Professor Jerry Agada, one time Minister of State for Education, and former National President of Association of Nigerian Authors speaks with John Charles on the purported parts of Benue being part of the eastern states
Your community shares border with communities in Igboland can you briefly tell us about your ancestry?
I am from a place called Orokam in Ogbadibo LGA of Benue State. Orokam, as you know, is a border town. Obolafo is the next eastern town. In fact, there are some areas in Orokam that our people and some Igbo people almost sweep our compound together because of the nearness at the boundary. That is my ancestral home. And you know, Orokam came to be as a result of migration in the very old days when Kwararafa kingdom came to settle in that place.
But there are some communities in Ogbadibo, your local government, Ado, Okpokwu and Obi council areas, the Ezza, Izzi, Effium Ai Aroga that are dominated by Igbo?
These communities exist in part of the areas you mentioned but I would talk about my own boundary. Let me tell you that because of living across borders, somebody like Aaron Akor is a chief somewhere in Eteh now, but before, we thought he is one of our people. In fact, we thought his people are Orokam people. But when he became chief of that place, we said but this man is one of our people. When people stay together, go to the same primary schools, the tendency to enjoy things together is there, even in such a way that they enjoy scholarship in the state. You see that some people from Eteh come to collect state scholarship here because we are together.
It happens in all boundary areas. Remember when I contested governorship with former governor Suswam and others, somebody wrote in the paper that, in the first place, I was not an Idoma man, that I was an Igboman and that it was during the civil war that I came to Benue because my father was selling across the border, after the war, he settled in my place. Meanwhile I was born and brought up in Orokam, my village in Ogbadibo. So because of intermarriage, we live together and we interact together. Igbo come to our own stream to fetch water, they come to our markets. Remember the case of Bakassi in Cross River, that is the similarity between our people and the Igbo.
Who are the Arogas in Ogbadibo? Are they mostly Igbo?
That’s what I am telling you. They are part of Owukpa in Ogbadibo. You cannot say they are mostly Igbo but they share everything together. The interaction became so permanent that you think they are Igbo. People tell you if you go there, there are so many Igbo there. But that is as a result of living together for so long.
That part of the state has similar culture with the Igbo and even share words. Why this common practice if they do not originate from the same place?
Let me tell you how these similarities came about. When you went to settle in those boundary areas, at least you intermarry and even go to same market. We were doing things together. Then, there was this feeling among our people that because we had come to that place as a result of migration, we must prepare and fortify ourselves so that people would not overrun us as a result of war again. So, the Igbo person from the boundary would tell our people ‘bring this type of Juju and use it so that nobody can overrun you’. As such, at that time, our people adopted their type of Juju called Okpa.
Apart from Okpa, there were other types and even one called ‘’Onmabe’’, which is a type of masquerade. Then, according to them, they believed with the masquerade, you wouldn’t have any form of accident. It was the Igbo that owned the masquerade then. But because of the interaction between our people and Igbo, they also mounted the ‘’Onmabe’’ in our areas so that if you come to our place here, you would see the ‘Okpa’ and ‘Onmabe’ and if you cross to the East in Obolafor, you would see same thing. That would make you think we have the same culture. There was a day our community decided to collect all the ‘Okpas’ and all the ‘Onmabes’ and dumped them in the east across the border. Any one that remained, we set them ablaze and we did away with that culture.
But in a way, the typography in Ogbadibo, Ado and Okpokwu are similar to Igbo land?
Well, that is true. If you are coming from the north down this area, by the time you get to Ogbadibo, the vegetation like palm trees, trees, typography and the setting are like the Igbo.
And now, those agitating for Biafia are laying claiming parts of Benue originated from them due to some of these common practice, even the language…
If you know history of languages, you would discover that all nations in the world have similarity in language and even in pronunciation. Go to Congo , our Tiv people, Yorubas and even people of Cross River , sometime, there is element of common pronunciation of words. Sharing same language or words does not make us Igbo, the similarity of language pronunciation is all over the world and you can’t use it to lay claim to the area. There is symbiotic relationship among people of the world.
Do you think those who live around the borders are being marginalised either by the Federal Government or Benue State?
Am I not occupying sensitive position in government now ( Chairman, Benue State Civil Service Commission) and I’m from the border town? I was once a minister, Audu Ogbe is also a minister from that axis. That is why we have certificate of origin because you know where you come from. The main fact that you are living around the boundary does not exempt you from occupying certain position which is not a hindrance. Benue and Idoma do not originate from Igbo at all and that is my submission.
What is your thought about the Biafra agitation?
Well, if not that you are asking me, I do not give it any thought as such because the first time I heard about Biafra was during my geography class in secondary school as a form one student. If you look at the map of Nigeria down extreme end, they wrote ‘Bite of Biafra’. I don’t even know what that means till date. I didn’t bother to think about it because I believe it is not Nigeria map. The time I started hearing about Biafra was the time of civil war. Remember the civil war started in 1967. When the war started and the Igbo were moved away from Otukpo, the Igbo who were in school with us were moved, then the Idomas, Tivs and other northerners who were in schools in the east, they were also moved from there to the north. The war started from my village and we were not moved but the Igbo were moved out of the border in our village. We were not part of Igbo and if we were part of them, why did the war start from the boundary in my village?
If Nnamdi Kanu visits Benue State, will you welcome him, because some of the youths said that if he comes, they will welcome him?
Well, you know madness; there is no yardstick to measure it. People are just like that. The youths who are saying that they would welcome him did not see Biafra war. This is democracy; anybody can exercise his or her right. So if Kanu comes from wherever he wants to come and if anybody from this side wants to give him himself, his mother, wife and children, then let them go ahead and dash Kanu because they want to play to the gallery. It is entirely your business; Agada can’t question you. But as for me and my family, there is nothing like Kanu and Biafra. He is only promoting what he heard or is it because he was detained and the Federal Government is promoting him. Who is Kanu? Many of the people, the MASSOB and IPOB have not seen war, they only heard and that is why they are making this noise.
If Kanu succeeds in his struggle through referendum, would you and your people go with Biafra?
I am not going to be part of Biafra. I will exercise my conscience and I will tell my people what I know. Is it an offence to live around a boundary, so why would they extend the referendum to us? What is the basis for asking us whether we want to join them?
But Kanu is laying claim that parts of the state belong to Biafra and you corroborated by your initial statement that you saw something like ‘Biafra Bite’ in Nigeria map way back in your form one in secondary school…
I have never seen a map of Biafra with Benue on it and I don’t know what the Bite of Biafra means because it is along the coastline or maybe it is a foreign name.
What kind of restructuring would you subscribe to?
The type of restructuring I will subscribe to is the one that will give all the federating units that sense of belonging so that they are on their own. I am not looking out for restructuring that you would want to restructure us out of Benue. We are talking about the restructuring that the centre should not be too powerful so that all the federating units can have their own self-actualisation that would augur well for their own system.
What is your view on the quit notice by Arewa youth that all Igbos should vacate the north by Oct 1?
Sometimes, I sit and I say everybody including me is mad. Again, I ask myself if I am still alive. On what basis are such declaration making. Who are these youths? For me, I don’t recognise them and their type of leadership. But then, I talk of general madness, some people would play to the gallery in such a way that once they hear about something like that and because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, on that day, they will come out massively and start killing people saying there is quit notice.
You would think it is a joke but before you know it, hundreds of people would have been killed. That is my fear because somebody has mentioned it. However, I see it as a way for Arewa people to be looking for trouble just as Kanu is assuming every power and has attained a status that they are fighting for Biafra.