Ojo Maduekwe: Philosopher of the Soap Box




I deliberately called him at an unholy hour in Ontario. He picked up the phone, knowing it was I, but protested that the only other person who could call him at such a cruel hour and expect a response was ‘the President, Commander-in-Chief’. He knew it was a prank to get his attention on an urgent matter. I indicated that I had an urgent personal assignment, which was also a national service. We were at the run up to the last presidential election and the two dominant political parties were waging the political equivalent of a bloody civil war.

I needed him to take a temporary leave of his ambassadorial perch and come to Lagos to deliver a public lecture on ‘the imperative of bipartisanship in Nigerian politics’. We needed to get the two main parties to etch out common grounds and see themselves as first and foremost institutions for national stability and continuation rather than medieval armies of the night. The public presentation of my new book, Writing the Wrong, would provide the occasion. So genuine was Ojo’s friendship and patriotism that what should have been a request ended up as summons. The rest is history.

In a place where politics is played mostly in pursuit of crass interests rather than enduring ideas, Ojo Maduekwe has died more than a personal death. He has perhaps taken with him the promise that Nigeria’s motley and voracious political class could aspire to any set of ideas. Among the many practitioners of the deviant art of Nigerian politics, Ojo stood out as one who aspired and indeed strove to lend the coloration of ideas to his political forays. He was that lone voice in a wilderness that insisted on engaging in and elevating the nation’s political discourse while playing an active and diverse role in successive governments including, alas, undemocratic ones.

Variously appointed and disappointed by administrations from Sani Abacha to Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, Ojo Maduekwe was a man for many seasons. He was at different times explicator extraordinaire to the Abacha interregnum, Minister of Youth and Culture, Transport, Foreign Affairs, Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Nigeria’s Ambassador to Canada. While his contemporaries in these administrations were content with occupying political offices, Ojo’s singular distinction in each of these roles is that he found it fit to rationalise his role against the background of the peculiar historical circumstances that surrounded each of the regimes he had to serve. Some may consider these rationalisations self-serving and opportunistic but at least he offered them to a public that was eager to hear sensibly from high office occupants.

In the process of finding a rational basis for his multiple involvements in the nation’s public life, Ojo carved out for himself an unmistakable image as an essentially ‘philosophical’ politician. He was first a man of ideas and then a political actor, rather than a politician in its crude local definition. A qualified lawyer in his own right, it could be said that he was a man of ideas in politics rather than a politician who discovered ideas as a marketing tool.

This image becomes important because of the character of Nigerian politics in the post–military era. As it were, the founding fathers notably Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo would seem to have died with the foundations of ideological politics in Nigeria. To be an Awoist or a Zikist meant adherence to a particular school of thought: one was social democratic while the other was liberal welfarist. Those who subscribed to these belief systems were staunch followers of these founding fathers and the ideological rubrics of these belief systems were rigorously enforced both within the parties they led and the governments led by those parties in the regions. Contemporary Nigerian politics is embarrassingly bereft of ideas, not to talk of ideological leaning both as a basis of party affiliation and government policy.

Ojo Maduekwe’s love for ideas cannot be equated with what the founding fathers espoused. It is still hard to locate his ideological bent except as a committed patriot and a rational nationalist. Beyond providing rationalisation for the various administrations under which he served, I would be reluctant to hold the late politician responsible for any ideological commitment, strictly speaking. But his various writings and utterances indicate a certain republican nationalism rather than a social democratic commitment.

Not for him the banal materialism of a good many Nigerian public office holders. Not for him the pomposity of glorified officialdom. Instead, as Minister of Transport he advocated that most Nigerians would be better off riding to work on bicycles both for their health and as a true indicator of the nation’s real socio-economic standing at the time. That did not incidentally earn him the popularity that the gesture deserved because the image of a minister on bicycle in the midst of other ministers cocooned in air conditioned armoured limousines did not just impress Nigerians. In the end, it was a personal gambit and almost a foolhardy adventure remarkable more for its symbolism than for its fundamental message. But at a personal level, it indicated his personal indifference to material comfort and official privilege. No wonder then that up to the time of his untimely demise, his name never cropped in the myriad tales of malfeasance for which his party is fast becoming world famous.

As Foreign Affairs Minister, his advocacy of ‘Citizen diplomacy’ was a serious departure for a country that had remained largely indifferent to the plight of its citizens abroad. The concept emphasised the reciprocal obligation of citizens and the government. The government had an obligation to look out for its citizens wherever they may be in the world while every Nigerian needed to see him/herself as an ambassador of the Federal Republic wherever they find themselves. This was a remarkable message in the history of Nigeria’s external relations and foreign policy.

It was perhaps in his role as Secretary of the PDP that Ojo’s love of ideas would manifest most resoundingly. I suspect that former President Obasanjo may have deliberately opted to send Ojo to the party to help evolve a serious party founded on clear principles and a structure of internal democracy. Characteristically, Ojo approached his job as party scribe from the high grounds of ideas, organising countless seminars, workshops and conferences. To his credit, the party secretariat acquired some tidiness while its structures began to resemble those of a proper political party. But he was a miserable minority in a party inundated with a swarm of political locusts. Inevitably, his tenure was short just as his reforms were soon swept off by successive gales of prebendal invasion.

Ojo was unfailingly felicitous. His personal warmth radiated through his love for brilliant ideas. In a way, you met Ojo’s ideas before you had a chance to connect to the man. The freshness of those ideas was instant and he expressed them with electrifying urgency. Not for him the laziness of your usual Nigerian politician who was wont to take suggestions on their face value. Ojo insisted, always, on detailed engagement in order to tease out the substance of any idea in the political space. His face glowed with warmth in the midst of men and women of ideas.

He is perhaps that great practical professor of political philosophy that Nigeria never had. For if he took that route, he would have found great comfort in that much needed synergy between practical involvement in politics and the philosophical insight that such involvement ought to generate. An embarrassing lack in Nigeria’s intellectual culture is the unwillingness of those who distinguish themselves in politics, public affairs, the military and business to lend the benefit of their experience to the academia. Ojo’s career places that misfortune in stark display, for he tried on his own to bridge that divide through private scholarship and voracious reading. I am not aware that he applied to teach politics in any university until his passing.

For those who came to know him, you could not but be instantly infected by his instantaneous aplomb and compulsive vivacity. His intellectual effervescence made it extremely hard to ignore him in any gathering. His intellectual bent was a combination of the Socratic and the Aristotelian. He valued enlightened conversation on the higher points in the polity in order to extract better ideas from his interlocutors. But he also came to table from a position of fresh and strong theoretical insight. He took nothing for granted and constantly questioned the received assumptions that have shackled Nigeria to perpetual immobility. Most importantly, he remained intellectually curious, reading voraciously on contemporary history, political thought and biography until the very end.

In a sense, Ojo Maduekwe was a political idealist, an attribute that cast him a shade above his contemporaries who related to Nigerian politics from their ethnic and primordial pigeonholes. He was never the one to cast his vote in favour of the ‘turn by turn’ notion of presidential succession in Nigeria. Instead, he insisted that the most qualified person should emerge through a rigorous and orderly party political process. Therefore, when his fellow Igbo politicians were angling for an Igbo successor to Obasanjo, Ojo described the clamour as ‘idiotic’. Such was his impatience with unthinking partisanship and political positions informed by primordial nostalgia.

In the loss of Ojo Maduekwe, Nigeria ought to be mourning the loss of a notable flag bearer of an ideal and value- ideas in the service of politics.

•Dr. Amuta is Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos