By Donu Kogbara
CHARLES Dadi Onyeama was the first-ever Nigerian judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. And his author/publisher son, Dillibe (of Nigger At Eton fame), has written a biography of his illustrious father titled: The Man, The Legend, An Intimate Portrait.
The late Justice Onyeama was a friend of my late father, Ignatius Kogbara. This friendship has been inherited by me and Dillibe, who have a lot in common, including the fact that we both became professional writers and were both very naughty as youngsters.
It, therefore, seemed somehow fitting that Dillibe should kindly invite me to review his book when it was launched in Abuja earlier on this week; and I’m delighted to report that it is an excellent read. Justice Charles Dadi Onyeama’s charmed existence started from Day One. He was born in April 1916 with a golden spoon in his mouth in Eke, a village in the part of Igboland that is now Enugu State.
He was the favourite offspring of a powerful tycoon and despotic paramount chief who owned a fleet of luxury cars (at a time when most Nigerians didn’t even own bicycles), travelled to London in 1924 (at a time when most Nigerians hadn’t set foot outside their ancestral turfs) and ruled his domain – which included vast swathes of land that extended far beyond Eke – with a rod of iron.
Dillibe helpfully puts his father’s birth date into context by pointing out that he was born “south of the Sahara in a nation experiencing an imposed alien culture not widely dissimilar to what the Irish had started to rebel against in Britain just two days earlier.”
This reference to the Easter Rising – a European rebellion launched on the other side of the globe – in Dublin to be precise – by Irish republicans fighting British rule – is typical of Dillibe’s habitual international perspective and reflects his formidable erudition.
Dillibe also possesses a great Way With Words – as in an elegant, evocative and literary style that injects vitality and spine-tingling atmosphere, as evidenced by this long poetic paragraph:
“Eke was a rural community situated in a fertile valley north of Uto Hill…It occupied a large area on the escarpment…(and) offered a generous feast to the eye in terms of innate beauty, by way of a breathtaking panorama of surrounding hills…These were enriched by a diversity of arboreal splendour, with dappled forest growth and a wealth of palm, cashew and other economic trees……from the higher hills, one is riveted by the first glow of daylight in the eastern sky. One watches a tip of some hill-top glow(ing) red, then gradually glistening to an orange radiance amidst a backdrop of shifting scarlet, purple and green colours before the triumphant emergence of the sun with a blinding intensity.”
Knowledge of Nigeria’s history
This book is also full of delicious nuggets of information that enhanced my knowledge of Nigeria’s history.
We are told, for example, that Justice Onyeama “dared the lion in its lair by giving judgement against the Federal Government in two cases – one of which was upheld by the Privy Council in London…
…And that Onyeama created a huge stir when he said, in the middle of a heated argument with Yoruba drinking partners who were ridiculously convinced that Igbos were planning to go on an anti-Yoruba killing spree, that Igbo Domination was only a matter of time.
Angrily lashing out at chums was not Onyeama’s style. But the chums were temporarily ganging upon him; and his impulsive retort generated lots of press coverage, gave many the false impression that the normally detribalised Onyeama was an ethnic chauvinist and led to an alarming incident that I will not reveal here because I think you should discover it for yourselves by reading the book, Dadi.
Dillibe shares so many interesting anecdotes, as well as several official and informal photographs from the archives of his father with a dazzling array of successful friends, mentors, protegees and colleagues who share his lofty status as household names:
His best friend Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Godfrey Amachree, his cousin Justice Anthony Aniagolu, Princess Alexandra (who represented Queen Elizabeth at the Independence ceremony in 1960), Rotimi Williams, Adetukunbo Ademola, Norman Williams, Sir Louis Mbanefo, Bode Thomas, Gabriel Onyiuke, etc.
The author takes us on a panoramic journey; and one almost feels as if one is personally accompanying Justice Onyeama, as both child and man, to Government School, Bonny; Government College, Umuahia; Kings College, Lagos; University College, London; Oxford University and the multiple destinations he reached in the course of his glittering career, which included a stint as a Parliamentarian.
Dillibe is laudably objective about some of his father’s errors and weaknesses, but this book is essentially a love letter from a fan. And if anyone deserves admiration and affection from his children and the rest of humanity, Justice Onyeama certainly does.
Despite his privileged education, immensely comfortable family background and numerous friends in high places in Nigeria and beyond, the good Justice was an unsnobbish man of the people. He corresponded with the great Indian nationalist, Nehru, and socialised with dignitaries galore, but went out of his way to visit Eke as often as possible and to quietly blend in.
Despite being the son of a chief who was feared for his tyrannical tendencies, Justice Onyeama (dadi) wasn’t a chip off the old block…in the sense that he was humble and consensus-orientated. Despite being the main beneficiary of his father’s will, he was scrupulously fair – and generous beyond the call of duty – towards his less advantaged siblings and members of his extended family.
Dillibe has done his father proud by brilliantly capturing the essence of a complex, sophisticated, iconic gentleman of many facets: A staunch Anglophile who had doubts on the eve of Independence about our readiness for self-governance and yet a patriot also.
A highly focused intellectual as well as an enthusiastic sportsman. Dadi, A principled man of enormous integrity who had nothing to hide and yet a high-ranking member of the secretive Freemason society. A Eurocentric classical music aficionado who could also adeptly dance to indigenous African drumbeats at village festivals.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the revered former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, was the Chairman of the occasion at the launch; and he not only praised the book but made some remarks about the state of the nation and urged the government to “avoid validating the saying by the German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel, that ‘the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’”
Anyaoku expressed profound concern about the widespread insecurity, poverty and “unchecked violence by Fulani herdsmen.”
Then he urged President Buhari and the political elite “not to continue to live in denial of the seriousness of these glaring facts which, if not effectively addressed, are bound to push the country over the brink of a national disaster.” Bravo to Anyaoku for speaking up. I couldn’t have put it better myself.