The news must still be seeping through Nigeria of the death earlier today of the Nigerian statesman, Paul Unongo. Many young Nigerians may not place him very well but, by his own testimony, he is the most important person in Tiv politics in Nigeria since 1959. Considering the stature of a personage such as Joseph Tarka, that may sound somehow immodest but that is what he said openly sometimes in 1993 at the launching of Professor Mvendaga Jibo wait a minute.
At the book launching, he asked why everyone else among Tiv elite at the occasion were given a copy of the book ahead of the D-date except himself. Then he answered the question himself. His analysis is that it is the most significant statement that people were tired of old politicians such as himself and were looking for new leaders. That, he said, was the only way he could understand his exclusion from the list of those who got advance copies.
It showed his sharp awareness of the levels of sociological tension in the society beyond the class, regional, ethnic and gender fault lines. No one denies him the rating of being deep and sophisticated. It would be difficult to sustain. Before Nigeria’s independence, he had studied in Canada as to be considered fit to lecture at the University of Lagos in Psychology before he was drafted into politics by Joseph Tarka, the late lead campaigner for the Middle Belt as he understood it then.
It is not clear where he imbibed a populist touch to his politics from. If it was not from his liberal education, then most likely from Senator Tarka himself. Unongo was certainly one but his was neither right-wing nor left wing populism. He was probably just a public spirited and kind man but one who, as he himself put it, was so kind in giving to others that he became poor.
Aside from building and running the old but highly popular Juladacco High School that was very kind to pupils – fees, food and transport, unconfirmed hints suggest he lost his Power and Steel ministerial job because he was too generous to the point of sending an alarming signal to the system.
Among the elite around Benue State where he comes from and in the Middle Belt, there is no one of any serious standing who denies that Paul Unongo could relate with anybody. It didn’t matter your age or status in society. Some people think this is where the Idoma elite, for instance, got carried away and are given to celebrating Unongo because he is one member of the Tiv ethnicity who says openly that the gate should be opened for someone from Idomaland as far as governorship of Benue State is concerned. Although not a few interrogate his stand by asking why he did not say this when he was struggling for the governorship of the state between 1983 and 2007, others applaud it no end for daring the Tiv aristocracy in saying so. As far as such analysts are concerned, it is uncommon boldness that only an Unongo could afford. Why they say so is not clear.
Whether he was breaking the bride after crossing the river or being bold, it would not be surprising if we find the Idoma component of Benue State mourning him more than their Tiv counterpart. Unongo is the passage of a many sided personage. It remains to be confirmed if he ever wrote or published any major work.