BY PETER ENAHORO
Bad news has its way of arriving not in soothing drips but as a brutal, in-your-face truth that leaves the rest of your day effectively over. A telephone call; a voice: “Have you heard …?”
No. You have not heard that your life-long friend, Herbert Unegbu – co-reveller in the hedonistic years of your earlier life, and fellow musketeer in the heyday of journalistic innocence in the actualisation of Independence – has passed away.
We first met at Daily Times where I arrived as an insecure, novice sub-editor. Herbie was a senior reporter in the Newsroom having newly arrived from the Eastern Region. Although our paths did not cross in the workplace, we were soon drawn together by our common delights in watering holes and other places that attracted journalists as magnet to metal. What singled out Herbert for me was the way he drank beer. If you were not previously thirsty, watching Herbert enjoy a drink instantly changed that!
Our special bonding was sealed during a shared visit to Europe in 1959. I discovered a steely edge to Herbert’s easy-going façade; it took courage to wear loud traditional robes to some of the places to where our official programs took us. A high point was Herbert ‘s hand-woven, red and black Igbo couture he donned to the Opera House in Munich. A small crowd gathered at the main entrance to cheer us as we drove off at the end of the show, to the quiet satisfaction of Herbert whose inclination, ordinarily, was neither flamboyant nor aggressive. He’d set out to make a political and cultural statement throughout the trip and succeeded without announcing his intention.
In my opinion, Herbert Unegbu was one of the three best informed political journalists in Lagos, in the late 1950s and 1960s ranking after MCK Ajuluchukwu and Bisi Onabanjo, both older and, respectively, deeply associated with the NCNC and the Action Group, whereas Herbert was non-aligned.
Although he would end his journalism career in the Newsroom of the Federal Government’s Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, Herbert’s leap to national fame was when he was appointed editor of the highly-regarded West African Pilot. This was the start of his newspaper column under the pseudonym Unu Habib, which became a celebrated moniker in households across Nigeria.
Its authority was Herbert’s access to “Deep Throats” in the Federal political establishment. Herbert neither bragged about his invaluable contacts nor did he name-drop among his colleagues. A long-lasting friend was Chief Theophilus Owolabi Sobowale Benson, society scion and Minister of Information in Tafawa Balewa’s First Republic Cabinet, fondly cheered as “Tos-B” by Lagos crowds.
We all became vulnerable in our individual ways as Nigeria stumbled from one crisis to another, blundering heedlessly toward the nadir of civil war.
Herbert’s assertions in the Unu-Habib column were too well informed to be mere guess work. Eventually, a Special Branch officer was assigned to go and have a not so friendly chat with him. Herbert was hauled to the grim interrogation h.q Who were his sources?, the authorities wanted to know.
He responded to the questions by invoking the constraint that journalists are forbidden to disclose their source of information. The injunction, he explained, is as binding as the oath of confidentiality sworn to by Roman Catholic priests even unto death.
Herbert said the officer invited him to view a holding cell. A mat on the bare floor, a blanket and a barricaded skyline window were all the décor in the tiny room.
“A man of your status should not be in a hovel like this even for one night”, the policeman told him. “Today is Friday. You will not see me again until Monday. This is where you will eat, sleep, and spend the day. While mosquitoes are biting you to pieces I will be in my bed with an electric fan. My brother, please don’t punish yourself”.
Herbert was at his most persuasive when cajoling with a posture of reasonableness: “The oath I have sworn to is the igbandu (a solemn Igbo oath) of journalism. You are my brother, an Igbo. You know that if I breach igbandu I will surely die.”
“Igbandu is a serious matter.” The police officer agreed.
“Very serious”, Herbert nodded.
“What should we do?”, the officer asked, after a long pause. He was softening to Herbert’s charm offensive.
“Let’s think it over, over the weekend; until Monday”, Herbert suggested. “Even if I run away from my job in Lagos, where can I hide in Igboland from a brother Igbo?”
Monday came and Monday went. The Igbo officer did not return. So what happened? A case of amnesia or did Herbert’s network of highly-placed friends call-off the witch-hunt? Herbert never said which.
If Herbert made enemies in his long life, I didn’t know them. He did, however, offend the one person in my life he should not have tried it on!
Herbert was homeward bound in the small hours of the morning – “ambulating on s.s foot” – unsteadily picking his way, following a long night of plentiful ambrosia at the Ambassador Hotel. His route unavoidably took him past the house I shared with my brothers, Ben and Dan.
Herbert’s eye caught sight of an open window. That invited him to come over, hoping for a chat with me even at that ungodly hour.
“Peter!”, he called out quite loudly.
The trouble was our mother was in residence, on a visit. Mama called out to me startled by Herbert’s sudden holler.
“Who is this woman?”, Herbert snapped. “Shut up woman!”
I was by then in the room. The remainder of the drama was of Herbert warning me to beware of the women I brought home! He seemed not to have heard or understood a word I said.
Three years later, I was returning to Lagos after a year with my parents in Ibadan.
“My son”, my mother admonished me, “be especially mindful not to keep the company of the one you call Herbert.”
On arrival in Yaba, I dropped off my suitcases and made a beeline for the offices of West African Pilot, a short walking distance down the road.
“My mother told me I should avoid your company,” was how I announced my return to Daily Times, to him.
Herbert sent a staff out to fetch us beer, from nearby Ambassador Hotel. In years to come, Isyaku Ibrahim, who went on the errand, would advance to multi-millionaire and patron of President Aliyu Shehu Shagari’s NPN in the Second Republic.
When Alex Nwokedi, Igwe of Achala, fellow alumni of the Daily Times, rang to tell me Herbert died, aged 89, I could not match the age with the fresh-faced roisterer I’d imagined was our age group. Herbert lived long and lived young.
Herbie was planning to write his memoirs. He requested me to make a contribution. I asked for specifics to guide me. His reply by text message did not altogether tally with my memory of the areas he wanted me to cover. I took the cowardly route of procrastination, hoping to buy time and not offend in a hasty reply.
And now it is all too late.
*Peter Enahoro (aka Peter Pan) contributed this tribute from London.