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Tunji Otegbeye: Exit of a true nationalist

By Kunle Oyatomi
We are familiar with the culture of “wasting” our great and talented citizens. When we cannot waste them we neutralize and shut them out of effective participation in nation-building.

It is a matter of opinion whether we “wasted” or simply shut Otegbeye out of effective participation  in building the Nigeria if our collective aspiration – a good and progressive nation, where things work  and people are happy.

But as a person close to the man Tunji Otegbeye, I can report that he had great regrets that his dreams for a wonderful country to bequet to subsequent generations were not only frustrated, in his life time, he saw Nigeria diminish into fiasco instead of progressing into one of the great nations on earth for which he would have been proud to be counted as a co-builder.

At his transition after 84 turtuous years of struggle to put Nigeria on a sound footing for development, we mourn his passing by acknowledging his contributions which, albeit, were ruthlessly frustrated by the ruling elites pre and post independence.

Now we have that culture of acknowledging “a best president that Nigeria never had”, “a best this or that genius which Nigeria never took advantage of”, and then shamelessly celebrating criminals in government and politics because of their ability to plunder the country, and boldly flaunt their loot before us.

We have lost the moral strength to struggle for justice, to work for progress and to celebrate excellence. Now like a lost people we sit in cowardice to mourn  our “wasted heroes”  Dr Tunji Otegbeye was not a part of that cowardice. He was a brave nationalist  who had foresight enough, long before independence, to advocate that a capitalist route to development would take Nigeria nowhere.

The powers that be ignored him, then subjected him to relentless persecution because of his ideological bent, and marked him out for exclusion from governance.

But with hindsight we can now confidently say that if this country had as much as accommodated a fraction of his philosophy of  ‘people-oriented development strategy’, we might not have been where we are now.

The Tunji Otegbeye I got to know after series of interviews was a man passionate about the sufferings around him. He cared about the massive waste of resources which Nigeria has become notorious for. He worried over the kind of education we were giving our children.

He knew that we were not paying adequate attention to  the health care of our people, and the way his mind worked was that government needed to massively get involved in building a society that caters to the needs of its people. Those were his passions laced in the ideological coating of socialist philosophy.

First he was a  communist, then democratic socialist, but at no time did he waver from his disposition that for a government to be responsible, it has to be directly involved in the welfare of its people.

The outright rejection of that philosophy, or the half-hearted application of its imperatives, or both has brought us to where we are today – a nation in retrogression burdened with a ruling elite that plunders and squanders not only its wealth, but also kills its heroes.

For such was the heroism of Dr Otegbeye that when he could not get the ruling elite to take responsibility for the welfare of its citizens in education, health and other matters, he took upon himself that responsibility to the best of his ability.

Countless Nigerians were helped to educate themselves in Eastern Europe and China by Dr Tunji Otegbeye and the impact was felt more in the labour movement.

The first and second generation of labour leaders after independence owe their positions to the efforts of both Dr Otegbeye and the great Wahab Goodluck.

How many medical doctors can we count who, through the influence of Otegbeye, became practitioners as a result of their being trained free of charge by so-called socialist countries.

Dr Otegbeye would recall how his hospital was open to people who could not afford quality health care. So great was the burden which he took on himself that at the end, he had to sell parts of his properties to help the helpless, since government had and continues to abandon much of its responsibilities to those who cannot afford the cost of caring for themselves.

The man lived his life for the people and got next to nothing for doing so.
His dream was for a country which he would have helped to make better than he met it.

But like a lot of his compatriots, he suffered the pain of seeing that country being progressively destroyed until he could take no more. So he gave up the struggle quietly in his sleep. He had played his part, but Nigerians can only get what they deserve, when they are ready.

For now, the memory of late Dr Tunji Otegbeye will be celebrated by those whose lives he touched; his thoughts would be available to those who think of a better future for Nigeria, and his life will be cherished by those who are enlightened enough to have appreciated him while he was with us. His passing is the exit of a great nationalist.


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