By John Odah
This particular paradox in his life is too striking for anyone to miss it. Schooling began for the young man who would end up in a global front rank university such as the University of Pennsylvania with trekking 7.5kms to school and another 7.5 kms back five days a week. This was because, in Agbangwe Village in the present day Edumoga District of Okpokwu LGA where he was born on May 25th, 1955, there was no primary school. Hence the imperative of the 15kms daily trek from Agbangwe to St Anthony Roman Catholic Mission (RCM) School, Akpoga every day and back through footpaths for his primary school education.
His was the fate of every other child who went to school from this environment in those days. Many did not even have parents who approved of it. Olowu’s parents – Mr. Daniel Olowu and his wife, Mrs. Christiana Ogodo Olowu (nee Attah) from the neighbouring Anmoda village – in the same Edumoga District could see far and approved of their second out of six children to go to school. The young Emmanuel had been named after his paternal grandfather, Udah and hence the name Emmanuel Udah Olowu.
Olowu’s primary school education leavened into admission into the flagship or one of the flagship secondary schools ran and still run by the Catholic Church in what is now Benue State of Nigeria – Mount Saint Michael’s School, Aliade in 1968. At the end of five years, he graduated with flying colours. That was 1972. The following year, he got on with his two year Higher School Certificate (H.S.C) studies, having been retained in the same school. In other words, he had sent enough signals of academic competence to the authorities, that being the only way a student could be retained in that era when academic corruption was basically unthinkable yet. He did not disappoint as his H.S.C examinations results showed subsequently. They were so strong that he got admission into the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1975 to read Sociology.
Unlike today when everyone wants to read Accounting or Law or what are generally called professional courses, it was subjects such as History, Sociology, Political Science, among others, that were the great university subjects. And it was the time when universities were universities in Nigeria whether this was in relation to the quality of academics or the infrastructural outlay or what happens to a graduate upon graduation. Dr. Olowu has once spoken of how fascinating the back to school journeys by train were. Nigeria was alive and the rail system was working.
The totality of the evidence is that he was not picking corns at ABU, Zaria. According to Prof. Muhammad Baba, one of his course and class mates in Zaria testifies to Dr. Olowu’s brilliance, saying “Emma was a very good scholar to the core”. He echoes what Abubakar Sokoto Mohammed who was a year ahead of them in the same Department of Sociology at ABU, had to say viz “Dr. Olowu emerged the best social science student during the 1976/1977 session”. He went on the following academic year to emerge top of his graduating class of 1978.
Barrister David Adulugba who was a year ahead of Olowu in college speaks to Olowu’s trajectory: “from the rural village where he was raised in the mid-50s, he struggled above his peers and circumstances and went to Mount Saint Michael’s secondary School, Aliade. When universities were very few and uncommon in Nigeria, he got admission to the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria on state government scholarship. We didn’t know then that he was just warming up as he was to get admission to a US university on scholarship for post graduate and research studies and where he got an M.Sc and PhD at an early age”.
The US sojourn was actually from the Nigerian Law Reform Commission, (NLRC) where he had moved from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria which had retained him in 1979 as a Graduate Assistant after the one year National Youth Service Corps Scheme, (NYSC). That was in the Department of Sociology of the university. When he left for the states, it was to the Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law at the University of Pennsylvania. He was there between 1982 and 1985.
While there, he had a Nigerian course mate who is now a Professor of Sociology at the University of Jos in Nigeria – Prof. Etannibi Alemika. And Prof. Alemika’s testimonial is Dr. Olowu was very excited about using his training to contribute to the “War against drugs” in the country. He said “Emma’s ambition was to be an influencer in policy making and implementation which explains his interest in pursuing a career in Nigerian Law Reform Commission has and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) instead of returning to the university after earning a doctoral degree in Criminology from an American Ivy League University”.
He returned to rejoin the NLRC but from where he was to move again, after spending 9 years, this time to the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) as a pioneer staff. He served as Assistant Director and Director of Assets Investigation, Pioneer Commandant of the NDLEA Academy in Jos and Acting Director-General, NDLEA between 1990 and 1994.
