By Louis Odion
To secure a durable place in history, said John Kenneth Galbraith, you have to die young.
By this assertion, the late great American economist would seem to underline the paradox of early bloomers, the hyper-achievers who, on account of packing so much Alphas into their early lives, often end up being sentenced to the drudgery of spending their remaining years on earth in acute redundancy.
In a way, Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia partly fits Galbraith’s typology. Before losing out in the power play that trailed General Yakubu Gowon’s overthrow in 1975, the Edo-born warrior had undoubtedly become a household name and his visage engraved on the national memory. It is however debatable whether anything significant was added to that golden identity by his political engagements in the decades ahead or any respect earned from the lesser company he found himself.
One, his three-month reign as civilian governor of Bendel State in 1983 was rather too short for him to make any appreciable impact that could, in hindsight, be cited as enough justification for accepting to be used by NPN mercantilists to truncate the progressive march led by Ambrose Alli of UPN then.
Nor could his flirtation a decade later with the despotic and discredited Sani Abacha as Labour and Productivity minister be said to have, in good conscience, added any feather to his cap as a progressive maestro.
His appointment, by the way, was an accident. Abacha used to be his boy back in the 60s. After he became head of state in 1993, Ogbemudia was said to have stormed Aso Rock with a view to having his nominee appointed minister. Instead, Abacha, never one to forget old favour or forgive ancient score, reportedly insisted his old mentor should join his cabinet as minister.
Taken together, what could then be counted as perhaps the redeeming feature of the General with the trademark dimpled smile was that he, by a few inexplicable mercies of history, had continued to draw from an usual staying power that ensured he often rebounded to the zenith as often as he sunk to the nadir in the last four decades of his mercurial life.
It then explains why, despite many personal setbacks, his shadow miraculously remained undiminished till he drew his last breath last week. Thus defying the Newtonian law of gravity.
Now, since his obituary announcement last weekend, the supreme irony is that the wailings of those who had openly fought tooth and nail to make life miserable politically for the Bini folk hero in his old age seem the loudest at the doorsteps of his Benin home.
Ogbemudia’s fame which they tried in vain to extinguish actually began to grow from the late 60s on account of exceptional valor as war commander and, more crucially, later as an administrator with visionary eyes and a Midas’ touch. His footprints and imprints stamped on the old Bendel have remained indelible across Edo and Delta States till date. In fact, they are now too familiar and well documented to warrant a recap here.
But what came to be known as the idolisation of Ogbemudia was over something much deeper than the issue of brick and mortal erected. It was partly fed by the communal sense of nostalgia of the denial suffered at one critical moment. There is a story the older generation of Mid-Westerners handed down to the younger ones. It is the story of alleged abject deprivation after the region was carved out of the western region in 1963 following a local referendum. The new region, dubbed the enclave of “minorities”, left the old union without benefiting much in terms of asset-sharing with the Ladoke Akintola-led western region government based in Ibadan.
From virtually nothing, Ogbemudia built something. So, the communal adulation of him was in recognition of his creative spirit. The original Mid-West had morphed into Bendel State in 1967. David Ejoor who arrived after the 1966 coup is perhaps best remembered today for “disappearing” when the Biafrans invaded Benin City in 1967 only to re-appear in Lagos before the Commander-in-Chief with a rather apocryphal tale that he rode down on “a bicycle”. (Hence, the addition of “bicycle story” to Nigeria’s bourgeoning political lexicon.)
Enter the brave Ogbemudia. He led the titanic rally of federal troops that dislodged the Biafrans from the land of Igodomigodo. In the years ahead, it took his vision, vigour and vivacity to turn Bendel (covering the present Edo and Delta States) into Nigeria’s new centre of excellence in sports and mass industrialization despite the ravages of a full-blown civil war, thus investing the doughty people of that province with a new sense of identify marinated in pride.
So domineering had Bendel become in national sports that it came tops in the National Sports Festival of 1973. The feat was easily attributed to Ogbemudia’s personal touch. And so impressed was the formidable Dr. Tai Solarin, ordinarily never one given to flattery, that he penned a glowing tribute for Ogbemudia in his popular column in Tribune newspaper then.
On account of such sterling performance in sports and breakthroughs in other spheres of human endeavor, the appreciative people of Bendel naturally began to view Ogbemudia as a pathfinder.
But, overall, the most nightmarish of his post-Army engagements should be his political association with the swashbuckling Chief Tony Anenih who, until Adam Oshiomhole’s emergence in 2008 as governor, held court over Edo landscape like a medieval potentate.
Even though Ogbemudia’s golden name was leveraged to sell PDP at formation in 1998, he was soon shoved aside by the scheming Uromi chief.
At a personal level, my earliest direct contact with Ogbemudia was about fifteen years ago as a newspaper editor. From time to time, he sent articles to Lagos from his Benin redoubt for publication, usually hand-delivered by his aide or couriered by our circulation driver on the Benin route.
Ever so humble, there was usually an accompanying note “soliciting for space”, as if a mere line by the legendary Ogbemudia in itself was not already news-worthy. A deep thinker with restless mind, he found time to weigh in on national issues periodically.
Two years later, this writer witnessed, in the course of duty, what one had considered quite abominable in Benin. A motley crowd of PDP chieftains were seated in a lounge. As Anenih, Obasanjo’s then reigning “Mr. Fix It”, walked in, Ogbemudia, otherwise a giant of history and orator with prodigious intellect, was – like the rest – obliged to rise in near idol-worship of the lesser Uromi chief who left the police unceremoniously as assistant commissioner, long after the great Ogbemudia liberated the Midwest from Biafra, invented the “Up Bendel” brand and had been inducted as an authentic modern hero of the acclaimed “cradle of black civilisation”.
