By Donu Kogbara

I HAVEN’T been myself since I discovered, last weekend, that Dillibe Onyeama, author, publisher and brother of Geoffrey Onyeama, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, had passed away, aged 71. Dillibe was the son of Charles Dadi Onyeama, the iconic first-ever Nigerian judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

He became famous in his own right when he wrote “Nigger At Eton,” a harrowing account of the traumas that were inflicted on him by racist white bully boys when he was a pupil at Eton College, the most elite school in the world. Eton, a bastion of the British establishment, was founded in 1440. By the time Dillibe was sent there in the mid-1960s because the Justice wanted him to benefit from the high academic standards and sophisticated ambience, Eton had been educating princes, kings, aristocrats and sons of VIPs from numerous countries for over five centuries.

The late Justice Onyeama was a friend of my late father, Ignatius Kogbara, the then Biafran Representative in the United Kingdom, who sometimes visited the troubled teenaged Dillibe at Eton. Dillibe, who was eight years older than me, later told me that Daddy gave him considerable emotional support in those dark days; and I never tired of hearing Daddy’s bemused stories about the lurid pranks Dillibe played on his horrible tormentors. Much to my delight, one involved a fake voodoo doll that scared the hell out of them.

The friendship between our fathers was inherited by me and Dillibe because we had a lot in common including the fact that we both became professional writers and had similar senses of humour. It, therefore, seemed somehow fitting that Dillibe should kindly invite me to review the fascinating biography – titled “The Man, The Legend, An Intimate Portrait” – he had written in honour of his illustrious paterfamilias when it was launched in Abuja in 2019.

Dillibe was a very talented writer who helpfully put his father’s birth date (April 26, 1916) into context by pointing out that he was born in Eke, now Enugu State, “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 – was typical of Dillibe’s habitual international perspective and reflected his formidable erudition.

Dillibe also possessed a great way with words – an elegant, evocative and literary style that injected vitality and spine-tingling atmosphere, as evidenced by this poetic excerpt from the book:  “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 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.”

Dillibe also wrote a handful of enjoyable novels. But it is for “Nigger At Eton”, published in 1972, that he will forever be remembered. That book, which exposed the vicious underbelly of the European crème de la creme, caused a huge storm that embarrassed Eton so much that Dillibe was banned from his alma mater for life. 

However, Eton not only forgave him 40 years later, in 2020 – in the wake of the widespread anti-racist Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the West – but also asked for his forgiveness.

Eton’s headmaster, Simon Henderson, told the BBC that he was “appalled” by the racism Dillibe experienced, that “racism has no place in civilised society” and that he intended to invite Dillibe to a meeting “so as to apologise to him in person, on behalf of the school, and to make clear that he will always be welcome at Eton.”

Charles Aniagolu, the ARISE TV anchor, was a cousin and friend of Dillibe’s. When I called him to say sorry, he had this to say:“I am in shock. Dillibe was very close to me. Just a month ago, we were talking about the fact that he was getting lots of offers from producers who wanted to turn his book into a film; and I advised him to get an agent to sort through the offers and pick the best one.

“He was an extraordinary human being who went through so much as a child. He was sent to England on his own at the age of seven and didn’t see any family members again until he was 11. Imagine suddenly finding yourself alone at that age in a completely different culture. He was a colourful personality who later identified with American civil rights activists like Malcom X. While appearing on stage in New York, he attracted headlines by giving the Black Power salute.”  

I loved Dillibe’s spirit. He was the privileged descendant of powerful dignitaries, but down to earth. He was a witty, brilliant, ebullient, honest citizen of the world who could have luxuriated in a celebrity existence abroad but didn’t forget his African roots and came home to set up a successful publishing company (Delta) in Enugu. 

Here is a note he wrote me last August. I had shown him a book my Dad had written. And he was impressed and keen to help.

Dear Donu,

I really want that book to see the light of day. Your dear father needs to be immortalised. I want to make the book the premier recipient of our scheme ‘The King Jaja Book Prize’ for works of research thesis, political commentary and biographical study.

You may recall that for the last 13 years Delta has staged ‘The Coal City Book Convention’ in Enugu, which carries the conferment ‘The Olaudah Equiano Life-Award’, ‘Profiles at the Lagoon’ in Lagos which confers ‘The Tutuola Palm for Poetry’, and Capital Territory’s Book Convention’ in Abuja – which confers ‘The Abubakar Gimba Literary Award’.

In the light of the foregoing data, let me know if you might, in principle, be amicably disposed to the idea of awarding your father’s book as proposed. It will not cost you a dime! If you are interested we can discuss the modalities.

I was very interested and promised to tidy up the manuscript as soon as I could take a break from work. But I left it too late. He’s gone now. I like to think of him in heaven with our fathers, earnestly chatting about cerebral things but also having a chuckle. 

May he rest in perfect peace in the bosom of our Maker.

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