Abubakar Momoh: It is tough to say goodbye
I had two major deadlines to meet and I was working behind schedule. One was a talk I had to present as part of my fellowship at the Rachel Carson Centre in Munich. The other was a contribution to a book chapter. I was in the middle of wrapping up the book chapter and switch to the presentation when the message came, in form of a question: “Have you heard what happened to Prof. Momoh?” Of course, the reply was swift: “What happened to him?” Then the shocker came: “He is dead!” Since I lost my mother in 2002, the news of death of anybody hardly shocks me. But not in the case of Abu. It came as a rude shock. It was devastating.
The paths of Abu and myself crossed in 2007 when he came for my doctoral viva as the External Examiner at the University of Ibadan. But prior to that time, I had been meeting him through his publications. Since the early 1990s, Momoh had become a household name that every serious student of Political Science in Nigeria cannot but come across. So, I was very familiar with his name right from my undergraduate days. As my examiner, he was as thorough and uncompromising as they come. He was a stickler for details and the smallest infraction was met with serious reprimand. A coma wrongly inserted; a semi-colon placed in a wrong place; a spelling error, all constituted a serious offence for Momoh, a demonstration of his academic thoroughness. I learnt great lessons from him within a short time. After the session, I requested for his number, which he gladly gave. Later in the night I sent a text message thanking him for his thoroughness. He replied immediately and I remember vividly the wordings: “You are on your way to the top. Please see me in my hotel room tomorrow morning.” He sent his room number at the UI Guest House. I was there on the dot of time he gave me. He then sat me down and said: “Azeez, you see I was highly impressed with your work. You did a good job and I can see humility in you.
You will go far in this job. Don’t be distracted. I will be travelling to the U.S. for sabbatical in two days’ but make sure you keep in touch.” From that day till his death on May 29, 2017, we were always in touch. We travelled, dined and wined together. We were in the trenches and had a close shave with death in the hands of some murderous Ifaki Youths in the famous 2009 Ekiti Re-run Election. Abu, as he preferred to be called, was a big mentor and inspiration.
I was close to Momoh enough to know that he was a humble scholar, only that he had no patience for pretenders to intellectualism, and neither would he compromise. He valued and respected the canonical and ethical bases of scholarship, and would, in the tradition of Billy Dudley, always demand for evidence before accepting your conclusion. His enthusiasm for knowledge and research was most impressive which also showed in the quality of his publications. He was an articulate scholar and engaging conversationalist, with an excellent command of the English Language.
I will like to elaborate more on the 2009 Ekiti Re-Run saga because some people, out of political bitterness, attempted to rubbish the personality of this great scholar when he was appointed the Director General of the Electoral Institute, on the basis of roles played in the so-called election. Abu and I escaped death by the whiskers. He had just returned from his sabbatical in the U.S. He called me that he would be coming to Ekiti as Election Observer. I told him that I had also registered to participate. He came in a commercial vehicle, arriving a little late. I drove him to the hotel I had booked for him. The following day, which was the election day, we gathered at the JDPC Office at the Catholic Church, Ajilosu, Ado Ekiti, which was the coordination centre for election observers. We were joined by two others- Wahab Oyedokun, a lawyer and son of Alhaji Shuaibu Oyedoku, a chieftain of the PDP in Osun State, and a lady we called Bimbo. We set out in my car. We were assigned to Esure town, close to Ifaki. The election went well. We recorded the results in the sheet provided and set to return to the JDPC Office in Ado. On getting to Ifaki junction, we were stopped by some Mobile Police Officers who searched our vehicles. It was at the point of going when some fierce-looking cutlass-wielding thugs from Ifaki swooped on us and accused us of being agents of Bola Tinubu.
In the presence of the Police, they insisted on searching the car. We obliged. After ransacking the car, they found nothing. But on the verge of releasing us, they saw the result that we had recorded in Esure town. And hell was let loose. I received a couple of heavy punches on my face. Abu was given a chase to a nearby ditch and fell inside. One of the thugs hit him on the head with a bottle. Blood sprouted out. Then, I was bundled inside a bus and driven away. I thought I was going to be killed. But to my surprised the bus was driven to a Police station by Ifaki roundabout. The Police promptly clamped me into a dingy and desultory cell. A few minutes later, Abu was brought in, completely drenched in his own blood. He was also thrown into the cell. He passed out immediately. I had to remove my shirt to fan him, and together with Fouad Oki, who had earlier been detained in the cell, we brought him back to life. Thereafter, Barrister Wahab Oyedokun was brought into the cell, completely stripped naked. He was marched from the junction to the Police cell.
Luckily Bimbo was spared. By that time, the crowd outside the Police cell was baying for blood. Eventually, we were rescued from the station and taken to Ado Police Headquarters, where John Ahmadu, an AIG, who later died in an air crash, ordered us taken to detention without asking any questions, and without any consideration for our health. We got to know later that Ekiti PDP had told the Police that Abu had prepared results in his laptop. The laptop was seized and damaged. Femi Falana and Bishop Ajakaye tried to secure our release but John Ahmadu would not accept.
We were in detention for three days before we were taken to Abuja Police Headquarters where we were eventually released. Our detention had become an embarrassment to the government because of the personality of Abu. We later appeared in court to confirm our ordeals in the hands of political thugs. Eventually, our case became one of the major factors that influenced the judgement of the Court of Appeal. Abu had to travel to the UK to treat himself from the wounds sustained in the hands of the Ifaki thugs. It was indeed a close shave.
Later my name was announced as Chairman, Caretaker Committee of my Local Government. I was away on Pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia when the announcement was made. I was not consulted either. Abu and I never liked the idea. He said people would think we used the observer thing as cover for seeking political appointments, and that it would distract me from my academic works. I urged him to call Governor Fayemi to rescind the appointment. I also called on Dr Dele Adetoye, a senior colleague in my department, who was also a classmate of Fayemi to get him change his mind on the appointment. They did get to him, but he insisted on me. Again, the appointment had become a community issue. Since the local government was created in 1976, only three people from my town had headed the council. Thus, the people saw it as the turn of the town to produce a chairman after a long time. At that point, it was practically impossible to turn down. I served for one year; and it was quite an experience for me. But throughout the one year of what I would call a community service, Abu was always monitoring me, telling me not to be distracted and to make an indelible mark. At the end of my tenure, I sent him a detail of my stewardship, and he was quite happy.
The tragedy of Abu’s death is that the good ones are leaving the Ivory Towers. Nigerian universities are fast turning into Professor manufacturing factory where people are elevated not by virtue of any contribution to knowledge but by virtue of number of years spent in the system or by the amount and viciousness of politics played. The more tragedy is that, as he told me, it is the mediocre that are now deciding the fate of the few committed ones. It is the lowering of the standards that constituted part of what Momoh fought seriously against, and which also cost him lots of anguish. His promotion was delayed for more than 15 years until Lagos State House of Assembly had to wade in and compel LASU authorities to announce his Chair!
Abu, you were just too good to be forgotten. You have trained and inspired so many of us across the country and even beyond. We will keep the flag flying. You left behind tonnes of work that will endure, as long as the world exists. It is tough for me to say good bye. And I won’t say it, cos even though you have changed mortality for immortality, yet are still very much alive.
Dr. Olaniyan, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, is currently a Research Fellow at the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society, Munich, Germany.