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Cal State East Bay professor arrested in Nigeria

  • May 25, 2011

An East Bay marketing professor who returned to his Nigerian home state to run for governor was detained this week by Nigerian police after accusing his political opponent of trying to assassinate him.

Dublin resident Steve Ugbah, who teaches at Cal State East Bay, ran for governor of the Benue state but lost to incumbent Gabriel Suswam in late April.

Ugbah claimed the election was rigged and took his case to court. As a political war of words ensued, one of Ugbah's aides, Charles Ayede, was slain and another aide wounded when their convoy was ambushed May 13. Ugbah blamed Suswam's party for the killing and believed that he himself was the intended target of an assassination attempt.

Then, on Monday, just a week before Suswam's planned inauguration, police arrested Ugbah and other members of his party on charges that they were inciting public disturbances by stirring up allegations and unrest.

He was released on bail Tuesday but continues to face charges that he says were cooked up to keep him quiet.

"The last thing I heard was his voice this morning, telling me, 'I've been released.' I was definitely, definitely elated," said Stevina Evuleocha, his wife and a fellow marketing professor at Cal State East Bay.

A professor at the Hayward campus since 1986, Ugbah surprised relatives when he told them in November that he planned to challenge the incumbent governor in his home state of Benue.

Ugbah loves his homeland, which is known as one of Nigeria's richest agricultural regions, and was frustrated by the failure of politicians to improve it, relatives said. He left California for Nigeria on Dec. 14 and swiftly became the leading opposition candidate challenging Suswam in the April 26 state elections.

"He has a big heart," said daughter Teni Ugbah, 19, a student at Holy Names University in Oakland. "I don't know how many Nigerians would go back to Nigeria after being in the U.S. for so long just to help other people. He gives a lot. Not only does he not deserve this, but I don't think anybody deserves this."

Ugbah, who has five children, moved to the United States in 1974 to study at Ohio University, then returned to Nigeria for a time to work in politics.

"He belongs to a generation, the next generation, of Nigerian intellectuals who envisioned themselves at some point in time of getting the country back in order," said cousin David Unongo. "There was a huge brain drain in the '70s, '80s and '90s, so in the States you have a critical mass of Nigerian professionals. One key thing this group brings is the perspective of governance in the United States."

Politicians in Benue had tried to draft Ugbah to run for governor in 2005, but he declined, in part because of safety concerns. His younger brother was slain while they were both working on a political campaign in 1983.

"It left a very significant impression on all of us," said Unongo, whose father is the politician the Ugbahs were working to elect that year. "When Steve told us he was going to do this, we were understandably perturbed and hesitant. There really hasn't been a downtick in Nigerian election violence between 1983 and now, sadly."

Another movement to draft Ugbah for office began in his home state in the fall, and the professor decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from his Cal State job to return to Benue. He told his extended family at a Thanksgiving celebration.

"We were not very excited about sending him to go do it," Evuleocha said. "Our family has a history of deaths due to political violence. But it was clear this was not something people were taking casually. So we collectively, as a family, decided to support him."

Ugbah belongs to the Action Congress of Nigeria party, or ACN. Suswam belongs to the People's Democratic Party, the same party as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who won his own re-election April 16.

More than 800 people were killed in sectarian violence that followed the presidential, legislative and state elections in April, but the Benue state, which is predominantly Christian, has been largely spared from the Christian-Muslim tensions that underlie political conflicts in other parts of the country. Still, at least 12 people were killed in Benue leading up to the election, said Eric Guttschuss of international watchdog Human Rights Watch, and most of them were members of Ugbah's opposition party.

"It's a struggle to gain power within the state. You don't see necessarily a division between ethnic and religious lines, but you do see them between the ruling and opposition parties," Guttschuss said. "There's a history of use of violence and party thugs to rig elections, particularly by the ruling party in Nigeria."

Calls and emails made to the Nigerian Embassy in the United States were not returned Tuesday.

Evuleocha said she and other relatives made calls to the U.S. State Department this week. She said U.S. officials made calls to the Nigerian government to inquire about what happened.

Evuleocha said her husband believes he may have been the target of the attack that killed Ayede, his media consultant. The aide was traveling in a convoy along the road between the national capital of Abuja and the Benue state capital of Makurdi. Ugbah would have followed them a short time later had a wounded aide who escaped the ambush not called him and warned him to stay away.

Local authorities countered that they thought a robber, not an assassin, killed Ayede and accused Ugbah, by raising such allegations against the incumbent governor's party, of stirring unrest.

Despite the danger, Ugbah plans to stay in Nigeria as he continues to contest the election results. He alleges that ballots and ballot boxes were stolen and trucked away, and that the numbers of people alleged to have voted in some areas do not make sense.

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