Tribute to Sonny Iwedike Odogwu
As a child, I grew up thinking that chief Sonny Iwedike Odogwu’s father, “the gentleman R.D.”, as he was popularly referred to, was my father’s brother, instead of his cousin that he actually was. They related and addressed each other as such, so that when Sonny’s youngest sister, Violet Odogwu, (now Mrs. Nwajei) became a Common Wealth medalist I proudly described her as “my younger sister”.
This background makes sense of the characteristic emotional overtones of close relatedness with which I regularly reguarded him and he reciprocated. For example, he once visited home from Lagos, following a recovery from a severe head injury, inflicted on him by a colleague alleged to have illegally attempted to take-over aspects of his insurance company.
On that occasion, while then too young to have fully understood how, true to his native name, Iwedike (= the righteous anger of the brave warrior) he had courageously and successfully fought off the hostile attack, I nevertheless found myself clinging tenaciously to his bosom, bathed in joyful and loving tears. It was such that it took quite some doing for him to be rescued from my grip.
Courage and the Ogbu Title
Chief Iwedike was a daring person. At a time when the rules to qualify one to drive in Nigeria were still somewhat nebulous, he took advantage of them. He was one of the five persons or so who owned a particular type of flashy car in the whole of Lagos.
He started driving his own car before he had sufficiently honed the skills to do so. As a result he tended to have more accidents than many other drivers.
In traditional Asaba of the chief’s day, young persons extremely prone to dangerous accidents and destructive carelessness, were thought of as inappropriately mastered or controlled by, or under the influence of a destructive personal entity, force, power or deity.
To contain the negative consequence of the reign or domination or the inappropriate hijacking of the young by this personal power, force, entity or deity, the young excessively prone to extreme destructiveness were taken through a ritual known as ikpu Ogbu.
Two rituals bear that name and the one I have just described was the one that was supposed to have been done for the chief.
The other happens at a stage in the process of taking the highest personal distinction title in traditional Asaba, styled the Eze-title. It is different from the former, which is viewed as a disorder and an illness, and therefore needing to be treated.
Whereas the latter conferred distinction, and a certain honourable sacredness on whosoever attained it, entitling him to reverence, respect, and even awesomeness from others, the latter implied a certain inadequacy and inappropriateness which smacked of an obloquy that robed its victim of honour until treated. Even then, it did not enable the person to completely recover from its opprobrium.
In the case of the Ideh of Asaba, it seems there was a great deal of concern over his proneness to accidents and much talk about doing the Ogbu of the first type (i.e the youthful one) for him. But I could find no really hard-nosed evidence that it was ever done for him.
The Source of His Wealth
Extremely hard-working, persevering, and endowed with a dogged determination to be great, he chose the insurance industry as the means for realizing his vision. He had trained in England where he had also practiced for a short while, before returning home to establish one of the first indigenous insurance companies.
He strove very hard to make his earliest money through it. One of his big-time clients was the Nigerian Railway. He later branched off into industries and hotel business.
Sonny’s kindness was well-known. I personally experienced it in many striking ways. I will mention two instances. The first was when as a student, I needed accommodation in London for research and for meeting with Asaba indigenes.
Sonny freely donated his posh house free of charge and made sure the fridges, and the deep freezers were fully stocked, and all bills duly paid.
Besides, he catered in other ways for my comfort and that of my crowd of visitors during our Nigerian civil war when things were generally hard for everyone, and when he was not always able to easily leave the beleaguered territory to come to London.
The second instance was when I got into trouble with a certain bank.
The demand for accommodation for students was very high. I had expanded my university quarters at my personal expense, in order to provide free housing for a few students. But that did not dent the problem.
Induced by the well-meaning workers of the bank to borrow in order to foster my charity concerns, I took a loan of seventy-five thousand pounds.
The calculations of my bank friends went amiss because Nigeria changed currency and the hostel could not be completed.
The bank threatened court action against me. By this time, the value of the loan had more than doubled on account of the interest on it. I cried to my cousin, Sonny.
Upon investigation, he found out that the situation was beyond the capacity of the local manager to do anything about it, and invited me to Lagos.
A great deal of his precious time went into this, and I knew he could ill-afford it, in view of how extremely busy he used to be in those days. (He even once forgot me in his office).
Even so, he graciously and gladly expended whatever time it took to deal with my problem. Finally, he paid the entire loan when the bank agreed to write off all their interests, without requesting a penny from me.
Furthermore, it is common knowledge that he awarded many scholarships to needy students, and at one point, established an endowment fund for that purpose.
He paid, on occasion, the medical bills for indigent patients and was known to have taken abroad and borne all the financial expenses of a number of relatives whose health condition was life-threatening and beyond the expertise of medical practitioners and medical equipments available here in Nigeria.
