By Uchenna Nwankwo
THE Igbo say that igwe nile jeko n’uzu (that every piece of iron is destined for the smithy). And so, it became the turn or time for our great Prof. Ben Obumselu to answer the call; to join his ancestors as it were. Prof. Obumselu passed on Saturday, March 4, 2017 in Lagos, at 86. We salute the great man and bid him farewell to the land of the golden light. Of course even in this exercise, a brief review of the Professor’s sojourn in this earthly plain is inescapable.
Virtually all the tributes to the great Prof that I have come across speak volumes about his literary genius but also about his keen interest in public affairs and deep commitment in the search for the political wellbeing of the country, in general, and his Igbo people, in particular. The Prof once told me that every normal person ought to channel at least five per cent (5%) of his or her earthly earnings to the search for healthy political development of whatever environment or clime he/she finds him or herself. I can attest to the fact that Obumselu did more than this, both in pecuniary and non-material terms, in the short period of time I had the privilege to have associated with him. Of course, I equally endorse all the other commendations being heaped on the Prof; for I have been a beneficiary of his literary genius, critical reviews of the written work, mine as those of some others. In fact, I can say that Prof influenced my literary style immensely and indeed my overall outlook through his reviews, criticism and intimate discussions from early 1989 when we first met. I also had a window into Prof Obumselu’s politics, having worked and plotted with him in many political schemes and projects.
It was in the early months of 1994 that providence first brought the Prof and I into close political association. My late friend and benefactor, Chief Oluwole Obikoya, who had taken me around in Southwest Nigeria and had introduced me to some of the most notable personalities in the area –Chief Rotimi Williams, General Olusegun Obasanjo, etc. – invited me to a political meeting scheduled for his Lagos residence. It turned out to be a meeting of a selected few. There were only five of us at the meeting. I was the only Igbo; the rest were Yoruba. It also turned out to be the first preliminary meeting for the formation of the National Unity Organisation of Nigeria, NUON.
The next meeting of the group was scheduled to hold within two days at General Obasanjo’s Otta Farm residence. Reasoning that I should not be the only Igbo at such a pivotal meeting, I invited and successfully got Prof Ben Obumselu to attend with me and Chief Obikoya. It immediately became clear on our arrival at the meeting’s venue that Prof and Obasanjo had not only been previously acquainted, but were actually bosom friends. Prof later explained this to me.
At the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war in 1970, Professor Ben Obumselu had been arrested and detained with another eminent Igbo Professor (name withheld) at a Nigerian Army formation in the then East Central State. The duo had been seriously involved in that war, it seemed. One evening, Nigerian soldiers, for yet undisclosed reasons, brought out that other Professor from his cell and slaughtered him like a goat at Christmas. It was going to be Prof Obumselu’s turn the next time around! But as providence would have it, then Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo showed up at the camp shortly afterwards and inquired after Prof Obumselu. He ordered him brought from the cell. Then he asked Obumselu whether it was true that he was the one who wrote those beautiful speeches for Ojukwu during the war. When Obumselu answered in the affirmative, the General quipped: “Then you follow me and write suchlike for me.” Or words to that effect! That was how Obasanjo took Obumselu away from detention, and from certain death, to Port-Harcourt.
Obasanjo and the Professor lived and worked together in the former’s Port-Harcourt residence in those early post-war period until Obumselu decided to move out of Nigeria. He feared that the Nigerian authorities were going to institute a kind of post-World War II Nuremberg-style trial of key Biafran personalities for their presumed actions in the Nigeria-Biafra war. So Obumselu simply drove to Seme border, parked ‘his’ car on the Nigerian side of the border, walked across to Benin Republic and disappeared. It is believed that he was greatly assisted by his friend, Obasanjo, in this escape. Obumselu ended up in the Southern/Central Africa Regions where he taught in several universities in Zambia, Congo, Malawi, Botswana and Swaziland, for years. He was also in Mozambique and South Africa. He returned to Nigeria from his self-imposed exile about 1981.
Prof. Obumselu served in the Jim Nwobodo government in the old Anambra State, lectured a while, but soon returned to politics in the build up to Nigeria’s short-lived Third Republic in the late 1980s. Obumselu was one of the hands behind the CARIA States Movement that tried to unite the then five Eastern States of Cross River, Abia, Rivers, Imo and Anambra from which the acronym ‘CARIA’ derived. It was at this stage in his very busy life in 1989 that I met the great Prof at Dr. Emmanuel Okoye’s residence in Lagos. Dr. Okoye introduced us and urged Prof to be the Reviewer of my first book, Strategy for Political Stability (1988), which was scheduled for launch, May 1989. The Prof was on his way for a long trip or stay outside Lagos but he promised to come back and fulfil that task. He did not disappoint. He indeed was a man of his words!
Back to our trip to Otta and the formation of NUON! The meeting was successful. Soon the organisation became a very serious affair. Prof Obumselu automatically became the General Secretary of the organisation, right from that first meeting at Otta; Obasanjo was of course the Leader; my friend, Chief Obikoya was Chairman; while Otunba Fasawe became Treasurer. The three other offices of Coordinator(s) for the West, North and East respectively went to Kenny Martins, Sidi Ali and my humble self.
NUON was poised for great achievements. For one thing, it was rearing to be a counterpoise to the Abacha dictatorship; the first group that was openly critical of the Abacha junta. But the group did not last long. Abacha moved against the organisation. right from the outset.
Mr. Nwankwo , wrote from Lagos.