By Jonathan Jibrin
Tragedy has always dealt a blow on the life of any group of people as it bothers on their heroes, men and women of valour. Most often this creates a vacuum of pragmatic leadership and popular idealism.
Among the Igala people, death as a tragic end to life has had its fangs on many illustrious men and women. These were people committed to the communal essence to living and desiring nothing short of the best for their people. They lived selflessly for the benefit of humanity. These people are most often misunderstood, persecuted, surfer deprivation and even become victims of high level conspiracy. Man as a creature is indeed repulsive to radical change.
Dr. Steven Makoji Achema(1947- 1999) was one of the illustrious sons that existed among the Igala people. He is likened to the Biblical Moses who led God,s people to the promise land and Nehemiah who rebuilt the ruins of the temple of God. Born to the family of Andrew Achema Oyibo from Ayija clan of the Aleji dynasty (Igalamela king makers).His mother Madam Adi nee Akor hails from Ogodo in Ikoja district of Ankpa local Government Area.
He had his early education at the Native Authority boarding primary school Ofugo.He attended the prestigious Government College Keffi.After his HSC he was retained as a student teacher in the school. The first student to have that privilege before then. He exhibited a rare leadership quality even at an early age, that earned him the games captain of the school because of his love for sports. He proceeded to Ahmadu Bello University Zaria where he studied Veterinary medicine graduating in 1975.While at the university he got involved in students union politics especially at the regional level.
He became the National President of Igala Students Association (ISA) while in the University and had a very successful tenure. Remarkably,he led the protest against women taxation in Igala land to the then kwara state Government. This led to the abolition of women taxation among the Igala people. His show of charisma as National President of the umbrella organisation of Igala students was second to none. He mobilized students to attend the annual ISA convention; topical issues of benefit were discussed especially as it bothers on scholarship award and central logistics arrangement to convey students back to school after holidays.
Under his leadership ISA brokered a peace meeting among the aggrieved parties in the Royal ruling house between Opaluwa Oguche and Ata Ali Obaje in 1972.A situation that brought lasting peace to the kingdom. So much were his achievements that he was bestowed the life president of ISA in 1975. A colourful ceremony performed by the Ata Igala for his outstanding achievements as National president of the Association.
He had a stint in public service with the Benue state Government when Ayangba Agricultural Development Project(AADP) was established in 1978.He rose to the position of deputy project manager (development services).He was directly in charge of constructing feeder roads in most communities as part of the social responsibilities of the World Bank project .The AADP constructed roads from Ejule via Ala to Ihiame, ikefi and terminating at Achokpa .Feeder roads from 0gidibeje(junction) via Owowolo Ofolikpa Iyokpe to Ochadamu.Ogodo Akwu, Acharane to Egane. Aloma through Ofabo, Angba, Akpanya to Odolu.From okura saw mill, Ofante to Onicha Igo. Abocho ,Ogbabede, Emewe axis were all his initiatives as head of development services of AADP.This was a later advantage for him in his political endeavours as he knows virtually every village in Igala land.
During the yearly agricultural shows by the AADP at the stadium, he usually performs surgery on ailing livestock publickly.That made him very popular as everyone especially the locals watches with amazement at the ‘magician’ operating on animals. The story is told everywhere many days after the event of Dr. Achemas wizardry in Vet medical practice. He retired from public service at a young age of 34 on grade level 16 in 1982.
He joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and became a legislative aide to Senator Ahmodu Ali after he exited the service of the Benue state ministry of Agriculture. This was when he started his partisan political carrier. He was in Lagos with Ahmodu Ali until he resigned voluntarily to contest for the Benue States Secretary of NPN.As the youth leader of the Igala/Bassa zone of the party; he had endeared himself to the delegates to the Markurdi convention. Dr. Achema and his associates were ready to wrest powers from the old brigade. But the ‘POWERS THAT BE’ found him too radical and independent minded for them so they denied him accreditation to the venue of the convention. He was caught up in the conspiracy game of politics. He resigned his membership of the party in protest but did not decamp so he quit politics temporarily and went into business. He established the Achema Farms LTD that was into agricultural activities around Ofokopi near Ugwolawo. His love for recreation made him establish the Ubiga Hotels and Nite club Idah. As President of the Idah club he uplifted the infrastructure of the club to standard.
