Ihad hoped somehow, I would never have to write this tribute, any tribute for its emotions sake, although, no one really knew who would make the inevitable journey home first between Ojo and I, being age mates.
But the prompting from Dr Sam Amadi, and so enthusiastically supported by Professor Tunde Adeniran, clearly suggested not only that the tribute itself but also its title, was a duty, not a choice. They know we were close. They must reason that in a lifelong friendship that had survived countless, unrelenting argumentations, there must be some lesson to be learnt, on an occasion as this, if the man and the moment are to be meshed in perfect historic symmetry. Amadi himself had witnessed many such arguments.
It is as if I had known Chief Uma Ojo Maduekwe, CFR, or Ojo, as everybody called him, all my life. Actually, we met in our absence or, should we say, by proxy. We had known each other so well before we physically met.
As a columnist, in 1963, I had severely criticised the school principal in the college newspaper, “The Howad Star”, and that indiscretion or youthful exuberance effectively ensured that I would not be doing the Higher School course in the famous Hope Waddell Training Institution, Calabar. So off I went to the less famous Hussey College, Warri, for Higher School in 1964; that year Ojo entered Hope Waddell for his Higher School. He had gone there from Ihie High School, Mbawsi. In the course of two years, he would have heard so much of me at Hope Waddell that when eventually we met at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, in 1966, to read law, my fame or should we say, notoriety, had preceded me. It was as if we had known one another all our lives and the friendship stuck like glue!
He was extremely likeable, but especially well-spoken and I was highly impressed by his powerful expressions in striking imageries and phraseologies. He had a way with words, with that rare ability to paint pictures in word-concepts. Time spent with Ojo in a conversation was quality time and he argued his viewpoints brilliantly. On some occasions, early campus diners would meet us on the same spot, usually the lobby, of the campus dining hall, where they had seen us just after the previous meal still arguing. That was the gripping power of his oratory.
The exquisite attention he gave to the use of the spoken English language was exhilarating, and it was always a great pleasure basking in the fragrance of his language. The ornaments he dressed his oral deliveries, added to the deep analysis and the range of subjects he could effortlessly discuss, showed that he was well read. Every single word spoken by Ojo was so appropriate to the occasion that you literarily drank from the ever fresh well of his seemingly inexhaustible word power. He could speak! In admiration, I would sometime later in the course of our friendship, convince him to start an “Orators” Club in the campus where he became our president and teacher.
Good speakers rarely are good writers and conversely good writers rarely speak well; but in Ojo was embodied at once the beautiful arts of good speaking and good writing, a rarity. Not for him those phrases that are mere regurgitation of worn clichés. In the middle of hot exchanges, I would sometimes accuse him of deliberately mesmerising me with his oratorical feats to gain advantage in the argument. I had no idea then that he could also write as well, until we left school, when he wrote for respected newspapers.
He was born into a manse, and had educated parents. His father was a pastor, his mother, a pioneer teacher certificate holder. His mother held the first teachers’ certificate in the highly literate Ohafia community. His childhood haunt was his father’s library in the manse and probably, his weekly activities were restricted mainly between his father’s library, by his own account, and the Sunday School, apart from the normal schooling. So he had all the time, while growing up, devouring knowledge voraciously from the library.
As young men then, we dreamt dreams for our country and spent long hours debating the state of affairs in Nigeria and like most undergraduates we believed we had answers to national problems and engaged ourselves in endless disputations on the best solutions. We were quite confident that we will make the desired difference which had eluded our predecessors for so long and looked forward eagerly to active participation in the running of the national affairs to fulfil these objectives. Ojo and myself belonged to that small group of friends continuously interrogating the raison d’être of the state.
We believed Nigeria’s critical issues could be resolved only by changes in our political and sociological priorities and practices which militated against the systematic, reflective and creative thinking effort needed to found a classical nationhood, and that whether we liked it or not our fates were in the hands of our leaders. It was therefore profoundly disturbing that there still appeared to be a fundamental lack within the nation’s leadership of the collective thinking process needed to enable us deal successfully with our complex difficulties. Given the poor performances of our leaders then who preyed upon the weaknesses of an apathetic citizenry, and the steady decline of the quality of life and ethics in the country, it was therefore virtually necessary to persuade ourselves to bring about an improved society built on cultural, economic and technological strength, for a more rewarding future than the one we then foresaw for ourselves in the future.
This was the broad template on which we forged our visions and dreams for the future of the country, in those young days.
At the outbreak of the civil war, I enlisted quite early into the Biafran Army, and for a long time we did not see each other during the war. We celebrated our brief meeting when I attended a Battalion Commanders’ Course at the Biafran School of Infantry, Orlu, where Ojo was then serving as a Staff Officer. The celebration was well deserved after such long absence, at a time life spans were counted in minutes.
At the cessation of hostilities, we resumed studies at the University and on graduation proceeded to the law school where we stayed back in Lagos in search of employment after call to the Nigerian Bar.
We ended up in different insurance companies, as management trainees, but we later followed our real passions which was obviously, private legal practice. While he took up pupillage with Kehinde Sofola Chambers, at Tinubu Square, I did the same with Onyeabo Obi Chambers, Western House Lagos.
When in 1982, I was campaigning for the National Republican Convention (NRC) ticket for the Abia North Senatorial seat, I visited Ojo in his office where I urged him to join me in politics so we can realise those lofty ideas we had espoused at school. Although he demurred at first, but when I pointed out to him that Ohafia, his constituency, with 32 professors at the time (whose names I reeled out on my fingertips) deserved a better representation in the House of Representatives at the time, than by a half-educated steer, he capitulated. I was happy he finally agreed to take the plunge into politics.
