By Emeka Obasi
Nigerians find it difficult to quit office even when humiliation and suspicions stare them in the face. Chief Oko Ebitu Ukiwe kept his head high and walked away as No.2 in 1986.
Chief Joseph Ekemezie Ifedobi, Okosisi Akpo, adored Ukiwe whom he fondly called Akajiofo Ndigbo, and until he departed on August 20, 2018 rang it like a bell: ‘People should learn to quit office honourably like Ukiwe.’
Okosisi lies cold in an Igbo Ukwu morgue now, but his words mean so much. If a Chief of General Staff [CGS] could take the bold step of walking away and offering to resign his commission as a military officer, there is no reason why anyone must hang on even with much of his power taken by a boss.
Ukiwe refused to be a zombie deputy to President Ibrahim Babangida less than a year after they assumed office in 1985. He did not hide the fact that when Babangida sent Power, Mines and Steel Minister, Rilwan Lukman to represent the country at the Organisation of Islamic Countries, OIC, not everyone was carried along.
The government was embarrassed. Babangida set out to sideline Ukiwe from the onset. In official Armed Forces Ruling Council [AFRC] and Federal Executive Council photographs, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Domkat Bali, stood to IBB’s right while the CGS was moved to the left.
It was unusual and a breach of Protocol. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo never stood left of Gen. Murtala Mohammed. Babatunde Idiagbon, even as a Brigadier, was never confined to Gen. Muhammadu Buhari’s left.
Ukiwe waited for October 1, 1986 to hit back at IBB. His Advance Party, led by Chief of Protocol, Ambassador Lawrence Anofuechi, had intimated him of a change in the programme which put Bali ahead of the CGS.
Ukiwe called the President, pointing out what looked like an error. IBB said it was in order. Ukiwe chose to stay away from the 26th Independence celebration. It held in Abuja .
Babangida appeared at the parade ground, dressed in the ceremonial uniform of Rear Admiral. I have a feeling that IBB had planned to placate Ukiwe with promotion from Commodore to Rear Admiral. That would keep him quiet while Bali took the number two spot.
Ukiwe was wiser and firm. He was not going to be treated with disdain and bribed with elevation. The job was not as important as a man’s dignity.
On Monday, October 6, 1986, the AFRC deliberated on Ukiwe in Lagos. He was offered the position of Chief of Naval Staff. The CGS declined, insisting that he was ready to leave both job and service. His prayer was granted.
IBB did not see that coming. He thought Ukiwe would come begging. To pacify the Igbo, the President quickly appointed Ndubuisi Kanu, a fellow naval officer, to replace Ukiwe in the AFRC.
There was drama when Kanu also tried to outsmart Babangida during the swearing-in ceremony. He did not come with his reading glasses. The president immediately offered his own glasses to Kanu.
Babangida respected Ukiwe the more after that resignation. When Ukiwe was governor of Niger State in 1977, his Aide de Camp was Guy Amadi Ikwechegh. On August 26, 1986 apparently due to the influence of the CGS, Ikwechegh was appointed governor of Imo State.
IBB retained Ikwechegh as governor for four years. He was redeployed on August 27, 1990. Trust IBB and his game. The next Imo governor, Anthony Oguguo, was ADC to Kanu, as pioneer governor of the state in 1976.
This quality glued Okosisi to Ukiwe. In fact, when I referred to the former CGS as Ochiagha [Field Marshal] Abiriba, Okosisi reminded me that the man had gone beyond that, after being crowned ‘Akajiofo’ Ndigbo by Eze Nri.
Okosisi made sure I spoke with Ukiwe during one of his visits to the ex-CGS. He called me and handed the phone to Ukiwe. Both of us spoke for long. As the handset went back to Okosisi, we concluded that this nation needed more Ukiwes in government.
The story of Okosisi, also known as ‘Ijikara’ is a must read. The man knew something about every prominent Nigerian. Here was a man who sponsored his education after going through truck pushing. He was also a bus conductor.
Believe me, Okosisi turned out to be a great researcher and lover of books. He could recall events that may not be found in some libraries. Okosisi dined with the high and mighty, but lived a modest life and was as humble as he was honest.
Many did not know that Gen. Yakubu Gowon and Gen. Emeka Ojukwu were never enemies even when they led Nigeria and Biafra to war. Their meeting place in the North before the crisis was Samaritan Club.
Ojukwu and Gowon frequented the home of Violet and Edith Ike, whose catechist father was one of the early missionaries drafted to the North by the Church Missionary Society [CMS] in 1935.
One mutual friend was Ado Bayero, who was to become Emir of Kano. It was because of that friendship that Ojukwu removed his father’s friend, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, as Chancellor of the University of Nigeria Nsukka in 1966. He gave the position to the Emir.
John Okolafor Izuogu was so close to Bayero and monitored developments in Kano while the battle for succession lasted. The next Emir was the Nigerian Ambassador to Senegal at the time.
Okosisi became friends with AVM Canice Umenwaliri even as a child when he fell from a tree and was treated in a bone healing centre owned by the latter’s dad. And till death, Okosisi circle was hefty.
He was the one who drove Sultan Maciddo to the Lagos Airport, on the way to Sokoto just before he was announced as the new king. And that same Sultan had attended a wedding in a Lagos catholic church. The present Sultan loves Nsukka.
For a man whose birthday fell on October 1 , he was a true Nigerian. He will be buried in Akpo-Aguata in Anambra State on October 18, leaving behind his wife Roseline and five children: Ikenna, Ijeoma, Chikezie, Onyekachi and Arinze.