As a patriot of great repute, he distinguished himself in community service. He became the National president of the Idah Divisional Development Association (IDDA).During his tenure the association established 13 community secondary schools in the old Idah Local Government area now divided into four Local Government Areas (Idah,Ibaji, Ofu and Igalamela/Odolu) These schools are located at Ejule Ojebe, Oforachi,Onicha Igo,Agojeju Umomi, Ajaka, Odolu, Akpanya Ejule Ugwolawo Ochadamu etc.
As IDDA president he encouraged and established recreational centres notable among them was the Igala cinema viewing point at Idah.Idah played host to musicians like Bongos Ikwe, Victor Uwaifor and other notable musicians at the famous IDDA hall. He championed the fight against sabotage at the Federal Polytechnic Idah in 1983 when there were incessant fire eruptions in the institution. He led a delegation to the Federal Government and demanded for an investigation into the case. This led to the Justice Shegun Commission of inquiry to the Federal Polytechnic Idah.This singular act saved the polytechnic from being relocated out of Igala land. As leader of the youth wing of the movement for the creation of Kogi State during the second republic, he organised rallies in support for the creation of Kogi state. That increased his popularity among the Igala people. This was to be part of the remote reasons for his early exit from the civil service as he incurred the wrath of some power brokers within Igala land who were in top positions in the Benue State Government at that time.
He was chairman planning committee of the silver Jubilee of the Ata Igala in 1982.He gave our monarch a befitting jubilee celebration mobilizing all Igala people to contribute to the success of the event. It was at that occasion that Prof Francis Idachaba was conferred with a chieftaincy title as the first Igala professor.
In 1987, Gen Banbangida lifted the ban on political activities with the experiment of the Zero party election into local councils. The people of old Idah Local Government area felt it was time for the new breed politicians to come on stage. Dr Steven Achema became the beneficiary of this thought process. He was beckoned to come and serve his people at the grass roots. Through the support of friends and allies he ran a very dynamic campaign organisation that culminated into a land slide victory at the polls. When the results were announced he won overwhelmingly .He contested with sixteen people, all their votes put together was not half the votes Dr Achema pulled in that election.
He had an eventful tenure as Chairman of old Idah local Government Area. His achievements have stood the test of time as his records remain unbeatable even after more than twenty years of leaving that office. He was committed to grassroots development. He took the Governor on a tour of Idah local government travelling through all the villages and getting to meet the people with a view to drawing Government’s attention to the plight of rural dwellers. Villages like odolu Akpanya Agojeju Aloma Ofabo Ejule Itobe Ochadamu all had the privilege of seeing Col Fidelis Maka who was Military Governor of Benue State at that time.
He constructed the Ameh Oboni Square and the civic centre in the Ata,s palace including the Ata,s council hall. He uplifted the infrastructure of the combined office used as the Local Government Secretariat introducing modern technological office equipment’s like the word processor and computer system. He used his personal contacts to attract development to the local government through agencies like DFRRI to provide for rural feeder road construction. He achieved so much in health care delivery. Idah Local Government got an award as Model of Models (Bamako Initiative) in primary health care.Prof Olikoye ransome Kuti as Health Minister was always in Idah on Dr Achema,s invitation.Gen Muhamudu Kotongora, John Shagaya Ministers of works and Internal affairs respectively were also at Idah on the invitation of Dr Achema. Idah prison was renovated due to the visit and the Idah-Nsukka road construction took off as a result of Kotongora,s visit.
