By Obi Nwakanma
Professor Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, novelist and University administrator, who became Eze Ndikelionwu, an old Aro town founded in the middle of the 17th century, died on January 9, 2020, and was buried on June 11, 2020. Chukwuemeka Ike also held the “Ofo Aro” and was one of the trinity that made up the triumviracy called “Eze Aro.”
Professor Ike was preceded in death by his only son, Osita, who died suddenly in 2018. He is survived by his wife of very many years, Adebimpe, a Librarian, and Professor of the Library Sciences, and his grandson, Chukwuemeka Ike Jnr. V.C. Ike was born to a long lineage of Aro merchants and empire builders, one of whose most redoubtable figures, include the 19th-century magnate, Okoli Ijoma of Ndikelionwu, who was a famous trading partner of the Obas of Benin, Adolo and his successor Ovoranwen N’Agbanisi, in the era of the slave trades.
The intertwining stories of two formidable Aro characters in Ndikelionwu – Okoli Ijoma and Igwegbe – are fascinating fragments of Igbo National history. Okoli Ijoma’s story has not been told. But Igwegbe’s story has been told, but only in part, by Pita Nwana in the Igbo novel, Omenuko.
It is often remarkable to me, as I once needled him in what turns out now to be our last encounter, during the annual African Literature Association in Macomb, Illinois, in April 2008, that Ike did not write that historical novel based on the life of Okoli Ijoma.
He did laugh in that quiet voice of his, and said, “how many novels do you want out of me? It is left for you now to write.” Indeed, truth be told, Ike had done his work. Born in April 1930, Ike’s father, a Christian convert, had directed the young Vincent Ike’s early strict Christian upbringing, and education under the CMS schools.
From 1945-1950, he had been educated at the CMS School in Ife, Mbaise. From Mbaise, he was admitted to the prestigious Government College Umuahia in 1950.
At the Government College Umuahia, highly selective, and modelled after Eton, the elite English boarding school for boys, Ike received a first-class English education.
He was admitted into a star-studded class in 1950 Umuahia; boys that became important and famous, and who shaped modern Nigerian life as mandarins of the civil service, scientists, scholars, poets, writers, distinguished sportsmen, and even as players in high finance, like the poet, Christopher Okigbo, Festus Emeghara, E.M. Jack, Sinclair Amabebi, John Owhochukwu, C.N. Egbuchulam, Johnson C. Obi; Vincent Aniagoh, and Austin Ugwumba; who became distinguished permanent secretaries in the public services of the East; and there were the likes of Patrick O.C. Ozieh, cricket batsman; entrepreneur and President of the pioneering Independent Oil Marketing Company, Pocoson; the structural Engineer Mmaju Kazie; there were great doctors – Ebong Etuk, Medical Director of the Etinan Hospital, and Wilfred Chukudebelu, distinguished Professor of Medicine and maternal healthcare; and there was such as Eno Namsey – Pharmacist, lawyer, crickets batsman and longest-serving captain of the Nigerian national cricket and hockey teams.
Ahead of Vincent Ike at Umuahia were the likes of Chike Momah and Chinua Achebe, who came in 1944, and coming three years after him in January 1948 were the likes of the novelist Elechi Amadi, and the Military General, War memoirist, and General officer Commanding the Army of the defunct Republic of Biafra, General Alex Madiebo, among others.
At Umuahia, Ike was Saburi Biobaku’s favourite student. Biobaku wo became a famous historian, particularly of African, and specifically of Yoruba/Egba history, taught English and history at Umuahia after he returned from Cambridge with a tripos; and he did have a great influence – as a formidable cricket batman with the Australian Charles Low, and a socialite, anglophile and Africanist.
He had begun his researches on West African history for which he would submit his PhD, and while at Umuahia had started taking boys like Ike, Momah, Okigbo, Peter Chigbo, into the Umudike neighbourhood for field research.
These exposures will have important significance in the evolution of Ike’s intellectual values and consciousness. In 1949, his final year at Umuahia, V.C. Ike was co-editor with Christopher Okigbo, of the college magazine, The Umuahian; and was followed the next year by Kelsey Harrison; then Ralph Opara, down to Ken Saro-Wiwa and so on down the ages.
