Funeral Diplomacy à la Nduka Obaigbena: The Challenge of a Citizen Diplomacy-driven New Nigeria

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

‘Funeral diplomacy refers to the conference held by world leaders when they assemble together to pay their homage to a deceased international figure’ in the eyes of the US Etymologically, it is traceable to the Feast of the Dead, which was celebrated by the Algonkians of the Upper Great Lakes of Canada in the 17th century. Since then, the practice of funeral diplomacy did not get worldwide recognition until 1960 as from when it became an important institution of the world diplomatic system for two main dynamics. Attendance at international funerals at short notice became easier because of the improvements in the speed, safety, and comfort of air transport all of which encouraged world leaders to want to attend funeral ceremonies and summits (vide G.R. Berridge, “Diplomacy after Death: The Rise of the Working Funeral,” Diplomacy and Statecraft, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 1993, pp.217-234). Secondly, there is also an advancement in the technology of embalmment and refrigeration which not only enables preservation of bodies for a longer period in hot climates, but also enabled ample time for foreign dignitaries to prepare and assemble before burial or cremation.

Funeral diplomacy can be state or non-state in character. When it is state in character, world leaders are mainly the participants and they must have been officially invited. The deceased were generally presidents and statesmen during their lifetime. In this regard, the paraphernalia is always visible: the coffin is always covered with the National Flag. Government officials, security agents, etc., carry the coffin. Depending on whether or not the deceased is a Head of State, there can be a 21-gun salute. Bouquets of flowers are also placed in honour of the deceased during lying-in-state or at the tomb.

Since funeral diplomacy became noteworthy as from 1960, the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 8 April, 2005 has been widely regarded as attracting the largest concentration of world leaders in modern history. The Pope was seen as an international diplomat who worked for global unity and peace before his death. As expected, his funeral generated critical issues: who should have been invited to mourn; sitting arrangements, especially in terms of determination by accreditation seniority, hierarchy and use of alphabetical names; acceptance to or not to shake hands; where to seat and who to sit with or not to sit with, etc. 

What is noteworthy here is that all these critical issues are not generally characteristic of non-state funeral diplomacy, especially in terms of acrimony and animosity. The funeral diplomacy deployed by Prince Nduka Obaigbena during the burial of his mother, Princess Margaret Obaigbena, is an illustration of mixed funeral diplomacy in which state and non-state actors played active parts, and therefore providing a good basis for citizen diplomacy-driven  nation-building.

Nduka Obaigbena’s Diplomacy

State funerals are generally visible unlike non-state funeral diplomacy. In Ile-Oluji Kingdom of Ondo State, when a notable person, like a High Chief, dies in the community, informing other High Chiefs about the death requires much of traditional protocol. The king sends a delegation to the High Chiefs to inform them about it. The delegation goes to the house of the High Chief to be notified and simply tells him or her that the person who had actually died is sick or indisposed. The hosting High Chief will respond to the delegation by sympathising and asking the delegation to do what is necessary to ensure quick recovery of the deceased, apparently showing ignorance of any death. 

The delegation then gets out of the premises of the High Chief, but immediately returns to inform that the illness of the notable person has deepened. Again, the response of the host High Chief is to query why not much efforts had not been taken to prevent the deterioration of the illness. He then prays to God for divine intervention and healing. The delegation thereafter will thank the High Chief and depart. But more interestingly, the delegation will finally return again to break the news of the passing on of the notable person to the High Chief. This protocoled tradition is common in Yoruba culture. 

