EDIFYING ELUCIDATIONS By Okey Ikechuwku
The demise of Prof George Obiozor, the scholar, diplomat and socio-cultural leader is perhaps a good occasion to go back to an Obiozor/Ojo narrative that goes back 21 years. It was a full-week encounter with Obiozor when, as Special Assistant to the then Minister of Transport, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, we visited Israel alongside some directors of the Federal Ministry of Transport and some management staff of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). Obiozor was then Nigeria’s Ambassador to Israel and he rose to the occasion.
Our trip, officially designated a scheduled initiative to find areas of collaboration between the Nigerian and Israeli maritime sectors, turned out to be a full-blown State Visit. This latter development was orchestrated less by the Nigerian government and more by a very powerful Israeli business man. He controlled an incredible business network, a broad-based political empire spanning several continents and wielded unbelievable leverage of various types. He saw and treated Chief Maduekwe as the greatest and most dependable and selfless Nigerian alive, but more of that later.
Prof George Obiozor, the scholar, diplomat and, until last week President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, has left the flesh. He left with a political/intellectual orientation and temperament that is at once iconic and not easy to find in the academia, the diplomatic community and in cultural politics in Nigeria today. He was a man of strong and, sometimes questionable, views. He was, at all times, unrepentant in his belief in one united Nigeria, wherein equity was the grund norm. His contempt for mediocrity was well known. So, also, was his tendency to occasionally give short shrift to points of view he found irksome, even at the risk of being less than sensitive to possible middle grounds.
George Obiozor often held unto, and robustly defended, his certainties; even in the face of other equally robustly defended contending certainties. He would, with his raucous laughter and cheerful good humour, query “the certainty of the certain” as he dismisses an unacceptable standpoint with his favourite exclamation: “Ajo anu! This expression, strictly translated into English or any other language, means ‘bad meat’. But it is often used in such a way as to connote the type of dismissive “indeed”, or “oh really”, a mother would say to her little boy who just declared himself the strongest man in the world.
As university teacher, adviser to government at the highest levels, diplomat to several countries and as President-General of the sociocultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, he was no stranger to controversies. He, like Ojo Maduekwe, even sometimes courted them. Never cowed by a loud voice from the opposite side of any table, Obiozor will not miss an opportunity to say to somebody: “Go and sit down somewhere and stop making noise”, if he felt that he needed to do so. And therein lies that sometimes titillating and sometimes offensive, quality of his personality that made him the unique man he was.
Obiozor loved life. He lived it to the fullest, the way he understood and preferred it. But it is now over for him on this earth plane, as it will eventually be for all of us at some point in our personal history. We may have observations and comments about anyone, but none of us is competent to judge the life of another, for good or bad. We should ideally only emulate the good we see in others, living or departed, and pray for them and pray for ourselves. Back back to the trip to Israel.
Obiozor rolled out everything the Nigerian Mission had to offer. He was an absolute delight as host. His jokes were unending and he found in Ojo a welcome intellectual counterpoise and counterpoint for his, perhaps starved, discursive impulses – especially the combative dimensions of those impulses. Every issue was open for discussion and debate, just as every Nigerian dish was available on Obiozor’s dining table after our official engagements each day. The bitter leaf soup and pounded yam that came out of his kitchen was exactly an experienced old woman from Anambra State will give you.
But it was really The State of Israel that took such complete charge of everything. At a point one of the Directors from the Federal Ministry of Transport who was on the trip with us openly asked rhetorically: “What did Ojo do for Israel? One of the men from NPA was also at a loss and that the Israeli whom he expected people to be angry with Ojo, for the effect of his “anti-corruption extremism” on some of their businesses we falling over themselves and treating him as a hero.
What they did not know was that it was precisely Ojo’s “anti-corruption extremism” that got him the dignified treatment he was receiving in Israel. And it could all be traced back to the influential Israeli man following the series of very interesting encounters he had with Ojo Maduekwe about a year earlier.
