An East Bay professor who ran for political office in Nigeria said he will stay in the country indefinitely as he contests what he calls an unjust election and fights charges that he tried to incite post-election violence.
Dublin resident Steve Ugbah, a marketing professor at Cal State East Bay, said this week his life may be in danger but he will not leave Nigeria until a tribunal resolves whether he won or lost the April 26 election for governor of the Benue state. Ugbah left California late last year to challenge incumbent Gov. Gabriel Suswam, who was declared the winner.
"The government spokespeople, in the pages of newspapers and also on radio, have threatened me to go back, told me to go back home. That is, go back to the United States," Ugbah said by phone this week from the city of Makurdi. "But I also remind them I am home. Nigeria is home for me. Benue is home for me. Anyone who thinks they can scare me away is grossly mistaken."
Ugbah raised allegations of election irregularities shortly after votes were counted and Suswam was declared the winner this spring. The professor filed a complaint with election authorities alleging ballot theft and other corruption. Then, on May 13, a gunman shot and killed Ugbah's campaign consultant and friend, Charles Ayede, in a roadside ambush. Local police said it was probably a robbery attempt, but Ugbah blamed Suswam's party for being complicit in an assassination.
That allegation landed Ugbah in jail after the Nigerian national police force said Ugbah's remarks were creating a public disturbance. Police arrested the candidate on May 23 along with more than a dozen campaign workers and supporters, including a 14-year-old boy, Ugbah said. They were released on bail a few days later after an international outcry but still face criminal charges.
Ugbah appeared at a court hearing on Thursday, but the criminal case was postponed until September. He and supporters believe the arrest was politically motivated, since the national police inspector general is appointed by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who belongs to the same political party as Suswam. The police force has denied political motivations, saying the Nigerian-American professor's inflammatory remarks were causing a danger to the public.
"Steve Ugbah was arrested for inciting violence," wrote the inspector general's office in an all-caps email to the Bay Area News Group after the arrest. "He turned a case of armed robbery into a political attack (and) as such people took law into their hand (sic) by attacking innocent people."
Ugbah belongs to a well-known political family in the region. Local political heavyweights frustrated with Suswam's first term in office drafted the professor to run for governor last year. The 57-year-old told his extended family about his decision at a Thanksgiving celebration in Sacramento. He asked for a leave of absence from Cal State East Bay, where he has been teaching marketing and entrepreneurship for 27 years at the Hayward campus.
"My family encouraged me, supported me to take the plunge," said Ugbah, a father of five. "I felt it was time for me to use whatever little I learned in California, and in the United States, to come back home and try to make a difference in the lives of the ordinary person in Nigeria."
Ugbah had high hopes for his campaign and quickly became a formidable challenger to Suswam. He pledged to bring free education to the Benue state, home to about 4.5 million people and known as the country's agricultural bread basket. He wanted to marshal international resources to make the region where he grew up a model for sustainable development.
"We have a fantastic economy here that has been run to the ground," he said.
He also knew it could be dangerous. Ugbah moved to the Untied States in 1974 to study at Ohio University, but briefly returned to Benue in the early 1980s to work on his uncle's campaign for governor. His brother, Johnny Ugbah, was killed by machete in 1983 and his body parts delivered to the uncle's office, the family said.
"The people who killed him thought they were killing me," Steve Ugbah said. "Johnny was not a politician, he was a very softspoken person."
Memories of that killing, and a 2003 attack on the family's property, kept the professor away from Nigerian politics until 2005, when he considered a run but decided against it. His family remains worried about his safety as Ugbah continues to defy the results of the April election and conduct his own private investigation into his aide's death. The elections tribunal plans to hold a hearing on July 11.
"I don't feel safe because there are constant, constant, not just rumors, but attempts at trying to muscle some of us, even eliminate some of us, especially me," Ugbah said. "I am the prime target. And if I am eliminated, the governor is home free."