Another feature of Yoruba funeral diplomacy is the traditional protocol followed by a wife who loses her husband. The protocol is very tough: the widow may be required to sit on a floor mat for about forty days for various reasons that are not well known to the public under non-State funeral diplomacy. And true enough, burial culture is rich and varies in Nigeria, especially in the Niger Delta from where Prince Nduka Obaigbena hails. The culture is quite rich with the wearing of beads and multi-coloured dresses and big hats, but emphasis will be on Obaigbena’s funeral diplomacy, which is not, stricto sensu, a state funeral, but, as noted above, mixed, because it combines the attributes of both state and non-state funeral diplomacy. It is a very visible funeral. As explained by Varun Vivian Mallik, ‘funerals that remain largely invisible are of those who do not belong to the polity and hence do not deserve to be mourned’ (Varun Vivian Mallik, “Do the Dead Matter? Identifying Mourning and Funerals as a Political Act,”, March 12, 2020.

Put differently, it is not every dead body that qualifies to be mourned. Sigmund Freud considers, in his Mourning and Melancholia, ‘mourning as the reaction of the loss of a loved person, or the loss of some abstraction like one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on and so forth.’ In his eyes, ‘mourning must not be seen as being rooted only in grief. Instead, it should be seen as evoking multifarious responses.’ Without scintilla of doubt, Obaigbena’s diplomacy reflects an expression of grief and other multifarious responses. The funeral was not only nationally, but also internationally, visible, meaning that it qualifies to be mourned.

The visibility is explainable by high level and quality attendance, presence of several governors and senior government officials, international social performances, very positive testimonies, public records and legacy of the deceased, extensive media coverage, invitation to a select audience, impactful sermons delivered during funeral and commendation services, colourful renditions by a South African choir, provision of a chartered aircraft to facilitate transportation of invited guests, etc. In fact, the public records of Princess Margaret Obaigbena, nee Usifoh, a mother of altruistic goodness and exceptional patriotism, on the one hand, and the church sermons, on the other, are retained here for further explication to show how a new Nigeria can be built through the promotion of citizen diplomacy. In other words, the legacy of the deceased can be taken advantage of in launching citizen diplomacy, beginning with the media world, as a potent tool for nation-building and national development.

As regards Princess Obaigbena’s legacy, it is important to note that, in Nigeria, any civil or public servant who serves either for thirty-five years or attains the age of sixty years before retirement from the public service, without his or her record being tainted, naturally deserves special commendation. To retire without any whiff of blemish, without being sacked, and without dying in office deserves special thanksgiving in a Church of God. It is, indeed, a thing of joy and a good reference for the Obaigbena family that the deceased retired from the public Service gracefully.

Dame Obaigbena was a former Chief Nursing Officer of the defunct Bendel State, now Delta State. This was at a time when corruption was seen as a societal irritant and when corruption was not institutionalised. And without any jot of gainsaying, it is on record that she dutifully served as a Special Adviser to three different governors of Delta State. The import of this can be interrogatively put: what qualified her to be continuously seen and considered for the position of a Special Adviser under different governors? We posit here that dint of hard work, loyalty of purpose, patriotic services, as well as commitment to community development cannot but be part of the reasons. Thus, we are talking here about her legacy of objectivity of purpose, loyalty of service, commitment to hard work, attitudinal discipline, as well as her commitment to the work of God. The men of God were particularly happy about her contributions to humanity.

In the sermons given by the Men of God, particularly Godfrey Ifeanyichukwu Ekpenisi, a first-class graduate who became the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Ika in Delta State in November 2018, emphasis was placed on her impactful contributions as a mother of mothers. Dame Margaret Obaigbena served God purposefully. She served her generations and lived as a lighting influential in the world. As put by the men of God, Dame Margaret Obaigbena served as a salt and as light. She gave her time, her love, and resources. She was not selfish with her time and with her love. Never was she selfish with her resources. Her life was very exemplary for humanity. She gave hope to the despair. Those rejected were able to find solace under her. It is in recognition of these that the Messengers of God not only had the courage to plead with God in their prayers that all the listening people in the congregation be given grace to serve their generations by the will of God. In fact, the theme of the sermon was ‘Serving Your Generation by the Will of God.’