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Editorship of The Umuahian often was the training ground for the boys at Umuahia who went on then to higher literary accomplishment. Ike was one of the more gifted of his generation.
He was not as good in sports, but like Wole Soyinka at the rival Government College Ibadan, he kept the scorebooks for the Umuahia cricket team. And they all met at the University College Ibadan – Ike coming in 1951, the very year of powerful transitions in the nationalist movement and colonial control.
First was the Ibadan Constitutional conference-leading on to the elections in Western Nigeria, and the famous “carpet crossing” incident in the Western House involving the NCNC and the Action Group. Politics on campus had also grown intense with the student members of the NCNC, and the Action Group students like Bola Ige and Akin Mabogunje, and Chike Obi’s Dynamic party. Ike’s politics was anchored on Christian liberalism that was far more centrist than radical. Until he succumbed to the pressure to become a monarch, his politics was within the safe berth of the Social Democrat.
At Ibadan, the magazines and student publications were the early means for nurturing the creative spirits and interpreting the social mores on campus. It was the staging posts of polemics – like the irrepressible, and irreverent students rag ,
The Bug, which relied on satire of the kind that the “Takonists” were famous for; and there was the Eagle, publication of the Pyrates, which had Wole Soyinka and Ralph Opara dominating the pages; and then there was the quite respectable University Herald – the University students Union newspaper edited by Chinua Achebe, with Mabel Segun, Ndeghede, Tam Oforiokuma, Vin Ike, and others. Ike was to take over as editor when Achebe left. These were the grounds on which Chukwuemeka Ike’s literary foundations were formed.
He studied for a Bachelor of Arts and graduated with a general degree in the three fields of English, History and Religion in 1956. Ike taught very briefly to serve out his bond, but in 1957, he was appointed Assistant Registrar of the University College Ibadan – the first alumnus of the University to be appointed to the administration of the university, alongside C.C. Momah, who was appointed Assistant University Librarian.
Thus began Ike’s career as a university administrator. He was in Ibadan until October 1960, when he moved to the newly established University of Nigeria in Nsukka as founding registrar of the University, alongside his friend, the poet Okigbo as acting University Librarian.
It is crucial here to note that Ike was at the ground floor of modern Nigerian university development, and with Ibadan and Nsukka, was at the core of their governance. He was registrar at Nsukka till the outbreak of the civil war.
At the end of the war, when Ukpabi Asika was forced not to reappoint Professor Eni Njoku as the Vice-Chancellor of the University, it fell on V.C. Ike to rebuild the university devastated by war. He was appointed Sole Administrator of the University of Nigeria, for the first time combining the office of the Vice-Chancellor with the office of the registrar. It was a very powerful position.
But the task was also enormous. The university had virtually been looted. The laboratories were vandalized. The Zik Library burnt down. The furniture used by the Federal forces as firewood and the university’s experimental farms destroyed. Morale was low. Some of the newly returned faculty of the university, like Ben Obumselu, were being harassed by the Nigerian military intelligence until he escaped into exile.
But Ike set to work with his well-known equanimity, and with the grit of the faculty and determination of the students, rebuilt Nsukka from the ruins of war, and fobbed off the attempts, and proposals to close the university down permanently, and redistribute its various faculties to the other five existing universities.
The University of Nigeria has much to thank Ike for and must now honour him appropriately by naming an important monument after him as often happens in civilized places. V.C. Ike’s experience at the frontlines of modern Nigerian university administration is preserved in two of his most powerful books, Toads for Supper, based on the ruinous ethnic politics at the University of Ibadan in the 1950s and 60s; and the Naked Gods; based on the fight between two contending university cultures – the British and the American systems – at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
His Sunset at Dawn is the finest novel of the Nigerian civil war, around which in pure canonical terms, it must be clear, Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is both an echo and an extension. In 1973, Ike accepted the job as first Nigerian registrar of the exam body, WAEC.
It was a very powerful position in those days. Ike’s handling of the scandal of leakages at WAEC he also preserves in two important novels, Expo ’77 and Chicken Chasers. He was at WAEC until 1978 when he was appointed Professor of Creative Writing in the English department of the University of Jos, from which he retired in 1986. Chukwuemeka Ike wrote with elegant simplicity and arrived at literary immortality without pretension. He indeed taught us all how humility could also be majestic and regal.