I knew he could provide the type and quality of leadership we needed. Once he had made up his mind, there was no looking back. He immediately made preparations for his elections and within the shortest time and resources available to him, which included pledging his Volvo car to raise campaign funds.
Although I did not myself make it to the Senate, I was pleased Ojo did to the House of Representatives, for it was all towards the same objective.
Unfortunately, his first burst into public life in his election into the four-year life span of the National Assembly was abrogated after three months by the Buhari coup of 1983, bringing Ojo’s splendid performance to a seeming end.
But in 1988, he gallantly rose from the wreck of that disappointment to be elected to the Constituent Assembly, where we were both members, constituted to draft a new constitution for the country in preparation for the return to civil rule, which the military abrogated yet again. However in 1999, when constitutional democracy was finally installed in Nigeria, under the presidency of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, happily Ojo was appointed into that government.
Having spent the past decade expounding the theoretical tenets of politics and good governance, I saw Ojo’s ministerial appointment, first to Culture, then to Transport, and later to Foreign Affairs, and as the President’s Legal and Constitutional Adviser, as golden opportunities to demonstrate in practice that those dreams and aspirations we had espoused over the years, were realisable.
I believed that as an Honourable Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, had the rare responsibility and privilege to carry aloft the banner of our expectations and it was my duty to give every support to his efforts that go into making a sweet reality out of our lofty dreams. The technique would be to create a household of ideas and honestly put them at his convenient disposal for the successful discharge of his duties; to constantly keep him on his toes; to help him avoid the dangerous pitfalls often strewn on the way of public office holders. This was to avoid the temptation of being sucked so deeply into the loop of government as to progressively grow complacent towards the general good, settle for easy comfort and thereby sacrificing originally positive intentions and objectives for selfishness.
I recall that one of the Roman Emperors kept an aide whose duty was to remind him every morning that he is not a god. I had a great stake in his success, a stake. If he succeeded our class succeeded, if he failed our class failed. We are the class of the so-called post-World War II baby boom years, and we had fought long and hard for better days.
I appointed myself the unofficial, unsolicited leader of opposition.
I, his friend, knew I would likely be the first victim of those ideas but they were ideas I was prepared to make sacrifices to secure success for all and bring to fruition and as they say, a king should not flinch from hurting his friends, if it is in the general interest.
So it was that I laboured to hold him to account to our dreams. We were often locked in brutal intellectual combats for hours, often to the utter dismay of those who were in a hurry to settle more mundane matters. My aim always attempting to subject every fibre or strand of political or governance proposition that come to my knowledge to deep empirical interrogations, the intensity of the arguments often reaching boiling points, verbally pummelling each other; the wife, who though long accustomed to such tempestuous sessions, was sometimes obliged to dispatch a scout to confirm matters had not deteriorated out of hand.
I am constant in my belief that every great leader owed his success or triumph, not to sycophants, but to his objective critics, more so if the critic was also a true friend who truly wishes him well and is anxious to coax him back to reality when necessary and help sift or refine his ideas. Any perceived tinge of misplaced idealism, in my opinion, immediately formed a platform for my fierce dissent.
Though we often sailed so close to the wind, when positions hardened, the volcano of disagreements or argumentations, ever so loud and noisy, never reached eruption temperatures. They say democracy is noisy!
Thanks to Ojo’s libertarian disposition. He was a true liberal free from the dreadful constraints of extremists. He had the propensity, even at the height of his political career, calmly to absorb stinging criticisms like a prize fighter; a rare attribute of true greatness, a rarer quality found only in true democrats. He never flinched, neither were there ever any savage sneers nor did he seek to impose his views on others even when he had privileged knowledge from his high offices that could give him the temporary advantage. His insatiable love for brilliant ideas precluded the foreclosure of any robust interrogation of even his own ideas.
Although, my foray into partisan politics came to an end with the Constituent Assembly in 1990, surveying the political landscape then, and coming to certain conclusions which I duly communicated to him at the time, I made my escape from the murky morass of Nigerian politics back into private legal practice. I admire his tenacity and determination to carry on against all odds.
He was a renaissance man.
When news broke, one early morning, that Ojo labelled the Igbo quest for the Presidency, IDIOTIC, I abandoned all the day’s schedules and rushed to his house where I met a small crowd wearing mournful looks. “Why”, I exclaimed, my two arms flung forward, immediately I sighted him.
A few moments later he calmed all agitations with his explanation that what he had said was for the Igbos to clamour for Nigerian President of Igbo extraction. Maybe the brusqueness of the remarks rather than the logic drove people, particularly the Igbo, up the wall.
Chief Ojo was a man of great talent and innovative gains. He believed that politics and by extension governance should moderate opulence and poverty and banish ignorance, plunder and theft. He preferred transparency over wealth, becoming the poster-boy of the anti-corruption war, long before the recent summons for change, thereby demonstrating the prescience of leaders who live before their time.
Though he did not put his ideas into any ideological pigeon-hole, nor belong to any known school in the classical or formal sense, he invented the “Mekaria” precept which means “to do more” or “to excel in public service”, the real essence of it all manifested in his laudable endeavours and sterling performances in each of the ministries assigned to him – Culture (Promotion of Black Culture especially Brazil);Transport-(Bicycle Culture); Foreign Affairs-(Citizen Diplomacy). At the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) secretariat, as its ideologue, he laboriously tried to make the party’s notorious fluid principles a little more viscous.
Fare Thee Well, Friend! Your Excellency, Chief Uma Ojo Maduekwe, CFR, the Ugwumba of Ohafia,
May God keep you till Resurrection Day.