Sunday, 4th June 2023

Jeremiah Nwafor Nwankwo: A cerebral giant well-met

By Godwin Afam Nkemdiche
31 March 2023   |   3:08 am
It is appropriate to infer that the palpable aloofness of the intellectual class derives, for the most part, from the “gown and town” concept, which compartmentalises human societies into the cerebral and the non-cerebral.

Jeremiah Nwafor Nwankwo

It is appropriate to infer that the palpable aloofness of the intellectual class derives, for the most part, from the “gown and town” concept, which compartmentalises human societies into the cerebral and the non-cerebral. The cerebral type is expected to be physically and mentally “detached” from the larger society to be effectual. Thus it is that members of the intellectual classes are variously dubbed absent-minded, snobbish, arrogant, etc. This is the general rule.

But rarely and far between, few extraordinary personages emerge to prove the aforestated rule. Apparently, these do not feel satisfied with detached interrogations of human societies. Rather, while dissecting their respective societies, these extraordinary individuals feel impelled to fully delve into them with a view to forming beneficial opinions and, or policies. It much reminds one of a statement credited to the great Ghanaian Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah.

He had admonished aspiring African Leaders to “go to their local communities, live amongst them, eat their foods, and think their thoughts…” One may presume to add, “only then can such aspirants be deemed qualified to form the appropriate policies to effectively liberate Africa.” Dr Jeremiah Nwafor Nwankwo eminently belonged in that exclusive club of extraordinary individuals. This was the charisma or magic of the man.

As almost everyone who knew him would readily attest, Dr Jerry Nwankwo’s nigh- forbidding stare and rolling voice usually combined to intimidate new acquaintances. But no sooner did one get to know the person behind that intimidating mask, did the warm avuncular presence emerge. This was my own personal experience.

I had gone to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) – Dr Nwankwo’s primary constituency – with my collection of observations on the specifications of Nigeria’s Premium Motor Spirit. This was in the late 1980s when the DPR had its offices along Eric Moore road, in the Surulere district of Lagos state. Barely out of my twenties and minty-fresh from Graduate school, therefore, I had half-expected to engage merely with middling officials of the department.

To my utter surprise, following preliminary protocol, I was ushered into the expansive office of an Assistant Director. Need I intimate that the famous stare and rolling voice had their usual combined effect. I was yet mixed up in thoughts when the Assistant Director inquired in the attitude of a lawyer cross-examining a timid witness: “So young man, what problem do you have with our petrol specifications?” His attention was somewhat divided between the files and papers on his desk and the obscure visitor.

I felt a little miffed at first, but soon got a sense it was the big man’s peculiar way of putting seeming diffident visitors at ease. The longer the meeting lasted, the more attentive the Assistant Director became. The more he “drew me out of my comfort zone”, the less l became conscious of the generation gulf between us.

Most of the questions he had put were suggestive of a hands-on technocrat, rather than the typical behind-the-glass-desk executive.
That maiden interview lasted for much longer than I had ever expected, and it lapsed with a big puzzle. Dr Nwankwo informed me that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) recently inaugurated an Inter-ministerial Committee comprising of 17-MDAs, of which DPR is chair.

He, rather in a routine attitude, invited me to present a position paper to the Committee! Incredulous, I stared vacantly for interminable seconds. “I am serious,” Dr Nwankwo calmly added, looking unwaveringly into my eyes. It was an altogether a new experience for me, but with Dr Nwankwo’s nudgings and guide, I pulled it off. Thus commenced my private professional practice in earnest, and, I should add, my decades of hugely beneficial association with this unique man.

Dr Nwankwo was indeed unique in more ways than one, but the most outstanding for me had been his disarming ability to descend, as it were, from the Olympian Heights, and relate, shorn of reverse, with the commonest of ordinary run of society. In a typical day, the highly sought-after-environmental chemist could go from a conference with Heads of State, Ministers, DGs or foreign dignitaries and banter within the hours on a level, with the humble owner of a street-corner shop.

One cannot help but be mystified by the feat. He thusly was always on the vantage position to have the entire breadth of society within his mental view. Little wonder his professional recommendations had such a cutting-edge impact. Little wonder too, successive governments looked to him as a veritable asset, but whether or not those governments appropriately appreciated the man’s true worth remains a different kettle of fish.

Dr Nwankwo impacted my career, as he undoubtedly did countless other careers, much more than words could ever express, making it impossible for me to borrow from extant lexicon to express my deep gratitude.

The much I could do in the present is offer supplications. I should therefore conclude my tribute by praying that his noble soul be deservedly admitted into Eternal Paradise
Nkemdiche, is an engineer. MNSE, MASME.

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