By Ireke A Kalu Onuma
THE end began on Monday, January 11, 2021 evening. I had just come in from Owerri, and a call from a very unexpected person, Gen. Zamani Lekwot, came through asking after Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu. I told him I was in the village but would get back to him the next day with information.
Then the next day, Elder Uma Eleazu, called and towards the end of our conversation, he informed me that he tried calling Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, but after several attempts, the wife picked and told him that the Admiral was hospitalised and that he should send a text. This brief moment, triggered the alarm bell.
Early hours of Wednesday, January 13, I woke up with trepidation. And, shortly after a confirmation of his death got to me. What was my feelings like about a few minutes after that tragic news? Emptiness. Gulf. And a deep hollowness filled with silence. So? Admiral Godwin Ndubuisi Kanu, GNK, is no more.
He has done his bit, sang his songs and taken his last bow. There are persons who, like an old chair, have been a permanent fixture in our spaces like antiques of rare quality. Admiral Kanu was that and much more. He has been around so much that many don’t know his real age.
He broke quite quickly and early into the public space of what was to later become Nigeria, and through the nightmares and horrors that took place shortly after Nigeria came into being. He fought the war on the Biafran side and this shaped, moulded and determined the focus and trajectory of his lifetime ambition and pursuits.
The tremendous energy he spent pursuing his career was never detrimental to his core values. He was till the very end the first person always, before a challenge, never shying away or feeling intimidated; and he never took kindly to prevarications and subterfuge.
A lot would be said about him in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. But each bears and knows a bit of him from the perspectives of the encounters they had with him. He was solid in character, rigid in principles and unshifting in action. These were strong traits but they often worked against him in his day to day engagements. Life for him has only two sides; its either you are right or you are wrong.
There were no middle roads for him. He hates corner cuttings. Compromises, were to him a dangerous place to be. As he would often say, “You either say the truth now and stand alone, or accept the middle ground today and watch the same problem resurface ahead”. The various battles I saw him engage in, either as a private person or publicly were defined by the above ethos.
GNK, was a man’s man. A true man. He never sets you up to abandon you. He had clear visions of what he was and what he expected from each that came his way. And being a man, he was both gracious and gullible. The first ennobled him, the second exposed him to the numerous times people and groups took advantage of him and this affected his family life so much, though he would be the last to acknowledge that.
The tenacity of his convictions, pushed him so far into the solitary regions where he almost found himself alone. In fact, the fight for the soul of Nigeria and that of àlà Igbo and Ndigbo, through various groups, most of which he either founded, co-founded or headed, were elevated in him, to such fervent height that he almost became a lone dervish, marching through the deserts and wilderness of ideas and reasons.
As he would often say, “If you find yourself on the wrong road to your destination, no matter how far you’ve gone, it is only proper that you turn back, to where you started and take the right road.” Admiral turned back so many times from his wrong roads. He started many times all over again and most times alone.
In reflecting on the various aspects of his life, I keep thinking about, the many “what I\if’s”, in his life. The stubborn, uncompromising stands he took over a busy lifetime, are publicly applauded. But being close to him as a confidant, assistant and son, exposed me to the nightmares he endured to reach those decisions. He never accepted anything on its face value.
He questioned everything. Checked and rechecked the facts as it were. Even though we may have eliminated everything, and have one fact left, he still pushes himself and everyone to see if he could find a better solution to what’s available.
He brooked no one Narrative for a given challenge, but saw and explored many possibilities which when taken could make a difference. That was GNK at his lonely best. He drove himself hard.
Spartan and Stoic in outlook and lifestyle, his dressing was one tone. His needs were very little and much restricted. He was ascetic and often nervous around luxury and its appendages. At a glance he was very austere, but few got to know the man behind that mask.
He was kind, selflessly so. He sometimes gave me the impression that he often played conscious Poker and Russian Roulette with his life and attitude. Admiral Kanu would sit with me for hours mulling over challenges that would break any man. Yet he would take a call and after listening, would drop and start fussing about the call, the person and their needs.
Here he would either empty his lean pocket, to help or start calling any one he thinks of practically pushing them to a point they can’t say no to him. And he would add that it isn’t for him and would also send not his account number but the person whom he is pleading on their behalf.
He was, without a doubt, the most observant, attentive passionate and knowledgeable man on the Igbo struggle I have met. Compassionate and humble, he represented the kind of man every Igbo person wished to be leading the advance guard.
Being a passionate and an unapologetic Ònye Igbo, made any debate or discussion with him regarding Ndigbo today or the history, actualities and technicalities of the Civil War a long intertwining epic through time which could almost deluge or bore you.
These are the moments I will never forget. Unfathomable to most, a photographic memory is something that only those that have it will ever understand and I strongly believe that GNK was one such person blessed with one!
