By Benson Upah
I doff my hat for the writer of the tribute “End of an Era as Chief Obande Obeya Travels Out of Idomaland”. It is the best tribute that will ever be written on Chief Obande Obeya.
Obande was an enigma from birth. He neither belonged to the first generation of the Patriarch Obeya’s children many of whom ended up in the military while others ended up in the civil service nor did he belong to latter generation of the patriarch’s children who were thoroughly educated. Obande was in the middle, so to say, and cut his teeth in the back waters of Otukpo, undoubtedly the best city in Benue Province. How Obande started life at the Otukpo Motor Park and ended up ruling it and the entire city instead of following in the footsteps of his siblings remains a mystery. But he lost nothing.
From the beginning, he was not one to be taken lightly. Built like a battle tank, street-smart and as tough as a stone door, Obande more than made up for the formal education he did not acquire or the epaulets he did not wear.
As it turned out, he made his pact with fate that turned out very well for him. If he had joined the military or the civil service like his siblings or peers, he would have been answerable to someone. The world he created and ruled, he had only one boss…God which he took seriously. Not surprisingly he was a permanent feature of St Mary’s Catholic Church, Otukpo on Sundays at the young people’s section in particular, often resplendent in a sash urging us to sing. He carried the offering basket, literally taking money out of people’s wallets for God.
Obande gave to all education which he did not have. He gave generously to the needy, money which he did not have while growing up. Typical of all good dons, he dispensed justice swiftly and evenhandedly. It often took no more than a pick-up van of toughies!
He understood the nuances of power and out-witted the brightest and the best. Obande was Chairman of NPN in Benue State when party supremacy was real. He was in love with the title “Chairman”. Who wouldn’t when that came with influence and privilege? In 1986, three years after the coup that ousted the NPN government, I was in the open bar of Plateau Hotel, Jos, with friends having a good time when he walked in briskly to confer with someone. “Chairman”, I called out. This was all that I needed to do before he thrust wads of notes into my palm. He was not yet done. He ordered our stock replenished. In a moment, he was gone. That was signature Obande…giving without thinking.
Although the Obeyas dominated virtually every facet of life in Idoma land, it was Obande who came to be better/best known…ahead of Robert, Ignatius and Andrew, let alone others.
He spoke truth to power in his queer, brutal manner, which brings me to the famed visit to Abacha. I was with Chief David Attah and one or two others at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja this very night when word came through that Chief (Senator Ameh Ebute) in a press interview or press conference, had threatened to reconvene the National Assembly as part of the process of invalidating the government of Abacha.
Abacha was, naturally not only beside himself with rage, it was beginning to look like the Idoma were against his government. First, it was Brigadier-General David Mark who after his bombshell interview in Newswatch in which he verbally assaulted the new regime no end before taking to the border, then Major General Geoffrey Ejigah or so….and now Senator Ameh Ebute! This could not be mere coincidence. This was a difficult moment for Abacha and the Idoma in the kitchen càbinet like Major General Lawrence Onoja were obviously embarrassed. Abacha’s ‘boys’ bayed for blood.
Ebute was picked up within 24 hours from his hide-out. But before then, we had hatched this idea that there was need for the Och’Idoma, His Royal Highness, Chief Abraham Ajene Okpabi to pay Abacha a solidarity visit to reassure him of the Idoma support. During the visit, virtually everyone made their contribution including Obande but it was the Och’Idoma who took the risk of assuring Abacha that henceforth none of his subjects would speak against his government. And none did, miraculously. An initially skeptical Abacha took that to mean that the Och’Idoma was in charge. Rewards followed.
When the Och’Idoma died in 1995(?), Abacha in acknowledgement of the stabilising role he played in his government sent out a high-powered government delegation. The New Nigerian devoted its front and back pages as well did an eight-page pull-out on Idoma history to which Professor Armstrong Adejoh, Professor Yakubu Ochefu, Mr Steve Anyebe and others contributed.
This is getting too long already. Obande beat lawyers in the courtroom, academics in the classroom and soldiers in their theatres. He was the ultimate politician, often deploying brawn and guile. He was far more knowledgeable than the formally educated, more cunning than the fox and more daring than the lion and more generous than them all. He was the ultimate commander, and the people were his troops.
We have lost a warrior… a good man. May his soul rest in peace!