And true enough, the organisation of the funeral activities largely reflects how to serve one’s generation. Obaigbena’s funeral diplomacy provided the politically warring parties a friendly platform to meet and to forget for a while their friendly enmities. At the funeral ceremonies were the Standard Bearer of the All Progressives Congress, Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu and the Presidential Candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Gregory Obi, CON. In fact, the running mate of the People’s Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Ifeanyichukwu Arthur Okowa. Obaigbena’s funeral diplomacy brought all of them together.  

Guests with diverse interests and representing different geo-political backgrounds were also there: Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele; the Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Eluonye Irabor; the President of the Dangote Group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, GCON; Dr. Dakuku Adol Peterside, the Chairman of the National Economic Submit Group, etc. Owa-Oyibu community actually played host to an informal Governors’ forum. Governors, past and present, were there: John Olukayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, Babajide Olusola Sanwoolu of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, former Governor of Lagos State and currently Minister of Works and Housing; Dr Charles Chukwuma Soludo of Anambra State; Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki of Edo State; Ibikunle Amosun formerly of Ogun State; Donald Duke, former Governor of Cross River State; Abubakar Atiku Bagudu of Kebbi State; Adedapo Oluseun Abiodun of Ogun State; Abdullahi Umar Ganduje of Kano State. 

More interestingly, to support the Chairman of ThisDay Newspapers and Arise News and the former President of Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Prince Nduka Obaigbena, top media professionals were also there. The Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer of ThisDay Newspapers, Eniola Bello; the CEO of the BISCON TV, Bisi Olatilo; the publisher of Ovation International magazine, Chief Dele Momodu; Pioneer Managing Director of Arise TV, Ijeoma Nwogwugwu; Associate Director Emmanuel Efeni, and the ThisDayLive egghead, Dr Reuben Abati, etc. also took active parts in the ceremonies. 

Citizen Diplomacy and New Nigeria

Thus, from the foregoing, it was a funeral ceremony with national and international dimensions: different cultural displays and masquerades and special performances by the visiting Zulu students from South Africa. Nduka Obaigbena’s funeral diplomacy enabled the gathering of leading businessmen and business women, leading entrepreneurs, politicians, and particularly party standard bearers, seasoned diplomatic personnel, notable religious leaders, media professionals, traditional rulers, as well as government officials representing their principals. And true, Owa-Oyibu became a new terra cognita for politicians and governors to meet and exchange pleasantries. But most unfortunately, advantage of the gathering, though meant for mourning or grieving, should have been taken to advance the course of nation-building. There were no visible pointers to that. What was indisputably clear was wining and dining. It was not grieving time but celebrations galore. And why not? It was time of happiness and gratitude to God.

In Yoruba mythology, a mother or a father cannot claim parenthood or claim to have children until she or he is buried by their children (eni omo ba sin lo bimo). From this perspective, Princess Obaigbena was and still truly is a living mother. The diplomacy deployed by Nduka Obaigbena, a favourite of the mother, not only clearly lent credence to this point, but also laid a good foundation for the development of citizen diplomacy. 

For instance, on Thursday, 18 August 2022, the Emir of Kano, Aminu Bayero, paid a condolence visit to the Obi of Owa, Emmanuel Efeizomor, as well as to the Obaigbena family. The condolence visit was important because of the point made by the Emir. In his words, ‘my visit to Owa will cement the relationship between the North and Owa King. Indeed, it is a loss (Dame Margaret Obaigbena) for all of us, and we will continue to pray for her to rest in peace.’ 

Three points are noteworthy from this condolence message. First is relationship between the North and the King of Owa. On the one hand is the North, and of course, the whole of the North, and the King of Owa, on the other. If the Emir spoke on behalf of the North, can it be also implied that the notion of ‘King of Owa’ is synonymous with the whole of the South? Whatever is the case, the message is that the King of Owa is expected to be an instrument of bridging the gap between the North and the South. Second, the loss of Princess Obaigbena is not seen as a family loss, or a loss to the Owa community but also a collective loss to the whole people of the North as well. And thirdly, the Emir pledged to continue to pray for Dame Obaigbena to rest in peace. It is implied in the statement that prayers were said before the demise of Princess Obaigbena. It is the continuity of the prayers that is quite interesting in the relationship and this is precisely the spirit that is required in fostering citizen diplomacy.

