Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Article: Ombatse; A Different Kettle Of Fish

Arrested Ombatse Suspects

By Felix Oboagwina
Finally, I caved in. My curiosity got the better of me. Since media hawks (local and international) swooped on the sensational news of how a battalion of policemen and allied security operatives (citing figures between 40 and 100), perished at Lakyo village, somewhere in Nassarawa State, my inquisitiveness began to itch. I knew someone from the area and I yearned to learn from him more about the incident.
Ombugadu and I met last year, at a small radio station in Osun State, where I did a six-month stint, and we quickly struck up a friendship. He taught full-time in a public school in town, but doubled as a freelance Programme Presenter with the radio station. My chance to talk with him came last week Friday. While waiting for Honourable Wale Oshun (Chairman of the Afenifere Renewal Group, ARG) to join me for an early morning meeting in his Okota, Lagos home, I had time to kill –enough time to ring up Ombugadu in Abuja.
“My friend!” Ombugadu’s smooth baritone tickled my ear.
“My brother!” I answered back, picking up our customary line of opening our usually long phone chats.
It was always a pleasure to speak with this very cerebral, multitalented school teacher cum musician cum music promoter cum author cum husband cum father. He from Nassarawa in the Middle Belt and I from Edo in the old Mid-West, we had enjoyed memorable fellowship with each other in the land of our sojourning. By a twist of fate, both of us had since moved on. While he was settling into another teaching job in Abuja, I was back to media consultancy in Lagos.
“How is Abuja?”
Francis updated me on his relocating efforts. Apart from successfully picking up a teaching appointment, he had settled in Karu, a suburb of the Federal Capital Territory, in a two-bedroom flat owned by a retired Police Commissioner. Although without running water, the apartment came at N250,000 per annum. Even then, visitors, he said, commended his good fortune in securing “choice” accommodation in a city where Shylock landlords are notorious for demanding an arm and a leg to farm out accommodation to tenants. His workplace equally gave him good cheer.
“In fact, I can see Aso Rock from my office.”
“Wow, you mean you are next-door neighbour to the President!” I gushed. “I hope they don’t relocate your school for security reasons.”
The suggestion sent us both chuckling. And Francis quickly clarified the geography for me.
“Actually we can see the rock but nothing of the Villa,” he said. “So there are no security implications.”
Again we laughed simultaneously. But I had found the perfect aperture to insert my curiosity. Now I quickly baited him.
“This Ombatse matter....” I stuttered.
“What?” he said.
“This Ombatse sect incident, where so many policemen were killed, what really happened? Immediately I heard the news, my mind jumped directly to you because those first three letters of your name rhyme with those of OMBATSE.”
His laughter roared loud and long –going on and on. I waited. About 20 seconds of raucous laughter passed, and then my friend finally brought himself under control.
“Yes, I know about the Ombatse people. They are of my tribe, the Eggon tribe.”
 “Seriously?” I could hardly believe I had struck gold. “They are your people?”
“Oh, yes!” he confirmed. “And I too will be joining the Ombatse soon?”
“You?” my voice recoiled with astonishment. “You are Catholic now; do they admit people like that?”
“Ombatse is for the tribe, for Eggon people,” Ombugadu went on. “If you join, no bullet can kill you –for a fellow man to kill you, it will be impossible.”
“Is the shrine that potent?”
“Felix, Ombatse is a disciplined group,” he dragged his words for emphasis. “As an initiate, you enjoy all these protections. But in turn, you cannot afford to steal; you cannot do wickedness; you cannot kill another person; you cannot commit adultery with another man’s wife. Ombatse stands for almost all the discipline and virtues the Bible preaches.”
“And you say it is a tribal thing for Eggon people?” I threw in. “Is that the same tribe Labaran Maku hails from?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Labaran is Eggon like me.”
Current Minister for Information, Labaran Maku served as the immediate past Deputy Governor of Nassarawa State, after being Information Commissioner. Nowadays, Maku has his name tagged to a gubernatorial ambition. Like Ombugadu, Maku is an Eggon indigene as well as a member of the Catholic Church. Their people constitute a sizeable Christian population in this Northern region, and their diversity and plurality demystifies the myth of a monolithic North. Nassarawa thus has the same checker-board configuration as Adamawa, Kaduna, Taraba, Niger, Kogi, Kwara (all in the North-Central and North-Eastern belt), where animism rubs shoulders with Christianity and Islam in a social demography that sometimes proves explosive. Most times, the well-organised Gwandara, a Sultanate and Emirate-backed tribal stock, dominates local politics in Nassarawa. For the other tribes, this domination can prove irritating.