Again, the paradox about his life as the NDLEA years were to end unceremoniously as his essential nature came under fire from the Nigerian system. The paradox lies in this: working to put drug barons out of being able to wreck the lives of millions of Nigerian youths was a very passionate cause for him. His years of service to the nation in the NDLEA must rank among the most fulfilling years in his public service career but it is also the years that caused him the greatest pain. Despite his impactful period as some of the testimonies show and despite the strategic positions he held there, the impunity of the then ruling military elite could not spare him. Dr. Olowu left NDLEA without fanfare.
Again, Prof. Muhammad Baba puts Dr. Olowu’s experience of rough treatment in the NDLEA in context thus: He had served in the most exemplary manner that many rightly thought he would surely become (it’s) Chief Executive. This was not to be as a military figure generally acknowledged to be mercurial hounded the more academic and methodical Emma out completely”.
But, as pioneer Commandant of the NDLEA Academy to train young entrants to the job of fighting drug barons, he brought to bear all the skills he learnt from his training in Criminology and the drug campaign. Julius Parah, a participant of Course 3 of the Academy (who will be 30 years out of the school next year in November 2021), said of their former Commandant, Dr. Olowu: “He was a no-nonsense man in all ramifications. He instilled in us the discipline that was required for the kind of service we had enlisted for in Drug Law Enforcement. He abhorred short cuts and maintained that there was no room for brevity for the kind of job we had signed up. Most of us did not realise the detailed implication of his strict posture until we came practically into the field”.
Another colleague of late Dr. Olowu at the NDLEA, Dr. Okpe who worked under him between 1990 – 1994 said he was “known for hard work, discipline, tactfulness, doggedness, self-service, smartness, dedication to duty, God fearing, honesty and above all (his) willingness to extend hands of fellowship to all irrespective of rank, religion, tribe or race”.
The unanswered question is why he declined many of what the typical Nigerian would call juicy alternatives, none of which he jumped at. In one instance, the American Drug Attache in Nigeria called him immediately he came out of NDLEA and gave him a UN form to fill for the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, (UNICR). He would have been posted to Sidney, Australia but he rejected the appointment on the ground that he didn’t want to leave Nigeria to stay outside. He was also given the option of moving to the United States of America with his family, complete with grant of full citizenship. Again, he refused. “We were all very angry with him and refused to understand with him because we were going through a lot but thanks be to God for everything”. A member of his immediate family said.
His framework for reasoning will shock the typical appetitive person. But it will hardly surprise those who should know. The rural ontology which shaped him instructs every child against accepting food from every quarter just because one is hungry. This orientation was reinforced by the kind of training they were given in their undergraduate days. Only those who can understand this combined background will not say he was being foolish.
In other words, his was not just plastic patriotism to Nigeria but a rejection of abandonment of his people by moving out of the country and living a secured and comfortable life outside the shores of Nigeria. He did not have the power to unmake the poverty of his rural folks but he did not abandon them for his own selfish reasons even when the kind of training he had enabled him wide opportunities to work in so many places anywhere in the world with such a huge pay and extreme comfort.
It wasn’t that he was totally cut off from the system. For many years, he was a member of the Board of Directors of Benue Cement Company Ltd, representing the Benue State Government in the 1990s. Until his death he was a senior academic in the Department of Sociology at Bingham University in Karu, Abuja.
Olowu at the Family Front
Dr. Olowu married Josephine Adah, daughter of Inspector Andrew Adah, a police officer from Agamudu in lower part of Edumoga District. Her mother, Theresa Ojo (nee Ochigbo) hails from Opialu-Edumoga. They married in 1981, and the union of almost four decades is blessed with four children, namely Daniel, Emma jnr, Andrew and Ene. The Olowus have five grandchildren – Keren, Kamila, Zoey, Arren and Oscar who was born in May 2020, when his granddad would have turned 65.
Daniel is married to Kehinde (nee Afolayan) from Kwara State. Emma jnr is married to Jesufemi (Nee Olashubulumi) from Osun State while Andrew is married to Ehitoyameh (Nee Idiahi from Edo State).