His Streak of Religiousness
Convinced that the very best wives were religious, and from religious homes, he made for the extremely beautiful and brilliant daughter of a very famous head of the catholic headmasters in the eastern part of our country.
The daughter was Theresa Ibik, at the time a first rate student in the outstanding Queen of the Rosary Secondary School, Onitsha.
Her father was one of the most distinguished catholic lay leaders of his time. Most people who knew the situation, rated at nill the chief’s chances, since his reputation as a non-catholic totally disqualified him.
He elicited the help of our cousin, Mr. Leo Isichei, a well-known catholic headmaster on the other side of the Niger. He shared membership of the knights of St. Mullumba with Theresa’s father.
It was that fact which gave him the bridge-head more than any other reason, even though he continued to think that his promise to become a catholic and marry her in Rome was the decisive factor. At any rate, he kept his word to her.
Among the chief’s peers, many rich men displayed their wealth through plural marriages. Some even had a number of wives taken from different ethnic groups, especially if they were politicians.
Others were known to have wives in more than one city or continent. But Sonny’s commitment to one wife remained inviolate, even though he outstripped many of them in wealth.
This is no mean achievement, even if it did not stop him from sharing in other marital flaws.
On a number of occasions, Sonny and I disagreed. One such occasion was over twenty years ago. I was visiting him. He was watching a debate between a Muslim and a Christian.
At the end of the debate, he told me he felt the Muslim outclassed the Christian and that he had at times taken the view that the Muslim religion was better tailored to the African mentality than the Christian one. I concluded his trend of thought for him: “which means that you might someday become a Muslim?” I asked.
He did not answer my question. But I went on to assure him that those who change their christian religion for another faith, purely on the basis that an ill-equipped christian failed to defend it against another faith, would not long remain in their new faith.
Then After mounting a better defence of the Christian faith than the defeated Christian had managed, I tried to reconfirm him in his Catholic faith. Even so he gallantly fought to hold onto his position all the way.
A few years ago, I confronted chief Odogwu with the news that he had joined yet another secret society and that I wanted to know why such groups interested him. He told me that he was merely being inquisitive.
Pinning him down specifically to the latest one he had joined, I told him how his unique motivation often baffled me: “other people join that same group in order to enrich themselves, or so that its members could help them climb to an important post or enable them to evade any unpleasant court verdict or not to prevent them from being considered for promotions, or be superseded by others. But you seem to have joined to enrich that group. Why on earth do you do such things?” Do you realize that you will not be buried as a Catholic so long as you continued your membership in such secrete societies?” His response was that he had ended his membership of all of them and that he no longer attended any of their meetings.
I believed him, because I had heard from a reliable source how he had teased a close relative for joining a secrete society.
Besides, I know he visited a number of times the famous apparition centre of our Lady at Lourdes.
Furthermore, when at the end of each of my visits, I concluded by praying for him, he would suddenly become joyful and assume a sanctimonious posture of a presumed holy person in the presence of God. All of this I call the streak of religiousness in his personality.
Conclusion: Two other Crucial Disagreements: His Privacy and Secrecy
Sonny was essential an intuitive personality who was my relation and my friend. Because I am a priest, I could say things to him that many others could not brave.
In many of his celebrations at which I was privileged to preach, whether in Nigeria or Rome, I kept hammering on the need for him to ensure that he had written his will. I knew he did not take kindly to such public reminders.
In a one-to-one discussion, when I continued to feel that he had not made his will and to press on him to do so, a little upset with me, he asked me: “and if I had, what makes you feel that I would have to tell you?” To date, because of our other discussions, I still cannot tell if he wrote a will or not. That is the extent to which he was very much a private person.
A second example of his intuitive nature is clear from the following story that happened a few years before his death.
An important disagreement had occurred between him and another important catholic. It was looking like, it was going to develop into a court case and I felt that it was wrong for two highly placed-catholics to come to such a plight.
So I came to discourse an alternative solution with him. That solution entailed mediation by three top ranking hierarchical officials.
Two of them lived in Lagos while the other lived in the eastern part of our country. I assured him that they could carry out that assignment successfully.
It took some time and a great deal of canvassing as well as his own insistence that I should understand the details of the matter from his own perspective before he agreed to try my alternative solution. I left to put things in motion.
But I had hardly gotten into my car to drive off when he sent someone after me to stop my alternative solution.
I subsequently revisited the matter many times before his death, only to discover that he had handed it over to God and shifted into what Christian Spirituality describes as the receptive mood.
From it, he never emerged until he became unconscious in the hospital and the Lord took him.
May God grant him eternal rest by bringing that mood to its full flowering in heaven and grant his consolation to his wife, all his children and other relatives. Amen.
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