He was harassed and oppressed with ill-gotten federal talisman. Such was the hands-behind-the-back humiliation the foremost Army General in Bini history had to endure at the hands of his intellectual inferior in the twilight of his political odyssey.
But as legends always prove, a true soldier can only be destroyed, not defeated. In a final act of defiance – thus self-redemption, Ogbemudia would muster the energy to stand up to his political hostage-taker for once in 2012. As then Information Commissioner in the Oshiomhole administration, this writer had the privilege of a ringside view of a bit of the dark conspiracies, feints and derring-do that paved the the road to the July 14 election in Edo.
When it became clear that Ogbemudia, a big PDP masquerade, would not openly identify with Charles Airiavere around Benin, a powerful team was drafted by the “almighty” godfather, the capon of Tuketuke politics, to persuade him to join the train. After listening to their impassioned entreaties that night, Ogbemudia reportedly began, in his characteristic sardonic humor, by asking them which road the emissaries took to his residence.
Of course, they chorused “Iheya road”.
“Good,” he continued genially. “Don’t you see how beautiful the newly constructed road is, not to talk of the streetlights shining brightly and the solid walkways?”
At that point, his guests, unwilling to compliment Oshiomhole for the remarkable infrastructural stride, simply lapsed into a convenient silence.
Seeing an opening, Ogbemudia then reportedly landed the killer punch. For ten years PDP ruled the state, he whined, Iheya never featured on the official radar, even if only to save him a personal shame. Now, it has taken Oshiomhole, his supposed “political opponent”, to revamp not only only Iheya road but also reclaim the adjoining 12 streets long written off to silt and erosion.
So, his final big question: “Do you think the people in this area will clap for me if I tell them to vote against the man who did this wonderful job for them? I’m afraid they may not even hesitate to stone me.”
Now thoroughly deflated, the PDP team gathered their tails between their legs and soon disappeared into the night.
Of course, Ogbemudia saw tomorrow. By the time the votes were counted on July 15, Oshiomhole, an Etsako man, won an unprecedented 75 percent of the ballot, with the no less historic distinction of humiliating his opponent, the homeboy, right in his polling unit and ward in Benin City.
That finally signposted Ogbemudia’s parting of ways with the now jaded godfather and his wrecking Tuketuke crew in Edo PDP. Expectedly, few months later, he formally renounced his membership of the party of umbrella and would henceforth wish to be addressed simply as a statesman.
Ogbemudia’s accustomed prescience was again on display last year on the eve of Oshiomhole’s exit. He was the first notable political heavyweight to openly endorse Godwin Obaseki as the worthy successor. The rest, as they say, is now history.
Doubtless, Oshiomhole did the right thing by celebrating and immortalizing Ogbemudia lavishly while alive – the last of such efforts being the hosting of a state banquet to mark his 83rd birthday last September. But that could only be decorative of the Ogbemudia mystique. For his past golden record had already etched his name in people’s minds. To live in the hearts of loved ones is not to die. It is precisely from that point that Ogbemudia attained political immortality.
Osundare @ 70: Talent not enough
A survey of Nigeria’s major newspapers last Sunday would reveal a complete blackout. Not even a quarter - let alone full – page advert featured to trumpet a major landmark. Save for a short tribute by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Yet, it was the 70th birthday of one of Nigeria’s finest poets ever, a master prose stylist, an original thinker and, above all, a moral titan.
Well, that should be expected in a land riven by philistinism. He is not to be counted among the tribe of politicians that can hardly boast any principle. Neither is he one of your wealthy tycoons with no identifiable business address, nor the false prophets in garish cassocks. Professor Oluwaniyi Osundare operates at a much higher intellectual and ethical frequency.
Surely, only the deep can call to the deep.
Indeed, what sets the Ekiti-born bard apart is not so much the gift of a unique facility that spews lyrical lines effortlessly – that prodigious power that infuses words with life and tweaks same to evoke the deepest meaning possible. (By the way, just anyone with writing talents can scribble anything.)
Rather, what distinguishes Prof Osundare from the rest is a sky-high moral capital, a fierce refusal to be purchased or captured, in an environment where intellectual promiscuity has quite become fashionable.
He flourishes in the tradition set by Professor Wole Soyinka.
Other than poetry, he has also been involved with Nigeria in the last four decades as a public intellectual. Whereas many have lost their innocence along the way in cavort with power, he remains uncorrupted and incorruptible.
Two years ago, he was named winner of the coveted National Merit Award. Soon came the gossip that the trophy might begin to becloud his critical lens, muffle his trenchant voice, to the pleasure of the already fawning Goodluck Jonathan who had the statutory privilege of physically presenting him the prize in Abuja. That, as against spitting fire of old, the “people’s poet” might soon begin to “lick ice cream” like many others.
It was a defiant Osundare who fired back a bazooka: “Nobody is keeping me quiet!”
Speaking at a lecture organized in his honour in Ibadan, he clarified: “Nigerian government didn’t give me award; it’s the NNMA committee that recommended me; it’s a peer-review award. We were many academics on the list before I was chosen. This is the only award regiment in Nigeria that I recognise.
“We must learn to celebrate the best in us. This is a beautiful country. We must not judge Nigeria by the thieves in Aso Rock and in the government houses in the states. There’s so much beauty in Nigeria.
“We have a country to build, not a ragtag assemblage that we have now. It’s we that have to build it, not Indians or Americans. Don’t give up hope; don’t despair. It used to be said, ‘As long as there‘s life, there’s hope’, but for us, it should be ‘As long as there hope, there’s life in this country!’”
Many happy returns of the day, Prof.