The Other Ojo Maduekwe



There is the ‘official version’ of Chief Ojo Maduekwe and there is “Ojo” in the first name. At the level of national service, he was the ideal person for the Party Secretary in 1999 when the PDP, lacking an ideology or a soul, needed to find its fundament. As a man who strove to do the best, Ojo refused to bow to principles that irked his inmost personal convictions. His idealistic inclinations were caught in the stampede of debauched leadership and he came out of it partly misunderstood, partly misrepresented and sometimes taken advantage of. But the real Ojo never bowed to the profane!

His greeting when we first met was: “I was expecting someone in his sixties, or at least with slightly unkempt hair and fiery eyes. You look much calmer than your pen!” The second meeting was an ambush choreographed by his Personal Assistant, Osita Chidoka, who found out I was in Abuja on a consultancy project. “What would you say if I asked you to become my Special Assistant? Ojo asked. When I replied that it wouldn’t have crossed my mind, he roared with laughter and said: “I thought as much. Anyway, now it should cross your mind” and gave his reasons. I asked for some time to think about it.

He seemed surprised, so I explained: “I did not come here to look for a job and I don’t know you well, sir. I don’t rush at what people call ‘opportunities’; so I always pray for clarity. A Special Assistant must know and understand his boss, be able to speak frankly with him and for him, be loyal to him and be able to stand in his name and with him at all times based on personal conviction. I have no intention of being loyal to you as your SA if you are an evil man, or if you will one day ask me to go and kill someone”. Ojo laughed like a baby. “Kai kai kai, my friend, you are painfully honest. And you are sitting there and calmly saying all this to my face, imakwa si owum wu Ojo Maduekwe (don’t you know that I am Ojo Maduekwe)”! We agreed to a one month time frame to decide.

Back in Lagos I discussed with my wife, wondering if Ojo was a devious character. Otherwise, why would he ‘smuggle me away’ to make the offer behind Osita, his aide, who invited me to his house in the first place? Imagine me turning up subsequently in the same office, looking like a cheap and desperate back stabber! The next morning I called Osita and spoke with some annoyance about what transpired in Abuja. To my consternation, he had a hand in the matter, all the way! Relieved on that point I ended the conversation, still unable to take a position on what was so rudely thrust on me.

I needed to know what drove Ojo’s inner core and, more importantly, what limits he would refuse to cross in pursuit of any personal ambition or goal. I therefore accepted an invitation to his village just before Christmas; and after confirming that Osita would also be around. I would see the real man when he is with his family, when he is under pressure, and when nothing external pressed on him.

On the day of my arrival Ojo was summoned to a midnight meeting in one hill top house with a somewhat forbidding aspect. It turned out to be an inquisition. The gathering wanted to know when Ohafia people would “feel” his position as Minister of Transport? His response was that he was a human being who, apart from being a minster, would one day still answer to his creator for his actions. As Nigeria’s Minister of Transport he would not deliberately strengthen the national ills of nepotism and debauchery, when Wards, Local and State Governments have their responsibilities. He said President Obasanjo’s job of building a modern state would be easier, and that Nigeria would be better, if public office holders did not just focus on their families, friends and villages.

There was palpable outrage. Ojo was an idealist, a preacher and an unrepentant cosmopolite. The man needed help. The rest, as they say, is now history.

What is not history is the fact that Ojo Uma Maduekwe, Ike Ohafia, Igbomurudike of Ngwaland and Ada Idaghake Efik Ke Burutu of Calabar Kingdom, will always be the subject of controversy. His politically inappropriate bluntness is well known. As a lawyer, son of a pastor and a politician, Ojo inclined towards order, rule keeping and obedience to authority. His ideal society, leader, or government, must hew and enforce a path of goodness for everyone. His discourse saw “evil” and “illegality” as the same and his ideal leader must midwife a truly modern state, not minding the myopic protestations of those who cannot see the big picture.

In the depth of his heart Ojo wanted Nigeria to experience a visionary, inspired and inspiring leader, or great historical figure, like Bismark of Germany or De Gaul of France. But he was swindled by those he looked up to, the way the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was ‘swindled’ by Hitler and Friedrich Hegel, before him, by Napoleon Bonaparte whom he described as the ‘World Spirit’.

With failed bank tribunals, a much vaunted anti corruption posture and a presumed commitment to a better Nigeria, Sani Abacha looked to Ojo like the much-sought messiah. When after the two million man match Ojo discovered that the man was not prepared to boldly contest an election but wanted to transmute, he balked and bluntly rejected his earlier assigned role of being the one to nominate Abacha. He said, to the shock of many, that the approach was “unmanly”. This was at great personal risk, which not many people know about to this day. Obasanjo also swindled him, despite protestations to the contrary.

Ojo was like an assistant in an operating theatre, or a surgical ward, carrying out his duties notwithstanding his aversion for the sight of blood. I watched him agonize about how to help his people without reinforcing the impression that patronage was the paradigm for leadership relevance. I listened to him moan about Igbo failure to understand that they would do better under objective rules and fair competition and that it was in their interest to support detribalized leadership paradigms.

When he organized a N100 million fund raising to build the Kalu Ezera Centre in Ohafia, for development and to nurture future leaders, he did not know that a threat of ostracism would later hung on his neck for not endorsing the plan of a group to spend the money as they deemed fit. Ojo called their bluff. When I offered to travel to Lagos and intervene at a final meeting convened in Lagos to ratify and formally announce his ostracism, Ojo warned that I would cease to be his SA if I did that. We disagreed rather noisily and, as I was storming out of his house to travel to Lagos, his wife, Ucha, his best friend, waylaid me downstairs, and whispered “Okey please just do what you have said and don’t mind him”. I did just that. Ojo may keep his SA job, but he did not deserve this and I was not about to have my boss scandalized. Yes, nobody shoos my masquerade out of the village square!

Rage and uproar greeted my arrival at the meeting in Lagos. Dr. Eleazu took me to another room with some elders. Reminded that the man who flogs his child in the village square, or in the market place, is demeaning his family reputation, and also that a publication ostracizing Ojo would be read to mean that the leaders and elders of Ohafia have not acted wisely, Eleazu looked at me for a while, conferred very briefly with his team and asked me to come and repeat what I said before the larger house and leave. I did. Nothing was heard again about the ostracism again.

But nothing was also seen of me anywhere near the Ministry of Transport, since Ojo had declared me fired. I discountenanced Mrs Maduekwe and Osita’s advise to prepare for an earlier planned US trip; and that Ojo did not mean what he said. It turned out that they were right. I really thank Osita for helping me manage my sanity for a few hours, after an angry Ojo complained bitterly that I had abandoned my job and was deliberately putting our planned US trip in jeopardy. What?

All he said when we met before the trip was: “I just don’t know why I am surrounded by heretics; Ferdinand, yourself and Osita! I like the robust encounters, but you are all still heretics!” As I was leaving, he said, apparently muttering to himself: “You are lucky they did not lynch you in Lagos for attending a meeting to which you were not invited. Heretic!” Case closed.

I saw in Ojo a man who had the capacity to inspire from a distance and, as Transport Minister, he gave more national lectures than any minister before or after him. In one he accused the clergy of preaching only prosperity and a Christianity without the cross. After saying that some lecturers were apostates masquerading as high priests during the Faculty of Arts Lecture of the University of Lagos, he pledged to help the university set up a Centre for Anti Corruption Studies. The money was made available to the university. It was embezzled.

Ojo lived like a midwife in a hospital where the maternity section had been taken over by undertakers. He kept trying to birth news ideas, while others got involved in the supply of coffins and body bags.