By Obi Nwakanma
Frankly, I’m tired of writing obituaries and eulogies. Were death not such an invisible coward, we should go and drag it from its abode, and give it a public flogging for being such an ass – what Nigerians would call a “mumu.”
But death hides and strikes with impunity. For example, how come of all its prime choices in the land – including many who do not add a scintilla of value to the human family: corrupt politicians, thieving civil servants; terrorists, killers, rapists, fake pastors, many retired Nigerian Generals who are generally unworthy of their epaulettes, those who “dey kampe” doing nothing at all – death went and took Pini Jason, one of the more priceless jewels in Nigerian public life? Elegant Pini. Magnificent Pini. Incomparable Pini.
Our own Pini. My rage is, I understand, fruitless, but these were the exact thoughts that passed through my mind last Saturday when the news flashed across to me. It was a crisp and final statement without ambiguity: “Pini Jason is dead!” The message gave no quotas. It was cruel.
I’d read Pini Jason’s last column, and it seemed fresh and resolute; there was no signal – no sign of senility nor of ill omen. How come then that his death would be so sudden? Was it an accident? Was he assassinated? It was past the April Fools’ Day, and we do not normally, even then, make jokes with death.
What manner of death, O Pini? This death is by all means a shattering oddity, simply because Pini Jason was far too alive and present in our increasingly shrinking universe; far too important – far too crucial in these dark nights of our nation.
His sharp, critical insight; the clarity of his prose and reason; the thoughtful exegeses of the subject of nation in his writings was far too crystal; too invaluable and necessary to any attempts to provide this generation with scrutiny and with a compass.
Pini Jason Onyegbaduo was our compass; our own Jason steering the wheels for the Argonauts in search of the lovely fleece. Pini Jason was not only a highly respected colleague, but he was my brother and friend too. You could not but like Pini: his deep-felt laughter was genuine; his love of people and nation was real; he was fair, broadminded, and cosmopolitan.
He was proud of his Igbo ancestry; he fought and defended the rights of the Igbo as citizens within this federation, but his sense of justice was equally tuned towards defending, in his incisive and public statements, the rights of any Nigerian irrespective of ethnicity, religion or class against the buffets of power and ill governance.
Pini Jason was of the category of liberal intellectuals that shaped the debate of the nation from the 1980s till the moment of his final breath last week. He was centrist in his persuasion. We read Pini not merely for the seductive and pristine elegance of his prose, but for the quality of thought and the warmth of the humanity conveyed in his writing.
Born in Obizi, Mbaise, in Eastern Nigeria, Pini Jason arrived Lagos in 1959 to attend the CMS Grammar School in Bariga, Lagos. He was barely out of school when the crisis that led to the fleeing of the Easterners from the rest of the federation happened; and like other young men of his generation, Pini Jason proudly and courageously volunteered to fight and defend the Republic of Biafra when it was declared as the safe berth for Easterners, particularly the Igbo, who had fled for their lives in the old federation. If there was any singular emblematic moment for his generation the civil war was such a moment.
The civil war uprooted them, and redrew the maps of their lives. Pini Jason was commissioned as an officer of the Biafran Navy and he saw action in Oguta and Arochukwu. The war was fought and lost; Biafra was defeated; young Igbo men like Pini returned to Lagos, determined to make the most of their situation; to demonstrate the courage and valor of their age and the steadfast will that led them through war – outgunned, outmanned, defeated, but unbowed.
Pini Jason represented one of the best of that generation. The war was over. They picked up their lives where it lay shattered. He soon returned to Lagos, and sought a commission as an officer in the Nigerian Navy, failed to secure the commission but ended up in the Customs and Exercise.
In his last essay for the Vanguard, almost as though he knew to put the early records of his journeys in perspective, Pini Jason wrote about his move from the customs to journalism. It began in the weekly Lagos Weekend where he was a stringer while he worked in the Customs.
Then to the international Africa Now magazine, where I first read him, until later in the now defunct This week magazine. I came to know Pini more closely as colleagues here in the Vanguard, certainly through his eminently readable columns, but more through shared intellectual and political causes. He chose to call me, “Intifada poet!” He was a man, who in everything was neatly and elegantly packaged: in his writing and in his appearance.
With Pini you knew exactly where he stood. He had a clear, unambiguous way of communicating the moral insight that animated his choices. Much had been made by his admirers and critics about his decision to serve the Imo state government in the administration of Ikedi Ohakim.
There were many who felt that Pini’s presence in that administration gave moral weight to an otherwise floundering government, and that he helped thus to legitimize hokum. I think it is important to acknowledge that Pini Jason had a right and an obligation to offer his services to the government of Imo state to the highest ability of his talents. True talent, like light, has no business under the bushel.
I choose rather to think that Pini was one of the brightest spots in that administration, and there were a few bright spots. That government did not lack conceptual capacity, what it lacked was the capacity to execute strategic ideas equifinally. Pini’s advisory role in that government, and he did offer his own self-defence, took nothing from his high moral grounds.
The measure of the man is the measure of the world he occupies. Pini served with diligence and came out untainted by any whiff of malfeasance. He added no unearned shekel to his name. In due course, it should be clear, that of the highest attributes of Pini Jason’s character, the most important was fidelity. He was firm in his convictions. Firm in his faith about a Nigerian renaissance. Firm in his friendship, and firm in his loyalty to truth as he perceived and lived it. A great star has departed among us.
I write this with a profound sense of loss, and it is crucial to add this, even just as an aside: there is a terrible lack in Nigerian journalism that limits the communication of the truth of our general reality. Reports of Pini’s death kept saying he had “stomach surgery.” That is lame, speculative, and uninformed journalism.
There is no medical term called “surgery of the stomach.” Did Pini have a ruptured appendix? Was he diagnosed with a form of cancer – the colon cancer- which is a deadly killer, and which has frequently been ignored by Nigerian public health information? Could routine colonoscopy have saved Pini?
These are questions that now trouble me, as it should any man on the approach of fifty in Nigeria. That said, Pini Jason Onyegbaduo was an unforgettable man. We who knew him feel grateful that he shared his life with us. Death indeed is dumb, otherwise, it’d have left Pini Jason well alone because he had much more worthwhile things to do. But even good things too must come to an end.