Ben Obumselu: Tribute to a great scholar
The Igbo say that igwenilejekon’uzu (that every piece of iron is destined for the smithy). And so, it became the turn or time for our great Prof. Ben Obumselu to answer the call; to join his ancestors as it were. Prof. Obumselu passed on Saturday, March 4, 2017 in Lagos, at 86. We salute the great man and bid him farewell and a smooth journey to the land of the golden light. Of course even in this exercise, a little review of his sojourn in this earthly plain is inescapable.
Virtually all the tributes to the great Professor that I have come across speak volumes about his literary genius but also about his keen interest in public affairs and deep commitment in the search for the political wellbeing of the country, in general, and his Igbo people, in particular. The Prof. once told me that every normal person ought to channel at least five per cent (5%) of his or her earthly earnings to the search for healthy political development of whatever environment or clime he/she finds his or herself. I can attest to the fact that Obumselu did more than this, both in pecuniary and non-material terms, in the short period of time I had the privilege to have associated with him. Of course I equally endorse all the other commendations being heaped on the Prof; for I have been a beneficiary of his literary genius, critical reviews of the written work, mine as those of some others. In fact, I can say that Prof. influenced my literary style immensely and indeed my overall outlook through his reviews, criticism and intimate discussions from early 1989 when we first met. I also had a window into Prof. Obumselu’s politics, having worked and plotted with him in many political schemes and projects.
It was in the early months of 1994 that providence first brought us into close political association. My late friend and benefactor, Chief Oluwole Obikoya, who had taken me around in Southwest Nigeria and had introduced me to some of the most notable personalities in the area; Chief Rotimi Williams, General Olusegun Obasanjo, etc., invited me to a political meeting scheduled for his Lagos residence. It turned out to be a meeting of a selected few. There were only five of us at the meeting. I was the only Igbo; the rest were Yoruba. It also turned out to be the first preliminary meeting for the formation of the National Unity Organisation of Nigeria (NUON). The next meeting was scheduled to hold in two days’ time at General Obasanjo’s Otta Farm residence. After thinking carefully about it, I decided that I should not be the only Igbo at that meeting; hence I invited Prof. Ben Obumselu to go with us. It immediately became clear on our arrival at Obasanjo’s Otta farmhouse that Prof. and Obasanjo had not only known each other previously but were actually bosom friends. Prof. explained this to me later.
At the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war in 1970, Obumselu had been arrested and locked away in detention with another eminent Igbo Professor (name withheld) at a Nigerian Army formation somewhere in the then East Central State. The duo had been seriously involved in the war, it seemed. One evening, the Nigerian soldiers, for reasons best known to them, brought out the other Professor and slaughtered him like a Christmas goat. It was going to be Prof. Obumselu’s turn the next time around! But as providence would have it, General Obasanjo showed up at the camp shortly afterwards and inquired after Prof. Obumselu. He ordered him brought out from the cell. Then he asked Obumselu whether it was true that he was the one that wrote those beautiful speeches for Ojukwu during the war. When Obumselu answered in the affirmative, the General quipped: Then you follow me and write such like for me.
That was how Obasanjo took Obumselu away from detention, and from certain death, to Port Harcourt. They lived and worked together in Obasanjo’s Port Harcourt residence in those early post-war weeks or months until Obumselu decided to move out of Nigeria. He feared that the Nigerian authorities were going to institute a kind of post-World War II Nuremberg trials of key Biafran personalities for their actions in the Nigeria-Biafra war. So Obumselu simply drove to Seme border, parked ‘his’ car on the Nigerian side of the border, walked over across to Benin Republic and disappeared. Even in this escape, it is believed that he was greatly assisted by his friend, General Obasanjo. Obumselu ended up in the Southern/ Central Africa where he taught in several universities in Zambia, Congo, Malawi, Botswana and Swaziland, for years. He was also in Mozambique and South Africa. He returned to Nigeria from his self-imposed exile about 1981.
He served in the Jim Nwobodo government in the old Anambra State and lectured a while but soon returned to politics in the build up to Nigeria’s short-lived Third Republic in the late 1980s. Obumselu was one of the hands behind the CARIA States Movement that tried to unite the then five Eastern States of Cross River, Abia, Rivers, Imo and Anambra from which the acronym ‘CARIA’ derived. It was about this time in 1989 that I met the great Prof. at Dr. Emmanuel Okoye’s residence in Lagos. The Dr introduced us and urged Prof. to be the Reviewer of my first book, Strategy for Political Stability (1988), which was scheduled for launch, May 1989.
The Prof. was on his way for a long trip or stay outside Lagos but he promised to come back and fulfil that task. He did not disappoint. He was a man of his words!