“But this problem with the police; what is the real story?”
Ombugadu said soberly: “Don’t believe all the falsehood they have been peddling. Nobody touched those policemen. Nobody killed any security person. It was the Ombatse juju that dealt with them.”
My friend then unreeled for me a tale that had all the trappings of the Ombatse’s official version of the events of that dark day on May 8, 2013, in Lakyo village, barely 70 kilometres from the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Lakyo is in Nasarawa South Local Government Area.
“Those policemen came in the middle of a festival –a ceremony– going on in the town; and they quickly opened fire on the gathering, killing seven people instantly!”
“That is a lie!” I shouted, astounded. “The police simply shot seven people holding a ceremony! How could they do that?”
“They were sent by Governor Tanko Al-Makura. The Governor is already thinking 2015. And he perceives Ombatse (Eggon for “This is Our Turn”) as a stumbling block to his ambition. And without provocation, without rancour, he ordered the Commissioner of Police to dispatch policemen to capture the leader of Ombatse, decapitate him and submit his head on his table at Government House, Lafia.”
“I read that in the newspapers,” I said. “You mean that was the instruction actually given the police?”
“Yes!” Ombugadu roared. “And the police came in 13 vehicles loaded with heavily-armed men. Some of the men were even juju men and marabouts, some were ordinary thugs, quickly kitted in police uniforms for the assignment. The juju men were hired by the Governor in the hope their own spiritual power will neutralise that of the Ombatse.”
According to Ombugadu, while journeying to Lakyo, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, who led the operation, annexed two lorry-loads of Mobile Policemen (MOPOL) –travelling to Plateau from Kaduna. The Ombatse shrine is said to be located just off the Kaduna-Abuja- Plateau expressway. These MOPOL men were told to strengthen the team; they immediately complied having been assured that the assignment would last 20 minutes, at the most, and they could thereafter continue on their way.
“They all perished together,” Ombugadu reported.
“Poor souls!”
Something however did not quite jell for me: “But how were these killings possible –seeing these were highly trained, highly-skilled security personnel?”
Ombugadu filled me in. According to him, as soon as they sighted the festival crowd, the police and security operatives opened fire. Seven people fell down dead. Infuriated, like a lion robbed of its cubs, Ala Agu (the Ombatse’s Chief Priest, aged 76) invoked his anomalous powers and charged the assailants to begin to dance. Something strange and extraterrestrial instantly possessed the invaders. The policemen and security operatives dropped their guns and began to dance. They danced and danced and kept on dancing.
Apparently, the cops had been hypnotised and turned to zombies. According to Ombugadu, the two rearguard lorry-loads of cops arrived moments later, only to find their colleagues doing this peculiar dance. They were astounded. How could full-fledged, licensed-to-kill policemen (specifically and specially assigned on this day to spill sorrows, tears and blood) take to dancing? Quickly sensing that the dance going on was far beyond the ordinary and that something unnatural and strange had possessed their companions, the rearguard police vehicles quickly reversed and escaped.
“But from dancing, how did they come to dying?”
“They had spilled the blood of seven innocent people, which infuriated our people. By the way, those killed were innocent spectators because bullets have no impact on Ombatse initiates. Thereafter, all it took was a word of command from the Ombatse priests; and the surrounding grasses belched flames and fire consumed the policemen.”
“For real?”
“Yes, for real!” Ombugadu confirmed. “Felix, I will take you to the spot. Not a single inch of ground, not a single blade of grass, was scorched or burnt. They remain green and fresh. Only this killer police squad got consumed.”
