By Obi Nwakanma
Benedict Ebele Obumselu was the critic’s critic, and a philosopher among philosophers. He was master and teacher of iconic intellectuals like Dan Izevbaye and Stanley Macebuh, who modelled his own intellectual aspirations after Obumselu’s endeavors; and the poet and scholar, Lara Ogundipe-Leslie, at Ibadan. He was certainly much more. He was as complex as he was approachable. He was born in Oba, in the East of Nigeria, and he attended the Dennis Memorial Grammar School from 1946 to 1951, and that is, through the period covering the immediate post world war years that laid the grounds of a new sense of the Nigerian nationalist spirit. He was a child of that era, moulded by its idealism and its optimism.
It was while at DMGS that his gifts in Language and Mathematics came to light, and his principal, E.D.C. Clark encouraged him to take Latin and Greek up to the School Certificate. Obumselu was the only boy in his year at DMGS to sit for Greek in the Cambridge exams. One blustery night in 1993, just before the June elections, I went from my office then at The Sunday Magazine, to his home in Maryland, and we drove to what turned out to be a small dinner at Pius Okigbo’s home then on Sanusi Fafunwa Street, on Victoria Island. And I was bowled over.
At some point, the talk moved from a discussion on Nigerian politics into pure conversational Latin which I could only recognize by hints. That dead language came alive in the tongues of these two gentlemen. I felt locked out, and I was certainly locked out of what may have been more sensitive discussion. But I was impressed. From DMGS Obumselu had gone down to the University College Ibadan in 1951 to study the Classics as a University Scholar – that is, he enjoyed the stipends of the university administered by the University’s foundation – on merit. That was when, as the saying normally go these days, “Ibadan was, Ibadan.” Ben Obumselu could have studied for a general degree in Mathematics, but opted for honours in the Classics, which in those halcyon years of University education in Nigeria seemed the acme of scholarship.
Ibadan in the 1950s was a gathering of a very small selection of the most talented of the nation – a sort of the “talented tenth” – who became the core of what came generally to be known as the aristocracy of the intellect. They were trained and prepared specifically for the task of nation-building in the looming era of decolonization. They were highly self-aware, and in many cases, indulged and self-indulgent, and some would even say they had a massive sense of entitlement. But they were brilliant.
It was Ibadan of Christopher Okigbo, who would become the finest poet of his generation in Africa; Bola Ige whose forays into politics years later saw him become the radical publicist of the Action Group Party, the elected Governor of the old Oyo state, and years later Attorney General of Nigeria who was assassinated; Cornelius Adebayo, who became a permanent secretary in the federal government, Demas Akpore who became Deputy Governor of Bendel State: they were ahead of Obumselu in the Ibadan Classics. He was in the same Classics class with Gamaliel Onosode, who became well known as a boardroom technocrat, and Ignatius Olisaemeka, diplomat, and Nigeria’s foreign minister at some point; the Playwright and Nobel Laureate, who was taking the double in English and Greek was in that class too, while the likes of Blessing Akporede Clark, years later, Ambassador and Nigeria’s Permanent Rep at the UN, was in the class just below in the classics.
Obumselu stood out among them in Ibadan. As Leslie Harriman, who was at the foundation of the Nigerian Foreign Service and would later serve as Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Ministry, when Nigeria still had some weight in the world, and Ambassador to the United Nations and for years Chairman of the Anti-apartheid committee of the UN after taking a degree in Zoology at Ibadan once said, “Ben Obumselu was the best of my generation.” It was a view put in a different way by the legendary journalist, Ignatius Atigbi, who cut his teeth at Reuters, “Ben was without compare!” These men preceded him in death. At Ibadan, Obumselu was something of a legend: socially active, colourful, and brilliant as a student who was much indulged and loved, both for his mind, and for his style. He was a founding member of the highly elitist Sigma Club of which he later became President after Banjo Solarun.
He was also the very popular President of the University of Ibadan Students Union, and from that position, organized, and became the first President of the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS, which has since transmogrified to NANS. Obumselu laid the grounds for the issue-oriented activism of a generation of Nigerian students. There were hints of romance between him and Molly Mahood, the then young English lecturer who came to teach in Ibadan after Oxford in 1955, and who was instrumental, it has been said in convincing Obumselu to take an honors degree in English rather than Classics, and directing him later towards Oxford for higher honors. In a twist of fate, Molly Mahood herself was buried two weeks ago in Sussex, England. But the romance that marked Obumselu’s life in Ibadan was a tragic kind. Obumselu’s star was nearly marred at Ibadan by the death of Bisi Fagbenle, Vice-President of the UCI students Union, who was Obumselu’s lover in 1956, in an abortion that went tragically wrong in his rooms at Mellanby Hall. It brought Obumselu to court on manslaughter charges in a case that became cause celebre, when the presiding magistrate declared, “I am considering your promise, and your brilliance in setting you free.” Words to that effect. That case has since gone to become one of the cornerstones of the Nigerian judicial precedents, the now famous “Obumselu vs State” in the criminal code. He later married Christie Clinton, famous in her years on the stages of the University College, Ibadan Drama Club of the 1950s, and who years later became the Chief Librarian of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPPS, Kuru, Jos. Fresh out of Ibadan, Obumselu took a job as an Assistant Registrar of the West African Examination Council in Accra, and from there went on to Oxford for his doctorate in English in 1958.
On his return to Nigeria in 1963, he was appointed as the first Nigerian on the English faculty of the University of Ibadan, and perhaps with Oscar R. Dathorne, the only other black in that department. Back in Ibadan in the heady cultural ferment of the Mbari years after independence and the incendiary politics of “wild, wild west” staged fully in that city of the mythic hills, Obumselu found his mooring. He worked closely with the poet, Okigbo, and was very instrumental in the final shapes of at least three of his iconic poems, “Limits” “Silences” and “Path of Thunder” – a fact which the poet himself acknowledged. The political crisis of that era, particularly after the debacle of the 1963 census, the federal elections of 1964, and the Western elections of 1965, snowballed into “wetie,” the January 15 coup, and the July 29, 1966 counter-coup, with its devastating bloodtide. Ben Obumselu was one of the Eastern intellectuals who was forced to flee Ibadan to the East to escape death.
He was very active too in Biafra. He worked very closely with Ojukwu. He was appointed by Ojukwu as his special adviser on war documentation, and that is Biafra’s official War historian and recorder.
In the progress of the War, Obumselu was appointed to the rank of a Colonel, and posted to help organize the S Brigade, a tactical operation arms of Biafran defence and Insurgency operations. With the end of the war, Obumselu returned to the classroom, but now at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he taught briefly in 1970. Ben Obumselu: critic and scholar, died on March 4 2017. He was a magnificent man – the best of his generation.