Dr. Achema employed young Igala graduates to occupy positions in the Local Government service. Many of the present day Igala Directors of Local Government (DLG, s) and Treasurers serving in Kogi state where folks he brought into the service via his visionary projections. He was the Chairman of Chairmen of local Governments in Benue State from March 1988-July1989.A position occupied only by the Tiv,s until then.
He won the Chairmanship election the second time this time on SDP party thicket (The first to be elected twice as Chairman in the whole of Benue state) but was short-lived because he resigned to contest the Governorship of Kogi state in September 1991.He was a candidate to beat at that election. Again through support from friends who rallied resources together he had a very formidable campaign team. He lost the election to Prince Abubakar Audu. He faced very stiff opposition during the election as they considered him too radically minded due to his very uncompromising posture. Stopping him from becoming Governor is a task that must be done was the thinking of some notable individuals then. But in one of the many writings on the wall of his personal lobby he remarks thus “WE THE WILLING LED BY THE UNKNOWING ARE DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE UNGREATFULL. WE HAVE DONE SO MUCH FOR SO LONG, WE ARE QUALIFIED TO DO ANYTHING WITHOUT NOTHING” He had a record of going through the Governorship primaries seven times yet won all. He was cleared seven days before the election. He accepted the results of the election in the spirit of sportsmanship without seeking redress at the tribunal. To him Prince Abubakar Audu is a brother and an Igala man so he conceded defeat in a manner that is not typical of politicians.
He was a founding member of the middle Belt Forum and became the head of the political committee of the group. This availed him the opportunity of making contacts outside the Igala folds the more. He fraternised very closely with Chief Solomon Lar, Air Comodore Dan Suleiman, Air Comodore Jonah David Jang, Late Fr. Moses Adasu, Prof Jerry Gana ,Amb. Yaya Kwande, Fidelis Tapgun, Alh Saba Lafiagi and a host of other big names in the north central Geo Political Zone. With the opportunity provided by the Middle Belt Forum, it increased his profile greatly for National politics which he explored to the benefit of Igala people.
He became the leader of the Igala caucus of the SDP in Kogi state. He provided a formidable opposition to the ruling party the NRC. This position made his house at Idah a political Mecca to Presidential aspirants seeking the Igala people’s votes on the SDP platform. Notable among them were late Gen Shehu Yar,adua,Chief Olusola Saraki,Prof Jerry Gana,Mrs Sera Jibril, late Chiefe MKO Abiola, Olu Falae Sen. Mamud Waziri, Arthur Nzeribe and a host of others. Normally he negotiates on behalf of the Igala people what is their place if they eventually become President. He loved his people so much and the people loved him in turn especially the down trodden. Dr. Achema dared big politicians like Shehu Yar,dua and Olusola Sarki preferring Prof Jerry Gana the candidate of the middle belt forum and friend of the Igala people in the presidential primary election. This action cost him from being elected as deputy National Chairman (North) in the SDP.
He was totally committed to grass roots development and political activities. He was no doubt the most popular and acceptable politician Igala has produced. Though some elites never accepted his views. He controlled a viable political structure that is second to none in Kogi state. He had a think-tank made up of intellectuals who offered selfless services making personal sacrifices for the advancement of Igala land. Most of his strategies and tactics where hatched by the think-tank committee members in the upper room of his Idah abode. His structure had a well laid hierarchy for succession. He had what he refers to as intermediary leaders who were being prepared to take over from those who were elderly in the group. Many of the notable politicians who are gladiators in the politics of Kogi State especially from Igala land are products of his Political structure. Though many have drifted away from his ideals.
He became a member of the Alex Ekwueme led institute for civil society that later became G-34 in 1998. It was the G-34 that opposed Gen Sani Abacha in his self-succession bid.Creditably, Achema was the only Igala man in the group. The group metamorphosed into the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). On the day of the launch of the party at the International Conference Centre Abuja he was on the front row as a founding member. He became the chairman of the steering committee of the party in Kogi state. He resigned from being chairman to contest the Governorship seat of Kogi State on PDP thicket. He withdrew from the race when he perceived the intrigues of the Okun people against the Igalas in a strategy christened `OKUN AGENDA’ meaning Kogi West must produce Governor in PDP.
