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Remembering ‘Cicero’, James Ajibola Ige

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Not long ago, we were admitted into the knowledge that Chief James Ajibola Ige SAN, Best was known as Bola Ige, former Attorney-General and Justice Minister, in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency, brutally murdered in his Ibadan residence in 2001, was post-humously remembered and celebrated during his 90th birthday.

He was born on September 13, 1930. Precisely, Bola Ige, a man of several parts, was killed on December 23, 2001; an eminent patriot who would have impacted this troubled country immensely had he been alive today. The naked truth, however, as we already know, is that our wish that he lived beyond age ninety has become a mutilated desire and an impossibility.

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As just said, Bola Ige was a man and personage of several parts, who clearly was positively myriad-minded. He was an orator, a lawyer, a politician, a newspaper columnist, an author who wrote People, Politics and Politicians of Nigeria; an autobiographer who wrote Kaduna Boy and Detainee’s Diary respectively as well as a scholar of classics. He prepared himself adequately for his chosen profession and vocations.

Why are we now thinking of this great man who will always be numbered among the most important individuals and heroes of our country? Since 2001, and since December 23 of that year after the untimely death of this notably charming character of a highly qualitative mind, we have been likening our minds to a lachrymatory.

We were among the few people, outsiders and strangers outside his immediate family and close associates and his late wife who, we believe, probably had intimate and prolonged discussions with him before his murder.

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Maybe memory is failing us, or, maybe we are failing our memory.

Shortly we will explain what we mean. For now, suffice it to state that our respective poetic hearts and minds have been tearfully trying to fathom why what happened to Ige had to happen that December, that cruel December that remains ever cruel and ever evil in our lacrimatory sensibilities – since then any time we remember the enjoyable night we had with him as his academic as well as social guests in that December of 2001, Ige’s last December and time on this earth plane.

How come we were his night guests? How come we were his December 2001 night guests? We now cannot fruitfully remember the actual date we were in his residence, a conveniently warm duplex or something akin to it in a serene place of noiseless noise as we friendlily thought and quipped to beautify our happy presence in Ige’s company. Throughout the duration of our stay three of us – Tony Afejuku, Olu Obafemi and Ige — tried to remain true to ourselves and loyal to the other in our conversation — although both Tony and our host initially were disconcerted by their studied laconicism. (Both of them were seeing and meeting each other at a close range for the first time ever, which turned out to be their last). Olu had had a fairly intimate relationship with him prior to this day – a relationship, which climaxed with the event of the presentation of a book in honour of Olu in which Ige was the Chairman. Duro Oni and Sunday Ododo edited the book in commemoration of Olu’s 50th birthday on April 4, 2000 (incidentally, Olu and Ige’s wife, Atinuke, who has since departed for the great far beyond, shared the same birthday).

Now, earlier in the afternoon of our visit we, including our host, were at the Presidential Hotel for a book event. He played a leading role as the chairperson. We were representing the national body of the Association of Nigerian Authors at the event.

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Of course, Dr. Wale Okediran and Dr. Remi Raji (as the latter then was) were among other Ibadan-based members of the association who were Oyo State’s branch’s magnificent hosts of the event. As hosts, they were comely and very useful to us as we were clearly useful to them as representatives of the national body.

Dr. Reuben Abati of the Guardian Newspapers who was equally at the big event from his Lagos base, who shared space with us at coffee-time, immensely found the event thrilling, pleasurable and beautiful as we all really were by the profound remarks of the big masquerade Chief Ige, whose mystical impulse and oratory captivated ANA’s representatives, and definitely all of those who were present. As we are writing this, we remember vividly that Ige swept the audience off their feet with his lively nuances, candour, serious-mindedness and clear-sightedness about our moral (or immoral) states as writers and as compatriots of our country. At the brief coffee-time, we had, as already mentioned, we on our table, as well as Reuben Abati aforesaid, who joined us for a chat as we sipped coffee, agreed that Bola Ige was manifestly an idealist or, some kind of idealist, who clearly was a fish out of the water of the central government he was serving in as a justice minister.

When the event was over at the Premier Hotel, these two writers writing this recollection headed for Wale Okediran’s abode where we were to spend the night. In fact, we should rightly state that Wale the medical doctor-writer and two of us headed for Wale’s home as his overnight guests. (He and his family were ready to give us a special reception befitting our writerly status). But we deviated on the way. We were now on the road to the abode of a permanent hero of our era. We arrived at Bola Ige’s place at about 7.30 pm. Wale left us behind after a brief animated greeting with our hosts: Bola Ige and his dear wife Atinuke, who was wonderfully receptive to us.