Who will believe such a tale? Not those sceptics who fear for 2015, and who have already cast Ombatse in the same kettle of fish as Boko Haram in the North, Egbesu and other Niger-Delta militants in the South-South and the Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in the South-East, all of whom will make 2015 a tricky election year for Nigeria. However, like Ala Agu, the Ombatse Chief Priest, Ombugadu tried to convince me that Ombatse and politics are strange bedfellows. Or did Governor Al-Makura perhaps misunderstand the literal meaning of Ombatse, THIS IS OUR TURN? Did His Excellency (who quickly issued N1 million for every dead security man) view the Ombatse’s clarion call as a direct challenge to his 2015 ambition, and sent the police to squash these gadflies?
If that be true, then on the Ombatse assignment, can we say that where they should have exercised more circumspection and sagacity, the police made a mortal mistake? Why did authorities quickly give the Nassarawa Commissioner of Police the boot? Why did the SSS say it has forgiven the death of its security operatives who died in the Ombatse misadventure?
These security details should have gleaned lessons from the past. For this would not be the first time a Military force collided with spiritual forces and lost woefully. In the Bible, 2Kings 1, Elijah engaged in a confrontation with soldiers of King Ahab, resulting in the roasting of 100 soldiers whose tyrannous captains the Prophet sentenced them to death with the legendary words: “If I be a man of God, let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty.” And fire fell. The rest is history. Back here in Nigeria, Yoruba farmers of the Agbekoya guild became legends when they fought Awolowo’s cause against Federal forces in the 1960s. The encounters ended in the mysterious deaths of policemen, who reportedly returned home and found it impossible to remove uniforms, glued to their bodies supernaturally.
The Ombatse control similar extraterrestrial powers, according to Eggon myth. Indigenes regale their children with folk-tales of their heroic ancestors, who, backed by these invisible Ombatse spirits, successfully defended their territory against incursion by the Jihadists of Usman Dan Fodio and Queen Amina. According to Ombugadu, the shrine had existed for over 200 years, was neglected, but witnessed a revival around 2002, after illustrious and upwardly mobile sons and daughters of the tribe died in strange circumstances suspected to be instigated by negative witchcraft and voodoo. Also, morality had become lax with cases of adultery, stealing, murder and robbery assuming alarming proportions. The Eggon people revived the erstwhile neglected Ombatse shrine, and charged it to save the tribe from these threats. This revival of their ancestors’ touch with nature, they tagged, OMBATSE, “This is our turn.”
Although its native Eggon people have always resisted perceived subjugation by the Hausa-Fulani-favoured Gwandara tribe of Governor Al-Makura, the nucleic Ombatse group supposedly lacks interest in politics.
From what one can glean, Ombatse operates purely as a traditional prayer cult, minds its own business, maintains a canon of strict discipline and controls and formidable mystical and paranormal powers. Its base, Lakyo village, one of those making up the sizeable Eggon tribe, is itself one of the 15 tribes making up Nassarawa State. Ombatse devotees hold regular worship and prayer sessions akin to a regular church service. Strictly out of bounds to non-indigenes, its membership is monopolised by the Eggon people around the environs of Lakyo, a backward ancient town with no roads, water, electricity or any state or Federal Government presence. Lakyo lacks a functional secondary school, and indigenes claim it spots only one school, a mission school having two classrooms.
But Ombatse devotees prefer to leave these infrastructural neglects for politicians to tackle. They instead funnel their energy towards worshipping their strange gods and guaranteeing the morality and security of Eggon land and people. For their creed, they find cover in Section 38(1) of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, which guarantees their “Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Despite the negative dust raised by the encounter between the Ombatse and security agents on May 8, can government afford to clamp down on the Ombatse without infringing on their constitutionally-guaranteed right to worship the gods they choose? Far-fetched, maybe, but can any good thing ever come from the Ombatse? Ombugadu thinks so.
“Ombatse priests have challenged politicians to come and take their oaths of office in this shrine,” he said. “That will be the end of corruption in Nigeria.”
Time flew. The network soon announced my credit was depleting –19.45 minutes. I relayed this to my pal –time to go.
In closing, Ombugadu threw me an invitation.
“Felix, come to Lakyo and see the Ombatse,” he said. “I will personally show you their place; I will take you to the spot. No harm will befall you. As long as you harbour no evil motive towards the land or the people, you will go and return in one piece.”
Good talk: But am I curious enough to visit Ombatse in the lion’s den?
(Oboagwina; A Journalist, Lives In Lagos)

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