November 24, 2010

Farewell to Fidel Odum and Oliver Mobisson

JUST as one was coming to terms with the sad news of the death of Fidel Aloysius-Mary Odum, an ebullient writer,  engaging intellectual and friend of some 30 years, the news came that Oliver Mobisson, a foremost African communications research engineer from the 1970s to the 1990s, was long gone in far-away United States. None made it to the proverbial three score and ten years.

Odum passed on at 63 and Mobisson at about 65. Their deaths were, therefore, tragic. Still,  the news of Odum’s  exit did not produce in me long lasting profound sadness, for the simple reason that Fidel has most certainly gone to heaven. If Fidel did not go straight to heaven, then, there is no hope for people like me to ever dream of going to even purgatory.  Fidel was, indeed, a true believer and practitioner of the faith that came from the apostles.

An American trained political scientist of note who wrote with acute knowledge on sundry issues and practised journalism with authority  in both Nigeria and Europe, his spiritual journey is a compelling story, a narrative defined by supreme irony.

For about two decades, Fidel was out of the church. He seldom entered church premises, and when he did so it was purely for social reasons. In philosophical and intellectual terms, he was agnostic, if not atheistic. He told the story of his conversion himself.  While on holidays in Paris with his wife in the 1990s, he suddenly took ill and was asphyxiating.

His wife, a born Anglican who embraced Pentecostalism like many young Nigerians, began to recite hysterical prayers, casting out and binding demons, cursing the devil and decreeing that all evil spirits and enemies everwhere fall and die. No show.

He, of course, joined in the prayers. Still, no result. He was at the point of death when he remembered the “Hail Mary” prayer he said last when he was a high school pupil at Christ the King College, Onitsha, Anambra State, and the asphyxiation vanished quickly.

He now found himself in the presence of a lady of indescribable beauty. On the second day, all the events repeated themselves at exactly the same time. The drama was recreated on the third day. Fidel was convinced that the lady who kept on appearing at the mention of Hail Mary was  Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Fidel figured out that the Blessed Virgin Mary had just saved him from death and wanted him to serve God all his life in truth and spirit, with all his might and all resources at his disposal.

Fidel returned to Nigeria and plunged himself straight into spirituality, displaying far greater vigour, commitment and faith than he had shown in his several years of engagement with pan-Africanism, journalism and the intellectual tradition, which had won him enormous praise and admiration at home and elsewhere.

He became inured to things of the flesh and of the world. He read the Bible over and over and immersed himself in church history and theology generally. He indulged in dry fasting three days of the week , and insisted on complying 100 per cent with the extremely difficult demands of the Catholic Church. He always stood out at every mass.

He propagated the faith with St Paul’s zeal, devoting himself to Virgin Mary in the tradition of “Totus Tuus”, or “I am all yours”, as popularized by Pope John Paul 11. If Fidel had not been married, he would have been an excellent monk. He personified the biblical truism that believers “are in this world, but are not of this world” (John 17:14). Fidel Aloysius-Mary Odum died with Christ. May he also rise with him. Fidel is a most likely candidate for canonization. He combined faith with good works (See James 2).

Oliver Udemmadu Mobisson, the foremost propagator of digital education and digital practice in Nigeria from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, died a victim of the Nigerian condition. An indigene of Awo Idemmili in Imo State, he earned degrees with distinction in electrical and electronics engineering as well as mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was working for NASA and Harvard on a joint programme when he met the legendary Kenneth Dike at Harvard where the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan was holding an endowed chair in African History.

When Dike was in 1980 appointed the President and Chairman of the Governing Council of the newly established Anambra State University of Science & Technology, then in in Enugu, he asked Mobisson to come back to Nigeria. “If someone like Professor Dike asks you to follow him”, he once asked me rhetorically while explaining why he left a fabulously paid job in the United States to earn about one fifth of the pay in Nigeria, “who are you to hesitate?”

Mobisson developed the computer science, computer engineering, electronics engineering and electrical engineering programmes of ASUTECH, the very courses which made the young university stand out in Nigeria no sooner than it was established, making the National Universities Commission recommend this university to prospective students overwhelming the first generation universities with admission applications.

He also developed and built a specialized computer for the Anambra State Ministry of Finance headquarters, then in Enugu. It is to his eternal credit that all his graduate students were offered mouth-watering jobs long before completing their programmes and some received scholarships to study abroad in leading universities.

The Nigeria Telecommunications Company was to enter into a deal with him and the university’s Industrial Development Centre to  modernize Nitel’s operations and enhance its technical capacity through the Eagle 32 project. Mobisson used the money he was paid to procure a large expanse of land at Amamputu, Uli, Anambra State, for his proposed African Institute of Technology, to help accelerate the continent’s development.

Without ever discussing the idea of a new university with him, Mobisson, an eccentric professor, decided to submit Bart Nnaji’s name to the National Universities Commission as the vice chancellor.  “Nigerians don’t Know that Bart is a genius,” Mobisson used to say regularly about Nnaji who was then the Director of the Automation and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts where he also held the post of Distinguished Professor of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering.

“If he fails to become the vice chancellor, then, we cannot continue with the project. Nnaji even understands administration more than most Harvard MBA graduates”.

In 1993 Nnaji was appointed the Minister of Science and Technology at age 37, and Mobisson could not contain his emotions.  But when Sani Abacha carried out his military coup and did not reappoint Nnaji, Mobisson  the next day walked out on his job, took a few things from his house and headed for the airport.

“Nigeria has absolutely no wish to get things right”, he told me on the phone. He did not return from the States to Nigeria till two years later, only to discover that things were even worse. An intensely emotional person, Mobisson was heart-broken.

On his way back to the US, he was struck by a stroke between the local and international airports in Lagos, and was treated at Lagoon Hospital in Apapa before being flown to Boston. He came back to Nigeria years later—this time in a casket.

Mobisson, who used to work for up to 21 hours seven days of the week and regarded those who attended religious services even on Sunday as idle, must have grown undergone a spiritual renewal in his last years.

He had begun to speak excitedly of his Catholic upbringing and his Catholic faith. May the angels receive him.

C. Don ADINUBA, a commentator on national issues,  writes from Lagos.