By Obi Nwakanma
Chinyere Asika was the first lady of the now defunct East Central State, from January 1970 to the expiration of the administration of her Husband, the now equally late Anthony Ukpabi Asika, by the military coup of July 1975. Mrs. Asika’s death came quietly on Sunday May 3 in Lagos, on arrival from South Africa where he had attended a meeting of the Africa Peer reviews commission. She would have been 75 on June 19th. Mrs. Asika’s death offers two important points of departure for this column: one is that every death of a public personage gives us the opportunity to engage with history; indeed we summon them to history, in much the same way as Wole Soyinka in his first major play, A Dance of the Forest (1960) summoned decolonizing Africa to confront its past in order to avoid repeating a “cycle of idiocy” of which Aroni, the lame one carrying his unhealed wound of history embodied, and which the errant dead and unburied child of that drama speaks to in its unspeakable horror. History is a patient judge.
The second part is to examine, underneath all the welter of myth, the humane and mortal side of the individual often buried in the usually ineloquent noise of beer-parlour talk. To many Igbo, the name Ukpabi Asika connotes rebellion and betrayal. He was a “federalist” while the rest of the Eastern region of which the Igbo was key, was engaged in a bitter war of secession from Nigeria. So, in the discourse of those years, while Asika was a “federalist” opposed to the war, the rest of the Igbo were “secessionists.” Asika was a “vandal” while the rest of the Igbo were “rebels.” The Federal Army was tearing down the Igbo landscape with cluster bombs delivered by low flying planes, and the war policy of starvation was exacting a deadly toll of death on the Igbo, particularly its next generation, the children, while Tony Asika was justifying the federal cause as a historical imperative to which his Igbo kin must return.
The image of Ukpabi Asika as a high-living, champagne swilling revisionist and palace intellectual of the federalists justifying war against his Igbo kinsmen marked him in the Igbo psyche, through the fierce propaganda of those years. He was a “saboteur.” The civil war remains Nigeria’s unburied ghost, and that is why there is a really, really loud silence East of the Niger on the passing of Mrs. Chinyere Asika, first lady of the East, in the crucial era of postwar reconstruction. But it is important to see, beyond the ideological issues raised by that conflict, the true person of Chinyere Asika, who with her husband, Ajie Ukpabi Asika, played important historical roles, particularly at the end of that war in the attempt for quick Igbo rehabilitation.
It should now be a matter of record, once the achievements of Asika’s regime is placed in some dispassionate light, that the quick recovery of the Igbo in 1970 had in large part to do with the work Asika did as Administrator of the East Central State. Or let us put it in a different way: if Tony Asika were not there, speaking for the East, as one of the most powerful figures of the Gowon regime, and as the regime’s intellectual, the Igbo would most certainly have fared much worse at the end of that war.
As the only Civilian administrator in that regime, Asika’s East Central State certainly saw less of the brutal imagery of military power, and was buffered from the hoary effects of military dictatorships. This is a fact which the Igbo often reluctantly acknowledge even in spite of their sense of Asika’s betrayal. Asika’s regime requires a very close, dispassionate study, particularly because a new era, following Asika has long come. Among those who must be accounted for is Chinyere Asika. As anybody living in East Central State from 1970 to 1975 would attest, she was, shoulder to shoulder with her husband in the public life of the East, and there are those who have suggested that Chinyere Asika was a calming presence in that regime. She was a thorough Igbo, and was proud of her Igbo heritage. Born in Egbu, Owerri, her father the late Nathan Ejiogu was one of the prominent men of the East, first as educator and former Chief Inspector of Schools Eastern Nigeria, and later in the 1970s as Chairman of the East Central State’s Public Service Commission.
The Institute of Education of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is named in honor of Nathan Ejiogu for his contribution to public education in the East. Chinyere Edith Asika, his daughter, was a thorough chip off the old block, to use a cliché. Yet, there was nothing clichéd about her. She won scholarships to Queens College Lagos, and was on the ASPAU scholarship to the United States, where she attended the prestigious Mills College in Oakland, in the Bay area of California, and went to graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was while in graduate school at UCLA in 1963 that she met another Nigerian graduate student in the doctoral program studying politics, Anthony Ukpabi Asika, and they got married. They returned to the University of Ibadan in 1965, where Ukpabi Asika took a job on the faculty of the Ibadan Department of Political Science and Chinyere was employed as an Assistant Librarian of the Kenneth Dike Library. They were in this position when the hostilities began. Ukpabi Asika returned to the East, but took a divergent view of the response which Eastern Nigerian intellectuals articulated on the question of secession, preferring a more negotiated solution within the context of the federation.
He was basically walked out of Professor Anthony Modebe’s house at Onitsha, at a meeting of Eastern intellectuals who were fashioning a policy response to the question of secession in September 1966; Asika returned to Ibadan, and soon found his way to Makerere. He was in East Africa when he was appointed Administrator of the East Central State, in the midst of the war by the Yakubu Gowon-led federal government. There is no public record of Chinyere Asika’s response or position on the war and on secession; but she publicly supported her husband’s post-war efforts to rebuild the East. Asika brought the radical novelist Obi Egbuna back home to Enugu. At Enugu, the Asikas hosted luncheons and dinners for artists and intellectuals; and were patrons and collectors of Igbo modernist artists at the end of the war, which saw the establishment of the Odunke Arts collective in Enugu in 1971. Chinyere Asika brought colour and sophistication to public life in Enugu as East Central state’s chief hostess. The Asika administration has remained since the 1970s, the most cultured, most friendly, and welcoming to Igbo intellectuals, many of whom, in spite of being ardent Biafrans, were recruited and genuinely rehabilitated by Asika as part of the rebuilding efforts of his administration. No administration in the South East since Asika, has had the same quality and capacity of intellectuals and professionals involved in any administration. It is not difficult to imagine, because Chinyere Asika was a formidable intellectual herself, and complemented her husband. She took the title, Dibueze.
Perhaps her greatest contribution in that administration was establishing the “Otu Olu Obodo” – basically, committees for public service and volunteerism -a brilliant, visionary use of the Igbo self-help ethos for community development and civic involvement. It is an idea which remains relevant even today.
The only sad part is that lingering animosities did not permit a full blossoming of Chinyere Asika’s potential for public service on behalf of the Igbo. After 1975, she went dark until her appointment as a special adviser to the Obasanjo presidency. She had much more to give. But her death should now permit the closure of a most traumatic history, and a final reconciliation. Her work is done in this mortal life.