For 21 years, we had an annual ritual of speaking every New Year’s Day and more often besides. You could always trust him to provide a season’s worth of deep insight wrapped in a bodyguard of fun, humour and hilarity. On 1 January 2023, however, it was impossible to reach him – and try as I did – it was difficult to extract a clear understanding of what the problem was, even as it was evident something was not right. That was until the afternoon of Tuesday, 14 March 2023.
Mbabai, the community in the heart of Tiv-land that gave birth to Michael Utsaha, is in Guma Local Government Area on the flood plains of the Guma River, one of the tributaries of the River Benue. Located just 35 Kilometres from the state capital, Guma used to be part of Makurdi until it orbited off into a separate LGA in 1987. To its west, Guma also shares fragile borders with Doma Local Government Area of Nasarawa State.
At birth in May 1969, his family named him Tarnongo. In his native Tiv language, the name evoked optimism, conveying the hope for both progress and greatness in the affairs of the world. This hope was not misplaced. He was born into a community that survived the worst of the atrocities associated with the murderous pacification of Tiv-land in the immediate aftermath of Nigeria’s Independence and in a time of turmoil during the Nigerian civil war, during which the country was led by a man from his Benue-Plateau State.
In many ways, Mike embodied these hopes, making them his own mantra. His origins very much made him a frontiersman, able to connect across boundaries and divides, real or situational. He was born into a family with a deep commitment to public service, faith, and community. His father, Augustine, retired from public service as a senior judge; his mother, Mary, worked in the public service as a teacher before retiring into community leadership; and his immediate younger brother is a general in the Nigerian army.
Mike began his primary education in what was his state capital then in Jos, before finishing it in Makurdi, the new capital of Benue State, where his family relocated to after the creation of states in 1976. Delayed by the turmoil of military rule which caught up with him during his undergraduate studies at the University of Jos, Mike eventually enrolled at the Nigerian Bar in 1995, following in the footsteps of his father. One decade thereafter, he returned to the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, for graduate studies as an Open Society Justice Initiative Fellow, one of a cohort of 10 from around the world.
Had he not ended up at the Bar, Mike would probably have settled for another vocation of the cloth as a Catholic priest. Such was his faith and his commitment to the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. That commitment shaped his life-long defence of human rights. In this pursuit, he worked with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), as a programme staff and thereafter, also, as programme officer at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, OSIWA, in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital. Thereafter, Mike gravitated towards closer association with faith and community undertakings, working in succession with the Kukah Centre and the Lux Terra Leadership Foundation.
In 2015, Mike sought nomination on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, APC, for a seat in the Benue State House of Assembly. If he had succeeded, he would have become the member representing the home constituency of the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, who also comes from Guma. In July 2018, Governor Ortom defected from the APC back to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). Mike’s political ambition was one of the casualties of the resulting turmoil created by Ortom’s defection in the politics of the communities in Guma.
By this time, however, he was happy with his work in the communities and appeared to accept that his calling lay in building a constituency for social justice in Benue State. Three years earlier, in July 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi had installed a Claretian priest, Monsignor Chikpa Wilfred Anagbe, as its new Bishop. Mike worked closely with the new Bishop, adopting the motto of his episcopacy as his personal mission: Ad Iesu et fratres serviendum – “to serve Jesus and the brethren”. This was entirely in keeping with his commitment to social justice at a time when the Makurdi Diocese increasingly became the epicentre of exposure to murderous atrocities by armed herders. He saw it as part of his vocation to alleviate the suffering of communities affected by the violence and to work with them to discover resilience.
In March, 2021, the Makurdi Catholic Diocese constituted a Resource and Planning Commission to upgrade resources at its disposal for supporting communities and adherents suffering from the attacks and displacement. This was in the face of a combination of challenges from both nature and violence at the hands of armed herders. The Bishop chose Mike to head the new Commission as its Executive Secretary.
Following the inauguration of the Commission in June 2021, Mike threw heart and soul into its work, enlisting his significant Rolodex network to support it. Such was his conviction in its desirability. Unknown to Mike, however, perhaps a majority of the clergy in the Diocese did not share in his enthusiasm for this undertaking. Regarding the Commission with suspicions founded in erroneous fears for the fiscal wellbeing of their various parishes, many of them chose to oppose its mission. While some of them were happy to let matters lie, a few unashamedly appeared prepared to explore the extreme frontiers of African ill-will in frustrating the work of the Commission.
Despite the toxic opposition he faced, Mike forged ahead with significant success, enabling the Diocese of Makurdi to improve its network of supporters within and beyond Nigeria. The ferocity of the determined ill-will from the clergy to whose wellbeing he had dedicated nearly all of his life as well as the apparent reluctance of episcopal support to address it, however, took their toll. Mike found the depth of the clerical antipathies arrayed against him frightfully shocking. It is not open to question that this had a lot to do with his lamentably untimely passing.
When we spoke at the end of October 2022, Mike conveyed that he was in far from optimal shape but hoped to be in better fettle soon thereafter. That was not to be. As the last quarter of 2022 wore on, his health got more fragile, necessitating hospitalisation in December 2022. On 13 March 2023, he was transferred to the Federal Medical Centre in Makurdi. The following day, he walked the road of all mortals in the presence of his family. On 1 April, his mortal remains returned to earth.
Mike was one of those people who made you feel they were in your life long before you were conceived. He defined dependability, thoughtfulness, and grace that brooked no divisions among all creation and spread laughter everywhere he went. In his passing, the vocation of social justice in Nigeria has lost one of its most committed advocates.
Tarnongo Mike Utsaha is survived by his wife, Caroline; his teenage daughter, Naomi Ngu’Umbur, his parents, and siblings.
•A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]