This man, who had an old and stable relationship with the maritime sector before Ojo came on the scene as Minister, was instrumental to our visit to Israel. His company had been awarded a contract of about twenty-million-dollars (yes, dollars) in one of the parastatals of the Ministry of Transport. Ojo, on seeing the contract sum and the details of the work to be done, refused to sign off on it. He queried the process based on what he called “a hunch”. And, without any concrete grounds for stepping the file down, he asked the management and leadership of the parastatal to carry out a comprehensive review of the contract. Reason: he “was sure” that the contract was “seriously” inflated. They did, brought the files back with a lower figure and Ojo was still not satisfied.
In the end, and after very trying exchanges with the parastatals and the minister, the contract was awarded for less than fifteen million dollars! In all of this, and while the toing and froing lasted, the Israeli man always had a calm, patient and somewhat bemused smile and air about him each time he came around. He was the very soul of patience, calm personal dignity and unhurried simplicity. He was, to put mildly, a reflection of his somewhat naturally diminutive physical form in comportment and tone.
Months later, that is after the contract had been properly executed and the company paid, the Israeli businessman came one night to the house see Ojo. The latter was in no hurry to see him. So, it was well past midnight before the Minister finally deigned to suggest that I accompany him to meet with the only visitor still waiting in the parlour downstairs; since the man would not take the hint and go back to his hotel room, or his country.
Formalities over, the man thanked the Minister for his “stubbornness” and for making him see what else was possible in Nigeria. He made some very telling comments about government, governance and government functionaries in Nigeria, pointing out that our country would be a much better place if we had just a few more people who lived and worked like Ojo Maduekwe. As he made to go after further exchanges, Ojo told him that he had a request to make of him. The man demurred, saying, “Anything for you, Minister. You are a truly remarkable man”.
Then Ojo said: “I appreciate your comments and I pray that my country becomes the dream I know it has the potentials to become. Now, my request is that if you truly respect me and wish my country well, please do me the personal favour of paying back one million dollars from your profit into our national coffers here in Nigeria. The man starred at Ojo in consternation. Before he could find his voice, Ojo continued: “You see, I am almost sure that whatever was involved in this contract could not have cost your company more than six million dollars to execute, but I lack the personal technical capacity to confirm it. So, since you have already made your profit and you have expressed such good thoughts about my country, I would like you to oblige me in this as a very personal favour”
The man, unceremoniously and now assuming a somewhat commanding air, sat back in his chair and said to Ojo: “You are truly a most unusual, and perhaps a little reckless, man. What some of your colleague ministers would have asked of me in a situation like this would have been to give the money you are talking about to them personally”. Forthwith, the man assured Ojo that he would do as requested and come back to show him the receipt. When Ojo later told me that he did, we cheered in real joy!
But you should have seen the derisive laughter that greeted us when, on the night under reference above, my boss proudly announced his achievement as we went back to rejoin his sibling and one or two very intimate who usually left very late on most nights. “Chai, Ojo and his SA! one of them exclaimed after hearing what transpired. Another went on “Others are carrying Ghana-must-go bags from their garage at this time of the night, but you people are celebrating how much money you have saved for Nigeria. You haven’t told us yet whether you are the ones who spoilt this country”.
It was when we got to Israel that we realized that the small man who would come in and sit quietly in a corner, either in the office or in the minister’s residence, was practically a deity in his country. He smoothed all that we needed to do at the Port of Ashdod and the Port of Haifa. His ever diligent and tireless colleague, Eshel, whom I found out to be a reserve senior officer in the Israeli military (like every Israeli adult male), was always at hand to held in every way. It was Eshel who, at one of the receptions, invited me to “break bread” in the Jewish fashion. This was also at the insistence of several old and not so old Israelis at a section of the clearing, who never stopped looking at me: and whom I learnt said I break bread and bless them.
The most important of the dinners to which we were hosted, and to which the highest and best of Israel came, took place under a two-thousand-years-old olive tree, which we learnt was the oldest in Jerusalem. this ended one week of a revitalized Obiozor in Israel, during which time he debated all debatables with Ojo Maduekwe.
Both men are no more. But there is an unmistakable fervour about them we shall continue to miss in this era of tepid political manhood.