By Chuddy Oduenyi
The saying that “a library is lost when an African elder dies” is partly true in the death of Professor Benedict Ebele Obumselu in the early hours of Saturday, March 4, 2017. At 86, Obumselu was an African elder and much more. In him and with his demise, more than a library was lost; indeed, several libraries were lost, for Obumselu was an inimitable scholar, literary critic, raconteur, intellectual muse, political actor, soldier of conscience, patriot and distinguished professor of the history of ideas. His death, in an uncanny way, signals the end of an era of unrivaled scholarship and profound intellectual exertions devoted to the upliftment of the human race especially the African continent which he traversed sharing experience and imparting knowledge.
My quest for literary excellence had compelled me to seek out Obumselu. The year was 1982 and my youthful creative juice was bursting by the seams. I had completed two manuscripts and needed the validation by an expert before rushing to publish. And to Obumselu I turned. He came highly recommended especially as one of my two manuscripts was a volume of poems “Cries Of The Soul” which needed the deft touch of a master. I was thrilled by the realisation that the master whose guidance I earnestly sought after was the same Benedict Obumselu whom the great poet Christopher Okigbo acknowledged in his incomparable book of poems “Labyrinths” for “criticisms that continue to guide me along the paths of greater clarity”. On our first meeting, I was bowled by his approachability and willingness to be of help. So, began a father and son, master and apprentice, idol and worshipper – kind of relationship that lasted till his demise.
In my interactions with Obumselu, I saw a man greater than I had imagined, who to those who should know, was the greatest African literary critic of his generation. While covering the 1987 International Literary Conference in Calabar for the Nigerian Chronicle, I had interviewed one of the guest speakers Professor Michael J. C. Echeruo, on the issue of ‘Rigor And Rigour’ in the context of African literature. Echeruo, then Vice Chancellor of Imo State University, had commented that Obumselu was easily the most rigorous African literary scholar around.
If the Echeruo encounter was somewhat sedate, as most of the interview was conducted in his moving car, not that with Chief Bola Ige which had a tinge of hilarity to it. Sometime in 1989, I had notified Obumselu of my intention to visit Ibadan in the course of a research work I was undertaking. He had, inter-alia, requested that I give his regards to Ige, the orator, poet, philosopher, politician and former governor of old Oyo State, whom Dr. Stanley Macebuh, then Managing Director of The Guardian, had in an incisive piece of writing nicknamed the ‘Cicero At Agodi’ in attestation to his brilliance and erudition. On getting to Ige’s law office, I was amazed by the sheer number of people waiting to see him. Eager to return to Lagos and discouraged by the multitude waiting to have audience with the famed politician and distinguished lawyer, I merely dropped a note for Ige at his secretary’s desk and left. I had barely made it to the staircase when Ige came out, bare footed, in search of ‘the man from Ben Obumselu’. The Cicero was practically racing after me.
Ensconced with him in his office, Ige, whom Chinua Achebe described in “The Trouble With Nigeria” as ‘one of the brightest and most accomplished members of my generation’ stated in the course of our brief discussion that his eagerness to meet with me stemmed from the high esteem in which he held Obumselu whom he described as the brightest in the Ibadan of their days. Months later, I had met the literary scholar Prof. Theo Vincent at the University of Lagos where he was Dean of the Arts Faculty.
I had innocuously told him “his colleague Prof. Ben Obumselu sent his regard”. Vincent, who later became Vice Chancellor of University of Port Harcourt, demurred and insisted “Ben Obumselu is not my colleague, he was my teacher and still is my teacher”. Renowned musicologist, traditional ruler and laureate of the Nigerian National Merit Award, the highest award for intellectual accomplishment in Nigeria, Professor Laz Ekwueme once described Obumselu as “the Professors’ Professor”. So much for the well deserved acclaim, reverence and plaudits that Obumselu received from the cream of Nigeria intelligentsia.
The point has been made in some quarters about Obumselu not being very present in published works. In fact, Prof. Adebayo Williams had in his seminal contribution to a book of essays in honour of Obumselu stated that “Obumselu’s career can be formulated in terms of three interlocking paradoxes: presence determined by absence; inclusion generated by exclusion; and the thundering eloquence of silence”.
He went on to assert that “one searches the fetid entrails of decaying libraries for the magnum opus in vain; one interrogates the murmurs of mummified footnotes in frustration and futility; one wades through the intertextual Babel in increasing desperation as false trails lead to labyrinths of ancient scrolls and the excavator turns into the excavated”.