Mrs. Olowu who also lectures in the Department of Sociology at Bingham University, Abuja writes of their 38 years marriage: “I have had an incredible friendship with my husband which, of course, many could not understand. But we literally grew up together and have been through so much as we raised our children. He brought things to my life and took me to wonderful places that I would never have known. I am sure to miss his smiles. His sense of fun will also be missed by our children, grandchildren and those lives he brought much joy to. However, this I am sure of, that a beautiful soul lives on”.
Ene, the only daughter of the family and the last born said he was not only a father to her but also a teacher, a protector, a provider and a guide. Ending philosophically “You live in me, therefore your legacy lives on”.
Emmanuel Udah Jnr who was born in Philadelphia while his father was pursuing his PhD program, sums up his dad thus: “He was a kind soul and at the same time very principled person. He was humble and didn’t care what others thought about him as long as he was on the right path. My dad loved us unconditionally”.
Andrew, his third son, (named after his maternal grandfather), said this of his dad: “I always feel the world missed out on one of the greatest souls to ever journey through it; your refusal to mingle with corruption and your decision to uphold integrity and justice for all at all times left you very isolated from a society in which corruption reigns supreme. But in spite of it all, you built and raised a great family and you made an amazing life through honest means”.
His first child Daniel simply stated of his dad: “My father was a rare gem in my eyes. One of the greats of his time”.
Of the Dr. Olowu siblings, Maria, Agnes, Alice, John and Joe, John left early to be in the Lord’s Kingdom. Speaking for the extended family in a sense, Joe as he is fondly called, said his elder brother was their second Jesus Christ. He took charge of material needs of all others, sometimes doing this without bothering about the height he had attained, to the point of doing jobs that may not be considered dignifying, to put food on the table for every member of the family.
For Joe, Dr. Olowu’s uprightness; sense of integrity and dedication to his work were unparalleled. He said if his brother had chosen to go the way of getting rich by hook or crook, he would have been one of the richest men in Nigeria. “I recall his days with the NDLEA when he would return from work at midnight with bullet holes on his car because he would not accept bribe from top drug dealers nor compromise his standards for any reason”. He said his elder brother would admonish him; “Joe…. If I am not alive tomorrow, never ever get rich through dubious means ooh. It is better to remain poor my brother and make heaven”.
That brings up the religious dimension to his orientation. Dr Olowu was a deeply religious person. Simon Oketa who met him in Aliade speaks about his earlier desire to be a Catholic priest. Prof Alemika corroborates this by adding that “until his transition, he maintained an unwavering faith in the grace and power of Christ. This is the greatest achievement, the eternal triumph, recorded by Emma during his lifetime”.
Barrister David Adulugba agrees, saying that “Even in times of extreme tribulation, he bowed his head in submission to the will of Almighty. I was with him in the hospital, He took his suffering calmly. And every day we chatted, his face lit up in glorious joy”.
The diversity of the late Olowu’s reaches is such that Prof. Ogoh Alubo, another associate of his, must be right in saying that “He has left enviable standards for his Edumoga, Idoma and other brothers raised in poverty that determination and level headedness can make a difference. There are many legacies which his would be proud – the NDLEA Academy which he was founding Director (commandant), structures in Bingham University and of course his children, all of whom now have university degrees. With these achievements, he has accomplished his mission even as he departed pre-maturely”.
Those like Adagbo Onoja who characterise his as “the death of a homeboy who went global” do clearly have a point. To quote Onoja’s narrative: “Dr. Olowu’s next step after (Mount Saint Michaels Aliade), was Ahmadu Bello university, Zaria of the mid 1970s – one of the very best, and then he went to the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Ivy League Club in the United states. In other words right from secondary school up to the PhD level, he went to the very best available and got the best quality of education that anyone in his generation could get. Going to the University of Pennsylvania marks the first dimension of going Global even as a homeboy because the University of Pennsylvania is a global player in its own right”.
Dr. Emmauel Udah Olowu left the world a truly global citizen with offspring not only in North Central Nigeria (the grandchildren of Kwara extraction), but also of Ekiti in South Western Nigeria and Edo in the South South region of the country, extending to North America with children and grandchildren of American and Canadian roots.
Perhaps it is fitting to sign off with Andrew, his youngest son’s epitaph: “It is with the heaviest of hearts that (we) must let you go and say goodbye to you”
- John Odah writes from Abuja