By Dan Amor
In 2013, when yours sincerely was about leaving the editorial board of Daily Independent Newspaper, having served on the board for more than 10 years, Chief Nnanna Ochereome, chairman of the editorial board of Vanguard Newspapers, recommend me to his friend and colleague, Chief Chuks Iloegbunam, then media adviser to Prof. Sylvester Monye. The latter was then Special Adviser to President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan on Performance Monitoring and Evaluation at the Presidency, Abuja. The purpose of the recommendation was for yours sincerely to assist them in the writing and documentation of some procedures at that level of government as a consultant.
Before then, I had been reading and following Iloegbunam without having met with him face-to-face. He was already an established writer and one of the inimitable and quintessential pen-rollers in Nigeria and Africa. Iloegbunam, for me, was simply a man who had been working hard to find words and images that captured the experience of Nigeria, from its first decade of independence or thereabouts to its first experience in violence as national pastime. A man of immense vitality and great learning, Iloegbunam is a human Mississippi and an avatar who could walk in the pantheon of the gods. This is, therefore, not a tribute, per se, but a profound and ramifying intervention in the creative and scholarly output of an eclectic personage on the occasion of his birthday celebration last week.
When I finally met with him in his office in Abuja in 2014, it was a dream come true. He told me that he had long been reading me and did appreciate how illuminating a writer I was. Iloegbunam takes an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the story of Nigeria, combining literary study with social and intellectual history. All his writing, whether in book form, opinion piece or contribution to academic journals, reads like a piece of exact scholarship, which is also a work of great intellectual power and penetration, great fairness, and, above all, great humanity. It is a pleasure, and an education to read whatever he writes.
For instance, in “IRONSI: NIGERIA, THE ARMY, POWER AND POLITICS”, Iloegbunam makes Major-General Johnson Ummunnakwe Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi’s personality not just impressive but beguiling. It reads like a Victorian novel, Ironsi looms forward from the pages of this biography like a firedrake, glittering, capacious, burning, dangerous. It is masterful and definitive. In all, aside from his contributions to academic journals and opinion articles, Iloegbunam has written and edited six books: (a) Ironside: The Biography of General Ironsi (1999); (b) Updated as, IRONSI: NIGERIA, THE ARMY, POWER AND POLITICS (2019); (c) Surbenia’s Day (a novel, 2004); (d) The Case For An Igbo President of Nigeria (2007): A Collection of Essays from My Weekly Perspective Column In Vanguard; (e) Journey To The Throne: The Story of Eze Professor Green Onyekaba Nwankwo, OON (2005); (f) General of the People’s Army…a tribute to Ojukwu (2012).
Ignore Iloegbunam’s writing and ignore a huge reservoir of knowledge. I read the novel, “Surbenia’s Day” in 2015. On the face of it, despite eclecticism in language, the novel is primitive, naive and formless; at the same time, it is sophisticated and strangely unified. One might hesitate to call it a novel, but one would assuredly not call it anything else. The separate chapters – or stories, or segments – are not linked so much as they are interpenetrating. But Iloegbunam has the morose wit as well as the nostalgic innocence to tell the story; numerous distinct tableaux are formed on a single canvas.
These relate to each other through tone and texture and design, through theme, through narrative control. Elements dominating one scene may fill a peripheral function in several of the other scenes. A river or a street or a mood might run among them together, separating them. The whole picture does not emerge gradually: it is there from the beginning, nor do the parts somehow contribute to a larger whole, they are the whole from the beginning. In the novel, Iloegbunam has created an unworldly dream vision of the real world. Apart from his biography of the king and retired banker, Prof. Green Nwankwo, I have almost read all of Iloegbunam’s books. Ignore his books at your peril.
I see Iloegbunam as a radical realist. He is a journalist, writer/novelist who sees journalism and publishing as being intertwined, having made the best of both worlds right from 1977 when he cut his teeth as a journalist with the Punch Newspapers. In 1980, he was employed by Longman Publishers, Lagos, as an editor. He was an editor with Newswatch Publications Limited when the news feature magazine was the best of its kind in Nigeria. He wrote the column, Perspectives, with painstaking clarity in Vanguard Newspapers for many years. He has also worked in the media teams of politicians such as Mr. Peter Obi, former governor of Anambra State, former President Goodluck Jonathan and current governor of Anambra State, Chief Willie Obiano.
Iloegbunam is a very humble man, very calm and extremely principled. Throughout the period of two years that I was in close touch with Iloegbunam, he was angry only once. He had asked me to go with a photographer with the Presidency to interview Dr. Hassan Bello, the executive secretary/chief executive officer of Nigerian Shippers’ Council in Abuja. He had been asked to do so by Prof. Sylvester Monye for the magazine, Performance Review, which the Jonathan administration was using to evaluate the performances of federal ministries, agencies and departments or paraltatals. But because Iloegbunam was flying to Enugu that day, he delegated the job to me.
I went with a colleague at the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Federal Capital Territory Council and the photographer. Unknown to Iloegbunam, I had been editor-in-chief of African Cargo News in Lagos for more than five years, so that I was conversant with almost every issue relating to the Nigerian maritime industry. The interview with Dr. Bello was so enthralling that he had to call Prof. Monye to ask him what kind of a guy he sent to him that could flow so easily in maritime vocabulary.
As I was stepping into Prof. Monye’s office, I could read excitement written boldly on his face, and he quickly awarded me a cash prize of N50,000 for a job well done. About a week later, when Iloegbunam saw that the accountant was yet to give me the money, he called him to his office and raved at him: “Why haven’t you given the N50,000 to Dan? Don’t you know that he is one of the best writers in Africa?”
Iloegbunam was vividly angry. And that was the first time I saw him in that mood. That it had to do with a writer shows where he places his premium – writing. Chuks Iloegbunam, to be candid, is one of the most accomplished writers in Africa.
His IRONSI is a tour de force – its brilliance and audacity are exhilarating. It is lucid, fresh and moving, a lasting achievement. It is a biography in which striking maturity of insight is conveyed with remarkably disciplined and yet lyrical style. Iloegbunam can write. But I had thought he was much younger. I never knew he would be up to 70 years. Convinced that history is an art, not a science, Iloegbunam, in his writings, underlines the importance of Marx’s artful use of language, Carlyle’s gift for capturing the flow of history in time, Gibbon’s humour and his creation of a benevolent conspiracy between the reader and himself.
Happy 70th birthday, Chief Chuks Iloegbunam, editor-in-chief and chief executive officer of Eminent Biographies, Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria.
•Amor, literary critic and journalist, lives in Abuja, Nigeria