Encounters with Samuel Ogbemudia
I khian ya ghe, I khian ya ghe Edo mmwnen n’Oba ye
I khian ya ghe O I khian ya ghe Edo mmwnen n’Oba ye
Edo mwen n’Oba Ye O ehia khin evbo mwen n’Oyinbo
Wa gunmwen kponmwen Ogbemudia mwen n’erha mwen O
Oy’Edo mwen khin evb’Oyinbo
I am going to behold Benin; I am going to behold Benin, abode of the Oba
I am going to behold Benin; I am going to behold Benin, abode of the Oba
Benin, abode of the Oba, has turned to into a modern city
Join me in applauding Ogbemudia, our father
He has turned Benin into a modern city
The above lyrics of Miki Jaga, a once-popular Benin musician, reinforce the popular impression that people have of Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia: a visionary and enterprising person, who, during about nine years’ spell as military governor of the old Midwestern region, touched practically every sphere of human experience and transformed the physical terrain of the state.
Not surprisingly, his greatness has been located in the realm of governance, notably his capacity to address the needs of the people of the present Edo and Delta states through provision of widespread infrastructure. For example, in 1968 the Ogbemudia administration established close to 50 secondary schools in different parts of the state.
However, there was the person of Ogbemudia, who died on 9 March 2017 – shorn of a military uniform and the paraphernalia of the numerous political offices he occupied – which only those who encountered him at close range knew.
At the burial of my father in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised to be visited by the former governor, accompanied by Paul Omoruyi, my former colleague at NTA Benin. He had some kind words to say about my father, who was a long-standing political loyalist.
The first visual encounter I had with Ogbemudia, a retired Brigadier-General of the Nigerian army, was in 1968 at the Police Grounds, which is the present location of the headquarters of the Edo State Command of the Nigeria Police Force, off Sapele Road in Benin City. As the military governor of the Midwestern region the, one of the member of his personal security outfit was Nicholas Uselu, who had been my teacher at Apostolic Church Primary School, Urhonigbe, in Orhionmwon LGA of present Edo State, a couple of years back. Nicholas, who was more known by his “guy” name of Tahiti, had enrolled in the army during 1967.
Like other schoolchildren of my days, I had trekked the distance from Uselu-Lagos road to the Police Ground to watch one of the series of athletics competitions that the place hosted while Ogbe Stadium was under re-construction. In the interim, a temporary stadium for football games was erected at Kings Square. Who wanted to miss the theatrics of Kingsley Okunbor, alias Peejerito (who later became a well-known insurance broker in the state), for his all-round skills in the short distance and football, firs for Edo Boys’ High School and later Edo College? Who, indeed, wanted to miss watching Godwin Obasogie, alias Lingo, over 110 meters hurdles, who would go on to win the gold at the 1979 African Athletics championship; Edward Ofili, who won the gold in the 200 metres event? Other folk heroes included Sunny Izevbigie, who later won the Challenge Cup with Bendel Insurance in 1972 and the All-Africa Games soccer gold with the Green Eagles in 1973.
I literally broke the security protocol, albeit with trepidation, to re-unite with my teacher and to inform him that I had secured admission to Eghosa Anglican Grammar School, while his principal officiated the sporting extravaganza that was unfolding on the makeshift tracks.
However, exactly 20 years later, in 1988 – by which time I had attained a respectable height in my chosen journalism career — I was no longer viewing him with awe from a distance, but eating lunch with the great military man at his Iheya Street residence. I was riding in the same car with the former chair of the National Sports Commission and Nigerian Railway Corporation between Benin and Lagos and between Benin and Uromi; and exploring a publishing business with him.
That was when I experienced the raw down-to-earth quality of the man. When he noticed my shyness, which bordered on outright timidity, he shouted a military-type instruction that I get on the dining table. Lunch done, we headed for Lagos. This was around 3.00 PM. When I drew his attention to the spectre of doing a night journey on a highway that has always been littered with different kinds of danger, he looked straight at me and blurted: “Do you realize that I am an army general?” It was a piece of assurance that assuaged my fear and soothed my nerves. My mind then went back to how his bravery during the Nigerian civil war saved his people from humiliation.
As the journey progressed, I saw another – the comic — side of the two-time governor. He told the story of a kabukabu driver in Benin during his second spell at the helms in the then Bendel State. The car in which he was being driven — on one of the many occasions when he would move about incognito — crashed into the kabukabu. The offended driver came out of his damaged car to confront his (Ogbemudia’s) diver, at which point the governor tried to call the man to order, so the issue could be resolved amicably. The man replied: “Even if you are Ogbemudia, I will not listen to you until you have fixed the damage to my car. This is the source of my livelihood.”
Then, according to Ogbemudia, he revealed to the agitated man: “It’s Ogbemudia that you are actually talking to right now. Look at me properly.” Then reality downed on the man. He then went into prostration and kept saying: “God has buttered my bread. My father, do whatever you wish. God has answered my prayers.” True to the man’s proclamation, Ogbemudia arranged for the man’s rickety vehicle to be replaced.
After initially restraining myself from laughter, I eventually succumbed to it. Several other wisecracks followed that made the trip one of the most pleasurable that I have had on the road.
However, yet another incident occurred just before we go to Ijebu-Ode. A young couple with a month-old baby were having problems with the car in which they were travelling from the east to Lagos. Ogbemudia asked his driver to stop to see what assistance they could be given. “These people are in trouble,” he muttered. When it occurred to him that the car could not be readily fixed, he suggested to the man to allow his wife and baby to go in his car. “You and your driver can sort yourselves out,” he told the man. “If robbers descend on you and family, it won’t be funny.”
Having assisted the man to get his car off the highway into a safer place, mother and child were taken to Lagos and dropped off at the Ilupeju, off Okorodu Road before the former governor headed to his Ikoyi residence.
I was relaying this incident one day in 2004, 16 years later, when Dr. Leila Madueke, a colleague on the USAID-funded COMPASS (Community Participation for Action in the Social Sector) project, shouted that she was the woman with the little baby!
The man was humanely generous. If he gave you an assignment, without your asking, he was sure to give you the resources to work with.
Odemwingie is a former features editor of The Guardian.