Conversation with Ojo
On Friday, we had a praise and worship session for Aunty UC, your wife and her twin sister Aunty Nnenna to celebrate their 70th birthday. It was so surreal to be in House 22 without you. The mood was sombre; the energy in your house was low. We tried singing but our voices were hollow; we tried doing the things you would have done, but the emptiness pervaded the environment.
On some occasions that I have represented you at events, I had prefaced my speech with, “if Ojo were here, he would have said this or that”. But on Friday, I tried to do what Ojo would have done: We played your favourite music, we tried dancing like you….yet all rang hollow.
As we sat in the Clinton room, where you hosted Mrs Hillary Clinton during her visit to Nigeria for a lunch, I couldn’t ask for black beans and fried yam, your must-eat diet. The combination of vegetable and egusi soup brought you forcefully into the room. I could see you saying, “Osita nwannem, eat some more and let’s drink some civilized wine.”
Talking about red wine, you made me a convert to your love of fine wine. You recorded my conversion as a great success Since Pius Okigbo converted you to wine drinking, you were so happy you have influenced a protégé to the joy and art of wine drinking. You taught me many things. So everywhere I turn I see you: I hear your restless voice, I feel your presence in the artworks in my house, in the wine opener, decanter, wine cover, and all the accoutrements of your almost sacramental wine ceremony.
As I entered my study, I could hear you say, “Osita nwannem…your collection is growing; you must read this new book or that new book…”.You were always ahead of me in finding and consuming new books. I always secretly competed with you trying to read new books before you, but whenever I bought a new book for you, alas you had already owned it. I never could beat you.
I just heard that in this last trip to Chicago, you spent almost a day at Barnes and Noble, as usual. What did you buy? I am on Barnes and Noble website now trying to figure out what you must have bought before I take a look at the content of your luggage.
Ike-Ohafia, I have to go and deal with a few issues and will continue the conversation. I Am sure you would have said, “Ike-Obosi, eat a few more fried yams. It is crispy and the black beans is hot…. Ehen, one more thing Osita Nwannem, do you think there would ever be an African success story like Singapore?” Leaving you was usually impossible, but now I must go to return soon.
We have had the first meeting of the burial committee, and again it was difficult for me to discuss your funeral. I made efforts to always differentiate the burial of the cloak you used on earth and Ojo the soul that lives on. As I rummaged on our usual debate on metaphysics, I thought of my friend I told you about who lives in Milan and planned to be buried in Milan because he believes Africans do not treat the dead with dignity. You were so excited about him that you said, you will like to meet him, and if you were to write a poem about him you would have titled it, “Who will light my candle”. You even without a pen wrote the first stanza.
While I was thinking about dignified funeral, my mind drifted during the meeting to our first meeting. I met you first on the pages of Sunday Times where you wrote a column every Sunday, espousing the philosophy of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). A mutual friend of ours, late Mr. Martins Itotoi, had asked me if I knew you, since he saw I was interested in politics. I said, “no, but I read you.” He said, “Ojo is a man you must meet; he is an Igbo man to watch.” You were writing your column as adviser to a man you admired a lot: Baba Gana Kingibe, Chairman of the SDP. You became Kingibe’s Adviser after you lost your quest to become the Secretary of the SDP. How did you lose? You refused to swear to the oath administered by a certain powerful Igbo politician, who was the clearing-house for all the positions allocated to the East.
For refusing to swear to the oath you lost that position. As you told me, “Osita nwannem, what will my late father, a Presbyterian Pastor say if he heard I swore to a fetish oath for public office?” It was to assuage you for the loss that Amb. Kingibe appointed you his Special Adviser.
You had a difficult and tumultuous political career.
As a Minister, you would not bend the rules. Your friends turned to foes and the ranks of embittered extended family members swelled as you propounded your theory of zero tolerance for corruption. To demonstrate this, you fired Chief Executives of Agencies under you. You founded the first Anti-corruption unit in government before it was institutionalized in all MDAs.
In my eight years in public office, you were the only person who advised me consistently against corruption. You never sent a note to me even as I knew the pressure you were under. Whenever I had ethical dilemmas, I turned to you and your usual refrain was, “Osita nwannem, I worry for you, but it’s not worth it. After 16 years in government, I sleep well at night. I want the same for you”. You always wanted the best for me.
My relationship with you was not always easy. As your aide you were exacting. You suspended me for one month for disobedience; you demanded excellence that meant I had to always be on my toes. You will say, “Osita, I want to go to Onitsha to represent the President, from there to Benin for a wedding and then Lagos for a meeting before departing for London that night.” I ensured it happened seamlessly even without GSM phones then!
When at FRSC, we moved into the Foreign Affairs building in 2012, and I sat on my chair for the first time, my Special Assistant remarked: “Your former boss, Ojo Maduekwe used to sit on that very spot as Foreign Minister.” That realization that I was in the same room where you held sway as Minister really hit me. And when you visited a few months later, you said the same thing and prophetically added: “Osita, seeing you on that chair means you will be a Minister faster than I thought.”
In fulfillment of that prophesy, I came to your house in July 2014 to seek your advice on the Presidential call to serve as a Minister. You gave me your blessing that night and I accepted the call the following day. In about one year, your prophesy came to pass.
Our debates about life after death, reincarnation, advanced culture and low culture, the concept of soul, high music and low music and many more such topics would have become a little more clearer to you as you struggled to let us know, “I am not dead, I have only departed this life!” I can imagine you smiling and asking, “Osita nwannem, when will Africans think about monuments that outlive them?