Additionally, the Emir of Kano not only noted that Nduka Obaigbena was the greatest Nigerian he ever met, the Obi of Owa Kingdom also warmly welcomed his guest, noting that ‘Owa Kingdom has, indeed, lost an illustrious mother, a woman of peace who all through her life had been an epitome of grace and an ambassador of development.’ And most interestingly, the Owa King also said that ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed. There is no difference between the Northern Nigeria people and Owa people of Delta State. We thank you for honouring us, coming to Owa is a great testimony, we will not call it a moment of grief because we lost a member of our family. Her passing away has made possible the First Emir of Kano to visit Owa Land. This is a history we will never forget.’

This observation and contribution of the Owa monarch is the most significant and relevant aspect of Nduka Obaigbena’s funeral diplomacy, especially in developing citizen diplomacy as an instrument of national unity and projecting Nigeria’s foreign policy interests. The Owa monarch gave the rationales for the award of a traditional chieftaincy title to General Murtala Mohammed after the civil war to show the extent of cordiality between their two peoples. Deductively therefore, there can be no disputing the fact that if there is disunity, hatred and insecurity in the polity as at today, it is partly because the type of entente cordiale that exists between the people of Owa Kingdom and people of Kano is yet to be replicated in other parts of the country. If the Arewa people have lived in Owa Kingdom for more than 200 years peacefully without qualms, why is Nigeria now under fire elsewhere? This largely explains the nexus between Nduka Obaigbena’s funeral diplomacy and the need for citizen diplomacy in the making of a new Nigeria.

And notably too, in the condolence message of the Governor of Anambra State, Dr Charles Soludo, ‘there is never a good time to lose one’s beloved mother. But this one is a celebration of an impactful life. May her gentle soul rest in peace and the good Lord grant Nduka and family the fortitude to bear the huge loss.’ What is relevant in this message is not about the loss per se, but the celebration and the impactful life which the Men of God expatiated on in their sermons. Put differently, how should this impactful life be translated into a citizen diplomacy-driven agenda in building a new Nigeria of brotherhood and that will be free from political chicaneries and where justice can reign?

Citizen diplomacy, as espoused by Chief Ojo Maduekwe, is a technique newly adopted for the conduct and management of foreign policy interests, using the citizens as a potent tool. We noted in 2016 in this column that official diplomacy was failing to assist in the maintenance of international peace and security and that the involvement of the people had become a desideratum in the quest for global peace (vide “Why Not an Ojo Maduekwe Foundation for Citizen Diplomacy in Nigeria.”

The current criticality of insecurity in Nigeria makes the development of citizen diplomacy a necessity and why the Owa-Kano model of understanding should be taken more seriously by the Federal Government. This observation is predicated on the assumption that the peoples’ agenda is not the same as that of the Federal Government which appears to be consciously fulanising the country in theory and practice against the wishes of most Nigerians. The peoples of Nigeria, from the Owa-Kano example, want to live harmoniously in peace. They want to co-exist without ethno-religious threats and animosities. But PMB’s apparent fulanisation and Islamisation officious agenda militate against national cohesion. It fuels insecurity and engenders unnecessary anti-government sentiments. The peoples should be working pari passu with the government in neutralising insurgency. This has not been so and why fighting insecurity has been that of self-deceit and propaganda, especially when nothing is said and done about sponsors of insecurity in Nigeria. But good enough, funeral diplomacy à la Nduka Obaigbena can still be helpful to nation-building if efforts are further made to understudy its structural patterns with the objective of establishing a body of media citizen diplomats to relate with their counterparts in other regions of Nigeria and Africa. May the soul of the Dame of the Anglican Church, Princess Margaret Obaigbena, continue to rest in perfect peace in the mighty name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

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