Dr Achema Opposed forces like the late chief S.B. Awoniyi, Shola Akanmode, Late steven Olorunfemi. S.B. Daniyan Dr. Kayode Ige etal. All from the western senatorial district of Kogi state. He sacrificed party loyalty on the altar of Igala patriotism. Partnering with Late Senator A.T Ahmed leader of the Central Senatorial district he openly campaigned for Prince Abubakar Audu the APP candidate to win the 1998 Gubernatorial election against his party. He didn’t hide under any guise to prove Igala,s superiority in terms of number to the other tribes in Kogi State. He was on the radio asking all Igala people to vote for Prince Audu and he mobilised greatly for the Igala victory. PDP lost to APP and an Igala man became Governor of Kogi state. Hereby puncturing the Okun Agenda. This action cost him a ministerial position in the Obasanjo administration because his Igala brothers in the party colaborated with the Okun people to accuse him before the board of trustees of PDP of anti-party activities. There were some notable Igala politicians who were strongly opposed to the Igala nationalist posture that Dr Achema stood for in the 1998 Governorship election. Against these odds, Dr Achema was appointed as Senior Special Assistant to President Obasanjo on professional bodies and labour matters. A position he held until his death.
Dr. Achema was a fearless and very daring fighter especially on issues that bothers on the Igala people. That earned him the nickname “ALAPA”. Meaning the blacksmiths iron that dares the fire. He had zero tolerance for oppression and its tendencies against humanity. He preferred to be low profiled, living among his people and identifying with their plights. He was too trusting to a fault and many took advantage of his receptive nature. He practices what he calls micro politics. (House to House contact) A great grass roots Mobilizer per excellence. Not being a money bag, he was loved genuinely without inducement. He was so magnanimous and one Igala writer describes him as “HIS TYPE IS RARE”. He identifies with the masses rising to every occasion that attracts his attention.
Tragedy struck in the early hours of 6th November 1999. Dr Steven Makoji Achema died at Koton- karfi on the Jamata bridge in a ghastly motor accident. He was on his way to Lokoja to facilitate for Chief John Odawn to be the State Chairman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) He was going to actualising the Igala dream of producing a Governor in PDP. The process was first to install an Igala party chairman who will use his vantage position to provide for a favourable ground for an Igala candidate to emerge. This dream became a reality four years after his death just like Old Major in Geroge Orwell’s Animal Farm who dreamt about the animal revolution but died three days after his dream… Alhaji Ibrahim Idris (Ibro) became a beneficiary of Achema,s schemes four years later when he became an Igala candidate in PDP and eventual Governor of Kogi state.
Dr Steven through the efforts of his friend and associates especially members of club 582 was accorded a befitting burial the first of its kind in Igala land. President Obasanjo remarked during his funeral service at the Qua Iboe church Utako “I have never come across a politician as selfless as Dr Achema in my short encounter with him” .The Federal Government was represented at the burial by a high powered delegation made up of about seven ministers including the then National Chairman of PDP Chief Barnabas Gamade and members of theboard of trustees late Abubakar Rimi, Chief Sololomn Lar and others.So many Igala sons and daughters and political associates where all in attendance from far and near. It was all sorrows, tears and wailing moment for the Igala people as they bid fare well to theirs beloved Dr Steven Makoji Achema.
Unfortunately, This great Igala Icon has not been Immortalized in death. A man who has given so much for the advancement of his people. Achema lived a selfless life giving to humanity whatever God has bestowed on him. Not even a street is named after him anywhere in Kogi state beside the hand ball stadium at Idah. To the chagrin of many, the successive Government of Kogi state have not thought to immortalise this great mobilizer, colossus and above all a martyr.
As we remember him today thirteen years after, may we be inspired by his doggedness to make our society a better place and propelling the Igala people to the fore.