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Omafume onoge was an organic intellectual

By Obi Nwakanma
HE was one of the icons of the Nigerian left. Friday Omafume Onoge was also an intellectual colossus. He had become something of a phenomenon by the time my generation of undergraduates was admitted into the University of Jos in the middle of the 1980s, because one of the most exciting expectations was to encounter Omafume Onoge in one of those popular university lecture circuits of the years that made the university experience truly stimulating. He died two weeks ago in India from mestatizied tumour of the brain.

We shall all certainly pay our debts with death, and in good time too. Onoge was 70 years. I would personally have thought that he lived beyond his mathematical years. I was a student in Jos in the years that Omafume Onoge held sway as the titan of the intellectual left in that city and in that university.

He had a phalanx of acolytes, particularly in the social sciences that included then Dr. Ozo-Eson, a formidable Marxist economist, Dr. Sunny Tyoden in sociology, Sam Egwu in political science, just to mention this few. Indeed among them was also to be counted the apostate Marxist, the then  Dr. Iyorcha Ayu also in Sociology, who was the Chair of the local University of Jos chapter of ASUU, and who later became senate President in a different political incarnation.

He was, until he tasted the heady leaven of real Nigerian power and privilege, a tie-and-dye Marxist intellectual, and like the other revisionist, Chidi Amuta, revised his ideological position and praxis in the face of contending material and historical reality.

These other men, apparently may be called realists. People like Onoge were idealists.
It must now also be said that the basis of all illuminating and transcendent acts of history is to be found in the work and imaginary of great idealists. It is they who imagine a larger world beyond them with the clarity that is often the bedrock of vision and divination, and often voiced in the occult language of prophecy.

Omafume Onoge, as an intellectual saw the Nigerian condition clearly, theorized, and clarified its contradictions in his many writings and orations.

He was a man gifted with a booming voice. Rhetoric flowed easily through him. Professor Onoge was known to have held many a university congregation spell-bound by his polemical power. He was a Marxist and held to his radical moorings to the point sometimes of masochism.

Born to Urhobo parents and educated at the prestigious Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned his doctorate in Social and cultural Anthropology, Omafume Onoge’s robust ideological stance as a Marxist basically challenged the fundament of his Harvard education – that bastion of liberal conservatism.

Onoge was, in that sense, the direct ideological opposite of the other Harvard trained sociologist, Tunde Oloko, then of the University of Lagos. Indeed, they squared off frequently on the question of method and systems, to which both were insightful scholars.

Onoge’s intellectual world was shaped by the awareness of the struggle of the Africans and other colonized peoples who sought to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism and global usury in the 20th century.

For the likes of Omafume Onoge, the means towards that end was through engagement with a Marxist dialectic that saw the historical subjugation of the African and other colonized basically as a class question, and imperialism, as a historical and material condition that had to be fought and forced into the corner through the discourse of struggle, and through organizing at the crucial levels of the mass.

We often listened enthralled by Onoge’s wide, polymathic capacities. The power of his rhetoric drove some of us into his class, taking electives that we sometimes did not need for our degree requirements from the social sciences, where Onoge held sway.

He was for years, head of sociology and was to be Dean of the Graduate School of the University of Jos. But that is certainly not the way Onoge would love to be remembered. He would love to be clearly remembered for what he truly was: an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense.

Onoge was one of the last, among the Nigerian Marxist scholars and intellectuals to remain true to his methods. At the crash of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, he was faced like other Marxists, with the task of explicating the historical conundrum that immediately confronted their school of thought.

It is quite ironic that Onoge moved from the epicenter of Marxist discourse to the more narrow discourse of Urhobo and Niger delta discourse.

But we find in all that, the continuation of his search for more transforming and juster relations between the oppressor and the oppressed.

The Niger delta situation assumed a class dimension in his analysis of it, and Onoge’s battles have come to an end only in so far as his mortal being is absent from that struggle for a more balanced and humane nation. He was admitted into an Indian hospital, we have come to learn, following his illness.

He did not return to the bastion, at the head of the struggle  people’s rights. That is the legacy of Onoge: a tireless fighter for the rights of the voiceless.

His voice that once rang out has been stilled by the inexorable power of death. But with Onoge, Donne’s invocations against death in his elegiac sonnet is eminently apt and eloquent: be not proud, death, Donne says, for there is no conquest made. Omafume Onoge rests now with the sages.


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