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We intended it to be briefer than a brief visit but didn’t leave our chief host until well late into the silent night. Of course, we were worried that Wale who had since arrived his residence to prepare his hospitality for us would be agitatedly or tiredly waiting for us. But we were really enjoying Ige’s parlour that effused warmth and hospitality, which enhanced our conversation with its owner.

What did we converse about? Almost everything about our country under Chief Obasanjo’s civilian presidency, and literature, local, national and universal. Ige was warmly at home when we dwelt on different aspects of literature and philosophy and historical figures, including Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer, politician, statesman, scholar and a man of great principles who has assassinated on 7 December 43 BC (Ige, in our political and academic or scholarly circle, was seen in his image and fondly called ‘the Cicero of Esa Oke’, his country-home in Ijeshaland). We also dwelt on the Ijaw-Itsekiri war. When Tony, because he wasn’t certain about what our host’s reaction would be, tried to state or under-state the Itsekiri version and position to him, Ige stood up and went over to the window and gazing into the opaqueness of the dark night, asked, “How to conceal the unhidden from us? Speak straight to me.”

As it turned out, Tony’s laconic version enervated Bola Ige who clearly understood very well the situation in war-torn Warri and the Niger Delta generally. With sweet irony, he countered decisively the version he was given that night, and advised Itsekiri people not to end up killing themselves against any aggression with “sticks, stones and bottles”! “Defend your homeland and yourselves no matter the odds! Defend!”

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He added the last line very poetically. He was not speaking as a war veteran or as a very high government person or as a friend of his Itsekiri friends and people, but as a man and a humanist of high merit and sense of justice who would always give garlands to those who would defend and be on the side of good and worthy causes. This was our honest perception of him that night. It is apposite here for us to state that Ige loved Itsekiris dearly and held them in very high esteem. Throughout his earthly sojourn and political career, he had a wonderful relationship with them — through his profitably ripe, undiluted and deeply honest relationships with the Rewane brothers, the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Erejuwa II, Eliot Begho, the Afejukus and Edodos, Rita Lori and other great Itsekiri sons and daughters he told us he would unforgettably remember.

Earlier at the beginning of the conversation when Olu broached the subject of his being a very key member of Obasanjo’s government yet all we seemed to see about us was nothing but farce, Bola Ige, who certainly was not meeting Olu for the first time, took some time before uttering a word. We interpreted his mannerism as that of a subdued man in a government he shouldn’t have served in. Of course, we came to this conclusion after we left his presence. The reply he gave to Olu’s question was if our recollection is not failing us, akin to this: “Talk, talk, talk, that’s all that can be done.”

He talked and talked. But his beautiful tongue could not spell the kind of decency he envisaged and wanted for Nigeria. His conversation, his words and gestures to us that night reflected his total impotence in Obasanjo’s government in which he supposedly was a key player who was supposedly more than a key player.

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Again, as we left his presence that night, the conclusion we reached was that “Bola Ige is mortal after all, like every one of us.” From his words and gestures, it became obvious to us that there was an idealist who beloved that, difficult as the circumstances of governance were, people of great ideas like him could make a difference but had begun to encounter tremendous obstacles and difficulties about which he still remained optimistic.

As he bade us goodnight and goodbye that quiet, still night going to a little after midnight, we saw no security person in sight. The quiet night was un-nerving, too un-nerving for us and for Tony in particular – who muttered: “May what befell the late Justice Donald Ikomi in Benin City not befall Bola Ige.” But we have since known that Bola Ige’s fate was worse than Donald Ikomi’s. The reactionaries have since struck Bola Ige stone dead. They had struck him stone dead ever numbing our poetic minds! The brilliant Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria under Olusegun Obasanjo’s civilian presidency was brutally murdered, following the classical pattern of absent police guards and wicked planners of the assassination of good men in wicked nights of murder. And nothing has been done ever since. What a country!

We end this recollection with this thought: Since we met Bola Ige that night in December before those who killed him killed him, we have grown old, grown older than we were then and the conversations he had with us have aged with us: his experiences, his words, many of which we deliberately leave out here, remain in our heads and hearts; they are as old since then as we are now. We will never mistake the experience for what it is not. We conversed with a straightforward personage of straight words and guts killed by traitors. Decency demands that we speak of this in different guises henceforth year to year and every December – hence forwards. Nigeria’s Cicero of truthful and straight talk can never be forgotten in our hearts. Bola Ige is dead, but he is not dead. He lives. Yes, he lives.

Bola Ige lives. He lives.

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