I worked with GNK since arriving at Ndigbo Lagos, almost two decades ago, and I can only describe it as a life changing experience. Having had little, to no knowledge of the conflicts, contradictions and substance of Ndigbo in Lagos, nor much previous organising experience of Ndigbo in a large scale, I came to Lagos keen and willing to learn as much as possible about this unique yet highly misunderstood people at very close range.
It initially was difficult being one of the least experienced Lagosian Igbo but quickly found my feet, put my head in the streets, meetings and books and tried to study the vast array of persons, groups, cliques and power blocs situated in my immediate community and across the state.
It was, however, not until I started working closely with him, doing late nights and pairing up closely with GNK as a major player, boss, confidant and father that my knowledge and appreciation of Ndigbo and Nigeria grew exponentially.
Ndubuisi Kanu, through his patience and knowledge sharing abilities had enabled my progress to where I am today. Since our first drive together, in Abuja during the Oputa panel nocturnal meetings, we were able to form a strong and cohesive bond, one that strengthened over time and metamorphosed into the friendship and relationship that we had till he passed on.
Trust, loyalty and respect were his watchwords and was what governed our relationship right to the very end. It is that unbreakable partnership formed and cemented during the struggle against OBJ’s third term bid and the salvation of Ohanaeze from the grip of forces outside Ndigbo, that enabled us to work so well together.
Those of us that were opportuned to know him up-close and personal have been fortunate enough to witness some incredible mind at work. His interactions with one or more people, together with his bead like form of talking, is an experience to cherish every day.
I have had opportunities to analyse differing Igbo circumstances in Nigeria and among Igbo communities with him, also been privileged enough to follow the growth of historical evidence he amassed and the dynamic lives of numerous political leaders who have come to consult him; as well as share with each other our life stories and contrasting backgrounds. These were deep special spiritual moments, teachable moments and above all enduring moments.
GNK gave me invaluable lessons in leadership, companionship and compassion. He helped me set up countless engaging meetings and watched out for the outcomes of each with determined patience. We had a few edgy encounters with each other and with the bigger problem of Igbo unity, focus and values, and I was amazed by his incredible ability to negotiate through each without any qualms.
His tangible presence will forever live with me. His extraordinary knowledge of the world of Ndigbo and reverence for God are things that need to be cherished and passed on through future generations.
I am sure that Ndi-Igbo and Nigerians that have previously worked and interacted with GNK will express a similar sentiment and respect for what he has done as well as any guests to his house or office, that have had the privilege of interacting with him.
Admiral enjoyed life and he enjoyed people. He had an interesting hobby of collecting model ships, and odd things and pieces you would not know what they were. These were scattered all over his office, yet they all have a history which he loves to tell. He also was a huge tennis enthusiast and enjoyed playing almost every Saturday and he was as competitive in this as he was in everything he engages in.
After he “retired,” from the Navy, he was, in his own words, only then beginning life. He found with some others the Ragnk shipping company, a company that had very promising future if not for a combination of events; the downturn of our economy and the overall worldwide depression.
Had he been a business man in the strict sense of the word, he would have done extremely better, but he barely could separate his humanness, charity and philanthropic kindness from the often strict codes and responsibilities of running a company. Good character to those on the outside but very much unacceptable in building a functional successful business.
He very much enjoyed being independent, proud and principled and when his business started getting some knocks, due mainly to the bad policies and procedures of the government and its functionaries, he refused to ask for help or beg for a reprieve. He had a lot of men in positions of power that could have helped with a phone call.
Many of them, making the proposals to help directly to him, yet he refused, and believing somehow, ignorantly though, that the courts of the very system he had lived most of his life fighting to change for good, will somehow come good for him overnight. That was the naivety which almost all great souls are cursed with.
He put up with a lot of pain and rejection in his later years that he, always true to his nature, offered up no explanation or bore any malice. He endured a lot of losses most of them avoidable. In all he stood tall, proud and great to the end. We all are better people for having known Ndubuisi Kanu, for him touching our lives, for leading by understated example.
In saying farewell, I would above all say thank you Ùgwùmba for the blessing that you were to me. Thanks for your life of integrity, for your giving, for your wonderful touching relationship and conversations (even though you would often drag on and on, without noticing the changing moods of your listeners), for your acts of incredible kindness, and for your sense of humor.
You were a great man, a prophet and soldier, and a father to me and friend to all. You will be greatly missed. We take comfort from knowing that what you stood for, fought for and lived for we your disciples, friends and acquaintances will go on standing, fighting and living for till we fully realize it.
I love you Admiral and will always be grateful for having been blessed to know you. Good Night ÙgwùMbà!
Onuma, Administrative Secretary, Ndigbo Lagos, wrote from Lagos