a similar award from NUJ giving reasons that neither himself nor Governor Alia are award-worthy as they have not yet fulfilled their promises to the masses. That is a man of integrity and honour.

How does Governor Alia feel when he jumps from one award collection ceremony to another accompanied by a large delegation while his people back home (the real masses) are being slaughtered like animals by Fulani herdsmen? How is Alia an advocate of Benue masses when the same masses are being attacked and killed but he turns round to blame them for being the aggressors and tells the media that there is absolute peace in the state?

How is Governor Alia an advocate of the masses when he has practically stopped the supply of government-funded food items to the camps housing thousands of the displaced people who now depend only on donations from humanitarian organizations and philanthropists?

How is Alia an advocate of the masses when his government has not initiated any programme to relieve the current economic hardship in a whole year despite receiving billions from the Federal Government under palliatives? The other day I saw on social media how his government was demolishing structures erected by hardworking Benue people on Katsina-Ala street in Makurdi to put food on the table of their families. I understand that the demolition was not announced and the traders were not notified ahead of time.
How is such a governor an advocate of the masses?

I am highly disappointed in the Nigeria Union of Journalists and I expect them to withdraw the award given to Governor Alia of Benue State and refund his millions. The award is unmerited and it is a mockery on the suffering people of Benue State, many of whom have been rendered homeless while the man who displays an award as their advocate and human rights champion is busy globetrotting in private jets and holding jamborees with friends in presidential suites of 5-star hotels.

Dr. Awunah writes from Durumi, Abuja.