In the last six weeks or so, death, the leveller, has been gnawing at my feet. It has taken away three gentlemen with whom I had very close relationships.
First, it was Ben Onyechere, a friend and associate whom I had known for 21 years.
Ben died in Owerri in the hands of assassins on the 29th day of January. His death was not just sudden, it was unexpected and brutal. The bestiality which the dare-devil assassins visited on him was most horrendous. Ben, a jolly good fellow, did not deserve such a brutal end. It is an ironic twist of fate to imagine the way some good men end up sadly for no fault of theirs. Ben died young. He was in his 50s. Since he was brutally cut down, I have not been able to comment on the tragic incident. I was deadened to the point of speechlessness. Not even the inaccuracies and half truths that newspaper reporters fed the reading publics with about his death could pull me out. I just remained mentally transfixed, so to speak.
There has been no eyewitness account since the incident took place. Reporters largely relied on hearsay. A good many of them did not even know the deceased well enough and have never bothered to find out exactly who he was. The report before us was that Ben was with his driver when the incident took place. We were told that the assassins shot his driver on the leg and took Ben away and killed him a few metres away from the place of his abduction. That was most inaccurate. The truth was that Ben was not with any driver. He drove himself. Whatever the assassins did, they did to him alone. He was not in the company with anybody.
In the reports as well, Ben was simply described as a former aide of the former governor of Abia State, Theodore Orji. That is correct. But it is much more correct and immediate to describe him as an aide of Okezie Ikpeazu, the incumbent governor of Abia State. Yes, Ben was an aide of Ikpeazu until his very last day. No newspaper report has said anything about his current status. Strangely too, the Government of Abia State has not come out publicly to associate itself with Ben. What manner of silence could this be? Was the Owerri boy, who crossed over to Umuahia to help out in the governments led by his friends on the wrong side of the road?
Whatever may be the case, my worry here is not really about the half truths in the reportage of his death or the strange silence from Government House, Umuahia. I am rather sick of the fact that the Police, as usual, are sitting on the assassination, while pretending to be investigating the incident. Some six weeks after, Ben’s remains are still pitifully lying in the morgue, with the police holding his family to ransom.
I was still agonising over Ben’s sudden death when news filtered in about two weeks later that Chief Innocent Oparadike, a first class brain and an accomplished journalist, had passed on. Oparadike, according to family sources, died of natural causes. But the suddenness of his death is almost haunting. Oparadike had a rich and sumptuous frame. He radiated a quiet smile most of the time. He had a slow but effective sense of humour. You could hardly feel uncomfortable around him. How could death extinguish all of this within moments? His demise was too sudden to be understood and appreciated by we mortals. He left nobody close to him with any hint that he was about to die. He just crossed over to the great beyond. His vibrancy and vivaciousness failed him when they were most needed. He probably was as stupefied by the untold immediacy of his death as the rest of us.
Apart from what Oparadike represented in the world of journalism in Nigeria, I had memorable encounters with him, which in retrospect, leave one with the feeling that we are blindly walking into our graves every moment of the day without knowing it. Sometime in 2009, Oparadike and I, in the company with our wives, were at the country home of the then Imo State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Okorie, who hails from Agbani area of Enugu State. Oparadike, Okorie and I were parents at Mea Mater Elizabeth Hight School, Enugu. We took time off after the school’s visiting day on that occasion to visit Okorie. The Commissioner of Police entertained us with choice wines. But Oparadike would not be carried away. Our chats, though light-hearted, was to veer off into the dangers of alcoholism. Oparadike made copious references to liver cirrhosis. We cautioned ourselves. My police orderly, a young man from Kogi State, died the same year of cirrhosis. That was vintage Oparadike. His intervention was almost prophetic for me.
Again, in January 2015, Oparadike and I had cause to work closely. As the general elections of that year drew closer, the PDP in Imo State set up a Media Committee for the purposes of the election campaigns but more specifically for the purpose of the visit of President Jonathan to Imo State that month. Oparadike was the chairman of that Media committee. I worked under him as member. As chairman, Chief Oparadike shepherded his flock with diligence. As is usually the case in such assignments, many were called but few were chosen. As a thoroughbred professional, Oparadike sifted the grain from the chaff. He knew those that mattered. And together, we delivered on the assignment.
When I visited his family in Owerri this Sunday, my mind did not stop racing back in time. I could not but recall those close encounters that made me to accord him not just the respect he deserved as a senior colleague but also as an elder uncle whose wise counsels I always cherished. But little did I know that while I was with the Oparadikes, death was hovering around another associate of mine. This time it was Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo. From the account before us, Onukaba died while my wife and I were condoling Oparadike’s widow this Sunday at their expansive residence in Owerri. What an odd coincidence.
Onukaba, one of the few intellectuals in journalism in Nigeria, died unceremoniously. He was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, who was fleeing from an armed robbery ambush. Like Ben, he was in his 50s.
Onukaba was a kindred spirit. Whenever I was with him, we never failed to reflect on the place of the intellectual in Nigerian journalism. As people who have gone through the rigours of doctoral studies, we sometimes feel that journalism is not serious enough to fully engage academics like us. The last time Onukaba and I reflected on this was in 2013. That was when he intimated me of his decision to lecture on part-time basis at the University of Abuja. That was also when I toyed with the idea of taking up appointment in a university. Onukaba suggested a few universities he felt I should approach if I was interested. But I never, as always, gave serious thought to it. I had many other considerations to contend with.
It was in furtherance to our routine intellectual exchanges that I requested Onukaba to play the role of the reviewer at the public presentation of my book, Delegate Distress, in August 2013. He had no difficulty accepting to play that role. He made a good job of the assignment. As the intellectual he was, he was as critical as he could be. His review was of interest to me.
His sudden death rudely reminds us of everything that is wrong with this country. We live in a land where men of the underworld are kings. How could armed robbers take over a major and busy highway in the full glare of everybody, carry out their operations unmolested and escape into safety? The story this tells is that we are in the Hobbesian state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short. There is no government or institution to protect the people. What a country!