Back to our trip to Otta and the formation of NUON! The meeting was successful. Soon the organisation became a very serious affair. Prof. Obumselu automatically became the General Secretary of the organisation, right from that first meeting; Obasanjo was of course the Leader; my friend, Chief Obikoya was Chairman; while Otunba Fasawe became Treasurer; the three other offices of Coordinator(s) for the West, North and East respectively went to Kenny Martins, Sidi Ali and my humble self. The organisation promised to achieve a lot. For one thing, it was a kind of counterpoise to the Abacha dictatorship; the first group that was openly critical of the Abacha junta. But the group did not last long. Abacha moved against the organisation right from the outset. Security forces were, for instance, deployed to stop the very first mass gathering organised in Obasanjo’s Otta Farm by the group, though they failed woefully in that arduous task. However, the seven-man Executive Committee and other co-opted members met very regularly at the Otta villa until Obasanjo’s arrest and detention by the Abacha junta. With the incarceration of the Leader, Obasanjo, the fortunes of the organisation dwindled and soon it became moribund.
We re-established contact with Obasanjo immediately after his release from detention at Abacha’s demise in 1998. Soon the build up to the Nigerian Fourth Republic was in the offing. Along the line, Obasanjo declared his intention to run for the presidency of the coming Republic. Chief Obikoya was in a London hospital, down with complications from an earlier surgery. I went over to discuss the development (Obasanjo’s declaration) with Prof. I could see that he was somewhat bothered or disturbed at the development. Perhaps he was embarrassed or resented the fact that Obasanjo never confided in him or alerted him beforehand about his intendments. Perhaps he was torn between conflicting loyalties, for at the time, he was apparently beginning to hob-nob with Dr Alex Ekwueme, Chairman of G-34 and Founding Chairman of the emergent PDP. Prof said very little though. However, we did journey to Otta that afternoon but met with General Obasanjo’s absence. So Prof had to leave a note for the General. As it turned out, that was Obumselu’s last visit before the impending presidential election that brought Obasanjo back to power in 1999.
We, Obumselu and I, however attended the reception organised in Obasanjo’s Otta Farm by the Southwest PDP to celebrate Obasanjo’s election to the presidency. This was before his inauguration as president in May 1999. It was a great occasion. Too many people were there. At Obasanjo’s farmhouse, there was no standing space. Dignitaries from across the country lurked at every corner. I was standing with Prof near the staircase when suddenly Obasanjo appeared at the landing. From there he sighted us. In a flash, the General jumped two or three steps and bounded towards us notwithstanding the large number of visitors milling all over the place. He called out: Ben! He actually shouted the name so loudly that everybody turned towards him. Then he embraced Ben Obumselu so warmly as if he were a long lost loving girlfriend. And this for a man who had worked against his interests, indeed for his opponent (Dr. Alex Ekwueme) in the build up to the PDP Presidential Primaries a while ago! It was unbelievable. I did not know that Obasanjo was so large-hearted. But the gesture also went to underscore the kind of deep-seated bond between the two giants.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, it was an irony that the duo never worked together again, for I know that if they had worked together during Obasanjo’s presidency that government would have achieved much more than it did. And Obasanjo could never have needed to embrace the political roughriders and renegades who masterminded the waves of anarchy that befell Anambra State during his presidency, and which at its height resulted in the attempt on Governor Ngige’s life as well as in the widespread arson, pillage and wanton destruction of Anambra State government property during the Ngige administration of that State, with the police looking the other way! This goes to substantiate the notion that when responsible citizens shy away or are kept out of government, undesirables take over the public space, with dire consequences for all and sundry.
Let me conclude by stating that Prof Obumselu was a major force in the political mobilisation of Ndigbo in Lagos State under the aegis of the Pan Ndigbo Foundation (PNF). As the intellectual leader of that organisation, he prepared the theoretical documents that gave life and direction to the PNF, which flourished between 1999 and 2001. Unfortunately, the organisation collapsed as a result of the short-sightedness of some of its leaders; people who did not even understand what the mission of the organisation was. Had the PNF survived, it would have brought about a measure of integration among Nigerian ethnicities resident in Lagos as well as impact most positively on the nature and substance of Nigerian politics, as Prof and I had hoped and planned.
The demise of the PNF saw Obumselu, with my encouragement, join effort with some others to found the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). He took our dreams for the PNF and Lagos politics to APGA where he automatically assumed the role of intellectual leader. Again, he created the intellectual framework of the party and produced the party’s Manifesto, with some assistance from my person. Despite the rather early crisis that developed in that party, Prof stuck to his guns. He took charge in Anambra State, albeit clandestinely, and was at the head of the mobilisation work that saw to the emergence of Peter Obi as governor of the State. And throughout the life of the Peter Obi administration, Prof. remained upbeat as a motivator both to the State party and the government of Peter Obi to whom he served as a worthy adviser. In fact, he had to relocate to the East as a result. And with his increasing involvement with both the Anambra State Government and Ohanaeze in Enugu, where he served as Deputy President-General, Prof. Obumselu virtually became out of reach to many of us in Lagos.
I use this opportunity to once again condole Prof. Obumselu’s wife, Fidelia, and his children, Ebuka, Soso, Nneka, Chukwuma, Ebele and Ifeyinwa.
Nwankwo lives in Lagos.