“What confronts one,” he noted, “are the powerful teasers, the occasional remarks, the brief but formidable interventions and, of course, the haunting apparition of the great scholar missing in action”. Elsewhere, Williams, a master of scintillating prose had described Obumselu, fittingly, as ‘the great African literary critic, iconic man of letters, scholar-warrior and pioneer Africanist intellectual’.
Perhaps, Obumselu has not loomed large on the nation’s present intellectual landscape partly due to the pervading philistinism which elevate cant and mercantile publications to high art. Obumselu remains alive in profound contributions, though scattered in various places and in various forms, they speak to the depth and breadth of his brilliance and craftsmanship. For him, the mantra ‘less is enough’ and quality not quantity appear to be the watchword. To Obumselu “every attempt to publish must be a bid for immortality”.
“And immortality in this regard”, he once explained to his former student Professor Isidore Diala “is not really asking to be remembered two hundred years hence…But one must be making a case that is memorable because it is new and central to our conception of humanity”.
Diala had deduced that Obumselu “finds it upsetting that given compelling professional demands to publish, in the hands of university lecturers, publications, which ought to be visible symbols of the generation of new insights, often degenerate into mere noise making”.
In Ben Obumselu is exemplified the truism that the ridge like gulf between the merely talented and the supremely gifted is the camaraderie, candor, urbanity, erudition and simplicity the latter evinces. That, to me, is the Obumselu that counts! Indeed, his life of distinction had revolved along his many roles as a scholar, critic, intellectual muse, soldier (courtesy of his Biafran Army activities) and teacher. He obviously took his teaching role seriously and succeeded in helping to nurture some of the best that Nigeria has known – Theo Vincent, Dan Izevbaye, Stanley Macebuh, Molara Ogundipe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jim Nwobodo and Isidore Diala, his later day student, who once noted that Obumselu’s models of exemplary teacher/student relationship are primed relationships between Socrates and Plato, and that between Christ and his disciples. It is remarkable that neither teacher of immortal ideas left behind any writing of their own, and regards their disciples’ perpetuation of their masters’ teaching through writing as exemplary love and self-forgetful action.
An aspect of Obumselu that is hardly projected is his later life business pursuits. On leaving the Ivory tower, he teamed up with Africa’s foremost economist Dr. Pius Okigbo to set up a frontline publishing firm; Torch Publishing Company. He approached business with balance of emphasis that put profit and the public good on the same scale. Under his watch, Torch Publishing Company flourished while still offering realistic nay altruistic trade terms that helped in ensuring the successes and sustained growth of a host of businesses including the then fledgling ThisDay newspaper. Earlier on, he had, at the behest of Clarkson De Majomi, publisher of The Mail, lent a helping hand in the revitalization of the then ailing newspaper. He was to undertake a similar task for the now rested The Post Express at the instance of its publisher and business mogul Chief Sonny Odogwu. At Compact Communications Limited, a resourceful marketing communications consultancy, atop its top drawer Board of Directors he sat, he was pivotal to the several special publications the company produced. His ‘Introduction’ to the publications were the readers’ delight. It dripped of vast knowledge wrapped in excellent writing, the type that Professor Molly Mahood, pioneer head of the English department at Ibadan, had noticed even in those early days as “a mature and stylish manner of writing.”
On his return from a medical trip to India last year, I had expressed concern about his failing health. Obumselu, not one to be desolate, tried to cheer me up and avowed that he had lived a fulfilled life. Even while bugged down by illness, he continued to give of himself to good causes geared at the upliftment of the Igbo nation, Nigeria and our shared humanity. I had visited Obumselu at his hospital bed the Sunday preceding his death and he was in the good company of his devoted wife, Fidelia and one of his daughters, Chiebuka. Not even the evident pain concomitant of the malignant ailment that ravaged him could stop him from discussing books.
He did not forget the last assignment that he gave to me which was to scout for the best bookshops in Lagos. On learning that I will be travelling to Ibadan the next day, he admonished that I should drive carefully so as to return safely to my loved ones. Responding, as I bade him bye, I thanked him for his unfailing fatherly care and noted that I will be exceedingly pleased to see him in robust health on my return. I did return few days afterwards to be assailed with the grim news of his passage. Adieu the quintessential scholar and humanist!
(Oduenyi, a company chief executive, is an adjunct member of faculty at the School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University, Lagos.)