Joseph Tarka

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Joseph Sarwuan Tarka (1932-1980) was a Nigerian politician from Benue State and a former minister for Transport and later Communications under administration of Yakubu Gowon. He was one of the founding members of the United Middle Belt Congress, a political organization dedicated to advocating autonomy for the country's Middle Belt.

Tarka was a battle scared politician who underwent several political battles, he was also known as a skilled politician and for the energetic political campaigns he conducted. He was sometimes called the smiling snake for the big smiles he had while speaking.


Early life and education

Tarka was born on July 10, 1932 in Igbor. His father was a former teacher who later worked as an administrator in the Benue region, his local reputation may have strengthened Tarka's future political success in the Benue area. Tarka attended Senior Primary School, Gboko, Benue Middle School, and the Bauchi Teachers' Training College. He then worked as a science and rural science teacher in Katsina Ala and for the Tiv Native Authority. Before taking a purge into politics, he was involved in starting a teachers union.

Career in politics

As leader of the United Middle Belt Congress before the civil war, he was the leading Tiv politician and was well known for his involvement in the promotion of minority interests in particular the creation of a Middle Belt state.

Tarka entered the House of representatives in 1954 and was later a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Between 1957-1958, he led the UMBC delegates to the constitutional conference in London. Prior to that, he had been elected president of the United Middle Belt Congress in the mid 1950's and held on to the position till the 1966. Tarka's UMBC and the Action Group went into a formal alliance in 1957, prior to which, Tarka had allied with the group as a member of parliament; the party's formal alliance later saw Tarka emerge as a Vice president within the Action Group and after the 1959 election, he became a minister of Commerce and Industry in the Shadow government. His re-election in 1959 saw him as the first Tiv legislator to be re-elected for a second term, thanks in part to his charisma, his father's reputation and the goodwill he received from the Tiv Progressive Union.

In 1962, Tarka was arrested on charges of treason along with a few other AG leaders, however, he was acquitted due to insufficient evidence to prosecute the case. After the end of the first republic, Tarka returned to the national scene as the head of the Transport and later Communications ministry, however, he was dogged by accusations of malpractice while serving at the latter. As minister of Communications, he was forced to resign after allegations of corruption was leveled against him which were made public and backed by a sworn affidavit. Though, there was no government sanction or official inquiry to the allegations, at the time, Tarka remained if not the first but one of the earliest federal minsters to resign over allegations of corruption.(1) After leaving office, he entered private business and was quite successful sometimes acting as a representative of foreign business concerns. (2)

In 1978, Tarka joined the National Party of Nigeria and served in the capacity of Vice Chairman of the party. Along with his son, he was among the elected members of the House of Assembly, Joseph Tarka being elected senator and his son Simeon, a member of the House of Representatives.

Electoral history

1959 Jemgbar parliamentary election

  • Tarka AG - 34,243
  • J.I. Ukume NPC - 1,191
  • S.C. Surma NCNC - 703

1979 Benue East Central senatorial election

  • Tarka NPN - 122,622
  • T.G. Vembeh NPP - 15,180
  • J.A. Yaji UPN - 5,747


  • (1)Simone K. Panter-Brick. Soldiers and Oil: The Political Transformation of Nigeria. p 112-115
  • (2)Pranay Gupte. 'Father and Son in Lagos Called Rising Dynasty, New York Times, Oct 28, 1979.