Now I have finally gone through your luggage and as I had expected, you bought books from Barnes and Noble of over $700. As usual, the breadth of your intellectual curiosity still amazes me. You bought 15 books and ordered some to be delivered!
I remember our first trip to Washington DC; a city you made me to love, a few months after you assumed office as Minister of Transport. It was a global multi-modal conference on Transportation organized by then Transport Secretary Rodney Slater, whose friendship with you continued after both of you had left office. You were to speak on the topic of Livability Principle in Transportation. I was worried because we did not come with any speech from Nigeria and you were not a transport professional.
To my amazement, hours before the event, you wrote a paper, which I typed and till date, I consider it your finest writing. I can see you smiling and wondering why I always refer to that particular speech. Yes I consider it your best speech both in content and style, because in that paper, you outlined your vision as transport minister and spoke about reintroducing a bicycle culture to improve livability. That part of the paper caught the attention of the participants.
Throughout my period with you as an aide, you wrote ALL your speeches: You were almost obsessive with writing, and every sentence was a labour of craftsmanship. You were in awe of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was your guardian philosopher. You loved the robust language of Winston Churchill.
During one of my visits to Ottawa, you bought tickets for everybody visiting to watch the Opera La Boheme, at the concert hall. It was a fitting gift to me as you always admired my love for classical music. You were a great fan of my classical music radio program at Aso Radio in the early 2000s. As if that gift was not enough, we went shopping. I can still hear you vividly saying, “Osita nwannem, I know you are a Corps Marshal, but I bu nwannem nta,” meaning, “you are my junior brother.” You bought jeans and those check shirts you liked to wear for me. You were a great dresser, bold and highly fashionable in your rebellious way.
I still wear the green tie, pocket square and green socks you bought for me so I would look Ministerial in good suits. You combined colors and clothes in an avant-garde manner while retaining a classic look. We had a lot of to-dos on our list. You wanted to visit Auschwitz concentration camp after I told you of my life-changing visit. We planned to visit Vienna to see the opera Parsifal by Wagner. You were to read Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God again after watching it on stage at Obosi. You promised to learn from the mistakes of Ezeulu.
Mekaria, how can I forget our visit to Prague in 2001 for the Global Conference on Anti-Corruption? You took the battle of anti-corruption serious. You sought to understand the theoretical underpinning of low corruption societies and institutions.
Mekaria, many remember you with the famous statement “Igbo Presidency is Idiotic”. Many have asked me what happened? Why did he abuse his kinsmen? This is what happened. You had organized a fundraising event for your beloved Asaga community as part of your community development effort. The fight between you and then Governor of Abia, Orji Uzor Kalu was at its height and even led to speculation that he had advised the then Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, and members of his government not to attend the event. We never got conclusive evidence he did that. Anyway the event happened and you raised about N70 million for the Asaga community. Part of which was used to complete the Town Hall at Asaga.
On our way from Asaga to Abuja we flew via Lagos and impulsively, as usual, you decided to visit Thisday Newspaper, which had suffered a fire accident that destroyed its head office. On the way we saw a screaming headline on Tell Magazine “ Blood will flow if…” By Governor Orji Uzor Kalu. In the interview he threatened war if Igbo Presidency failed in 2003 or something to that effect. You were livid because you knew that when push comes to shove he will vote for Obasanjo, as he eventually did. You felt he was leading Igbos down a path he had no intention of threading. That was the mood when we entered Thisday Newspapers.
At Thisday, you were warmly received and the Publisher Nduka Obaigbena, called in his Editors and a mini interview ensued. You were asked, “what is your view about the agitation for Igbo Presidency”? You responded in one word “Idiotic”. The room froze. You then deadpanned and said, “because there is no Igbo Republic, we can only have a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction”. Everybody laughed with relief, then Nduka said is this off record? You said, “no, publish it”.
The following day all hell broke loose. The Abia State media machine went on overdrive and drew maximum political capital from a convenient use of the first part of the statement while ignoring the second part. The rest they say is history. You were reacting to the demagoguery of your political opponent and of course not abusing Igbos as they tried to depict the interview.
Mekaria, you moved against the entrenched interests in the Ports and won, leading to the private sector participation in Port business now. You turned National Maritime Agency (NMA) into Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) by merging the Government Inspector of Shipping and National Maritime Agency.
You brought the same untiring verve to Foreign Affairs with Citizen Diplomacy Andre Bi National Commission between Nigeria and United States of America. You worked tirelessly for Bi National Commission between Nigeria and Canada. You propounded your theory of citizen centric diplomacy and practiced it as Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada.
Mekaria, I have to pause this conversation as we prepare to travel to Ohafia to lay your earthly cloak to Mother Earth. On Saturday, Asaga’s soil, what you used to call the “ultimate real estate” will yet again swallow the remains of a great man, an original thinker, a great mentor, a friend, a humanist, a public servant per excellence, a husband to Ucha, a father to Ulari, Ugwuji, Uma, Ukiwe, a grandfather to Chigozie and Oluchi, a true Ohafia son, a Presbyterian Elder, a proud Igbo man, a believer in the Nigerian project, a global citizen, a man of culture and the ultimate renaissance. Mekaria, off I go to Ohafia, the conversation will continue in another dimension beyond space and time where you said we shall drink the new wine.