Iwas privileged to know the late Ojo Maduekwe for almost three decades; in fact, for all my working life; beginning with my stint at The Guardian Newspapers as a Staff Reporter from January 1991. And he helped in no small measure to add value to my life by the fact of that association. Interestingly, perhaps because he had a distinctive first name, he was to most Nigerians simply Ojo, rather than Maduekwe. Yet, even when Ojo is a common name in Yorubaland, ever since I can remember, the most recognisable person with that mononym in our country happened to be Igbo!
With an abiding conviction that people in the political arena should be well informed about issues, including even the seemingly mundane ones, so long as they are important to citizens, Ojo demonstrated very clearly that the function of an intellectual in politics is to enact an authentic vision that would distinct those who fight for change from those who believe in sustaining the old order. And in all the spaces he created for himself, or were created for him by dint of his resourcefulness, Ojo made considerable difference.
Personally, I have several fond memories of Ojo but one will suffice. In 2002 or thereabout, he invited me to join the team from the Ministry of Transport on a trip to the State of Israel at a time he was the Minister. It was my first and only time in that country. On most of the days, Ojo would invite me to his hotel room and we would spend hours discussing Nigeria as I learnt from his deep insights.
In the course of that particular visit, we were driven through the city of Tel Aviv in their buses and also taken through their two main ports in a special vessel. I recall Ojo telling his Israeli counterpart that what they took for granted were things we still battled with in Nigeria. “If you can do this in a country where the bus system has become both a symbol of transport and tragedy, then it is worth learning one or two things from you. When you talk of security inside buses, we understand; but we are even more concerned that we have the bus in the first place,” said Ojo as he explained the challenges of the transport sector in Nigeria to his host.
Whatever criticisms people may have of Ojo’s politics, and for sure he had his implacable foes, they are part of the larger debate about principles that are so important to a healthy democratic order, something Ojo himself most surely appreciated. That perhaps explains why at every point, and in all circumstances, he defended himself and what he stood for very vigorously. He did not always succeed, as persuasive as he was with words, but people close enough to know how Ojo lived would attest to the fact that he stood for the highest ideals of probity. His’ was a life well lived.
Shortly after he died, I had recalled a contribution I made to the special publication for his 70th birthday celebration last August, where I wrote that Maduekwe was often criticized, sometimes even lambasted, in certain quarters for participating in every government, especially since 1999. “But contrary to what some of his implacable political foes would want people to believe, Ojo does not belong to the category of Nigerians derogatorily described as AGIP (Any Government in Power) for the simple reason that he never lobbied for all the positions he has occupied. At every point, and under three succeeding Presidents, it is Ojo’s talent that earned him those crucial positions and at all times, he distinguished himself.”
I also added: “With his rare intellect and that uncanny ability to explain some of the most complex issues in simple but never simplistic terms, Ojo was not the kind of man who would easily adapt to the role of backbencher in any environment. While this ordinarily should be an asset for succeeding administrations, in a milieu where mediocrity seems to be the order of the day, it is difficult for people like him to maximize their potentials…”
Ojo’s presence in national politics spanned four decades and in the last 16 years of the current experiment, he was a towering figure within the then ruling (now opposition) Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Despite the PDP’s revolving door of leaders in recent years, Ojo remained a unifying and respected force. His last appointment as the Secretary to the Board of Trustees at a time the party was looking not only for direction but reinvention was a clear testimony to that.
Indeed, Ojo was a living proof that regardless of whatever could be considered impediments within our society (ethnicity, religion etc.) a superbly qualified person can still exert a meaningful impact in the affairs of Nigeria, with lasting legacies. It is therefore with sadness that we must acknowledge that Ojo is gone and as his remains are committed to mother earth today in his hometown, Ohafia, Abia State, I can only pray God to grant his wonderful wife, Ucha and children the fortitude to bear the loss.
––Adeniyi is Chairman, THISDAY Editorial Board