Home / News / Local / Where do we go from here? Wantaregh Paul Unongo (1935-2022) is still asking the Tiv nation  (Part 1) By Simon Imobo-Tswam 
Chief Paul Unongo

Where do we go from here? Wantaregh Paul Unongo (1935-2022) is still asking the Tiv nation  (Part 1) By Simon Imobo-Tswam 

Wantaregh Paul Iyorpuu Unongo transited to the silent climes on Nov. 29, 2022, two months after his 87th birthday. For the Tiv Nation, it was the symbolic and significant fall of the Iroko tree.
Paul Unongo wrote a number of books, among which are: “We are Black and Strong – Say it Loud;” “Iniongu i Iyough Mbi Hev” (A Celebration of the Feast of New Yams) and “Where Do We Go From Here?
It is the unanswered questions in the last book that prompts, majorly, this piece. It is written against the backdrop of the multi-challenges facing the Tiv people within, what the departed elder statesman was wont to call “the Nigerian Nation-State.” Put differently, Baba Unongo is still asking us questions from the higher realms.
Unongo’s birth-place was Jato Aka, Turan, a hilly countryside in present-day Kwande Local Government Area of Benue state. Jato Aka was (and remains) a rustic and geographically regressed area, but what it lacks in social amenities or Federal presence, it makes up for in being the cultural capital of all Tiv people, worldwide. This was Wantaregh Paul Unongo’s background.
He was born on September 26, 1935, to the distinguished family of Unongo Kwaghngise (Kwa’ngise) Anure Abera. His father, Pa JohnBridge Unongo Kwa’ngise, was a cousin of the legendary Tor Jato Aka. As was characteristic of all great men of that era, Pa Unongo Kwa’ngise was a man of the people, culture and tradition.
His (Unongo’s) mother was Mama Lante Kukwa, who hailed from Adi, Etulo, present-day Buruku Local Government Area.
It was from the regressed Jato Aka that Paul Unongo launched out to the world, starting with the famous Adikpo-London.
He lived an eventful and chequered life, but that chequered life modeled culture, tradition, philanthropy, love, unity  and ideological politics. We may add that these were undergirded by an aura of mystery.
Tiv people love mysteries, myths and mythical figures; and they transformed Paul Unongo into a subject of endless mythographical constructions. He was said to have “disappeared” for years as an infant to be nurtured by benevolent spirits, the “custodians of the world.”
And the stories went that he could “evaporate” at crunch times such as a road-block by hostile opponents or during an auto-crash. And he was said to have the special ability to “supernaturally manifest” in meetings where his death or harm to his interests were being discussed!
Party loyalists and admirers boasted of how “no man born of a woman” could kill him.
That was Unongo the man, and  how the hallo of mystery was woven around his person.
Decades ago, an uncle told me of how Paul Unongo had returned to Nigeria with “seven degrees,” and how on account of such an unprecedented feat, “no one can employ him, not even the government.”
Still, I sat in a meeting where an opinion leader confidently showcased the man’s greatness by telling the audience how “Paul Unongo helped Henry Kissinger to become the President of Latin America in the 70s!”
These are some of the types of fantastic stories that flew about him. And the man too didn’t dissuade such rumours. If anything, he seemed to relish and reinforce them – be it advertently or inadvertently.
For instance,  Wantaregh favoured night travels and preferred white Sutanas with a dangling, over-sized medallion on his neck!
He introduced himself at significant fora as the “Oracle and Traditional Leader of Tiv people.” And for full effect, he appeared in public on ceremonial days, dressed in the complete regalia of the traditional Tiv man, something reserved for only a few initiates!
Plus, on such special occasions, he spoke as a Nomso-or i.e. a He-Man of sorts.
It was a cumulative of .the foregoing that imbued his chequered and scintillating life with the aura of myth, fantasy and the supernatural.
While he lived, he was variously described as “an institution,” “a human library,” “the encyclopedia of politics,” and “a political titan.” In death now, Paul, as he was fondly called, has finally become the true legend that his people and, perhaps he himself, always wanted (him) to be.
Additionally, by his death, Unongo has not only deepened that air of mystery about him – he has also blown the whistle on a tumultuous era.
In Benue state, those with whom he played politics have all gone – save for Hon. Isaac Ioryina Shaahu, his colleague in the Shehu Shagari cabinet in the Second Republic. The departed include the venerated minority rights leader, Late Sen. Chief (Dr.) J.S. Tarka; the First Executive Governor of the state, Mr. Apollos Aper Aku; the Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly under Gov. Aku, Rt. Hon. Julius Ayua Num; Second Republic House Speaker, Rt. Hon. Benjamin Akaai Chaha and Chief (Dr.) Edwin Idoko Obe (his gubernatorial running-mate in 1983), Hon. Peter Vande Acka, Chief Chia Surma, Chief Obande Obeya and Chief Paul Belabo.
Outside Benue state, of the Class of 1979 – it has been a wholesale departure to the Great Beyond. The last man standing is Chief Jim IfeanyiChukwu Nwobodo, the First Executive Governor of Old Anambra state.
All those significant politicians of yesterday – the inimitable Shehu Yar’adua, the colourful Abubakar Rimi, the philosophic Maitama Sule, the flamboyant Joseph Wayas, the  aristocratic Umaru Shinkafi, the intellectual Chuba Okadigbo, the iconic Adamu Ciroma, the laconic Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, the charismatic Solomon Lar etc – they all preceded Wantaregh to the land of the silent.
To the generation that witnessed his full blossoming in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Unongo is a familiar name and face. But not so for the millennials and Gen-Zees: they missed the heydays of Unongo’s glory; knowing him only in his afterglow; and they have no taught-History to fall back upon.
For such, this tribute will help in perspectivising his person, contextualising his narrative of ideological politics and shedding more light on his philosophy of generosity/humaneness.
Born in the staid 30s, Paul was some two decades later swept to Canada by the first wave of educational odysseys from Tivland to Europe and the Americas. Tiv youths, hungry for knowledge, like their mates from other parts of Nigeria and renascent Africa, were beginning to look West-wards.
This is how it was that in the roaring and tumultuous 60s, as the  Nigerian nation-state began grappling with the challenges of independence, the debonair, handsome and articulate Unongo returned home, at the behest of the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, to help “keep Nigeria one.”
He already had two degrees in Psychology from the Universities of Calgary and Edmonton;  and was working on his Ph.D. However, that could wait: the task of saving the Fatherland was at hand.
Nigeria needed the practical applications of the two degrees he had already acquired: first, in the war effort against Biafra; and secondly, in aiding to lay the building-blocks of Psychology Education in Nigeria, but particularly at the University of Lagos.
He, thus, became the second staff of the Psychology Department, the University of Lagos after Mr. E.T. Abiola; and the  first Tiv man (perhaps, even the first scholar in the Middle Belt) to lecture in a (Southern) university!
It was from the Ivory Tower that Unongo began to etch his name on the national canvas as a peace-envoy, diplomatic soldier, national peace-broker, conciliator, public intellectual, opinion leader/moulder, author, development enthusiast and grassroots mobilizer. It was the foregoing that advertised and recommended him as a man to watch in the years following.
Imobo-Tswam, a public space commentator, writes from Abuja.
(Watch out for the concluding part).

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