A Catholic priest was sworn in Monday for a four-year term as governor of Nigeria’s Benue State.
Fr. Hyacinth Alia, who was suspended by his bishop when he ran for office, will oversee the executive arm of the state located in Nigeria’s turbulent Middle Belt.
The 57-year-old will appoint the heads of state ministries and serve as the state’s chief security officer.
Speaking at his May 29 inauguration in the state capital, Makurdi, he promised to improve security.
“As your governor, I’m committed to working with security agencies and the federal government to ensure the safety of lives and property in our state,” he said, dressed in a Roman collar and black suit with a Nigerian flag lapel pin.
Alia clashed with the Church authorities in May 2022, when he was selected to take part in the primaries of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party ahead of Benue State’s gubernatorial election.
Bishop William Avenya said in a May 20, 2022, letter that he had suspended the priest.
“The Mother Church does not allow her clerics to get involved in partisan politics on their own,” the bishop of Gboko said, citing canon law, which says that “clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.”
Avenya added that the canonical suspension would last “until he ceases from contumacy.”
Alia responded by saying that he felt called to effect change in Benue State.
“From the day I took the decision to answer the overwhelming calls of my people to contest the governorship of Benue with the aim to rescue our people from the shackles of maladministration, I was fully aware of the sacrifice I was going to make,” he said.
“And I am convinced that it is worth the cause I am fighting to serve the souls of Benue people and the state.”
He added that he intended to “return to the public pulpit” after fulfilling his mandate as governor.
Alia was selected as the APC’s candidate on May 27, 2022. But in January this year, an appeal court in Makurdi ordered a rerun of the APC’s primary in 11 out of the state’s 23 local council areas after another candidate sued, alleging electoral malpractice.
Alia won the re-run in February and was cleared to stand for governor by the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Alia’s campaign highlighted his identity as a Catholic priest. An official profile described him as “a renowned Catholic priest, humanitarian, innovator, seasoned administrator, and social crusader,” as well as “an exorcist priest of national and international repute.”
On March 20, he was declared the winner of the gubernatorial election, securing 473,933 votes, compared to 223,913 for his closest rival, the Peoples Democratic Party candidate Titus Uba.
Alia is not the first Catholic priest to have served as governor of the state. Fr. Moses Adasu was elected in 1992 and left office in 1993 after Nigeria suffered a military coup.
Alia was born on May 15, 1966, in Mbangur, Benue State. He studied for the priesthood at St. Augustine’s Major Seminary in Jos and was ordained in 1990 by Bishop Athanasius Atule Usuh of Makurdi.
He studied in the U.S., gaining a master’s degree in religious education at Fordham University, and a master’s and doctorate in biomedical ethics from Duquesne University.
According to his official biography, he served as director of pastoral services at Catholic Health Services’ North Campus in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, as well as chaplain at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens, New York City.
The biography also noted that he served as parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria, New York, and Our Lady of the Cenacle in Queens. After returning to Nigeria, he held several pastoral roles in Makurdi.
The biography said that “Fr. Alia’s healing Masses have impacted positively on the lives of all people irrespective of religious affiliations as there have been numerous testimonies of potency.”
It also described him as “a strict disciplinarian, an astute exorcist, [and] a detribalized priest whose pastoral activities have endeared him to all and sundry.”
Nigerian commentators suggested that Alia’s healing Masses helped to raise his profile in the state.
The Nigerian daily newspaper The Punch quoted a member of the Tiv people, an ethnic group in the country’s Middle Belt, as saying: “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.”
Alia attended a May 28 thanksgiving Mass for Benue State’s new administration at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral in Makurdi, celebrated by Bishop Isaac Bundepuun Dugu.
“Your Excellency, your administration must not be heard or seen bickering over inherited loans, inherited pensions, inherited jumbo appointments, and or inherited burdens,” the bishop of Katsina-Ala told Alia.
“We hope to hear from you the practical measures with which you intend to tackle these challenges,” he added.