OUTSIDE THE BOX
By Alex Otti
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”
– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
There is always the mistaken belief by many that men don’t cry, or more appropriately, that men shouldn’t cry. I have since found out that it is not true. Men indeed do cry and I have in the past few years found out that I too do cry. With centuries of patriarchal culture dominating the world, men have somehow, suppressed their emotions to the point where their open expression is often perceived as weakness. Studies have shown that such suppression, which have become the norm in our societies, may not actually be good for the body and soul. Besides, there is often that occasional occurrence of tragedy, which, when it comes, reduces even the most stout-hearted of men to tears. I am in that kind of state now and I crave indulgence to allow me express my innermost emotions. I have lost a dear brother!
Eze Eric Alomefuna, fondly called Rico by his friends and admirers, was definitely my brother from another mother. I am hesitant to use the expression, ‘was’ to define Rico, but I have no choice because, quite unfortunately, he is no more. We lost Rico recently and he will be interred on Thursday. It is a loss that I may not be able to comprehend or come to terms with, for the rest of my life. Let it be known that an angel has left this world by that event!
The tale of Rico’s shocking exit started with a little ailment in September of last year. I had given him a role in my campaign organisation, to work on Strategy and Planning which is one of his strong areas. He was happy to do this job and had secured approval from Oby, his wife, to be away more often. We scheduled to be in Abia over a weekend to kick off the planning activities for campaigns leading to the elections. I arrived Abia as agreed but Rico was uncharacteristically, no where to be seen. First day led to the second and the third and there was still no word from him. I started by getting angry and after a few days, I feared that something was definitely amiss as it was unlike him not to make contact at all. I picked up my phone and placed a call to him. His response was in low tones and his voice sounded unstable. I apologized for what I believed was interrupting his meeting and wanted to proceed with the next set of words, which would have been “call me when you are done”. He interjected with ‘Nwokem’ – the pet name we had for each other, “I’m not in any meeting. I have not been feeling well”.
‘What is wrong with you?, I queried ‘Have you been to the hospital? What did the doctors say? How come you didn’t inform me of this sudden illness? The questions were pouring in torrents with little or no room for him to respond. ‘Anyway, I do not like how you sound. I’m coming right away to see you in Abuja’, I concluded. I abandoned everything I was doing and immediately made my way to Abuja only to see a gaunt and older version of my friend. I should have known it, but alas, I missed it. He told me doctors were running different types of tests with “inconclusive results” for weeks.
It was not until about eight weeks of this battery of ‘tests’ that a definitive result finally came, but from a new set of doctors who came from abroad. Rico had been hit by Cancer of the Colon which was not only aggressive but was at an advanced stage! The battle then shifted to that of saving his life. He was immediately referred to Lagos to meet with another set of medical experts coming from the UK. This was in December last year, in the middle of campaigns. He was able to see the doctors who did not give us a lot of hope. They held that at the stage his sickness was, it was only nutrition and supplements that could help, but were emphatic that whatever we were going to do was palliative and could merely extend his stay, but not for too long.
I called in my sister, Dr. Mrs Ify Nwakwesi, who is not only a nutrition expert but also a medical doctor. Ify knew Rico well, not just because of my association with him, but because he was from the same Ogbunike Town with her husband, Dr. Maduka Nwakwesi. She and her team approached the assignment with characteristic passion and positivity. She threw in everything into saving Rico’s life, not minding the cost. He, in line with his strong sense of spirituality and constitution, started responding positively to the new treatment. Besides medication, and because Rico was a man of strong faith, prayers were being offered on his behalf by many people of goodwill. We were confident that somehow, he would pull through. On Thursday January 24, 2019, he left Lagos for Enugu so he could be in the medical facilities of his brother in law Dr. Ike Nwachukwu, for better care. Two days later, I took a break from campaigns and travelled to Enugu to see him. Quite unlike the impression I was getting, I was very shocked to see his state and how much weight he had lost. His wife, being an incurable optimist and a very positive woman convinced me that Rico had made a lot of progress compared to a few days before. He was very happy to see me, though too weak to have a conversation with me. The three hours I spent in that hospital was very sad irrespective of how much hope Oby tried to give me.
Two days later, I was on my way to a campaign rally in Bende when that call came from Dr. Nwachukwu. My heart skipped as I saw his call but I summoned up courage to take the call. Had the worst happened? Was Rico feeling better? Was his situation getting worse? These were some of the questions racing through my mind. As I picked the call, Dr. Nwachukwu’s voice betrayed no emotion whatsoever as he exchanged pleasantries with me. That seemed to reassure me a little bit. At least it was not bad news, I thought, otherwise he would have gone straight to the point. Then the bombshell came. “I am sorry Alex, we just lost your friend a few minutes ago”. All hell was let loose. My mind went to so many things. I thought of Oby and their four lovely children. How was she going to reconcile her strong will, her faith in God with this sad reality of her husband’s unexpected demise? Who was going to break this news to Kodi in this his final year at Covenant University? What should we tell Naeto who would have loved his dad to be around in the next two years as he stepped into his shoes as a graduate of economics? How would we even begin to explain this to Kemdi, who even though was there as he breathed his last still hoped that daddy would soon wake up and support him in his quest to become a Professor of Medicine, given his huge academic brilliance? How would we tell Sochi, (13) the princess and baby of the Alomefunas, who had just started her JS3 exams.
