Chief Paul Wantaregh Iorpuu Unongo, handsome, flamboyant, outspoken and articulate, was one of the many notable politicians in the country during the Second Republic.
A Tiv ethnic group from Benue State by birth, during that period, Unongo defied most of the popular politicians in the area like Senator Joseph Tarka and Mr. Aper Aku, to turn his face southwards. He embraced the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, considered to be more liberal and progressive, than the conservative National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which most people in that part of the country belonged.
Unongo who was variously described as “an institution” “an encyclopaedia of politics”, and ” a political titan”, thought himself to be so popular that he could convince his people to make him their governor on the platform of the NPP, but did not succeed. He was trounced by Mr. Aper Aku of the NPN.
Not the one to easily capitulate, Unongo continued the struggle, making his views known on virtually every national issue, and thus turning himself into the conscience of the people.
By virtue of the NPN/NPP Accord, Paul Unongo was appointed Minister of Steel Development by the NPN led Federal Government of President Shehu Shagari. He did his best to turn around the ministry, but would still not give up his gadfly role. He continued to talk and to criticize. He later resigned his appointment as minister to try his luck once more to be the governor of his state. Again, he did not succeed.
Unongo then went into political oblivion. Nobody heard of him for so long, until recently when he emerged as one of the chieftains of the conservative Northern Elders Forum (NEF). Again, he became an ardent promoter and fanatical supporter of northern interest. Within a short space of time, Unongo was elected deputy chairman of NEF.
As deputy chairman, Paul Unongo never allowed anything that bordered on northern interest to pass by without making some critical comments. He insisted that Jonathan should grant amnesty to Boko Haram tetrorits as Yar’Adua did for Niger Delta militants.
According to him: “Amnesty to Boko Haram is the most viable option of attaining peace in Northern Nigeria. We can’t end a war with a war. Niger Delta militants were criminals, yet we dialogued with them and we got results”.
Unongo who was de facto chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, always standing in for its ailing chairman, Alhaji Maitama Sule, equally held that though the North had supported the convening of a sovereign national conference, NEF would not be part of Jonathan’s 2014 national conference. He vehemently opposed Jonathan’s reelection bid in 2015, and threw his weight behind Muhammadu Buhari.
After the death of Alhaji Maitama Sule, Unongo took over as NEF chairman. That was in July last year. He continued to defend northern interest and to attack anybody who goes against it.
With the recent invasion of Benue State by Fulani herdsmen where seventy-three people were despatched to their untimely death, Unongo was again in the news. This time, he was no longer on the side of the North, but on the side of his Benue people.
First, he alleged that a former vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, was the chief sponsor of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association that carried out the invasion of Benue state. But when the former vice president threatened him with N200 billion suit unless he withdraws the allegation, Unongo became dumb.
Unongo however came out with another bombshell, that he was ready to raise an army against the killer herdsmen. He called on his people of Benue to defend themselves if the federal government could not protect them.
“Rise up and defend yourselves if the federal government continues to deny you protection and security in accordance with the United Nations Charter”, he charged them.
Unongo who was previously detained over allegations of complicity in the April 1990 abortive coup, which his country man, Gideon Okar, spearheaded, further told his people: “You have the right to protect yourselves, help yourselves and your race from total annihilation”.
Two days after making these inciting statements, Unongo threw in the towel and resigned as chairman of Northern Elders Forum to “enable NEF implement its programmes”.
Now, how do we categorize Paul Unongo? Is he a progressive, or a conservative? Is he a northern irredentist, or anti north?
As a progressive, Unongo pitched tent with the NPP, but he later accepted ministerial appointment from the conservative NPN. Unongo had presented himself as anti north when he joined NPP led by a southerner, but he later assumed leadership of the Northern Elders Forum.
Unongo said he was resigning from the NEF to enable the organization implement its programmes, what programmes is NEF implementing which Unongo as its leader cannot handle?
Unongo has charged his Benue people to rise and defend themselves against Fulani herdsmen since the federal government which he had campaigned for and voted can no longer protect them.
Again, will Unongo advocate amnesty for Fulani herdsmen that killed his people as he advocated for Boko Haram?
These are some the issues bothering us as we analyse the travails of Paul Unongo.
During the 1966 progrom, Easterners suffered terribly in the hands of Bunue people when those fleeing from the far North were blocked in the area and visited with the most horrendous massacre. Now, the same people they fought for have started killing them. That’s the world for you.