Going down memory lane, Rico and I met in 1984 as I secured admission to read Economics at the University of Port Harcourt. He was already in his third year in the same department. He was subsequently to assume the role of the President of the Nigerian Economics Students Association that same year. One thing that struck me about Rico was his razor sharp intelligence. There was so much positive aura around him that people naturally gravitated around him, either to share from his wisdom or to be counted amongst his friends.
I cannot actually remember exactly how we became very close, but I must confess I was excited about his graduating First Class honours and becoming a multiple prize winner and the best graduating student not only in Economics Department, but in the entire Faculty of Social Sciences in 1986. He was an inspiration to me and many others. No one disputed his brilliance but not too many people expected that he would make a first class. He was not one of the “efficos”who would always read TDB (till day break). He was at parties like the regular students and would share a drink or two with friends. Prior to this time, it was a shared belief that ‘First Class’ was not meant for people like that, but he broke the jinx! As he was graduating, there were lots of options on the table for him. He finally settled for service at the then Nigeria International Bank, now Citibank. Citibank was noted for going out of its way to locate and hire the best brains in the country as at then. As he settled in for his service year, the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, awarded scholarships to him and his friend I.G. Ukpaka, another First Class graduate from the University of Lagos. They proceeded to Scuola Enrico Matei in Milan for postgraduate studies. They excelled over and above students from other nationalities both in the post graduate programme and in spoken and written Italian. Given their brilliant performances, they were hired by the parent company of Agip, ENI, and sent to work in Lagos. Rico’s stay in Agip was short lived as he made his way back to the banking industry. He argued that while the money in Agip was great, the oil industry did not challenge him enough to make a career there. He then joined some ex-citibank colleagues who had just set up the then Citizens International Bank in the early 90s. From there he joined the then Crystal Bank and eventually ended up with the United Bank For Africa Plc, from where he left as Regional Head, South South. He quickly set up his own business in the area of Financial Consultancy and Project Management, named Kodineto Ltd. He coined this name from the names of his two sons, Kodi and Naeto. He managed the company until his demise.
Rico was a source of great motivation for me. In the first place, he was always ‘on my case’, arguing that if I worked smart and not necessarily hard, I would excel both in academics and life generally. I kept insisting that I was fine with a second class upper degree but he would hear none of that. ‘If I could make a first class’, he kept telling me, ‘then you can make it also’. To ensure that I followed in his leadership, I contested and won the Presidency of the Nigerian Economics Students Association in 1987. I had a tough challenge in my friend who was later in life to become my bestman when I wedded in 1993. Eustace Odunze was on the ballot and he is my friend. Somehow, we were able to sort things out and remain friends till today.
By the time I came to Lagos for youth service and met Rico he naturally recommended Citibank. I went through the interview process and got engaged. As a newcomer to Lagos, accommodation became a challenge. His house was immediately made available with all the necessary provisions and I stayed with him for months before I eventually got my own place. Of course, his house then, was a melting pot for some of us that were homeless at that time.
Then came 1993 when it was time for me to settle down and get married. Rico was one of the few friends that decided that we needed to go visit my in-laws before they gave out my wife to another suitor. He was always in front and played the role of a big brother in all the visits involving my wedding. He led my dad to sort out the bride price and all other traditional requirements. He was central to the wine carrying and subsequently the wedding. The after-wedding party which he organized 26 years ago, still remains memorable for my friends who were there.
In 2017, I introduced him to Senator Victor Umeh, OFR who was then the Director General of the Obiano Reelection Campaign Committee to support him in the area of strategy. Umeh was glad to have him in the team and worked with him closely. Sometime in the 90s, he was elected the National President of the University of Port Harcourt Alumni Association. At some point in his life, even though he was a born and practicing Catholic, he felt the need to engage more in the service of God. He became a staunch member of the Mountain Of Fire and Miracles ministries and remained committed to the calling until he breathed his last.
Sometimes, life is full of contradictions. Sometimes, you come face to face with challenges that test your faith in God. Sometimes, you may want to ask God some questions like “why do the good ones go early and the bad ones seem to survive seemingly through every thick and thin”? A friend told me, just last week, that I would get the answers from a book he recommended titled “Why bad things happen to good people”. I have not read that book. I, however, do know that if there was anyone to depart at 58, it should not have been Rico. Unfortunately, we do not have any choice in this matter and Rico had to leave us in his prime. We can only say, good night Rico. So long Nwokem!. May your soul rest until that resurrection morning when we shall meet to part no more. It is well with your soul.
Now that I have expressed my true feelings, I sincerely pray that I will find the closure contained in the words of Rumi, who noted that, “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”